Every soldier has a story to share.
For example, the extraordinary sacrifices of Rock County-area veterans can be felt far beyond Janesville or Beloit.
To that end, Wisconsin Veterans Museum Director Chris Kolakowski said preserving pieces of history remains as important as ever as the museum, located at 30 W. Mifflin St. in downtown Madison, is set to reopen Thursday morning after a long hiatus triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It had been closed since March 15, 2020.
“We’ve been looking forward to this day for a while,” Kolakowski said. “A museum is really most alive when it has visitors.”
As the museum reopens, new exhibits will showcase the sacrifices of the “Janesville 99”—a group of 99 soldiers from Janesville who suffered through the Bataan Death March in 1942 and were held captive by the Japanese forces for three years.
Of those 99 men, only 35 survived to return home after World War II.
The museum also features a tribute to Beloit native and World War II veteran Donald Fisher, who served on patrol torpedo boats in the English Channel and also in the Philippines.
Fisher, who died in 2013, also fought in the D-Day landings at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
Extraordinary sacrificesJanesville veteran Mike Williams lauded the museum’s decision to highlight the Janesville 99.
“The veterans museum in Madison is an iconic facility. Having these museums that can preserve the history of the military—for a veteran to see this happen—is very nostalgic and warms your heart. And to the younger generation, it gives them an idea of the great latitude that our country has.”
He added: “I think elevating the Janesville 99 and being able to see a dedicated display may make a lot more people aware. It’s a very special and unique thing for Wisconsin to have that notoriety.”
Williams recalls meeting several members of the Janesville 99 in the early 1970s and was humbled to hear them recount their memories of the Bataan Death March and the cruelty they suffered for years at the hands of their captors, including torture and starvation.
“They tell these stories and you can see the emotion on their face,” Williams said. “Humanity should just not allow that kind of thing to take place.”
Williams joined the military in 1968 and served during the Vietnam War era as a commander in the Wisconsin National Guard. He went on to rise through the ranks and retired as a colonel.
Even after his military service, Williams has remained involved with veteran organizations, seeing it as his life’s calling to continue offering support for soldiers.
“During World War II, there were many heroes who made that supreme sacrifice,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of tragic stories, and those stories need to be told.”
The mementos, pictures and exhibits at various museums around the state each tell unique stories, Williams said.
“It binds us together as Americans. It gives us that one common goal of when there’s danger we will stand shoulder to shoulder. It makes me proud,” Williams said.
Heroes of their timeMark Finnegan, co-founder of VetsRoll, welcomed the news of the museum’s reopening and said he is pleased that Fisher will be among those recognized.
“It’s just exciting to see Beloit tied in with veterans’ history in the state, especially with the importance of keeping the history alive,” Finnegan said.
Finnegan said he is always amazed by the veterans he works with, including those who served in World War II.
“No matter where they served in World War II, it was all in. They just did what they needed to. You get humbled. That greatest generation, they went about what they did and literally saved the world, and they just came back home and went back to work.”
One of his veterans, who lives in Capron, Illinois, recently celebrated his 99th birthday. He fought as a medic at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“In our database, we have 17 veterans turning 100 to 106 this year,” Finnegan said.
Some of those veterans are still playing golf, hunting, volunteering at local organizations or even setting world records for scuba diving, Finnegan said.
VetsRoll has its own special event planned Aug. 15 at the Eclipse Center in Beloit. It coincides with the 77th anniversary of Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II.
‘This history still matters’Kolakowski said during the pandemic the veterans museum was able to offer some virtual events. However, returning to in-person events this summer is a long-awaited step, particularly with the Fourth of July coming up.
School tours will also resume in September. Kolakowski said the educational value in visiting the museum and bearing witness to history is monumental.
“We’ve got a lot of great stuff coming to the museum,” Kolakowski said. “We take our mission very seriously.”
World War II shaped the modern world, Kolakowski said, adding that 77 years after the war’s end, echoes of the conflict are still felt in everyday life.
“This history still matters,” Kolakowski said. “This history helped define the course of the United States and its relationship to the world.”
Recently hired Forward Janesville CEO Michael Osborne has died days after he was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash in Illinois last week, officials said.
The Kane County Coroner’s Office confirmed that Osborne, 50, of Batavia, died shortly after 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois.
Osborne’s hiring was announced by Forward Janesville on June 23. Hours after the local chamber of commerce’s announcement, Osborne was struck by a car while riding his motorcycle, Batavia police said. Osborne had been named as the successor for longtime Forward Janesville CEO John Beckord, who plans to retire.
An official with the Kane County Coroner’s Office told The Gazette that as of Tuesday afternoon, and pending an ongoing investigation, the coroner’s office did not have details about the exact cause of Osborne’s death.
Batavia police said Osborne had been riding a Harley-Davidson sport motorcycle on an arterial road in Batavia at about 10:45 p.m. June 23.
He tried to brake to avoid an oncoming car which veered into his lane. Police said while braking, Osborne came off the motorcycle and hit the side of the motor vehicle driven by an unidentified woman.
On the fundraising site GoFundMe, posts by friends claiming to be speaking on behalf of the Osborne family said Osborne was severely injured at the scene of the crash but medics revived him.
GoFundMe posts indicated Osborne was hospitalized with “brain swelling” and several broken bones. He had been placed on a respirator because he had been “unable to breathe on his own,” according to the posts.
One Forward Janesville official, Oakleigh Ryan, said Forward Janesville officials are grappling with the tragedy of Osborne’s death.
Ryan had led a Forward Janesville panel that had screened CEO candidates, including Osborne, during a yearlong national search. Ryan said the death of the newly named CEO has been a shock.
She said Osborne’s death has left leaders of the chamber in shock but that the “tragedy is with Mike’s family.”
Osborne’s hiring was unanimously recommended by Forward Janesville’s CEO search panel, officials said. He had an extensive background in the manufacturing industry, with long stints at General Motors and Ford factories in Canada before moving to the U.S. to take on executive leadership roles in manufacturing.
More recently, Osborne had been a partner in a national investment and consulting firm based in Illinois where he worked on mergers and acquisitions of small and midsize businesses.
In a post on Osborne’s GoFundMe page, a friend said Osborne was a “loving husband, father, grandfather and great friend. Mike has always treated his friends like family, no matter if he’s known you for a minute or for years.”
Janesville Gazette Publisher Orestes Baez, a Forward Janesville member who was involved in the chamber’s CEO search, said Osborne was “instantly genuine, smart and engaging.”
“I believe he would have helped Janesville move to the next level. I am personally saddened beyond belief by what has transpired. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family during such a difficult time,” Baez said.
Ryan said Osborne had left an impression on those in Janesville who met him.
“In a really short time, we’d gotten to know Mike, and we knew he was going to be an amazing fit for Janesville,” Ryan said. “Mike showed up with his … farm background. Being from Canada, he’d played hockey; he seemed amazing in his GM auto industry background and his roll-up-his-sleeves attitude .... It’s as if we’ve lost a friend that we haven’t known long.”
Ryan said that Forward Janesville’s current CEO, John Beckord, plans to remain at the helm of the chamber until Aug. 31, at which time Forward Janesville will name an “interim” CEO. She said the chamber is in talks with a Madison search firm, but the chamber hasn’t yet launched a second search for a new CEO.
Police said alcohol is suspected to have played a role in the crash, but toxicology reports could take weeks to process. In the mean time, police have issued no citations or made an arrest.
Police officials in Batavia and at the Kane County Sheriff’s Office told The Gazette that the crash remains under what likely will be a weekslong investigation by police detectives and a crash reconstruction team.
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