Education should teach us how to deal with life’s ups and downs. The past year hammered that lesson into us all, including speakers at local high school graduations.
It was the year of the pandemic, a year of living with danger and safety protocols. It was a weird year.
“So weird,” agreed Janesville Craig High School senior Claudia Fieiras, who plans on pursuing nursing and basketball at Edgewood College in the fall.
“I didn’t even think we were going to be able to have a graduation,” said Parker High School’s Allisyn Rosga, who noted the members of the Class of 2020 had theirs canceled.
The Gazette interviewed and reviewed the speeches of seven local graduation speakers over the past week.
For some, the year started normally but soon student bodies were split into two groups with every-other-day attendance, along with a short burst of online-only schooling as the pandemic intensified during the fall semester.
Students were given work to do on their off days, but the quality of education probably suffered, several grads said.
“It was very hard for me, because I’m a face-to-face learner,” said Fieiras, quickly adding that “all praise” goes to the teachers, who had to adapt quickly.
“It was all kind of thrown at us, and we were all learning together,” Fieiras said.
“I’m very grateful to them. I don’t think I’d have been able to get into Princeton (University) without them,” agreed Ellen Toberman of Milton High School, who was also accepted at Yale. She plans on pursuing civil and environmental engineering.
The graduation speakers all appeared to be high achievers whose lives were different from less advantaged classmates.
Rosga, who plans to study physiology at the University of Arizona with a goal of becoming a medical doctor, said she couldn’t have gotten through the year without her parents’ support.
“I can’t imagine how hard it was for kids whose parents work all the time and can’t help them manage their time or help them with homework. I’m sure that’s crazy,” Rosga said. “This school year would have been a lot harder for them.”
Students said they often missed their friends this year as COVID-19 kept them apart.
Craig High speaker Sean Quinn, who is one of those students who talks a little too much in class, said he missed those interactions with teachers and classmates, and he missed marching onto the football field with the band.
Fieiras, meanwhile, missed the emotional lift she and her teammates got from the band at basketball games.
“It was a part of high school that was gone,” said Quinn, who plans to attend UW-Whitewater at Rock County before transferring to UW-Madison to study history and English.
Quinn said the year’s lesson was that there are things we will never be able to prepare for.
Parker High’s Emma Perry said the roller-coaster pandemic year was a great teacher.
“It’s more the kind of schedule that you would have in college, not having classes every single day and having to manage your time better outside of school to get your work done,” Perry said. “I think it was helpful to see what it would be like to be more independent and being responsible for your education a little bit more than you would have been.”
“If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is this: Nothing is permanent, and we don’t have unlimited control over everything,” Perry wrote in her speech.
Being at home during the week allowed her to work at her own pace, and she could exercise or do other things to keep her mind off negative things such as COVID-19, and focus on what’s important, Parker’s Rosga said.
“Going every other day was nice for seniors because the whole mental aspect of it, I think it helped me relax more and have me be less stressed during such a terrible pandemic,” Rosga said.
A normal school day was more stressful, Perry agreed, especially for an athlete whose day in a normal year could start at 6 a.m. with a club meeting, continue into the evening with away games and finish with homework in the wee hours.
“It was helpful to be able to focus my mind more on the things I wanted to have time for, like working on my college applications, focusing on working so I could save for college. Putting more time into sports and myself was really helpful,” said Perry, who plans to attend UW-Madison.
Some students said little to nothing about the pandemic in their speeches.
“I think that I speak on behalf of all the students at Parker High School and all of the world for that matter when I say that we are tired of talking about the pandemic,” Perry wrote in her speech.
Milton’s Hailee Shores, who is considering a career in medicine and/or dramatic arts as she attends UC-San Diego, said her speech was based on a highly motivational acting teacher in Chicago who said people should take chances.
Shores urged her classmates to be spontaneous and to expect the unexpected in their lives.
“We might fail, but we also might succeed,” Shores wrote. “High school success is going to be nothing compared to college and real-world success. Popularity, sports, even grades are nothing compared to real living, and that’s what we’re about to experience.”
Rock University High’s Berg also focused on failure as a road to success.
“Try out that cool class in college, go in for that interview. Ride on that spontaneous road trip. Stay up late with your friend—even if you have class tomorrow,” wrote Berg, who plans to attend Eastern Kentucky University and major in environmental science. “Maybe next time we get that inevitable failing grade, we’ll see it as a chance to learn more.”
Craig High’s Quinn’s speech focused on those who helped during the pandemic, locally and worldwide.
“I’m sure you have all had people like these throughout your high school career: a friend that stayed by your side in a time of crisis, a teacher that guided you through your struggle, or the kinds words of a person you barely knew,” Quinn wrote. “We all encounter someone with such empathy in our lives. I would encourage you to find one of these people who have helped you along the way and personally thank them.”
Quinn ended with a stirring challenge to his classmates: “Let us jump into the unknown. We’ve faced high school. We’ve faced a pandemic. It’s time we face the world.”
Hufcor laborer Mike Gackstatter is 56 years old, and he has worked at Hufcor’s Janesville manufacturing plant since he was 22.
It’s possible that Gackstatter will have to find a new job when Hufcor begins to shutter its moveable door systems manufacturing plant in early August in a pending move to Mexico.
The labor union that represents Gackstatter and other plant workers at Hufcor vowed at a rally Thursday in the parking lot of the manufacturer’s Kennedy Road plant to fight the planned permanent layoff of 166 plant workers as labor negotiations are set to continue.
A Hufcor spokesperson told The Gazette in an emailed statement Thursday that the company plans to keep its research and development, testing, and customer service operations in Janesville but that the manufacturing division in the city will be relocated.
Locals jobs analysts say Janesville’s labor market has become hungry for workers, but some Hufcor employees say they’re worried about losing salaries and benefits that some have spent decades cultivating.
The Industrial Division of the Communication Workers of America Local 84811, the local union that represents most plant workers at Hufcor, declined to disclose details of its negotiations over the pending closure and layoffs.
But according to a government notice filed this week by Hufcor, the company’s ownership intends to move ahead Aug. 3 with the first wave of layoffs of manufacturing employees at the plant, most of them union laborers.
That announcement comes after Hufcor’s ownership confirmed The Gazette report late last week that it intends to keep its customer support and research and development operations in Janesville but shutter all its manufacturing here.
The plant’s union says OpenGate Capital, the Los Angeles-based private equity firm that bought out Hufcor in 2017, now intends to move production to Monterrey, Mexico, a strategy that would essentially outsource Hufcor’s entire global production footprint outside of the U.S.
It would spell the end for Hufcor of what has been a 120-year run of manufacturing in Janesville.
As of Thursday, OpenGate still has not publicly confirmed it is moving Hufcor’s Janesville operations to Mexico.
Gackstatter said his job fashioning door openings on moveable wall sections at Hufcor has helped him put two of his three children through college.
He said he is closer to retirement age than some Hufcor workers and worries about younger co-workers with families who rely on a job at Hufcor that he said is “good paying with great benefits.”
One such co-worker, he said, is a cancer survivor who is in the process of adopting three children. For that worker, losing a job and health benefits could be devastating, Gackstatter said.
“Maybe he’s got family that could help him out. Maybe not. I really don’t know,” Gackstatter said.
OpenGate hasn’t yet given a date by which production in Janesville would cease completely. The number of layoffs would represent the biggest single dislocation of local workers since General Motors closed its Janesville vehicle assembly plant in 2009 during the Great Recession, according to Rhonda Suda, the head of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board in Janesville.
That closure affected about 1,300 rank-and-file employees and indirectly meant the loss of at least 1,000 related jobs held by workers of other local companies involved in GM’s supply chain.
At the Hufcor rally Thursday, union officials and activists, including former Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen, said OpenGate’s plan to shutter its plant has some parallels to GM’s decision to pull out.
Cullen, who has written a book on the closure of the Janesville GM plant, said he believes GM’s move of production to Arlington, Texas, was more tied to an aging GM plant in Janesville and less to the “quality of the workers” here.
“My advice to OpenGate is to come to Janesville, get three or four employees who work here (at Hufcor) and talk to them one on one. You’ll find out this is a place who believes in good performance by employees,” Cullen said. “All they (OpenGate) know about Mexico is they’re going to be able to pay workers less. That’s all they know about Mexico.”
Cullen and a half-dozen others spoke Thursday to about 120 plant workers at the rally who stood among a giant, inflatable corporate “fat cat” shown choking an inflatable, rank-and-file laborer. Nearby, two men held a huge banner decorated to depict OpenGate as a vampire-like entity with red eyes, red claws and bloody fangs.
Both displays were meant to cast OpenGate as a private equity firm with a global reach but without loyalty to Janesville.
OpenGate has drawn criticism for abrupt closings of other companies it has bought in Wisconsin, including the 2013 closure of a dairy in Waukesha that left workers without severance pay for nearly eight years.
A spokesperson for Hufcor and OpenGate told The Gazette last week that among the main drivers in the decision were a major downturn in the moveable door market brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact Hufcor’s 40-year-old plant on Kennedy Road is aging.
In an emailed statement Thursday, U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil said he stands behind Hufcor workers, calling the employees part of the manufacturing “lifeblood” of Janesville and the state.
Steil, a Republican who has a background as a corporate attorney for a Milton plastics manufacturer, called on statewide employment and economic development agencies to meet with Hufcor workers to assist those whose jobs are at stake.
Suda, the workforce development board leader, noted that, unlike in 2009 when GM closed, the local and national economies aren’t in a severe downturn.
Job growth is expected to pick up this year as the U.S. emerges from the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, and already, Suda said, state jobs databases show there are more than 8,000 area job openings available this month at a time when there are about 4,000 local workers registered as unemployed.
She said some local industries are starving for new hires. She said some of those companies have told her group they would view the prospect of Hufcor closing as a boon for their own hiring needs.
Earlier this year during a Forward Janesville conference call on the local job market, an analyst said some local manufacturers on average have begun to offer $15 to $16 an hour to lure new workers.
Suda said her board has offered outreach to Hufcor to help workers learn whether state dislocated worker programs might help them and whether their skills might fit local job openings available now.
Other workers might need to be retrained or learn new job skills through state programs, Suda said.
Gackstatter said he worries that, with or without retraining, he and other workers who have spent decades building a manufacturing career at Hufcor might have to start from scratch in a new industry and begin climbing the ranks from the bottom.
“I’ve got nothing against fast food restaurants, but if those jobs are one of the main things left for people like me, what difference does it make if there’s six jobs open for each person looking for work? For what it’d pay, I’d have to get two or three fast food jobs.” Gackstatter said. “If local jobs like mine all disappear, is that all that’s going to be left for people?”
Thomas E. Bogard
Neila H. “Huns” Brown
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The Janesville Gazette newsroom is going through significant changes.
With the recent retirement of Regional Editor Sid Schwartz and the departure of Managing Editor Ann Fiore, we get to take a moment and rethink how the newsroom of the future will be built.
We are evolving our team in many ways to use data about what interests readers online and in print to help us understand what our audience really wants.
We want to make sure we plant the seeds that will grow into a longtime media source for our community while engaging in conversations that foster communication, collaboration, diversity and accountability among our readers and the communities we serve. It is difficult work.
As we think of the evolving newsroom, we have been tackling issues such as:
These questions will remain as we put new pieces in play and recruit new assets to our team.
To that end, this week we completed one phase in the re-creation of our Janesville Gazette newsroom with a new hire for the managing editor role. Joel Patenaude, most recently of Madison Magazine, will join us in this capacity.
Patenaude joins a highly decorated newsroom where local content is the focus and where the digital evolution of our products and services takes high priority.
We continue searching for individuals who can help us drive this mission, and we are excited to bring someone like Joel to the team.
Patenaude’s career as a journalist started in the late 1980s at The Viking Voice, his high school newspaper in Mount Horeb, 20 miles west of Madison. He went on to earn a degree in journalism at UW-Madison before parlaying an internship abroad into more than a year as a copy editor and reporter at an English-language publication in Cairo.
From the Middle East he returned to the Midwest to serve as a local government and general assignment reporter at two daily newspapers, the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa, and the Beacon-News in Aurora, Illinois.
Patenaude also covered the Colorado Legislature for a year at The Daily Camera in Boulder.
In the early 2000s, Patenaude became a father of two while serving as managing editor, reporter, columnist and assistant page designer for The Mille Lacs Messenger, a weekly newspaper in central Minnesota where he won state awards for editorial writing and public accountability.
Patenaude then veered into magazine writing and editing, serving 12 years at the helm of Silent Sports, a regional monthly magazine devoted to non-motorized recreation. There he oversaw several redesigns of the magazine and its website as well as a dynamic online events calendar for runners, cyclists, cross-country skiers and paddlers across five states.
In late 2020, Patenaude ended a nearly four-year stint as associate editor at Madison Magazine, when it won its first general-excellence award from the national City and Regional Magazine Association.
Patenaude brings his varied experience, devotion to community journalism and high expectations for fair and thorough reporting to The Gazette. He will oversee the newsroom in Janesville, allowing the soon-to-be-hired regional executive editor to focus on cascading our strategy and vision across the newsrooms in Beloit, Janesville, Fort Atkinson, Watertown, Sun Prairie, Marinette and Antigo in the southern Wisconsin group.
Adams Publishing has 15 groups nationwide, including the southern Wisconsin group, to manage our publishing and digital business.
Patenaude begins his new role Monday, June 7. He is a former marathoner and currently lives in Verona, near where his son and daughter go to high school. You can reach him via email at jpatenaude@gazettextra .com.
If you have any questions, concerns or ideas, please reach out to us. We would love to hear from you.
Thank you for being an engaged reader.