The huge explosion and fire that leveled numerous buildings in Sun Prairie on July 10 and 11 reminded me of another massive fire in the same area more than 40 years ago. On March 3, 1975, a fast-moving fire destroyed the Schweiger Walgreen Drug Store and Hillenbrand’s clothing and shoe store in the 200 block of East Main Street.
The fire alarm was sounded at 1:51 p.m. that day, bringing 33 firemen from the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department to the scene. They were shortly joined by another 25 firefighters and trucks from Stoughton, DeForest and Marshall. The fire was discovered in the basement of the Schweiger Walgreen’s store and quickly spread to Hillenbrand’s and apartments above both buildings. It took more than five hours to fully contain the blaze. The last crews left the scene at around 11 p.m.
Margaret McGonigle, 75, became trapped on the roof of the drug store building when the stairs down from her apartment were blocked by fire. She was rescued by the snorkel truck from the Sun Prairie Fire Department, according to the March 6, 1975 issue of the Sun Prairie Star-Countryman. Mrs. McGonigle was the widow of pharmacist John M. McGonigle, whose family owned and operated McGonigle’s Drug Store for more than 50 years before Robert Schweiger purchased it in 1970. She was also postmaster of Sun Prairie for 38 years before retiring in 1966. John McGonigle died in September 1965.
I distinctly recall going downtown with my father to view the aftermath of the fire. I recall the outriggers on the snorkel truck, and large amounts of road salt around the tires of the fire engines. The pharmacy held special memories for us, since my grandfather, Carl F. Hanneman, was a reserve pharmacist who occasionally worked for McGonigle’s. The Hillenbrand clothing and shoe store was run by John Hein, a good friend of my parents, and the shoe store was managed by Roger Reichert, also a family friend. Reichert lived above the store and lost all of his belongings in the fire.
The state fire marshal investigated the blaze, but was unable to determine a cause. Damage to the structures and contents was estimated by Fire Chief Milton Tester at $200,000. Within a week, Schweiger’s opened in temporary quarters on Bristol Street. The buildings were a total loss and had to be demolished.
“Many fine things have been said about our volunteer firemen before. But last week’s fire had to be one of their finest efforts,” read the “Shavings from the Editor’s Pencil” column in the Star-Countryman. “I spent nearly three hours in that biting cold watching those magnificent, heroic firemen work. Not once did I see anyone so much as flinch at going into a burning building or otherwise approaching a dangerous situation.”
Both the 2018 fire that claimed the life of Capt. Cory Barr and the 1975 fire had one thing in common: a pharmacy. The Barr House tavern at the corner of Bristol and Main streets, owned by Capt. Barr and his wife, once housed the Crosse and Crosse Drug Store, according to the Sun Prairie Public Museum. The building dates to the 1890s.
Firefighters battled fire, smoke and bitter cold weather. (The Capital Times/Dave Sandell)
It took more than five hours to contain the blaze. (Wisconsin State Journal/Edwin Stein)
A snorkel truck was used in the dramatic rescue of Margaret McGonigle, owner of the drug store building, who was trapped on the roof. (Sun Prairie Star-Countryman photo)
Fire crews from Sun Prairie, DeForest, Stoughton and Marshall battled the blaze. (Sun Prairie Star-Countryman photo)
Shelby Beers behind the counter of the Crosse and Cross Drugstore, circa 1920s. (Sun Prairie Public Museum photo)
For years, Father Alfred Kunz said the Traditional Latin Mass at St. Michael Catholic Church in the village of Dane, northwest of Madison. On Saturday, 20 years after the priest was brutally murdered in the adjoining parish school, a Solemn Requiem Mass was said for his soul at St. Mary of Pine Bluff Catholic Church.
Several dozen people attended the Latin Requiem Mass for Fr. Kunz, held in the beautiful St. Mary church west of Madison. It had every bit of the sacred reverence that Kunz brought to the Latin Masses he celebrated at St. Michael’s in Dane. Standing in stark contrast to the beauty of the incense, bells and Gregorian chant was the fact that Fr. Kunz’s killer has not been brought to justice.
Father John Zuhlsdorf reminded those in attendance that a Requiem Mass is not a celebration of life, but a funeral Mass for the souls of the dead. He urged the faithful to think of their own deaths, and to pray that they not die without benefit of the sacraments, including anointing of the sick. Dying without the sacraments, known as an “unprovided death,” is a truly frightful thing, Zuhlsdorf said. He prayed that God would admit Fr. Kunz into the Beatific Vision of Heaven. (The photo atop this article shows Fr. Zuhlsdorf blessing the catafalque, which serves as a stand-in for the casket in Requiem Masses where the body of the deceased is not present.)
In the narthex of St. Mary’s stood an easel with a framed photograph of Fr. Kunz, inscribed with the words Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold the Lamb of God.” It was a testament to Kunz’s 42 years of service as a Catholic priest in Cassville, Waunakee, Monroe and the village of Dane. It also spoke of the wounds left behind by such a violent death, perpetrated on a holy man dedicated to serving others.
On March 4, 1998, Kunz’s body was discovered in a school hallway by a teacher arriving for the workday. Kunz’s throat had been cut, causing him to bleed to death from a severed carotid artery. The edged weapon used to cut his throat was never found. Police said the killer might have discarded a knife or weapon that was a treasured possession; something he carried every day. Kunz’s body was found face down, at the foot of a statue of St. Michael the Archangel.
The ensuing investigation is said to be the most expansive, and expensive, in Dane County history. Yet no arrests have been made. On the 20th anniversary of Kunz’s murder, the Dane County Sheriff’s Department has begun releasing new details on the case in hopes someone will come forward with a tip that could break the case open. The department started posting details to a Facebook page set up in Fr. Kunz’s name. Some of the posts were written in first person, as if Fr. Kunz were speaking. After a few days, Facebook removed the page and all related content, with no explanation.
Father Kunz was last heard from at 10:23 p.m. on March 3, 1998, when he made a telephone call to a priest friend. Earlier that evening, Kunz attended the taping of a radio program, “Our Catholic Family,” with his friend, Fr. Charles Fiore. After being dropped off at St. Michael’s about 10 p.m., Kunz eventually returned to his living quarters in the school. The perpetrator, laying in wait, might have gained access through a window in Kunz’s apartment. Police said Kunz defended himself and tried to fend off the attack. Kunz was a former Golden Gloves boxer, in good physical shape despite his 67 years. Here is how the sheriff’s department described what happened:
Inside the school hallway, upon inserting my key into the lock of my private quarters and opening the door, it was then that the killer made his move. I saw and confronted the killer; I wasn’t afraid of him. He attacked, but we both landed some punches. The killer then attacked me with a weapon, and then pulled out a knife. I was knocked to my knees, and the killer then slashed my neck, which caused the fatal loss of blood.
On March 3, 1998, someone in the St. Michael school office overheard Fr. Kunz having a heated phone conversation, the sheriff’s department said. Kunz told the caller he could not see them that day. “Furthermore, I don’t think we have anything else to talk about,” Kunz said.
A criminal profile of the murderer suggested he not only knew Fr. Kunz, he was likely familiar with the layout of the church and the school. A former FBI profiler said the killer was most likely surprised by the amount of blood that resulted from the attack. The perpetrator left the school that night covered in blood. He might have been in an altered state of mind that night, and has lived in with regret, and denial, ever since. Details of the crime indicated a “very strong personal motive,” according to then Dane County Sheriff Gary Hamblin.
The sheriff’s department said large amounts of parish money had been moved from account to account prior to the murder. Some “very large checks” were also cut. The week before the murder, collection money was missing from the St. Michael’s sacristy. Four months before the murder, Fr. Kunz told a friend: “Please, please pray for me.”
The murder case exposed biases and hostility in the media and community against the Traditional Latin Mass that Kunz so loved and revered. The TLM is the Catholic liturgy as it has been celebrated for millennia. Fr. Kunz regularly said the Latin Mass, although he also celebrated the Novus Ordo, or new order of the Mass, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Catholics from around Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois drove to St. Michael’s in Dane to participate in the 10 a.m. Sunday Latin Masses offered by Fr. Kunz. This was years before Pope Benedict XVI issued his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which stated priests around the world can offer the Latin Mass without permission from a bishop.
One investigator remarked in 1999 that “people have described Kunz’s followers as cult-like.” This attitude smears traditional-minded Catholics and suggests they are followers of a priest instead of Jesus Christ in his Catholic Church. Latin Mass participants were described in media stories as “extremely conservative,” even rigid or at the fringe of Catholic life. Prior to Vatican II in the 1960s, the Latin Mass was simply Catholic, celebrated in the same way around the world. A profile of the Kunz case published in Las Vegas Weekly magazine in 2002 said the Latin Mass “seems to a visiting outsider like a postcard from some musty, long-forgotten time.”
From Devout Catholic Family
Alfred J. Kunz was born on April 15, 1930 in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. He was one of eight children of Alfred J. and Helen T. Kunz. His father emigrated from Switzerland in 1914. His mother was born in Michigan, although her parents came to America from Baden and Württemberg, Germany. Alfred Kunz Sr. was a cheesemaker. He established his own business, the Fairview Cheese Factory, near Stitzer in the Town of Liberty. The Kunz family was devoutly Catholic, attending daily Mass at St. Mary’s in Fennimore. The senior Kunz died on March 3, 1965, exactly 33 years before the attack that ended his son’s life. Mrs. Kunz died in January 1993 at age 98.
A young Alfred heard a calling to the priesthood after suffering a nearly fatal bout of appendicitis at age 10. As he regained consciousness from surgery, he told his mother, “I want to be a priest.” In 1944, Fr. Kunz entered Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, for a 12-year course of study. At the time, it was the only seminary in the United States under direct supervision of the Vatican. In November 1950, Kunz was featured in an essay in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, pictured serving Mass for Msgr. Gilbert Schmenck, procurator of Pontifical College. Kunz was ordained a priest at Pontifical College upon his graduation on May 26, 1956. According to his cemetery monument, he also held a canon law degree. He said his first Mass on June 3, 1956 at St. Mary Catholic Church in Fennimore. Fr. Kunz served at parishes in Cassville and Waunakee before becoming assistant pastor at St. Victor’s Catholic Church in Monroe. In June 1967, Bishop Cletus O’Donnell named him pastor of St. Michael’s in the village of Dane.
On a very stormy day in April 1965, Fr. Kunz had a brush with death just outside Monroe. As he was leaving town in his automobile, a tornado blew across the road, spinning his car around. When the winds had passed, Fr. Kunz’s car was pointed back toward Monroe. “I saw the light,” he told The Milwaukee Journal, “so I returned.” The storms that day did damage across a wide swath of southern Wisconsin.
Fr. Kunz became known as a faithful and tireless defender of the truth of the Catholic faith. This in and of itself would have been unremarkable in another period of history when modernism didn’t have such a hold on an increasingly secular society. He was a vocal opponent of abortion and promoter of the sanctity of human life from conception until natural death. He once held a funeral for an aborted child at St. Michael’s, burying the baby at the foot of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He preached the truth about the sinful vice of sodomy and spoke against no-fault divorce. His introduction of the Latin Mass at St. Michael’s rankled some people, even though the Novus Ordo Mass was offered as well. He said Mass for the school children every weekday. Three times a week those 8 a.m. Masses were in Latin.
Fr. Kunz worked hard to ensure that St. Michael’s Catholic Church was rebuilt in the 1970s after it was destroyed by fire. He handled maintenance tasks at the church and school, and even mowed the grass at the cemetery. He took no parish salary and drove a well worn Volkswagen in order to save money. His presence at monthly fish fry fund-raisers was almost legendary. He slaved in the hot kitchen to make sure enough food was available to serve all comers.
The case of Fr. Kunz has at times been dominated by conspiracy theories and harsh assessments of the murdered priest. Because he was an exorcist, some contend Kunz was killed by Luciferians, or someone under Satan’s influence. The sheriff’s department contends Fr. Kunz had “intimate” relationships with women in his parish, although it has never provided details or indicated the source of this information. One former St. Michael parishioner questioned by the sheriff’s department said she felt Fr. Kunz’s name was dragged through the mud with such unsubstantiated allegations.
In a social media dispatch on the case, the sheriff’s department said, “Father Kunz taught that sending children to public school was a mortal sin. Father Kunz didn’t like his teachers socializing with the parishioners. Could someone have disagreed with Father Kunz’s views?” There was no source information offered on the claim that Fr. Kunz taught that going to public school was a mortal sin. The department also said Fr. Kunz was viewed as “very controlling; he had disbanded the church council and didn’t have a finance committee.” Police now say former St. Michael Catholic School Principal Maureen O’Leary was uncooperative during the investigation, even though she and Fr. Kunz were close. O’Leary suggested that the Dane County Sheriff’s Department should call off the the investigation and mark it “unsolved,” police said. “Could something she knew have been a motive for the killer?” the sheriff’s department asked on Facebook March 7, 2018.
Kunz’s friend Fr. Fiore was an early critic of sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy and covered up by U.S. bishops. Fr. Kunz was a canon-law adviser to The Roman Catholic Faithful, a now-defunct nonprofit group dedicated to exposing sexual misconduct among priests and bishops. Because of this, some believe Kunz might have been killed to keep him from identifying priests or bishops who sexually abused boys or teenagers. Kunz was said to be helping Fiore prepare a report on sexual abuse by clergy, for delivery to Pope John Paul II. Father Malachi Martin said he believed Kunz’s killing was a “deliberate attempt by those who hated what he represented and what he was doing, to silence and disable him permanently.”
A tribute written on the 10th anniversary of his murder described Fr. Kunz as “completely faithful to Christ and the sacraments.” Written by Toby Westerman of Tradition in Action, the tribute continued:
“Like Christ the High Priest, he poured himself out for the love of God and the good of souls. In the words of his close friend and one of the founders of the pro-life movement in the United States, the late Fr. Charles Fiore, ‘in the end Fr. Kunz even poured out his own blood for Jesus and His flock.’ “
An appearance Fr. Kunz made at a public memorial service in 1967 seems in retrospect almost prophetic. Kunz was among five clergy members who spoke words of comfort at Juda High School for nine seniors killed when a plane crashed into the motel where they were staying on a class trip. More than 1,500 people attended the service in the Green County community, located between Monroe and Brodhead. Fr. Kunz spoke of the hope for the Christian dead, reading words from St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
“We who live, who survive to the Lord’s coming, will in no way have an advantage over those who have fallen asleep. …The dead in Christ will first rise.”
At the conclusion of the March 3, 2018 Solemn Requiem Mass for Fr. Kunz, the faithful spilled into the narthex of St. Mary’s. They shared memories of Father Al, and wondered aloud if his murder will ever be solved. They spoke most of his love for the Traditional Latin Mass, and how his work helped lay the foundation for traditional Masses now said at St. Mary and other parishes across Wisconsin. Father Al would have been very much at home here in Pine Bluff. On this sunny March day in 2018, in fact, he was at home. ♦
—This article was updated at 9:07 p.m. and 11:26 a.m. CST March 7, 2018, 11:00 a.m. CST March 6, 2018, and at 9:35 p.m. CST March 4, 2018, with new case details from the Dane County Sheriff’s Department.
Anyone with information on the murder of Fr. Kunz should contact the Dane County Sheriff’s Department tips line, 608-284-6900, or via email, email@example.com. The department set up a Facebook page in Fr. Kunz’s name, but Facebook has removed the page. The Fr. Kunz Twitter page is still being used by the department to share information on the case. Use the hashtag #whokilledfatherkunz.
As 1944 came to a close, Sheboygan County was still short of its nearly $1.2-million goal for sales of Series E war bonds. The captains of industry in that fine Wisconsin county did what America has always done in times of crisis: they called in the U.S. Marines. Although in this case, a lone Marine from Cudahy handled his share of the duties.
In fall 1944, Marine Cpl. Earl J. Mulqueen Jr. was still recovering from the loss of his left leg in the Pacific theater when he was pressed into service promoting war bonds on the home front. The effort was one of the eight national war-bond drives between 1942 and 1945 that raised more than $190 billion. Investors purchased $25 bonds for $18.25. Bonds were redeemable after 10 years.
For the Sheboygan war bond tour, Mulqueen was paired with an Army man from Milwaukee who had been held in a Nazi POW camp. The boys made a whirlwind tour of Sheboygan to explain the importance of supporting the war effort. The county war bond committee placed a full-page advertisement in The Sheboygan Press featuring Mulqueen and Staff Sgt. Azzan C. McKagan, who was held captive for 14 months in Stalag 17B Braunau Gneikendorf near Krems, Austria. “You think you’re making ‘sacrifices’ when you buy an extra ‘E’ war bond?” the headline read. “Look at these two Wisconsin boys and say that!”
At a bond rally at Benedict’s Heidelberg Club, Mulqueen talked about his experiences fighting with the 2nd Marine Division on Guadalcanal and Tarawa. He noted the tremendous cost of fighting the war. At the U.S. Marine rest camps, he said, no rallies were necessary. The Marines gladly bought their share of war bonds. “The boys at the front are tired — damned tired — we all have to buy bonds to get them home as soon as possible,” he said.
McKagan described being shot down from the ball turret of his B-17 “Hellzapoppin” bomber, and how German civilians beat him after he parachuted to safety. McKagan suffered severe shoulder wounds from anti-aircraft fire. The Gestapo held him for two days and refused to provide medical treatment. He later underwent surgery, but German doctors withheld anesthetic. On Christmas Eve 1943, he was told he would be shot dead the next day for being a saboteur. Instead, he was moved to another POW camp. He was liberated by the Russians in September 1944.
“When I landed on German soil with my right shoulder joint knocked out as a result of flak, the younger German civilians in the vicinity immediately jumped on me and beat me up,” McKagan said. “The civilians that were too old for that sort of thing spit in my face.”
Mulqueen and McKagan appeared at American Hydraulics Inc., The Vollrath Company, Associated Seed Growers, Curt G. Joa Inc., Phoenix Chair Company, Garton Toy Company, Kingsbury Breweries Company, Armour Leather Company, Sheboygan North High School and Sheboygan Central High School.
At the high school rallies, “they were enthusiastically received, as both of the heroes were quite recently high school students,” The Sheboygan Press reported. McKagan attended Rufus King High School in Milwaukee. Mulqueen was a graduate of Pio Nono High School in St. Francis. Mulqueen was too young to enlist and needed written permission from his parents to join the U.S. Marine Corps.
On Dec. 7, 1944, the men appeared at halftime of the professional basketball game between the Sheboygan Redskins and the world champion Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons at the Sheboygan Municipal Auditorium and Armory. Some 3,400 fans gave full attention to the war heroes. “The messages of these young men who have sacrificed their limbs in the fight for victory brought every person in that vast armory to the realization that wholehearted support of the Sixth War Loan drive is the least that civilians on the home front can do to help these young men carry on at the fighting fronts,” read the sports page of The Sheboygan Press.
The rallies had the desired effect, helping put Sheboygan County over its Series E goal, with $1.21 million in bond sales. Overall through December 1944, county residents and businesses purchased nearly $8.6 million in World War II bonds — more than double Sheboygan County’s quota.
Mulqueen was a veteran of war-bond rallies by the time he hit the circuit in Sheboygan, In November 1944, he stood with two of his brothers at Schuster’s Department Store in Milwaukee at a bond rally that helped raise more than $500,000. None of it was easy for Mulqueen. Just six months earlier, he was blown off the deck of a landing ship-tank (LST) at Pearl Harbor in what would come to be known as the West Loch Disaster. The chain-reaction explosion that day killed 163 and wounded nearly 400 as the Marines prepared for the eventual invasion of Saipan.
After the war, Mulqueen returned to Cudahy, married and became father to six children. He had a long, successful career with his brother, Tinker Mulqueen, running Earl’s Automotive in Cudahy. He died of cancer on August 2, 1980.
Even though he was partially disabled, McKagan re-enlisted in the Army in March 1947 and became a small-arms instructor at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. He was awarded the distinguished flying cross for his World War II service. McKagan was killed in an automobile accident in Germany in July 1947.
Before super magician Harry Houdini died in a Detroit hospital 61 years ago today, he made a pact with several people that he would try to return from the dead and make his greatest escape.
On his deathbed in 1926, Houdini took his wife’s hand and made her repeat their pact – that the first one to die would try to come back.
They agreed on a message, the name “Rosabelle,” followed by code words spelling out “believe.”
For 10 years, Bess Houdini held seances on Halloween in a desperate attempt to find her husband.
Detpite one well-publicized “contact,” she gave up in 1936 after many unsuccessful attempts.
The legend of the great escapist has grown over the years as fans and spiritualists have tried time and again to help him accomplish his greatest feat, escaping the bonds of death.
For 61 years, all attempts have failed.
Seeking Coded Message
In the true spirit of Halloween, a group of Houdini experts will gather tonight at a seance table in Los Angeles and again try to contact Houdini, in front of a national television audience.
The syndicated program, “The Search for Houdini,” will be broadcast at 7 p.m. on 141 stations, including WVTV Channel 18 in Milwaukee and WGN Channel 9 in Chicago. William Shatner will host.
At the table tonight will be a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs and a coded message he left his magician colleague, Joseph Dunninger, which will be used as a test if spirit contact is made.
That message includes 10 words circled on a letter written to Houdini from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of “Sherlock Holmes” fame. Ten more code words are on a piece of paper in the pocket of a Houdini expert.
Most people don’t believe it will get that far.
At a seance last year in Appleton, where Houdini grew up, Houdini apparently declined the invitation. A “spirit” contacted by seance participants had trouble answering basic Houdini trivia questions.
Houdini experts are skeptical that the master magician will return tonight, but admit if he did come back, a national television audience would be a perfect forum.
“He thought if anybody could make it, he would,” said Henry Muller, owner of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada.
“What we’re willing to do is try,” Muller said in a telephone interview. “I personally don’t think he will make it.”
“If Houdini would want to come back, he would want to come back in a glamorous, spectacular way,” said Sidney Radner, of Holyoke, Mass., who arguably has the largest collection of Houdini’s paraphernalia.
“I’m obviously a skeptic,” said Radner, who before World War II was a protege of Houdini’s brother-magician, Theo Weiss, whose stage name was Hardeen.
“I would like to be around if Houdini or anybody else comes back and can prove it,” he said, also in a telephone interview.
Both Muller and Radner will be at the table at tonight’s seance.
“Like Houdini, I’m ready to be shown,” said Dr. Morris Young, a New York physician who watched Houdini’s performances in the 1920s and has written a book about Houdini.
“A lot of people would like to believe,” Young said. But, “I think we’re going to reach a black hole sooner than that.”
In 1926, Houdini fell ill after a performance in Montreal when a McGill University student punched him in the stomach to test the strength of his muscles.
By the time his tour reached Detroit in late October, peritonitis set in and Houdini’s fate was sealed.
Born Erich Weiss in 1874, Houdini’s place of birth remains a controversy. Houdini, who took his name from French magician Robert Houdin, claimed his birthplace was Appleton, but some biographers believe he was born in Budapest, Hungary.
Not at anytime since humbug king P.T. Barnum hornswoggled thousands in the mid-1800s had there been such a showman as Houdini.
The larger-than-life master of escape thrilled audiences with derring-do and sleight of hand and body. No pair of handcuffs, no straitjacket, packing crate, coffin or chain could hold Houdini.
He accepted challenges from jailers, prisons and packing crate companies. He won every time.
Audiences were amazed as he escaped from the Chinese Water Torture Cell. He spent 90 minutes underwater in a soldered coffin. And he walked through a solid brick wall.
Houdini also spent time disproving those who claimed to make contact with the dead.
He made no friends in the burgeoning spiritualist movement by exposing fraudulent mediums – proving those who claimed to speak for the dead were fakes.
Tonight’s seance, despite the obvious commercial draw, carries on that work.
“In essence, we’re doing exactly what Houdini would do if he were alive,” Radner said.
“In my opinion, by not having him come back, it ought to put doubts in the minds of intelligent people that it can’t be done,” Radner said. “If Houdini can’t do it, why could their Auntie Mae do it?”
And how would Houdini view the continuing attention to his life and death?
“He was the (best) showman that ever lived,” Muller said. “That’s exactly what he would love was the publicity he’s getting – to the point of being immortalized.”
Radner said Houdini’s continued popularity is due to an air of uncertainty and magic.
“Everything about Houdini leaves questions and doubts and wonderment,” Radner said. “This is what makes the mystery so great.” ♦
Postscript: The nationally televised seance failed to make contact with the long-departed Houdini. Sidney Radner died on June 26, 2011 at age 91. In 2004, he sold his 1,000-piece Houdini collection at auction. Henry Muller died on February 28, 2017. He was 86. His Houdini museum operated from 1968 to 1995, and housed many artifacts from Radner’s collection. Dr. Morris Young died on November 13, 2002 at age 93.
Tony Melendez has serenaded Pope John Paul II and performed in front of thousands, but he says he is still shocked by the emotional reaction from the people he touches with his music.
“Some of the people’s responses are so touching,” Melendez said. “I can’t believe the response Some come crying and give me a hug. Some want to kiss the same cheek the pope kissed.”
The strong reactions are not just because Melendez, 26, sings with a smooth tenor voice, or that he plays nearly flawless acoustic guitar.
People are inspired because Melendez was born without arms and plays guitar with his feet, in a seemingly effortless manner.
Whole new world
“The music has just opened up a whole new world for me,” Melendez said before a performance Saturday night at St. Rita’s School, 4433 Douglas Ave.
“It’s been scary,” he said of the reaction he gets. “I’m not used to that overwhelming thrust toward me.”
Melendez, of Chino, Calif., performed for about 200 people at St. Rita’s, combining Christian music, storytelling and a healthy sense of humor.
Melendez is at ease with the fact he has no arms and does not consider himself handicapped. He even calls his company “Toe Jam Music.”
He told the group he stopped using prostheses because “my feet could do it so much faster quicker, neater. People ask me, ‘Do you eat with your toes or your feet?’ ” he said. “I eat with my mouth.”
With the guitar flat on the stage before him, Melendez’s bare feet glided up and down the strings effortlessly, while he sang about hope, inspiration and God.
As he walked to and from the stage, people pulled him aside for a hug, or kissed him like he was their own son.
“It still to me is very surprising,” he said. Crowd response comes from “a lot of young, and old. It’s really neat.”
Melendez earned national recognition last year when he played and sang for John Paul II– a performance that so moved the pontiff he touched Melendez’s legs and kissed his cheek.
Eight months later, Melendez recalls that performance as “a moment in my life I never thought would happen.”
John Paul’s reaction was nothing short of shocking to Melendez.
“I thought I was going to sing, then ‘clap, clap, clap and go home,” he said. “It really was a true blessing for me when he came over and gave me that kiss.”
In the time since, Melendez has been to 29 states, sometimes doing three performances a day.
Melendez was born in Nicaragua in 1962. His mother took thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug that caused the birth defect he has overcome. He spent much of his life in schools for handicapped children, but decided as a high school sophomore he wanted to be in public schools.
It was at about that time, when he was 16 he first tried playing his father’s guitar, after learning how to tune it with his feet.
“I did it and it just worked, and I kept at it,” he said. “I didn’t consider it practice. I loved it so much, I played five to six hours a day.”
While still getting a case of stage fright now and then, Melendez said the music helped him grow. He now promotes a pro-family, pro-love message during performances.
Music opens doors
”Once I start, it just automatically flows,” he said “Once I’m up there, something just takes over.”
Music “opened a lot of doors,” he said. “It’s given me a little more sense of security.
“I think they (spectators) sometimes go home saying, ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’ ” Melendez said. “When people go home, they feel a little bit better about themselves.”
Jose Melendez Jr., Tony’s concert manager, told the St. Rita’s crowd he learned things by watching his brother. He said one day when the pair was younger, he wanted to play Frisbee, but could not bring himself to ask, for fear he would hurt Tony’s feelings.
But Tony picked up the Frisbee in his toes and threw it, striking Jose in the face. It was then, Jose said, he realized his brother’s strength.
“That’s the first time I saw his arms and his hands.” ♦
Postscript: Tony Melendez continues touring, recording music and sharing his story around the world. He performed for Pope John Paul II four more times. He has recorded a number of contemporary Christian albums. He is married and lives in Branson, Missouri.
UNION GROVE, Wisconsin — Louis Armstrong, Liberace and Tiny Tim made concert appearances here Thursday. Well, not really, but it was probably as close as anyone has ever come to imitating the performers.
For nearly two hours, Leslie Lemke, 35, of Arpin, Wis., performed flawless piano and voice renditions of “Satchmo,” the king of the candelabra and the man who tiptoed through the tulips, among others.
If any of the 700 or so students and teachers in attendance at Union Grove High School had closed their eyes, they could have easily imagined Liberace’s glittery Rolls Royce, Tiny Tim’s ukulele or Armstrong’s smiling face and sassy delivery.
All this came from Leslie, a man with no eyes, severe brain damage, cerebral palsy and an IQ of of 58.
Leslie cannot carry on a dialogue or feed himself, and he requires constant care. He has never taken music lessons, plays piano with only nine fingers and cannot see the keyboard.
Yet he is a musical virtuoso.
In 1971, Leslie sat down at the piano and shocked his parents by playing a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
It is difficult to come up with words to describe or explain Leslie’s abilities. Those who see him perform call it amazing. His family chooses stronger terms.
“I feel it is a miracle from God,” said Juanita Voge, Leslie’s niece. “I’ve been around him all my life, and it still amazes me.”
“I believe it’s a gift that God has given Leslie,” said Mary Parker Larsen, Leslie’s sister and caretaker. “He has the mentality of being 1 to 3 years old, yet, in this field, he’s a genius.”
Leslie has been featured on television’s “That’s Incredible” and in was the subject of an ABC Afterschool Special, “The Woman who Willed a Miracle.”
Leslie’s ability is known as the savant syndrome. Despite his disabilities, he has an island of brilliance that allows him, based on one listen, to reproduce any piece of music, even years later.
And reproduce he did.
A smooth baritone by nature Leslie’s vocal range is as broad as his piano repertoire, from the lowest gravel of Armstrong to the highest falsetto of Tiny Tim.
The Union Grove students, who might be expected to be restless with distraction during an assembly, were mesmerized. They heard Leslie perform near-perfect renditions of Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire,” Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” and Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly.”
He then accepted challenges from students and teachers, who came on stage and played short songs on drums, trumpet, trombone, flute and oboe. Then they listened to Leslie play the tunes note-for-note.
Union Grove was the latest concert stop for Leslie, who continues his tour into North Dakota and Iowa. He recently played 31 concerts in 33 days in Japan.
“We like to compare Leslie’s story with a rose,” Larsen told the group. “It starts out as a rosebud and it slowly opens up into a beautiful flower.”
Larsen said Leslie – one of 12 known savants in the world – keeps expanding his ability and learning more music. He has never studied a sheet of music. He has always learned by repetition,” Larsen said.
“If we weren’t so busy flying around the world … he could probably master every instrument we gave him.”
Despite a repertoire that includes many classics, Leslie will never admit he doesn’t know a song.
“Leslie always says yes,” Larsen said. “Then he nicely makes up a song to replace the one he doesn’t know.”
Larsen said she and Leslie travel the country performing to try to have an impact on people, as part of a “ministry of love.”
The idea is to “bring a miracle of l love,” she said. “That’s one of our main purposes – to bring happiness to other people.” ♦
– This article originally appeared on Page 1 of the Racine Journal Times on October 2, 1987. View the original newspaper page. This blog post has been updated with more information on Leslie in 2017.
Postscript: Leslie’s adoptive mother, Mae Lemke, died in 1993. According to Dr. Darold Treffert, an internationally recognized expert on savant syndrome, Leslie is doing well and “playing as marvelously as ever.” He lives with his sister, Mary Parker, in north central Wisconsin.
DACHAU, Germany — Forty-six years after it was liberated from Adolf Hitler’s brutal regime, an unsettling quiet hangs over the massive grounds of Germany’s first Nazi concentration camp.
A cool wind rustles through the dead leaves of last season. It whispers what seems to be an audible tale of the cruelty and atrocities committed here between 1933 and 1945.
Village near Munich
The picturesque village of Dachau, a 1,200-year-old community in southern Bavaria, is located only a few miles northeast of Munich. The area has a rich culture of its own, but the world will always associate Dachau with death.
Dachau records show 31,957 registered deaths between 1933 and 1945, but many historians believe the number is much higher. The tally does not include the scores who arrived dead in train cars from other camps.
When American soldiers liberated the camp on April 29, 1945, there were bodies all over the camp. A mass grave was established near the camp, where about 4,000 people were buried shortly after liberation.
The concentration camp site, on the northern outskirts of Dachau, has been maintained by the Committee International de Dachau as a permanent memorial and reminder of what happened here.
Directly inside the original electrified barbed wire fence is a museum that opened in 1960. The rest of the site opened as a memorial in 1965.
The museum holds haunting pictures of the torture, starvation and death that were everyday occurrences here. A stunning film was confiscated from German soldiers when the Allies liberated the camp.
In the center of the museum is a heart-rending picture of an emaciated prisoner laying flat on his stomach, arms outstretched, The look on his face seems like a silent cry for help.
Other pictures show stacks of corpses waiting for incineration at Dachau’s two crematorium buildings, piles of valuables pilfered from prisoners, and two men — hung upside down — being beaten by smiling Nazi SS guards.
There are also depictions of the cruel experiments carried out by the SS, which stands for Schutzstaffel — Hitler’s elite police. Some prisoners were put in special suits to determine how they reacted to depressurization.
An original torture rack stands in the center of one room of the museum.
In a display case hang examples of the identification badges prisoners were forced to wear. Jews wore stars of David. Non-German prisoners wore colored chevrons: green meant professional criminal, black meant “asocial,” violet was for “Bible inquirers,” and pink was for homosexuals.
Outside, the cement foundations of the 34 barracks stretch for hundreds of yards. The barracks were decrepit and rotting when the camp was liberated. They were torn down, but two were rebuilt as part of the memorial.
Each building was designed for 80 prisoners, yet at the height of the war, some held more than 400.
In the courtyards between the barracks, prisoners once stood for roll call. Sometimes, they stood motionless for hours in rain or snow, the so-called “standing torture” that claimed many lives.
Even the dead had to show up for roll call, dragged by compatriots who were forced to make sure the deceased were counted each day.
The original front gate still open-, adorned in iron by the camp motto – Arbeit Macht Frei – a cruelly ironic phrase that roughly means, “Work shall make you free.”
Just outside the perimeter fence are the two crematorium buildings that were once so busy that rotting bodies stacked up in a gruesome backlog.
The oven doors stand open. On the hinge of one door hangs a single, drying rose. A wreath hangs on an oven in the adjacent room.
Prisoners who died here were often shot to death. Others died of disease or torture. No one was gassed to death at Dachau, although a shower room for gassing had been installed. Prisoners marked for gassing were sent to Linz, Austria.
Several chapels were erected on the site in the 1960s, as if in an attempt to heal the destruction wrought at the camp. The Carmelite order of nuns built a convent here.
A huge granite memorial near the entrance sums up the reason the camp has been maintained for so long:
“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom, and in respect for their fellow men.” ♦
Trickster Makes Short Work of Racine Jail
By Joseph Hanneman
Most husbands gave candy or sent flowers to their wives on Valentine’s Day. Todd Martin escaped from jail.
The 23-year-old Houdini-style escape artist from Sheboygan slipped out of two pairs of handcuffs, a belly chain, a canvas mailbag, three iron-bar jail doors and a locked wooden door Wednesday at the Racine City Jail.
And it took only seven minutes.
After defeating the final lock at the jail Wednesday, Martin chatted with reporters and gave his wife, Amara, a Valentine’s kiss. Another day, another jailbreak.
Relatively long time
“That’s the longest I’ve ever been held,” said Martin, who has broken out of the pokey some dozen times before. “You sure can be proud of yourselves.”
The man who calls himself Anthony the Great wore a black stretch body suit and cape as he was led to his cell, trailed by dignitaries that included Mayor N. Owen Davies, Sheriff Robert Rohner and Alderwoman Dorothy Constantine.
Alderman Michael Vidian patted Martin down and checked his hair and mouth for tools. Police Chief Karl Hansen put two pairs of handcuffs on Martin, and shackled his forearm to a belly chain. He was then placed in a canvas mailbag and locked in the cell at exactly 2:18 p.m.
The gathered throng of local officials, reporters and photographers waited in the hall outside the jail as Martin plied his trade. All they could hear was the rattle of each lock as he made his way closer.
Then, at 2 25 p.m., he emerged.
“I’m glad we’re closing the jail on the first of April,” Hansen quipped. The jail will be gutted to make way for a new communications center and city prisoners will be transferred to the county jail.
Martin said the lock on the jail cell was the most difficult to open, because it had a weighted spring that held down the lock hook.
“It’s difficult to manipulate a lock like that,” he said.
Try it in a coffin
The escape was probably a yawner for Martin, who escaped from a locked coffin in 1988 after being tossed from an airplane 13,500 feet above Sandwich, Ill.
When he was 18, he was sealed in a hole-riddled coffin and pushed into the Sheboygan River while covered in 20 pounds of chains and 500 pounds of rock. He escaped in 50 seconds.
“I think I did a good job,” he said matter-of-factly. “Two hours would have been a good time.”
After the escape, Martin posed for pictures in the locked cell and recreated parts of the escape for a national television crew. When the last photo had been snapped, he called for the jailer.
“Now I need a key,” he said. ♦
Postscript: Now age 51, Martin continues to perform under the name Anthony Martin (Anthony is his middle name). He is also a Christian evangelist. In 2013, he published a book, Escape or Die: An Escape Artist Unlocks the Secrets to Cheating Death.
Most family history never makes the newspaper, so unless it is documented or passed down in oral stories, it can be lost. Even items that made the papers over the decades and centuries can be hard to spot. With that in mind, The Hanneman Archive has added a NewsBits page with a growing collection of “all the little news that was fit for print.”
Historic newspapers carried regular columns on what might be called “neighborhood news.” These items varied from who had dinner at whose house last night, to births in the family, to strange happenings like the poisoning of a farmer’s horses. We are fortunate, especially with our Hanneman and Treutel family lines, to have relatives who enjoyed reporting their comings and goings to the local paper. One of our favorites was when Donn Hanneman brought a tomato in to the offices of the Mauston Star in September 1942, showing the salad fruit seemingly had a V for victory grown into its skin. During World War II, patriotism was the order of the day.
Read more NewsBits and enjoy! We try to update the page weekly.