Category Archives: Inspiration

Racine’s Rocky Has His Own Tale of Courage

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

MILWAUKEE – Herman “Rocky” Espinoza has always wanted to be a police officer, but he will never get the chance to realize that dream.

“He’ll wear his police shirts every day,” says his mother, Deborah Exner of Monroe. “I even bought him a police siren for his bike.”

Rocky, 12, a Racine native, counts several police officers among his good friends and owns a toy gun and authentic handcuffs.

“He’s the good guy,” Exner said. “That’s probably straight from his mouth. He really holds that status so high.”

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Deborah Exner holds her son’s hand at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. (Racine Journal Times photo by Mark Hertzberg)

Rocky has always been a boy full of life, rarely complaining and always looking out for his mother. But for seven years, Rocky has battled an inoperable cancerous tumor growing at the base of his brain.

Time after time he fights back from the effects of the tumor, but there is little doctors can do for him.

“I don’t think I ever put it to him that he’s going to die,” Exner said. “I put it to him that this is just a kind of stopping ground. The next stop is heaven. He understands that.”

Despite the troubles that have fallen upon him, Rocky shows the courage and optimism many adults would envy. On Friday, he lay in his bed at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, resting.

Pinned to his hospital gown was one of his favorite police badges. On the cassette stereo, a song from his idol, John Schneider, played softly.

Nice and simple, just how he likes it.

Exner walked around the side of the bed, leaned over and kissed him softly on the cheek. She took his hand, looked into his half-open eyes and said a few reassuring words.

Behind Exner’s kind eyes and smile lie the thoughts of a woman who knows her son’s illness is beyond her control. All she can do now is make him comfortable.

Threat of death
Last month, Rocky had to return to Milwaukee after he began having seizures caused by the pressure the tumor exerted on his brain.

“All through the seven years there’s always been the threat of death,” Exner said. “No matter how bad the doctors thought it was, he popped out of it. (Doctors) don’t believe it. They are just amazed.”

The disease is to the point that doctors cannot keep up with an expanding cyst caused by the tumor. He has had three operations in three weeks to relieve the pressure.

Despite Rocky’s strong will to live, the cancer is exacting its toll.

“He’s been through so much,” Exner said. “I think he’s just real tired of fighting. He’s not giving up – he’s just tired.”

Rocky has trouble responding when people talk to him, but not always. “When I came into the room, I bent over and kissed him and said, ‘I love you,’ ” Exner said. “He said, ‘I love you, mom.’ “

Herman picked up the nickname “Rocky” because his cancer was diagnosed when the “Rocky” movies were popular. Besides, Exner said, he has been a real fighter.

“I took it worse than he did. I cried,” she said. “He took it really well. He has always just said, ‘It’s OK, mom.’ He knew he was real sick. He knew it was something he would have to deal with the rest of his life.

“He used to wake up in the middle of the night, just screaming with incredible headaches. I thought it was nightmares.”

When the headaches would not go away, she took Rocky to a Racine doctor, who referred him to a neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital.

“Dr. Dunn could tell that the tumor was quite large,” she said. “He told me right away that there wasn’t any hope at all. There wasn’t anything they could do.”

But Rocky kept fighting back and giving himself extra time.

‘I’m not a wimp’
Outgoing and charismatic, Rocky lever lets on if he has any fear of his illness, relatives say. Before he went in for a recent operation, he told the doctors, “I’m Rocky – I’m not a wimp.”

Bob Pitts, of Mount Pleasant, Rocky’s uncle, said he told the boy to get better so they could arm wrestle. But Rocky couldn’t wait – he stuck his arm out and put up a pretty good fight.

“When he was first diagnosed,” Pitts said, “he wasn’t supposed to make it three months. He’s fighting every inch of the way.”

Rocky also enjoys riding a bicycle. “He was just learning to ride the bike again, then he had to come back here,” she said.

Schneider, who played Bo Duke on the “Dukes of Hazzard” television series, met Rocky at a Janesville concert last year and gave him his ID bracelet, which is now one of Rocky’s “most prized possessions,” Exner said.

On Friday, Schneider heard Rocky was back in the hospital and telephoned the family to check on him, relatives said.

A former student at Trinity Lutheran School, Rocky was not real big on the books, but he did like school.

Financial toll, too
Exner said she has accepted Rocky’s illness, but admits it has been hard for her in many ways.

“I don’t work, because I stay home and take care of Rocky,” she said. “It’s very hard. Right now I’m trying to find some ways of getting some more financial support.”

Rocky’s medical bills are paid mostly by Medicaid. But Exner has to pay her way to Milwaukee and back, which she said is difficult on a very limited income.

“Financially, I’m very strapped,” she said. “I couldn’t get any help to buy a car” and had to take a loan. “Now, I’m a little worried about that.”

‘Going to heaven’
The biggest toll is emotional.

“It’s hard to face it,” Exner said. ‘What puts me at peace with death (is) he is definitely going to heaven. That gives me peace.

“Sometimes I just wish I could trade places,” she said. “God has always made me a promise that says ‘I’m not going to push you any more than you can handle.’ “

Exner’s adjustment to Rocky’s terminal illness has included hysteria, a lot of tears and anger. But she said her main concern is seeing that Rocky does not suffer.

“If his life is going to hurt him any more, with the love I have for him, I’d rather see him at peace in heaven, ” she said.

“If he does die, I guess a part of me will die too. But I don’t want to be selfish. He’s been through enough. We’ve done as much as we possibly can and now its time to stop.”

Exner’s pain seemed well hidden on Friday. She and her relatives were able to laugh and recall their favorite stories about Rocky. She knows the pain is not over.

“When he actually does die, I think I’m going to fall apart,” she said.

Instead of focusing on the bad things that have happened, Exner counts the good times she has had with her son.

“I’ve had 12 of the hardest but most wonderful years with that young man,” she said. “I’m just thankful for that.”

She said the mother-son bond between them could not be stronger.

“I think that kid is a miracle,” Exner said. “I’m just proud to be his mom. I don’t know what I did, but I’m glad he’s mine.” ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 10, 1987 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.


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By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

Herman “Rocky” Espinoza, the former Racine boy who battled an inoperable brain tumor for several years, died Sunday in a Milwaukee hospital, wearing his favorite police shirt and badge.

Rocky, 12, who dreamed of growing up to be a police officer, died in his sleep Sunday morning at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

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Herman “Rocky” Espinoza

“I was able to hold him, just like I wanted,” said Deborah Exner, Rocky’s mother, who now lives in Monroe. “When it came right down to it, it was just Rocky and I.”

Exner said she was sleeping on a cot next to Rocky’s bed when a friend noticed his breathing getting shallow. Exner said she got up, put music from Kenny Rogers and John Schneider – two of Rocky’s favorites – on the cassette stereo, then held his hand and waited.

Rocky wore the police uniform Exner had trouble getting off him at home. He will be buried in it, she said.

“l just held his hand and tried to talk to him,” Exner said. “I believe he was very, very peaceful ….I talked him into heaven.”

Diagnosed with cancer at age 5, Rocky was in and out of the hospital many times, fighting the effects of a cancerous brain-stem tumor. Only expected to live months after the tumor was diagnosed, Rocky bounced back time and again

Most every day he would wear the police shirt and badge given to him by a family friend. He also owned a toy gun and a pair of authentic handcuffs.

Even in the hospital, dressed in only a green gown, he wore one of his badges. This time, it seems, the badge was one of courage.

He got the nickname “Rocky” because the Sylvester Stallone movies were popular at the time and because his family felt he was a fighter. Exner said Rocky dealt with the disease without much fear.

“He was a very brave boy,” she said. “There were no tears.”

Rocky’s corneas were donated to the Lion’s Club eye bank and doctors removed his brain to study the large tumor they were unable to stop, she said. Funeral arrangements are pending in Racine.

Relatives described Rocky as an a eternal optimist who was always looking out for other people. On Sunday, Exner recalled one such occasion.

Rocky was being examined at the Shriner’s Hospital in suburban Chicago, Exner said, when the doctor asked to speak to her in the hallway.

“Rocky just spoke up and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got something to say,’ ” Exner said. ” ‘It doesn’t matter if you can do something for me. You just keep on helping all the other kids.’ “

Exner said although the seven-year ordeal has been painful for her, she was doing pretty well on Sunday.

“I’m very much at rest right now,” she said. “He went out like a champ and I was proud of him.”

Bob Pitts of Mount Pleasant, Rocky’s uncle, said, “I’m going to miss him very much. I think he was just a brave little boy. Now he’s at peace.

Late last week, Exner sat in the cafeteria at Children’s Hospital and described how Rocky would wake up screaming in the middle of the night, with what she thought were nightmares. When his headaches persisted, they sought medical help and the tumor was diagnosed.

At times on Friday, Exner laughed when recalling the good times she had with Rocky. At other times, pain seemed to well just beneath the surface when she discussed their pending separation.

“I get real angry sometimes,” she said. “At first I think, ‘Why me? Why not someone else?’ Then I get realistic about it, because who would I want to wish that on? Nobody.”

Exner, who described her son as “a miracle,” said she wants to write a book about the experience.

Family members attributed Rocky’s long survival with the massive tumor to a strong character, medical help and love.

“I think he made it this long because of his doctor (David Dunn) and this hospital,” Pitts said.

Exner thought about that statement for a moment, then added her own reason Rocky fought so hard:

“Because he loved me,” she said. ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 12, 1987 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.


Headline_Guard

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

Herman “Rocky” Espinoza never realized his dream of becoming a police officer, but on Thursday, local police will give him a funeral escort usually reserved for their distinguished comrades.

At least four squad cars and officers from the Racine Police Department, the Racine County Sheriff’s Department and the Sturtevant Police Department will escort Rocky’s procession from the funeral home to the church and cemetery.

After reading newspaper accounts of Rocky’s seven-year fight with a brain-stem tumor, several officers had planned to present him with police badges and hats Monday at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

Rocky died early Sunday in his mother’s arms.

Deputy Chuck Kwapil said officers then decided on the escort “to have an opportunity to show how he touched our lives.”

“I think it was the bravery,” Kwapil said. “He was a fighter all the way through. He cared about other people and I think that was touching.

“He would have been one heck of a policeman,” Kwapil said “It would have been nice to work with someone like that.”

Racine police provided an Officer Friendly hat and badge that will be placed in Rocky’s casket. The sheriff’s department will also present the family with an officer’s hat and badge.

“It has just been unbelievable,” said Bob Pitts, Rocky’s uncle, of the police response. “I think he would be the happiest little boy on earth.”

Pitts said when the family heard of the police offer of an escort, “We all had tears in our eyes.”

Pitts said Rocky “was always the good cop. To have a will that strong is something.”

A Racine native who most recently lived in Monroe, Rocky spent nearly every day at home wearing a Sturtevant police shirt he got from a family friend.

When a relative recently gave Rocky a bicycle, his mother bought him a police siren. Even when he was struggling for his life in the hospital, his favorite badge was pinned to his hospital gown. And the day he died, he wore the uniform in which he will be buried.

“I don’t know of anybody that read (news articles) that couldn’t be moved by his courage, what he was facing and his concern for others,” said Racine Police Sgt. Thomas Cooper.

“If somebody cared that much about being a police officer, it’s the least we can do, to show him the same respect we would show an officer,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Aiello.

“I’ve never come across anything like this, and I’ve been on this department 14 years,” said Sturtevant Police Sgt. Robert Mallwitz.

“There you’ve got a real, legitimate hero.”

The escort will begin about 10 a.m. at Strouf-Sheffield Funeral Home, 1001 High St., then proceed to Trinity Lutheran Church, 2065 Geneva St. After a funeral service, the procession will head to Calvary Cemetery, 2510 Kinzie Ave. ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 14, 1987 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.


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Racine area law enforcement officers form an honor guard for Rocky Espinoza. (Racine Journal Times photo by Mark Hertzberg)

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By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

Herman “Rocky” Espinoza did not win his seven-year struggle with an inoperable brain tumor, but on Thursday, his dream came true.

The buoyant 12-year-old’s strongest wish in life was to serve the public as a police officer, but terminal cancer ended his life Sunday. Even in death, his wish was not forgotten.

Dressed in a blue police shirt, tan pants, badge, handcuffs and holster. Rocky was escorted to Calvary Cemetery by a procession of 13 law enforcement officers and eight squad cars.

The officers, representing the Racine County Sheriff’s Department and police from Racine, Mount Pleasant, Sturtevant and Caledonia, said they were not just honoring a courageous boy, but one of their own.

“He’s one of us now,” said Sturtevant police Sgt. Robert Mallwitz, a member of the escort. “It was just an honor to help a kid realize a dream.

“I was very proud, very honored to be there,” Mallwitz said.

At the funeral home, one officer stood at attention in a silent watch outside the visitation room. Others passed through the room in a show of solemn respect.

The procession to the church and cemetery was complete with a line of squad cars with emergency lights flashing. Nobody would have been prouder than Rocky.

At the cemetery, a police honor guard stood watch as Rocky was moved to his final resting place under a sugar maple. Atop the casket was perched a lone hat with the Racine Police Department logo on the front.

Inside the casket was Rocky’s collection of badges and hats from several other police departments. Even a teddy bear tucked inside wore a sheriff’s hat and miniature badge.

These were the symbols of a child’s very existence.

The officers who attended did not know Rocky, but the pain of loss was visible in their faces. They knew what their presence meant.

“We’re thinking that his dream did come true – finally,” said Racine Patrolman Scott Barrows, known to many children as Officer Friendly.

“He probably did see us there,” said Caledonia police dispatcher Pam Vanko. “I was glad that we could kind of help him with that dream.”

Mount Pleasant Patrolman Steve Swanson said he was proud that a young boy had such strong feelings for police.

“He came as close to being an officer as anyone has come without being sworn,” Swanson said. “(We) were in awe of his courage and strength.”

The escort was a fitting end to the story of a boy who, from the time he knew what the word police meant, wanted to be an officer. Despite a cancer that for seven years grew in his brain stem, Rocky spent his days and nights thinking of a time when he could wear the real uniform.

Officers in attendance Thursday believed Rocky wore the real thing.

“If he would have pulled through, he would have been one hell of a cop,” Mallwitz said. “It just seems unfair, a kid that’s so good gets taken so early.”

“I don’t think I could have gone through what Rocky went through for as long as he went through it and have the attitude he had,” Swanson said.

Students from Rocky’s former school, Trinity Lutheran, said goodbye with several songs at a funeral service. The school’s bell choir played music that for a brief moment drew a smile from Rocky’s mother, Deborah Exner.

The Rev. Patrick Baynes, of Trinity Lutheran Church, summed up what many in the church were undoubtedly feeling.

“Death can leave us helpless, because for once there is nothing we can do,” Baynes, said. “No treatments. And more frustratingly, no more words.” ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 16, 1987 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.


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Deborah Exner visits the grave of her son, Rocky, at Calvary Catholic Cemetery. (Racine Journal Times photo by Paul Roberts)

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By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

Deborah Exner knelt over her son’s grave, quietly arranging the fresh flowers she placed in a decorative orange jack-o’-lantern.

She carefully plucked blades of grass from around the small wooden cross that marks the site, pulled a daisy from the planter and slowly walked away.

The mixture of pain and acceptance on her face went a long way toward explaining what her life has been like for the past eight years.

For the mother who one year ago lost her only son, Rocky Espinoza, to an inoperable brain tumor, it is still hard to come to Calvary Cemetery. “I don’t go to the cemetery very often,” she said. “It doesn’t do anything for me at all. It’s a very empty feeling.”

Rocky died of cancer after a seven-year fight with the slow-growing tumor that expanded at the base of his brain.

An optimistic 12-year-old Racine native, Rocky lived a dream of one day becoming a police officer. He wore a police shirt, hat and holster every day at home. His bicycle was proudly outfitted with a siren. Even while at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, he wore a badge on his green gown.

But despite his strong dreams, the cancer proved to be stronger, claiming his life on Oct. 11, 1987.

Racine County’s law enforcement community was touched by Rocky’s respect for the badge. At the visitation service, dozens of Racine police officers filed past the boy’s casket during shift change.

And 13 officers gave him a police escort to the cemetery and a full honor guard – the kind of respect usually reserved for fallen colleagues.

Rocky was buried in his favorite police uniform.

Exner said she saw her son’s death coming, but was not prepared for the pain that would rack her existence and lead her to question the worth of her own life.

“I don’t think I really believed it was going to happen,” she said. “I felt, ‘It can’t happen to us – we’ve succeeded too many times.’ “

Those successes included Rocky’s recovery from numerous operations to relieve pressure from the tumor.

Exner recalled one day after Rocky was home from the hospital, he fought with determination to push his “police” bicycle up a steep hill in order to keep riding. Dreams of being an officer “motivated his whole life,” she said.

But trips to the hospital got more frequent. The tumor began exerting a heavy toll. One day, Exner told doctors enough was enough. She told her son it was OK to die.

Grieving process
Nearly one month after Rocky died in his sleep, that decision sparked doubts and guilt in Exner’s mind and began a tumultuous grieving process.

“I really felt like I was selfish,” Exner said. “I should have kept on doing everything I possibly could.

“Sometimes I even felt like he cheated me,” she said. “He shouldn’t have went, he should have fought harder “

After seven years of caring for a terminally ill child, the death left Exner without direction.

“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my life, and I still don’t,” she said. “He was all I knew.”

In November 1987, Exner hit rock bottom. All the calm she experienced directly after Rocky’s death gave way to painful emotions and thoughts of suicide.

“I felt there was nothing left in this world for me,” she said. “Everything I fought for and lived for was gone.”

Guilt continued to plague her.

“Did I do the right thing?” she asked rhetorically. “I felt like I had been selfish, because I wanted it to be over. I felt it was time to just stop and let God take over.”

Period of escape
There was a period she didn’t want to think about Rocky or be near children or hospitals.

She sought to have her fallopian tubes tied, but her doctor asked her to wait. She backed away from the idea and now says she might someday adopt children.

It took months to realize there was no blame to be laid for the cancer, Exner said. She became comfortable that she made the right decisions.

“The doubt is still there at moments,” she said. “But Rocky and I had this understanding about the whole thing. He trusted me and I trusted him.”

The healing has come slowly, but Exner said the grief is starting to ebb. She’s now able to remember the good times and can read news articles about Rocky without crying.

On his birthday last month, she bought toys and gifts – the kind Rocky liked – and gave them to sick children at a hospital in Monroe, where she now lives.

She cleaned out his room and donated much of his belongings to charity. She saved some favorite mementos, however.

‘Not really gone’
“Whenever I still feel real, real low, I’ll go in and open the trunk and look through that stuff,” she said. “I realize he’s not really gone, he’s inside of me.

“I think, ‘If I could have one more hug, or say, I love you, one more time,’ ” she said.

While it was Rocky’s illness and death that led to the pain Exner continues to endure, he may well be the key to healing.

Sense of pride
“The main thing that keeps me above water is that his life was for the good,” Exner said. “It makes me proud, he was such an understanding and caring child. It makes me feel I did my job as a mother. I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone like him in my life.”

Asked whether she was starting to heal, Exner looked away in careful thought, seeming for a long moment to be somewhere else. “I feel more stable. I don’t think Rocky would have wanted me to quit,” she said. “He was always proud of me – it always made me feel good. I still have to go on.”

The future might well hold opportunities for working with the terminally ill and their families, she said. But for now, Exner is trying to remember.

She wants to someday write a book about her son and what they went through together. But first there are questions and conflicts to be resolved.

“I’m still searching for the reason all this happened to me,” she said. “I couldn’t see it being for nothing.” ♦

– Originally published on Page 1 of the October 16, 1988 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original news pages.

Armless Musician Strikes Emotions

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

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.

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Tony Melendez plays flawless guitar with his feet. (Racine Journal Times photo by Paul Roberts)

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.

Crowd’s response

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.” ♦

– This article first appeared in the May 8, 1988 edition of the Racine Journal Times. View the original newspaper page.

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.

Further Reading: Tony Melendez Web Site

Amazing. Simply Amazing.

By Joseph Hanneman
Journal Times

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.

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Leslie Lemke turned in a virtuoso performance at Union Grove High School. (Racine Journal Times photo by Paul Roberts)

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.

Further Reading: Islands of Genius’

Further Reading: Whatever Happened to Leslie Lemke? (Scientific American)

NewsClip_Lemke

Preservation Fund Launched for the Hanneman Archive

After more than 10 years publishing the Hanneman Archive history web site, your humble correspondent can no longer cover the operating costs involved in this enterprise. So rather than risk having to take the site down, we turn to our readers and relatives to ask for support.

Since just 2014, the Archive has drawn nearly 33,000 visitors from around the world who accessed close to 84,000 page views. Our article count has topped 185, and the site includes thousands of photographs and videos.

We set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for:

  • The online blog platform and cloud storage
  • Software to edit photos and video
  • Numerous fee-based research databases
  • Local server storage for terabytes of photos and documents
  • Archival supplies such as Mylar photo sleeves and acid-free albums and boxes

Let’s band together and support preservation of our shared history. Visit the GoFundMe page today!

©2017 The Hanneman Archive

Unpublished Chapter a Portrait of Sainthood for Fulton J. Sheen

From my just-published article in Catholic World Report:

Driven and sustained by his daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen lived an intense life of holiness, zeal to save souls and Christian love that helped make him the most influential Catholic in 20th century America, biographer Thomas C. Reeves says.

Reeves has released a previously unpublished conclusion to his 2002 Sheen biography, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen. The conclusion chapter, titled “Living Intensely,” covers Sheen’s spirituality, his inspiration and how others viewed his life. While Reeves does not directly promote Sheen as a candidate to be raised to the altars, his book’s concluding chapter is a very tidy summation of Sheen’s merits for sainthood. Reeves is making the chapter available for free on the internet, and has donated it for inclusion in his papers at Marquette University.

Fulton J. Sheen had a long tenure on radio hosting the Catholic Hour on NBC.
Fulton J. Sheen had a long tenure on radio hosting the Catholic Hour on NBC.

“To an extraordinary degree, his mind was on God,” Reeves wrote of Sheen (1895-1979), the prolific author and Catholic evangelist best remembered for his 1950s television series, “Life is Worth Living.” “This supernatural approach to life activated and sustained his enormous energy. He said late in life, ‘the secret of my power is that I have never in fifty-five years missed spending an hour in the presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. That’s where the power comes from. That’s where sermons are born. That’s where every good thought is conceived.’ ”

Read the rest at the Catholic World Report web site.

 

Catholic Faithful Plant the Cross on Wisconsin Ground in 1863

In every community you will find inspiring stories of courage, faith and perseverance. And so it was the case when I researched the 1863 founding of my hometown parish, Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The project lasted several months, and turned up many fascinating stories from the mission-territory days of Wisconsin in the mid-1800s.

Stained-glass depiction of St. Paul, from Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church.
Stained-glass depiction of St. Paul, from Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church.

Full confession (pun intended): I served as an altar boy for years at Sacred Hearts in the 1970s, and graduated in spring 1978 from the fine Sacred Hearts School. The current church, the third edifice in parish history, has some of the most stunning stained-glass windows you will find outside of a cathedral. That’s what initially drew me to the history of Sacred Hearts.

So what did I learn?

  • The church was founded during the second expansion of Catholicism in Wisconsin (the first being black-robed Jesuit missionaries who explored the territory in the 1600s). Much of the area at the time was untamed wilderness, now being colonized by immigrants from Ireland, Germany and other parts of Europe.

    Rev. Francis Xavier Etschmann said the first Mass in Sun Prairie at the home of James Broderick.
    Rev. Francis Xavier Etschmann said the first Mass in Sun Prairie at the home of James Broderick.
  • The early missionary priests rode circuits hundreds of miles long, often saying Mass in private homes or rustic buildings with no roof. Father Martin Kundig, an indefatigable traveler and founder of many Catholic parishes in Michigan and Wisconsin, had an uplifting experience in 1843. The faithful gathered in a private home for Mass overloaded the floor, and everyone except Father Kundig crashed into the cellar. The people reached up and supported the priest, standing on a narrow plank, so he could finish saying Mass.
  • These pioneers led often difficult lives. The John Sprengel family lost three children to diphtheria within one week in 1882. Emerand Aschenbrucker lost his first wife during the birth of their daughter, Anna, in February 1867. Nicholas Mosel lost his wife to typhoid fever at age 54. The church brought comfort to these grieving families, offering the sacraments and a reverent burial for the departed.

    Founding Sacred Hearts parishioners Mary and Michael Conley.
    Founding Sacred Hearts parishioners Mary and Michael Conley.
  • The Civil War affected every aspect of life during Sacred Hearts’ early years. Two young parishioners died during their wartime service, including one who was wounded in the 1862 Battle of Shiloh and died in a Confederate prison camp. Another died on a furlough in 1864. He was just 15. A third was wounded in the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, in June 1864.
The 28-page e-book can be found at catholicpioneers.com.
The 28-page e-book can be found at http://www.catholicpioneers.com.

When you set out to research a topic, you never know just what you will find. I found a very fascinating story in the “Catholic Pioneers on the Prairie,” which is what I titled the 28-page e-book that grew out of my research. I invite you to read the whole thing at Catholic Pioneers. View it online or download the e-book as a PDF file.

©2015 The Hanneman Archive

Here is a 1992 Letter for Your 23rd Birthday

Jan. 20, 2015

Dear Stevie,

I wish I could get you a big birthday gift this year, like prepaid college tuition or a new car. But I can’t. I think I have something much more valuable to share, though. I wrote the letter below almost 23 years ago, when you were barely two weeks old.

Much has changed in our lives and in the world since then. You grew up and overcame big challenges on your way to high school, and then college. You’ve gone out into the work work and supported yourself as you pay for your own education. I know that has been hard, but it is a great credit to you, and I’m very proud of you.

When I wrote the letter, we had no idea who you would become. You were at times a cranky baby, with lots of colic. But you were mostly happy. It was a sheer delight watching you grow up. As I see you ready to celebrate your 23rd birthday, I can say that I could not be a more proud Dad of my only son. Just like the letter says, you’ve grown up to be a good man. I love you.

Dad

 


 

Feb. 2, 1992

Dear Stevie —

You probably don’t like us calling you Stevie anymore, but right now, it fits you perfectly. It’s 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. I’m watching a rerun of M*A*S*H on television as your Mom naps on the couch. You are asleep in your crib down the hall. I can hear you breathing over the nursery monitor.

There are a lot of things I want to say to you. The first is that your Mom and I love you very  much. You’re only 2 weeks old, but you’ve added so much to our lives. And now we sit and imagine what kind of a person you will grow up to be. We know you’ll be a good boy, and eventually, a good man.

The letter sat in the bottom of my dusty Sentry safe for 23 years.
The letter sat in the bottom of my dusty Sentry safe for 23 years.

First, some history. You were born at 8:41 p.m. on Jan. 20. You weighed 7 pounds 13 ounces. I’ll never forget your little hand clutched around my finger as you lay on the incubator table. You were so alert as you waited to be put in a blanket.

The day you were born, George Bush was President of the United States. Tommy Thompson (a good friend of your great Grandpa Carl) was governor of Wisconsin. Your Dad works as a reporter for the Racine Journal Times, covering state government and politics. Your Mom works for Communications Concepts in Racine, doing graphic arts on a computer. The top TV shows are Cheers, Murphy Brown and L.A. Law.

You are a beautiful baby. You have dark eyes, red hair and soft, rounded cheeks. You’re only 2 weeks old, but already you can lift your head in the crib. I wonder what you are thinking when you gaze up at us while you’re feeding or playing. We nicknamed you “Popeye” because when you want your bottle, you look up with only 1 eye open and open your mouth.

You were conceived at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Your Mom was in the Army Reserves and was called off to war in Dec. 1990. She was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, as a food inspector. When she came home from war in April 1991, we had you. You were part of what was called “Operation Desert Stork,” named after the war, “Operation Desert Storm.”

As I write this your Mom and I are looking forward to seeing you crawl, take your first steps, and all the things that come after. But for now, there’s one thing we’re sure of — how happy we are you’re here.

Love,

Dad

 

Daughters Helped Bring ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ Message to Television

The Knights of Columbus has long championed the “Keep Christ in Christmas” message to remind the public that the “holiday season” is really about the birth of the Savior. Each year, the more than 14,000 local K of C councils promote the message with car magnets, yard signs, television ads and radio spots.

The Nativity mosaic was used on a billboard along Interstate 94 in 2009.
The Nativity mosaic was used on a billboard along Interstate 94 in 2009.

Back in 2010, I wanted to create a 30-second broadcast commercial with this message, but we had no production budget. I found a beautiful mosaic image from the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The year before, I used that image to create a billboard we placed alongside Interstate 94 in Racine County, Wisconsin.

Many Knights of Columbus councils distribute "Keep Christ in Christmas" lawn signs.
Many Knights of Columbus councils distribute “Keep Christ in Christmas” lawn signs.

For the TV spot, we planned to use that still image with a pan-and-zoom “Ken Burns effect,” but I still needed voice talent and music. I looked no further than my then 11-year-old daughter, Ruby. She only needed a couple of takes to nail the script voiceover. My other daughter, Samantha, 14, took to her keyboard and recorded a section of “Greensleeves.” That is the tune used for the hymn What Child Is This? Once I put it all together, we had a very nice broadcast commercial, quite beautiful in its simplicity. The finished spot ran hundreds of times on a wide variety of cable television networks throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. You can watch the video in the player below.

Restoring Grandpa’s Handmade Nativity Scene

In the winter of 1966 or 1967, a young father designed and hand-crafted an outdoor nativity scene to decorate the family home in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. David D. Hanneman (1933-2007) painted the set freehand and put it on display just under the garage window of his home on Wisconsin Avenue. The nativity scene was a fixture at the home in those early years, but eventually was put in storage and forgotten.

The original Nativity scene as built by David D. Hanneman, circa 1967.
The original Nativity scene as built by David D. Hanneman, circa 1967.

Forty years later, after David Hanneman died, the badly weathered Nativity figures were rescued from a trash can in the garage. Over the next 18 months they were restored to almost original condition and put on display in the Village of Mount Pleasant.

The original backers and braces were removed from the cutout figures of St. Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus. New 1-inch-thick plywood backers were crafted with a jigsaw, then glued to the figures and anchored with wood screws. Heavy L-shape stabilizing braces were screwed into the backers to give the figures sufficient weight to withstand winter winds.

Samantha J. Hanneman retouches details on the Baby Jesus figure built by her grandfather, David. D. Hanneman.
Samantha J. Hanneman retouches details on the Baby Jesus figure built by her grandfather, David. D. Hanneman.

Samantha J. Hanneman, David Hanneman’s granddaughter, did most of the paint restoration work. With a special set of art brushes, she applied metallic gold and flat black paint to maintain the original look. Touch up paint was applied sparingly to the faces and hands of the figures to keep the hand-drawn details.

The newly restored Nativity scene was put on display at the Hanneman home in Racine County in December 2008, making the old tradition new again for another generation. The crèche was displayed for several years, but had to again be put in storage when we lost our home.  Now the figures again wait patiently to have a new home where their warm glow will fill the Christmas night.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Nativity crib or crèche on Christmas Eve 1223 in Greccio, Italy. St. Francis was eager to make the birth of Christ something tangible for the faithful. He had a manger built, brought animals to be part of the set, and had Holy Mass said before this representation of the birth of Christ. After the preparations were finished, St. Francis and some of his followers went to the crèche for the Mass. After a short prayer by Francis, a vision of the Christ child appeared on the hay. The miracle stirred the animals and greatly moved the faithful who witnessed it.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

Dying Wish Brought Chapel Windows Home to St. Mary’s Hospital

As kids growing up in Sun Prairie, any time we ventured into the back room of our basement we were likely to hear a voice from upstairs shout, “Don’t you go near those windows!” Of course we knew what that meant: the antique stained-glass behemoths covered in blankets in the farthest reaches of the basement, next to the furnace. I never gave a great deal of thought to them, until one day in 2006 when my father was dying of cancer.

I fully tell the story of the stained-glass chapel windows in my book, The Journey Home: My Father’s Story of Cancer, Faith and Life-Changing Miracles. It’s worth covering here, too.  It shows how sometimes, things all come together to create something beautiful, even out of sadness.

The St. Mary's Hospital chapel as it looked in the 1950s.
The St. Mary’s Hospital chapel as it looked in the 1950s.

Founded in 1912, St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison always had a chapel as part of its facilities. In 1926, a new, ornate chapel was built as part of an expansion of St. Mary’s. The chapel had 10 window frames, each with two beautiful arched stained-glass windows that rose 20 feet from eye level to midway up the wall. In between each were two Stations of the Cross. The windows remained part of the chapel until 1973, when that section of the building was razed to make way for a new hospital wing on Mills Street. My Dad obtained two of the windows, a total of four panels, carrying them home in blankets to rest for more than three decades.

The windows are prominently visible in this newswire photo from 1946, from a Mass to celebrate presentation of a papal medal to Leo T. Crowley of Madison.
The windows are prominently visible in this newswire photo from 1946, from a Mass to celebrate presentation of a papal medal to Leo T. Crowley of Madison.

When Dad was being treated for lung cancer at St. Mary’s in the fall of 2006, he got an inspiration to give those windows back to St. Mary’s. He asked for my help in doing some research, but he was so impatient he wheeled himself down to the administrative offices to talk to someone about it. That someone, vice president Barbara K. Miller, was enthralled with the idea, but it was her last day on the job before retiring. She promised to get the ball rolling on the donation. “I want these windows to come home to St. Mary’s,” he told her.

The chapel window sections as they looked in 2007 in the Hanneman basement.
The chapel window sections as they looked in 2007 in the Hanneman basement.

Dad was a little worried that his donation wouldn’t get done. The idea occupied his mind more than anything else in November 2006. He knew his time with us was short. He told the story and his idea to his physician, Dr. Gregory Motl. Dad made Dr. Motl promise that if he didn’t survive the cancer, the donation would be completed. Motl grasped Dad’s hand and said reassuringly, “I will Dave. I will.”

To say the hospital embraced Dad’s idea would be an understatement. His timing was perfect, since St. Mary’s was planning a $182 million expansion that would add a new east wing with operating rooms, a cardiac center, outpatient offices, patient rooms and more. St. Mary’s  was looking for ways to tie the new facility to the hospital’s heritage. The architects designed special spaces for each of the four window sections. St. Mary’s had a new internal champion for the windows, Steve Sparks, public relations director.

After months of planning, St. Mary’s was finally ready to take possession of the windows. On March 22, 2007, Sparks and workmen came to Sun Prairie to transport the windows. He snapped some photos of Mom and Dad with a window section. Dad looked pale and drawn, but I know he appreciated the milestone that day represented. “It was humbling for me,” Sparks recounted later. “This gift demonstrated exceptional courage and generosity. It is an experience I won’t forget.”

David and Mary Hanneman pose with one window section on March 22, 2007.
David and Mary Hanneman pose with one window section on March 22, 2007.

Tears were shed that afternoon as the windows were lovingly carried outside. It was the first daylight to penetrate the stained glass in more than three decades. For Dad, it was the accomplishment of a mission of giving. His part was finished; now St. Mary’s would take over. Not two weeks later, Dad was admitted to St. Mary’s and then discharged to HospiceCare Inc., where he died on April 14, 2007. 

In early December 2007, Mom  and I were invited to the dedication day at the new St. Mary’s east wing. We attended a luncheon and heard very kind words about Dad from Dr. Frank Byrne, president of St. Mary’s Hospital. They were similar to what Dr. Byrne wrote right after Dad’s death. “It is clear from Dave’s accomplishments that dedication to community was always a part of his priorities,” Byrne wrote, “and we will all benefit from that dedication for years to come. At this sad time, we hope it will be a reminder that though life may seem short, the contributions made by one individual have a significant impact in building a future for us all.”

The window section placed in the atrium of the new east wing at St. Mary's Hospital in Madison.
The window section placed in the atrium of the new east wing at St. Mary’s Hospital.

When we walked into the atrium and first saw one of the window sections, it was enough to bring tears. There it was, set into the wall and brilliantly backlit in a way that brought out the green, red and amber hues of the glass. It was, as designed by the architects, a welcoming beacon for everyone visiting St. Mary’s. Mom posed next to the window, and even did an impromptu interview with Madison’s Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Herald. The three other window sections were placed on different floors of the east wing. One is in a waiting room. The others are in prominent spots.

The story of these chapel windows gives testimony that beauty can emerge from the depths of the darkest tragedies. Dad kept the windows safe for 35 years, and he got them safely home to St. Mary’s just weeks before he, too, made it home.

This post has been updated with additional window photos.
©2014 The Hanneman Archive