It was just after daybreak on a Saturday when Father M.W. Gibson climbed to the spire of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Racine, Wisconsin. In a bold sign that faith and patriotism go hand in hand, he hoisted an American flag onto the spire, where it waved in the breeze for all to see. It was April 20, 1861 and the War of the Rebellion had just broken out. Father Gibson wanted to remind area Catholics what was at stake in defending the country’s sovereignty.
Later that same day, a crowd of 1,000 people gathered in Racine’s Market Square (now called Monument Square) and marched north across the Root River to St. Patrick’s. They sought to thank Father Gibson for his patriotic statement. Gibson implored the crowd to recall that the country for which their forefathers lived and died was calling to them. The time had come, he said, to answer that call.
This true story is from a ceremony I wrote for the Knights of Columbus in 2009 to honor the American flag and those who have died defending it.
“Let us commit to always honor our flag and protect it. Protect it from enemies without – and within – who seek to diminish its honor, lower its stature or desecrate it in protest.”
Those words were used in a ceremony providing a reverent retirement by fire for American flags that were no longer fit for service. On this Independence Day, they also offer a look at how previous generations viewed the United States and the symbol of its freedom. We quoted the stirring words of Father Raymond Mahoney, who as chaplain of the Racine Knights of Columbus penned a poem in May 1920 honoring the American flag:
“Heaven itself is unfurling the flag of the land we love, and I hear Columbia telling her children the story of how the flag came to be”
In the blood that they gave for the cause of right A thousand true martyrs lay And the angel that tends on hero souls Came down at the close of day To gather them in, and to carry them Before the Lord of all Then as over their forms she kindly stooped Her snow white wings let fall
On the ground that their blood had incarnadined And it left on them a stain And she feared that the Master would chide her When she came to His presence again Because on those wings once so undefiled Now glowed that crimson stain
But as she passed on through the evening skies The souls to her bosom clung She tore from the skies a bit of the blue And over her shoulders flung That azure so deep, that was star begemmed In thought perhaps it might When she came to the throne of the Master, hide The stain of blood from sight
So she lay at his feet those hero souls And bent low with wings outspread And he saw that those wings were star sprinkled blue, and white, and bloody red He asked what it meant, why the wings were stained In fear the angel said “Oh, the red is the blood that theses heroes spilled The blue is Your own fair sky And with it I have sought to hide the stain Lest it displease Your eye”
“The stain on your wings,” he answered her “Is truly a blessed one And is always the mark of a crimson tide That for liberty has run
“For it tells of service and sacrifice Of a life and a death or right And the blue speaks of hope, the white as truth Sends forth a welcome light To gleam for mankind as for travelers beams The building star of night
“Spread out your wings o’er the universe That all who behold may see The flag that speaks of love, truth and hope The virtues that make men free”
You can watch the entire flag retirement ceremony below.
Before I embarked on this ongoing genealogy voyage in 2006, I’d never seen so much as a photograph of my Aunt Evelyn (Deutsch) Mulqueen. All I knew of her is that she died very young, leaving my Uncle Earl Mulqueen to try to raise six children. It was this tragedy that led to a blessing in my life, when Earl and Evelyn’s daughter Laura came to live with the Hanneman family in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
As I made my way through thousands of images in the photo collections from my father, my Grandpa Carl Hanneman and my maternal grandparents Earl and Margaret Mulqueen, I was happy to discover more about this forever young mother, gone too soon.
Most recently, my project to digitize the 8mm film collection of Earl J. Mulqueen Sr. has brought forth the first moving pictures of Evelyn Mulqueen. The newest batch can be viewed below. These are very short glimpses of a beautiful young woman tending to her family in South Milwaukee. Carrying her infant son, Mark, or engaging with Laura, Tom, John, Brian and Earl Jr. (Bud). These are moments frozen in time. More than 50 years later, we get to witness the gathering in front of the Mulqueen home, the Christmas present opening, and the family barbecue. Normal family events, but now given such weight with the knowledge of how many of those pictured have died.
Evelyn A. Deutsch was born in Cudahy, Wisconsin, on April 24, 1929, the only daughter of Michael Deutsch (1882-1963) and the former Theresa Ulrich (1891-1967). Her parents, who emigrated from Austria, married in April 1917.
Evelyn married Earl James Mulqueen Jr. on December 14, 1949 in Cook County, Illinois. Her husband was a U.S. Marine war hero who lost a leg in May 1944 while preparing for the U.S. invasion of Saipan. The couple had a large family, with Bud (1950), Thomas (1953), John (1956), Brian (1959), Laura (1960) and Mark (1962) rounding out the bunch. An aggressive brain cancer took Evelyn from her family on February 2, 1963. She was just 33.
The family experienced more than its share of suffering with and after the death of Evelyn. Earl died in August 1980 at age 57. The family also saw the premature deaths of Tom (age 51), Brian (age 40) and Mark (age 46). Those tragedies are in part what makes these video images so compelling and precious. Viewers get to share a time when these heartaches were far away, and only smiles graced the frames of the 8mm film.
Every parent rightly feels great pride when their children reach milestones such as high school graduation. For our youngest child, Ruby, her June 7 graduation from Wisconsin Virtual Academy came with extra meaning.
A number of years ago, Ruby had to withdraw from our local public high school after being diagnosed at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin with a rare health issue. On many days, poor health kept her from being able to sit upright, much less be in a classroom environment. We remembered the online school system powered by K12,since her older brother Stevie attended online middle school. Using Wisconsin’s school choice program, we enrolled her at Wisconsin Virtual Academy, administered by the McFarland School District. It turned out to be a Godsend in so many ways.
The online school allowed Ruby the flexibility to do her schoolwork during times she was feeling good. She had great teachers and excellent support, provided using K12’s interactive internet-based school system. Online school requires strong discipline and organizational skills. It was at times a struggle, but Ruby thrived in the online learning environment. She had her own educational guardian angel named Tanya Steger, who watched over Ruby and kept her on track. Tanya used encouragement and positive reinforcement to help Ruby succeed in school. When rough patches came up, she steered Ruby to resources that helped her get caught up again. There was no scolding or shaming, but always cheerleading and positive solutions. WIVA should be proud to have such a caring, dedicated person like Tanya Steger on its staff. Ruby would not have made it without her.
Not only did Tanya help Ruby in school, but she nominated her for the Kohl Initiative Scholarship funded by the Kohl Educational Foundation. The foundation is run by former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, whose family founded Kohl’s food stores and Kohl’s department stores. Tanya wrote a very moving endorsement of Ruby’s work and the obstacles she overcame in completing high school. We were thrilled to later learn that Ruby was among the winners of the Kohl Initiative Scholarship. Tanya and WIVA administrator Cindy Worden drove to Middleton High School near Madison in late April for the scholarship banquet. It was announced at the banquet that Sen. Kohl was doubling the size of each scholarship from $5,000 to $10,000. What a blessing.
Sen. Kohl was very gracious and stayed for a long time after the banquet to pose for photos with award winners. When Ruby went on stage to get her photo taken, I showed the senator a snapshot taken in 2003 or 2004. He was pictured at the U.S. Capitol, standing next to Ruby’s grandfather, David D. Hanneman, then mayor of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. The senator said he remembers Dave, which of course made the day even more special to us.
At the graduation ceremony held at McFarland High School on June 7, Tanya stood before the graduates and family members and talked about Ruby and how she came to excel at school in spite of her health. Ruby had tears in her eyes as she came onstage to give Tanya a hug. When it was Ruby’s turn to get her diploma, we all had some extra tears. Mostly tears of joy, but also of nostalgia, since Ruby is the baby in the family.
Such challenges and success! Ruby worked so hard to achieve her diploma. WIVA, its teachers, administrators and counselors, along with Ruby’s mom, deserve great credit for helping her reach graduation. This fall, Ruby will join older sister Samantha in enrolling at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Life goes on. And one father is so very proud.
It hardly seems ten years could have passed since the night of April 14, 2007. How fortunate we were to be present to witness my father draw his last breath and step from the troubles and sicknesses of this world into eternity. Around 11:30 p.m. that night, Dad left us, just after we stood around his bed and prayed the Our Father and the Hail Mary. The world will never be the same.
For David D. Hanneman, that night was the end of his journey through life, through lung cancer, and pain. For everyone who knew him, it was the start of a new path, one without those silvery locks, that dulcet baritone or those big, strong hands that built and fixed so many things in this world. On that day, I learned a death is like a fork in the road. It changes everyone. The path forward is suddenly different. Those left behind feel an immense loss, even while comforted at the though their loved one has received the crown of righteousness from Our Blessed Lord, the just judge.
Over the past ten years, I lost track of the number of times I’ve thought, “I wonder what Dad would think of that?” or wondered what advice he might impart on issues in my life. I often ask him just those questions. But since 2007, the answers do not come so directly as a spoken word, a laugh or a hand on the shoulder. But with the ears tuned to heaven, the answers still come.
It has been a long ten years, Dad. We miss you more than ever.
Looking just a little overwhelmed with granddaughters Ruby and Maggie Hanneman
August 1992 with grandson Stevie and sons David (left) and Joe.
With daughter Marghi.
At his favorite station.
With mother Ruby Hanneman, circa 1943.
At Calvary Cemetery, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.
Early days in Sun Prairie, circa 1966.
Dad with parents Carl and Ruby Hanneman, and dog Cookie.
Dad (right) as a gunslinger in Mauston, circa 1938.
Carl and Ruby Hanneman, David Hanneman, Mary (Mulqueen) Hanneman, Margaret Mulqueen and Earl J. Mulqueen Sr.
Dad with beloved sister Lavonne, circa 1944.
David D. Hanneman, circa 1939.
High school graduation portrait, 1951.
No. 72 for the Mauston Bluegold.
One of the photos he used in his real estate business.
The book about my father’s battle with lung cancer and his final months on this earth has been in print for nearly five years. It seems a good time to update the book’s official video trailer. The new version, posted below, is in high definition. Back when the original trailer was created, HD video was still fairly novel. But now HD is the norm on home televisions and computers, so it was time to upgrade this important promotional video. You can also view the video in a larger format here.
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.
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.
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.
At Christmas 2014 with Mr. Puggles.
A 2008 image of Stevie.
Stevie with one of his patented expressions.
We used to stuff pillows in our sweatpants and hip check each other around.
One of my favorite photos, taken at Wisconsin Dells.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
I just learned with sadness of the death of my Dad’s older brother, Donn Gene Hanneman, who died in Minneapolis at age 88. Uncle Donn was the last of the Mauston Hanneman family to pass away. My Dad, David D. Hanneman, died in 2007 at age 74.
I have many memories of my uncle. He was foremost the father of nine wonderful human beings, my cousins Diane, Caroline, Tom, Jane, Mary Ellen, John, Jim, Nancy and Thomas Patrick (March 1-4, 1949). The cousins were raised by a saintly mother, my aunt Elaine Hanneman.
Donn was a veteran of World War II and served as a seaman-second class on the USS Hoggatt Bay. The USS Hoggatt Bay (CVE-75) was a Casablanca-class escort carrier (crew of 860) commissioned in December 1943.
Donn was born on August 20, 1926, in Wisconsin Rapids to Carl Henry Frank Hanneman (1901-1982) and the former Ruby Viola Treutel (1904-1977). In 1936, the Hanneman family moved to Mauston in Juneau County, where Carl took a job as a pharmacist attached to the Mauston hospital and clinic. By that time, my father had come along (March 1933). In August 1937, the family expanded to include Lavonne Marie Hanneman Wellman (1937-1986).
As a boy, Donn had his share of illnesses and injuries. He spent more than a week in the Marshfield hospital in September 1929, then returned there in April 1930. Just before my Dad was born in March 1933, Donn was hospitalized in Wisconsin Rapids for more than a week, after an operation for appendicitis.
Just after his 11th birthday in August 1937, Donn was standing on the running board of a moving vehicle while leaving the Juneau County Fairgrounds when he fell and suffered a head injury. He was seen at the Mauston clinic and taken home, but soon after “lost his power of speech and all consciousness,” according to an account in The Daily Tribune in Wisconsin Rapids. “He was then rushed to the hospital.” Donn was diagnosed with a concussion and put on two weeks of bed rest, although that was extended. The September 8 edition of The Daily Tribune said Donn “is making a satisfactory recovery, although he will be confined to his bed for two more weeks.”
Back in those days, a family’s every move ended up in the newspaper. In the case of the Hannemans, it was thanks to the faithful correspondence of Ruby Hanneman. “Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hanneman and little son Don Gene were completely taken by surprise last evening when forty friends arrived to give them a house warming on the occasion of moving into their new home on Hale Street,” the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune reported on April 8, 1932.
Some of the most charming photographs in our library are of a 5-year-old Donn dressed up as a cowboy playing with friends on the sidewalks on the 1200 block of Washington Avenue in Wisconsin Rapids. We detailed those photos in a previous post.
As a youth Donn enjoyed books, and collected enough that his father built him a bookcase that held up to 175 volumes. Carl wrote to my then 6-year-old father about it in August 1939. Dad was staying with an aunt and uncle in Waukegan, Illinois. “Say David, I made a book case for Donn for his birthday, and you know that you still have something coming,” Carl wrote, “so what would you like to have Dad make something for you too, if so tell mother and I will try to start it as soon as I can.”
For a time Donn attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Grade School in Mauston, then run by the Benedictine Sisters. He was among the graduates attending the school’s 100th anniversary in 1995. At the event, he ran into one of his teachers, Sister Emeric Weber, who was just 19 when she started teaching at St. Patrick’s.
“Sister Emeric, I’m sorry I’m late,” he quipped, to which the aged nun replied, “What’s your excuse now? What’s your excuse?”
Like his brother David and father Carl, Donn was a longtime Fourth-Degree member of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal and service organization. He most recently belonged to Council 1013 in Rochester, Minnesota.
There are many others better qualified to provide more recent stories about Donn. And even though he tossed my father through the bay window of their Mauston home when they were boys, my Dad didn’t hold it against him. When he was ill with cancer in the fall of 2006, Dad put it simply and succinctly: “He’s my brother and I love him.”
Donn G. Hanneman (center) in his U.S. Navy uniform, with sister Lavonne and brother David in 1944.
David D. Hanneman and older brother Donn G. Hanneman, circa 1935. Read more about the photo: http://wp.me/p4FxQb-v7
Donn G. Hanneman lounges outside his Grandpa Treutel’s home in Vesper, Wisconsin, circa 1930.
Donn G. Hanneman in the world’s smallest swimming pool.
Donn at the family home in Fond du Lac.
Donn Gene Hanneman, son of Carl F. Hanneman (1901-1982) and Ruby V. (Treutel) Hanneman (1904-1977), sits in an indoor baby swing at the Hanneman home in Fond du Lac, Wis, ca. 1927. Carl Hanneman was a pharmacist for the Staeben Drug Co. in Fond du Lac at the time.
Donn in his cowboy threads at Wisconsin Rapids.
Donn G. Hanneman wears a convincing looking police uniform, perhaps a Halloween costume.
Donn G. Hanneman looks like a lonely cowpoke with his wagon, circa 1930.
David D. Hanneman on the shoulders of brother Donn.
Donn G. Hanneman towers over his little sister, Lavonne Marie, circa 1941.
Donn G. Hanneman at the Mauston rail station, circa 1944.
Donn G. Hanneman in his U.S. Navy uniform in 1944.
CRACK! The sound of the first rifle shot left an echo that trailed onto the horizon. We flinched just a bit when the first volley was fired, then heard the barely audible jingle of the ejected brass shell dancing across the pavement. Then silence, followed by orders to fire again. CRACK! A third report rumbled across the landscape. Men and women alike clutched tissues and dabbed tears at the sights, sounds and emotion of the military honor guard that paid tribute Tuesday to my father-in-law, Ronald C. LaCanne.
Darkness had already fallen outside of the Draeger-Langendorf Funeral Home in Racine, Wisconsin, adding to the drama. Everyone stood motionless as two uniformed veterans folded the American flag and presented it to my mother-in-law, Eileen. The slow, steady salute they gave before the flag was a sign of deep respect. It was followed by the playing of Taps. Everyone was choked up to witness such a moving ceremony.
Ron served in the United States Army in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the height of the Cold War era. He was an intelligence officer stationed somewhere in the hinterlands of Alaska, within listening distance of the Soviet Union. He never talked about the work he did there, not wanting in any way to betray national secrets, even 50 years later. He took his commitment that seriously. That is a man of honor.
If you know a veteran, take time today to thank them for serving the United States of America. It’s important that they know our nation is grateful for their sacrifices.
John Chapter 16 offers encouragement to those who have watched a loved one struggle with terminal illness. Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage. I have overcome the world.” Matthew Chapter 25 seemed so fitting as we turned to leave the memorial service. I could almost hear the words echo from Heaven: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. …Come, share your master’s joy.”
I remember well the first and last times I saw my father-in-law, Ron LaCanne.
In the nearly 25 years between these two events, I came to respect and love this man, whose story late in life became one of remarkable faith. I was incredibly moved by his quiet and steady faith in Christ and his hope of attaining glory in Heaven after his earthly journey, which ended earlier today at age 74.
It was such a long road away from the day I first met him. That was in early 1990, when I stopped at the LaCanne home on North Wisconsin Street in Racine to pick up his daughter Sue for a date. I was more than a bit nervous, because I had been told he was not fond of newspaper reporters. At the time, I was a reporter at The Journal Times, Racine’s daily newspaper. I sat on the couch and we chatted about the story I’d worked on that day, dealing with a Caledonia teenager who killed a dog, reportedly due to listening to heavy metal music. Somehow I survived the discussion and made a decent first impression on the man I would come to spend countless hours with over the next nearly 25 years.
My final and lasting impressions of him came in a series of visits this summer at the LaCanne apartment in Racine. Ron was thin, frail and dying from cancer. And although we’d been estranged in recent years, this time I was not nervous to visit. I presented him with a very special Rosary given to me by Catholic filmmaker Steve Ray. The Rosary had been placed on nearly a dozen sites in the Holy Land. This included Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion of Christ. He picked up the Rosary and felt the intricate carvings, then carefully laid it back in its olive wood box. I didn’t fully understand how much this touched him until a while later when the fire alarm went off in the apartment complex. He struggled to stand up from his recliner and grabbed two things: a hand-carved “comfort cross” given to him by a priest friend, and that Rosary. I struggled to hold back tears as my mother-in-law Eileen helped him out the door.
Two weeks later I visited again. This time he was confined to bed and drifted in and out of consciousness. We still had a nice talk, recalling stories and memories from across the years. I told him that many people were praying for him on his journey and that God would remain very close to him. “I sure hope so,” he said, squeezing my hand. A few minutes later, this solemn moment was replaced by laughter and joy. I told him that our oldest daughter Samantha was going to a concert that night. “A concert?” he said. He swung his hands out into the air and started singing the Alleluia Chorus from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.We laughed at the joy and spontaneity of it. It seemed so appropriate, and so very beautiful. Wow.
Several times we sat alone and talked about his final days on earth. He spoke freely and with stark honesty about his impending death. I encouraged him not to be afraid, since all of those who love him have complete faith that Jesus will not forsake him. “I’m not afraid to die,” he said. Then he asked me to do him a favor. “Can you help me identify the gentleman sitting on the couch over there?” There was no one on the couch. And since Ron had lost his sight over the past year, he would not have seen anyone there in the first place. But I could tell he was seeing something profound, even if it was beyond my vision. “Describe him to me,” I said. The visitor had dark hair and wore a cap. His expression was calm, peaceful and friendly. “He has been sitting there for the past two days,” Ron said. We talked a little more, and I suggested his visitor was a guardian angel sent by God to protect and comfort him. The idea was not foreign to me, as I’ve read a number of accounts by hospice workers of dying patients seeing angels.
We were on guard for weeks expecting Ron’s death, but he wasn’t about to follow any script. Just when we feared the worst, he would rally and have a great day or two. I recall one day pulling up to the apartment center and seeing him sitting outside in the sunshine, facing Lake Michigan. I asked him how he felt. “Doing great,” he said. “I feel really good.” On another visit, after listening to a preseason Packers game, we talked again about death and dying. “The time is near,” he said. I thanked him for the incredible witness he was providing to his grandchildren (and all of us). The Cross is heavy, and he knew it. But in his final months, weeks and days, he found peace. And now he is at peace.
I’ve always believed life is well-reflected in pictures, both on paper and ink and in the mind’s imagination. Many images of Ron come to me as I recall the last 25 years. Let me share just a few.
I remember the early afternoon of October 5, 2002. It was a very difficult day. I was driving Ron back to Racine from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa. A short time before, his oldest son, Patrick, had died at the too-young age of 37. Ron exhaled loudly and struggled to find some words. “I’ll tell you, Joe, this is so hard. So hard. No one should have to experience the death of their child.” So very true. We drove and recalled favorite memories of Patrick. By the end of that drive, we both better understood the impact Pat had made on the family. It continues to this day. I can only imagine the embrace the two shared at their reunion earlier today!
My mind rolls back to January 1992, when a well-dressed Ron stopped at St. Luke’s Hospital in Racine. He was on his way to his job at S.C. Johnson Wax, but had to stop first for some quality time with his first grandson, Stephen Patrick Hanneman. The photo my wife Sue snapped that morning tells of the joy and pride of a new grandpa. That day Ron earned the moniker he later awarded himself: “Gramps.”Gramps. He wore that title as well as anyone could, loving his five grandchildren like no one else.
Everyone always enjoyed July 4 at the LaCanne residence. While the grandkids were little, Ron went all out with a fireworks show as good as you’d see at the lakefront in Milwaukee or Racine. There were toy soldiers launched 100 feet in the air, returned to earth via parachute. And the Titanic, a huge brick of sound and color that should have come with its own fire department. On one occasion, one of the fireworks tipped over, firing projectiles across the gathered relatives. We all dove for cover under tables. “Incoming!” Over the years, Ron gave up the fireworks duty, but none of us could ever match those incredible displays.
Speaking of displays, Ron was also the master of Christmas decorating. He always got two trees, one for the living room and one for the basement. His main tree was usually the tallest, fattest one on the lot, which he covered every square inch with ornaments, lights and beads. The rest of the house was festooned with lighted villages, Santa statues and a Nativity set that could reside at the Vatican. One year after a few seasons of collecting ceramic lighted Norman Rockwell houses, we put up an entire village on an expansive shelf space over our front door. After plugging it in, I danced down the upstairs hallway, singing, “Ron LaCanne, eat my dust!” Silly to be sure, but in a way, it was my own tribute to the master.
Every year, Ron played Santa at the LaCanne Christmas eve party. This was an event attended by dozens of family members. The food was diverse and plentiful, half the punch was spiked and the kids were all antsy in anticipation of Santa’s arrival. About 9 p.m., Ron would slip out of the living room, duck into a phone booth and emerge as Santa, always coming in through the front door. It was tradition that “Santa” would pick up the youngest grandchild for a photo. This often lead to either wide-eyed amazement or quivering tears. This was all followed by an orgy of gift opening for the kids. One year, an eagle-eyed granddaughter Samantha noticed that Grandpa was gone for a while, and when he returned, his hair was wet and he wore different shoes. Hmmmm. Another year, after Ron had retired from being Santa, youngest grandchild Josh LaCanne was determined to let Santa know the best gifts should be for him and not his brother, Geoffrey. When the red-clad bearded one (played by Ron’s son Chris) appeared at the party, young Josh got wide eyed and shouted, “Brother wants rocks!”
Ron and Eileen were always faithful attendees at the grandkids’ activities. Countless soccer games on chilly, windswept fields in Franksville, Christmas concerts, track meets, graduations. Ron was there with either a video camera or a still camera. Over the years he took thousands of photos and hours of video, often making commemorative books that he would present at birthdays or Christmas. I recall a time seeing a video that showed the family watching videos of the grandkids. Life imitates art.
As time went on and events in the world became more troubling, Ron decided he wanted his grandchildren to know about a simpler time, when right and wrong were easy to spot and traditional values where championed. So he started writing, tales of his childhood growing up as a Catholic boy in Racine. Stories, anecdotes and just things he wanted the kids to know, they were all included in this growing 100-page tome of Ronaldian wisdom. Occasionally he would share bits and pieces. What a gift these writings will be to his grandchildren and their children. I hope one day to be able to digitize them and format them into a book.
Ron was always willing to help out with a project. In 2007, after my father died of lung cancer, he helped me install a new floor in the upstairs hallway at my parents’ home in Sun Prairie. During my Dad’s illness, his little dog Chewy didn’t get as much attention and didn’t get put out as often. The result was he used the baseboards and the carpet for a bathroom. It was awful work pulling out the carpet, only to realize the baseboard, plaster and parts of the subfloor were contaminated. We worked for two days, first removing the mess, then treating the walls and subfloor with pure bleach to neutralize the smell. My eyes are still burning. When we were done, my Mom had a new wood floor and no more doggie smell.
When I was running my own marketing business, I tapped Ron’s business expertise and we worked together on some major projects for my client, Volvo Construction Equipment. I hired Ron to help me evaluate company financials, stock reports, annual reports and other business intelligence on prospective customers for Volvo. His analysis and detailed input allowed me to present market studies that were so well-received I still hear compliments about them, nearly a decade later.
I could go on for pages, but time is fleeting. Ron lived a very full 74 years. He gave much of his time, from his days in the U.S. Army, to volunteering in the community to groups such as the Opportunity Center and United Way. He rose high in the ranks at one of America’s great brand companies, SC Johnson Wax. But it was and is his family that was the love of his life. On Sunday evenings when everyone gathered in the living room after another of Eileen’s great dinners, Ron would pat his stomach and look around the room. “Mi familia!” he would say. Nothing can top having your family surrounding you. How he loved his wife Eileen, daughter Sue, sons Patrick and Chris (and wife Elise); and his grandkids, Stevie, Samantha, Ruby, Geoffrey and Josh.
My thoughts return to the man with the Rosary, clutching it and the Cross like an anchor during a time of fear and uncertainty. This will be Ron’s everlasting lesson and legacy. To carry the Cross through good and bad times in life, maintaining the hope of things unseen. As his life came to a close, Ron returned to his roots and his embraced his Catholic faith. It was his comfort and salvation. To use a phrase from his ancestors’ native tongue, La fede mi da vita:Faith gives me life.