A Look Back at the ‘Plainfield Butcher,’ Grave Robber Ed Gein

While scanning my grandfather’s old slide collection, I came across two stray images from 1957 marked “Gein’s House.” I couldn’t get the slides on the scanner bed fast enough. It turns out the photos were indeed of the ramshackle farm house of the notorious killer and grave robber, Ed Gein.

For Carl F. Hanneman, the trip to Plainfield would have been a minor detour on one of the family’s many trips from Mauston to Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. He, like thousands of other Wisconsinites in the late fall of 1957, just had to see for himself the home where the unimaginable occurred from 1945 to 1957. For in that decrepit structure at the corner of Acher and 2nd avenues a few miles southwest of Plainfield, the handyman bachelor Gein committed unspeakable acts.

The boarded-up house of Plainfield handyman Ed Gein, who robbed nearby graves and made macabre souvenirs from the stolen remains.
The boarded-up house of Plainfield handyman Ed Gein, who robbed nearby graves and made macabre souvenirs from the stolen remains. The house was burned to the ground by an arsonist in March 1958. (Carl F. Hanneman photo)

The day of Gein’s undoing came on November 16, 1957, the opening day of the gun deer hunting season in Wisconsin. Gein made the trip into Plainfield to buy some anti-freeze at Worden’s hardware store. While there, he took a .22-caliber rifle from the store display and shot to death the owner, Bernice Worden, 58. After slitting her throat, he dragged her body out the back and put it into a truck. Later that day, sheriff’s deputies from several counties were searching for Worden, a well-known local who had run the Plainfield hardware store since her husband’s death in 1931.

Gein’s car had been spotted in the village that day, so police twice stopped at his 160-acre farmstead to talk to him. He wasn’t home. On the second trip, Waushara County Sheriff Arthur Schley peered into a shed that Gein used as a summer kitchen and was shocked. “My God, there she is!” he shouted. There was the body of Worden, hung upside down by the ankles, gutted and dressed out like a deer ready for the butcher. “There was a body hanging in the woodshed by the ankles,” said Captain Lloyd Schoephoester of the nearby Green Lake County sheriff’s department. “Tendons in the ankles had been cut and a rod and been placed through them. The body was drawn up in the air by a block and tackle. The body was dressed out and the head was missing.” Sheriff Schley went outside and vomited.

Police found the remains of nearly a dozen women in Ed Gein's farmhouse near the village of Plainfield, Wis.
Police found the remains of nearly a dozen women in Ed Gein’s farmhouse near the village of Plainfield, Wis.
Worden’s head was later found in a burlap sack nearby. Her internal organs were in a bucket. If that sight wasn’t enough to sicken responding police, a search of Gein’s home would put them over the edge. Inside the filthy and cluttered home they found five human heads wrapped in plastic bags, four skulls and 10 “death masks” made by removing the face and hair from a human head. “Some of them have lipstick on and look perfectly natural,” said Wood County sheriff’s deputy Dave Sharkey. “It you knew them, you’d be able to recognize them.”

There was more. Police found chairs and lampshades fashioned from human skin, four human noses, two sets of lips, a belt made of female nipples, and a collection of female genitals. Two of the vulvas in Gein’s collection belonged to teenage girls, and authorities concluded he likely murdered these girls. On the stove was a saucepan containing a human heart, later identified as belonging to Worden. There was a wastebasket made from skin, and skulls fastened to Gein’s bedposts. Bowls were made from the tops of human skulls.

At first, police thought they might be dealing with a prolific serial killer. After his arrest, Gein admitted killing Bernice Worden, but he said the grotesque artifacts in his home were from grave-robbing visits he made to the nearby Plainfield Cemetery, the Spiritland Cemetery in Portage County and the Hancock Cemetery in the Town of Hancock. Gein also admitted shooting and killing Portage County tavern keeper Mary Hogan on December 8, 1954. Her face was found among Gein’s collection of death masks.

Police were not initially inclined to believe Gein’s tales of grave robbing. On November 25, 1957, they exhumed the caskets of Eleanor Adams and Mabel Everson at Plainfield Cemetery. Both caskets were empty. In the soil above one casket they found dentures and a wedding ring. That was enough to convince police that Gein was indeed a grave robber. He told authorities he made the moonlight grave-robbing visits while in a daze. On some occasions, he awoke from the daze and stopped what he was doing. He said his grave robbing occurred between 1947 and 1952. He said he returned some bodies to their graves after experiencing remorse. Police did not dig up other graves, and ultimately don’t know just how many caskets Gein might have opened.

When interviewed by Wisconsin State Crime Lab officials, Gein said he would dress up with the women’s body parts. He would wear a death mask, a tanned skin shirt including women’s breasts, and a vagina placed over his own genitals, covered by a pair of panties. He would go out in the moonlight and prance about the farmyard in this sick getup. Although Gein was not a deer hunter, he was known to have given packages of “venison” to people in the community, who became sickened after Gein’s arrest at their unwitting cannibalism. Authorities became convinced that Gein practiced cannibalism, among his other grotesque crimes.

After a brief court hearing in January 1958, Gein was committed to the Wisconsin Central State Hospital for the criminally insane at Waupun, where he remained for 10 years. In early 1968, Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Gollmar ruled Gein was able to stand trial for the murder of Bernice Worden. In a November 1968 bench trial, Gein was convicted of first-degree murder for Worden’s death, but in a separate hearing found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent back to Waupun. He later was moved to the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, where he died of cancer on July 26, 1984. He was buried next to his mother in the same Plainfield Cemetery that he plundered.

Gein suffered from schizophrenia. The death of his mother on December 29, 1945 apparently pushed him over the edge. Doctors said he had an unnatural Oedipus complex attachment to Augusta Gein. The women he killed and the graves he robbed represented substitutes for his mother. The women were plump and middle aged, doctors said. Gein had nursed his mother through two paralytic strokes. Gein’s father George died on April 1, 1940. His brother Henry was found dead after a marsh fire on the Gein property on May 16, 1944. It is widely believed that Gein killed his brother.

Based on the Worden convinction and Gein’s admission to killing Mary Hogan, Gein could not be considered a serial killer. But he was suspected of killing at least four other people. The teenage genitals found in his farmhouse might have belonged to Evelyn Hartley, 15, of La Crosse, and Georgia Jean Weckler, 8, of Fort Atkinson. Hartley disappeared in October 1953 and Weckler was abducted in May 1947. Neither crime was ever solved and the girls’ bodies were never found. In his 1982 book on the Gein case, Judge Gollmar wrote that if Gein did not kill these girls, then the abducted and killed two runaways, since his grave-robbing could not explain the presence of genitals belonging to young girls in Gein’s home. Gollmar also wrote that Gein might have killed two men who disappeared after visiting a Plainfield tavern. The disappearances of Victor Travis and a male companion were never solved. Travis’ jacket and his dog were found near the Gein farm, and neighbors noted a stench coming from Gein’s garden at the time.

Gein’s gruesome story created a cottage industry in macabre spinoffs. It was the inspiration for the book Psycho by Robert Bloch. The book was adapted into the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Gein was said to be the inspiration for fictional characters in films including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs.

The Hanneman family has one link to Plainfield other than the photos of Gein’s house snapped by Carl Hanneman. Lisetta (Treutel) Moody (1861-1931), aunt of Ruby Hanneman, moved her family to Plainfield after living in Vesper in Wood County. She and her husband, Lewis Winfield Moody, are buried at Plainfield Cemetery. She testified at the trial of Frank Hinz after the 1902 shootout between the Moody and Hinz families.

This post has been updated with details from the 1982 book on Gein by Circuit Judge Robert H. Gollmar. The book, Edward Gein: America’s Most Bizarre Murderer, is a fascinating insider’s account of the Gein case.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

Cemeteries Offer Great Lessons in History

As any serious genealogist will tell you, a visit to a cemetery can provide a wealth of family history information. But it can be much more than that. Each year as we approach All Souls Day (November 2), the season presents an opportunity to renew and maintain family connections, just by walking through a cemetery.

Southeastern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove, Wisconsin.
Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove, Wisconsin.

One of the most touching scenes I’ve encountered was at a small cemetery in Augsburg, Germany. Walking past after dark, I looked through the small gate to see dozens of flickering vigil candles. These were not solar lights but real candles. Someone cared enough to visit there each night and light the votives.

A 20-minute walk through any cemetery will provide you access to family stories. Parents who lived long, full lives. Others who died much too young. Babies, some just one day old. Some who were never born. John and Jane Does, victims of murder. And in many older cemeteries, some of the departed rest with no visible monuments. Their markers were damaged or swallowed up in soft ground or by encroaching woods.

This anchor-themed monument is at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Portage, Wisconsin.
This anchor-themed monument is at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Portage, Wisconsin.

Observe the different monuments. Some are massive obelisks, others plain, square markers. A few are made from unusual materials. Some display incredible artistry. In many German cemeteries you will see monuments with engraved hands pointing to Heaven. Angels, crosses and even anchors are common subject of monument carvings.

Oak Grove Cemetery in Eagle, Wisconsin, is itself a monument to neglect.
Oak Grove Cemetery in Eagle, Wisconsin, is itself a monument to neglect.

Some cemeteries are known more for their infamy, such as Oak Grove Cemetery in Eagle, Wisconsin. We chronicled that story earlier in “A Sad Resting Place for Little Ida.” It is sad to see a cemetery fall into neglect and disrepair. It’s especially angering when a cemetery is targeted by vandals. A few years back, thugs toppled more than 100 monuments at Calvary Cemetery and Old Holy Cross Cemetery in Racine, Wisconsin. My Knights of Columbus council spent several weekends righting the monuments and making extensive repairs. Most of the damage was fixed, but some especially old stones were beyond repair.

John Clark and John Murphy of the Knights of Columbus repair vandalized monuments in Racine, Wisconsin.
John Clark and John Murphy of the Knights of Columbus repair vandalized monuments in Racine, Wisconsin.

Military cemeteries and the graves of soldiers are especially touching. I recall walking row after row of World War I grave markers in Ypres, Belgium, where the famous poem In Flanders Fields was composed in 1915. All of those young lives cut short by “the war to end all wars.” Such sacrifice. World War I cemeteries dot the landscape in Belgium; some in the middle of farm fields.

Grave of an unknown soldier near Ypres, Belgium.
Grave of an unknown soldier near Ypres, Belgium.

While our loved ones are gone, they can teach us still. There are great resources available to help you find where your relatives are buried. My favorite online database is the Find A Grave web site. Take a camera along on your next trip to the cemetery and help your fellow genealogists document history.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

A Look Back at Two Generations of Halloween

I have nothing but good memories of Halloween. Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, October 31 was a date we looked forward to. Whether we got to buy a costume at the dime store or made our own, it was always an exciting night.

My brother David (left), yours truly at center at cousin Laura all set for Halloween at our home in Grand Rapids, Mich., circa 1964.
My brother David (left), yours truly at center at cousin Laura all set for Halloween at our home in Grand Rapids, Mich., circa 1964.

One of my most vivid Halloween memories was documented in my book, The Journey Home. I recall Dad tearing out the front door in his sock feet. I wondered what was happening. We figured it out a few minutes later when he dragged two teenagers into the front door and made them apologize for smashing our lit pumpkins. He then turned them over to Sun Prairie police.

We had one sad Halloween when my brother David fell into the neighbors tree well and spilled all of his candy. We all shared to make up for it. Another year, we went across town to “trick or treat” at a few houses of family friends. At one door, I was shocked that the lady who answered called me by name. “How does she know me with this costume on?” I wondered. My brother chimed in, “You forgot to put your mask down.” D’oh!

David C. Hanneman was a tiger for Halloween 1964.
David C. Hanneman was a tiger for Halloween 1964.

Perhaps the most fun we had was creating our own costumes. Lighting the end of a cork on fire, then using the charred remains to paint black whiskers on our faces. Stuffing pillows up an oversized shirt helped complete the hobo look.

It wasn’t until toward the end of my trick-or-treating days that the scare over supposed razor blades in candy apples occurred. Hospitals offered to X-ray candy bags to check for pins or razor blades. That made me wonder if the candy would then glow? Ah, as it turned out the whole thing was a fraud that took on the sheen of urban legend.

Son Stevie watches Grandpa Dave Hanneman prepare to carve, circa 1993.
Son Stevie watches Grandpa Dave Hanneman prepare to carve, circa 1993.

Once I had my own children, Halloween took on a new dimension. Our firstborn was too shy to go door to door, so we made our main stop at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Eventually, Halloween became a major event. French onion soup or chili simmered in a crock pot while we took the kids around the neighborhood collecting goodies. Then we retreated into the warmth of the house for good food, warm apple cider and pie. The kids also ate candy.

With the more recent controversies claiming Halloween as un-Christian or even satanic, it was refreshing to read this article on About.com regarding the Catholic roots of Halloween.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

 

Mauston Football Wins Conference Crown in 1947

The 1947 football campaign was destined to be one for the ages at Mauston High School. The photo gallery below could be from that championship season, based on the youthful appearance of my Dad, David D. Hanneman (1933-2007). Dad was a starter for the Mauston Bluegold, even in his freshman year.

David D. Hanneman (center) played tackle, guard and on occasion, running back, for Mauston High School during the 1947-50 football seasons.
David D. Hanneman (center) played tackle, guard and on occasion, running back, for Mauston High School during the 1947-50 football seasons.

Dad played guard and tackle throughout his high school football career. But as is the case on small-town football teams, boys play both offense and defense. Many of the players would switch positions, depending on the opponent and game conditions.

Mauston ran up a 7-1 record in the 1947 football campaign, gaining them a share of the West Central Conference championship crown. Mauston was 3-1 in conference play. Midway through the season, Mauston ranked as one of the state’s highest-scoring teams. Here’s the 1947 season recap:

  • Sept. 12  Mauston 12, Reesdburg 0
  • Sept. 19  Mauston 25, Middleton 6
  • Sept. 26, Mauston 20, New Lisbon 12
  • Oct. 3,  Mauston 13, Tomah 0
  • Oct. 10,  Mauston 45, Westby 6
  • Oct. 17  Sparta 14, Mauston 7
  • Oct. 24  Mauston 37, New Lisbon 0
  • Nov. 1  Mauston 13, Viroqua 0
Dave Hanneman (at right) in one of his early years in Mauston football.
Dave Hanneman (at right) in one of his early years in Mauston football.

Bob “Jigger” Jagoe, who played quarterback for Mauston starting in the 1948 season, recalls how Dave’s mother, Ruby V. Hanneman, was zealous in her cheering.

You could hear her in the stands, shouting. She was so proud. Of course we used to kind of make a mockery of it, because she was so adamant, letting everybody know who her son was out there who made the tackle. They announced, ‘Tackle made by Dave Hanneman’  and she said, ‘That’s my Davey!’

In the 1950s, home football games were played at Veterans Memorial Park on the south end of Mauston. This locale looks much closer to downtown, so I’m betting these 1940s games were played in Riverside Park along the Lemonweir River. In several of the photos you can see the distant spire of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

— This post has been updated with quotes and other information.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

A Little Mulqueen Family Photo Flashback

Our photo library is a bit thin on photos from my mother’s Mulqueen side of the family, but we do have some nice images worth sharing. My Mom grew up in Cudahy (we always pronounced it coo-da-hi, although it’s actually cuh-dah-hay) and comes from a family of 10. The matriarch and patriarch were Margaret Madonna (Dailey) Mulqueen (1895-1982) and Earl J. Mulqueen Sr. (1895-1965).

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

Oscar Treutel Goes Back to School in August 1942

School must have seemed just a bit smaller when Oscar Treutel went back for a visit on August 24, 1942. In the 1880s, Oscar was a student at “Allen School” in Joint District No. 3 in the Town of Genesee in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. Let’s hope Oscar wasn’t returning for a spelling lesson, since the building has Genesee misspelled as “Genneese.” Perhaps the building lettering was a class project.

A young Oscar Treutel, circa 1899, when he was a college student in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
A young Oscar Treutel, circa 1899, when he was a college student in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

The school was in the southwest corner of the town on the E. Allen property, near the Saylesville Mill Pond. We should distinguish this one-room school from the Ethan Allen School for Boys, a reformatory in nearby Delafield that operated from 1959-2011.

Oscar traveled to school from the Treutel home in nearby North Prairie. He was the fifth child of Philipp and Henrietta Treutel, born Oct. 9, 1874 in Waukesha County. He moved with his family to Vesper in Wood County just after the turn of the century. He spent his sunset years in nearby Arpin. He died in 1967 at age 92.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

A Mauston Reunion: Requiescat in Pace, Uncle Donn G. Hanneman

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 G. 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 G. Hanneman lounges outside his Grandpa Treutel's home in Vesper, Wisconsin, circa 1930.
Donn G. Hanneman lounges outside his Grandpa Treutel’s home in Vesper, Wisconsin.

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.

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 Gene Hanneman sits in an indoor baby swing at the Hanneman home in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, ca. 1927. Carl Hanneman was a pharmacist for the Staeben Drug Co. in Fond du Lac at the time.

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.

Donn in his cowboy threads at Wisconsin Rapids.
Donn in his cowboy threads at Wisconsin Rapids.

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.”

Donn G. Hanneman with Sister Emeric Weber of St. Patrick's Catholic Grade School, circa 1948.
Donn G. Hanneman with Sister Emeric Weber of St. Patrick’s Catholic Grade School,  1948.

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.”

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

 

Three Rifle Shots, Taps and a Final Salute

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.

Ronald C. LaCanne served in the U.S. Army from 1958-1961.
Ronald C. LaCanne served in the U.S. Army from 1958-1961.

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.

Ron LaCanne was entombed Wednesday at Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in  Union Grove. Grandchildren Ruby Hanneman and Joshua LaCanne pause at the columbarium wall.
Ron LaCanne was entombed Wednesday at Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Union Grove. Grandchildren Ruby Hanneman and Joshua LaCanne pause at the columbarium wall.

At the close of Ron’s visitation and the impressive military honors, my thoughts turned to things eternal. Considering his moving journey of faith while dying from cancer, I thought of two passages from the Gospels.

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.”

Requiescat in pace, Gramps.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

A Good Man Goes Home to Heaven: Ron LaCanne

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.

Ron in his favorite spot, working the grill.
Ron in his favorite spot, working the grill.

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.

Samantha, Stevie and Ruby with Gramps.
Samantha, Stevie and Ruby with Gramps.

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!

Ron LaCanne holds his first grandchild, Stevie, on January 21, 1992.
Ron LaCanne holds his first grandchild, Stevie, on January 21, 1992.

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.

Ron with grandchildren Samantha, Ruby, Josh and Geoffrey.
Ron with grandchildren Samantha, Ruby, Josh and Geoffrey.

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 during an outing with Samantha and Stevie.
Ron and Eileen during an outing with Samantha and Stevie.

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.

We all gathered for a portrait at Nicholson's in 2000.
We all gathered for a portrait at Nicholson’s in 2000.

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.

And so it has.

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

 

(To see additional photos, visit Ron’s photo memorial gallery. Photo selection by Samantha J. Hanneman.)

Everyone Loves a Parade

Few things in the American experience are held so dear by so many as the parade. From the smallest rural towns to the heart of New York City, Americans have long held celebrations by parade.

Members of the American Legion prepare to march in a parade in Mauston, circa 1942.
Members of the American Legion prepare to march in a parade in Mauston, circa 1942.

Reasons for parades are as varied as the communities in which they take place. Perhaps the most widely celebrated type of parade is the Independence Day or July 4 parade. New York has its St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Left Coast has its parades of bacchanalia and pride. America’s heartland gathers for high school homecomings, Memorial Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving and special-themed parades such as the old Circus World parade in Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin Dells marching band parades down State Street in Mauston, circa 1942.
The Wisconsin Dells marching band parades down State Street in Mauston, circa 1942.

High school and college marching bands are a frequent source of parade entertainment. Other favorite parade participants include brigades of toddlers on tricycles, doll buggies pushed by little girls and the myriad parade floats and displays honoring the nation’s military.

Parades have long been used as a way to project military might, such as the goose-stepping Nazis of Germany or the show of ballistic missiles in Communist Russia. In America, ticker-tape parades became a favorite way to welcome home troops and war heroes such as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Chester Nimitz. The original ticker-tape parade was held in New York to celebrate dedication of the Statue of Liberty. A memorable parade in summer 1969 honored the Apollo 11 astronauts.

View other parade images from our collection:

©2014 The Hanneman Archive

History Preserved. Lives Treasured.

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