Tag Archives: cancer

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)

Headline_Dream

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)

Headline_Remember

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.

Video Glimpses of Evelyn, a Mother Gone Too Soon

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. 

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Evelyn Mulqueen holding son Mark, circa summer 1962.

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. 2008_01_16-31

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.

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Evelyn Mulqueen (center) at a family wedding in the late 1950s. Earl J. Mulqueen Jr. is see at left in profile view.

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.

New Video Trailer for ‘The Journey Home’

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.

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

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.)