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Jessica King looks at the smoke from a chemical plant fire in Rockton, Ill., from her backyard in South Beloit, Ill., Monday.

Fort High School grads will be taking a 'road trip, movin' on'

True to their commencement theme, the Fort Atkinson High School Class of 2021 will be embarking on a “road trip, (and) movin’ on.”

After months of uncertainty while shuttered up at home, learning remotely on a laptop, their big moment, at long last, arrived: Graduation Day.

A total of 231 seniors, donning cap and gown, paraded across the stage Sunday afternoon to pick up their diplomas in the FAHS PremierBank Gymnasium. The national anthem was performed by Chamber Chorale seniors and the processional was directed by Justin Steger.

The in-person ceremony was attended by up to four family members/friends of each graduating senior.

School officials managed to have this year’s 133rd commencement ceremony be as close to “normal” as safely possible, emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, facial coverings were worn as a protective measure.

In giving the welcome, senior class Co-President Cory Pfeifer told his fellow classmates they were seniors, on the verge of moving on in life.

“It’s wild to me that in a few short months, we’ll all be in difference places,” Pfeifer said. “Some of us are staying home, some of us are going to college, some of us overseas. We knew this moment was coming, but we didn’t realize how soon it would come.”

Throughout the graduation ceremony, he hoped the students all could make some lasting memories with their peers.

“Use today to think back on your years at Fort Atkinson High School,” Pfeifer said. “Think about the good and the bad. Reflect on today, and then use it to build towards tomorrow.”

He could not say enough about how proud he was to call all of the graduating seniors his classmates.

“Seeing us all grow as individuals and as a group these past few years has been incredible,” Pfeifer reflected. “Every one of you sitting in front of me has the tools to build a lasting legacy in whatever endeavors you may pursue.”

Student speakers Ava Kleman, class secretary, Aidan McDonough, vice president, and Madison Miles, treasurer, then offered some remarks.

“As everyone walks out of this gym today, we will all encounter a new road trip,” Miles said. “Whether it takes us far or keeps us close, like a road trip, none of us are sure exactly what that will look like.”

“And road trips aren’t meant to be cheap,” Kleman added. “So, when we are off at college, parents open up your wallets because there is a long road ahead of us.”

McDonough mused that, “In four years, obviously, there’s been road bumps for all of us …”

But no matter how bumpy the road has been, the good times have outweighed the rest, Kleman insisted.

“In the last 12 years, I’ve had the privilege of being friends with many of my fellow classmates,” Kleman said. “Through field trips, assemblies and extracurricular activities, I have been blessed to get to know many of you and grow alongside you.

“All of these activities within school and out have influenced all of us to go down the paths of our choice,” she added. “But we can’t forget who helped us along the way.”

Miles also acknowledged the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Boys and Girls Club, Fort Atkinson Aquatic Center and GATE for granting students growing up opportunities to learn and express themselves.

“These programs and many others have guided our road trip thus far, and will continue doing so for younger generations,” she said, extending gratitude to all the teachers, administrators, counselors and support staff at the high school for helping her and her classmates pursue their dreams … especially throughout the adversity we have experienced in the last year.”

They all “have your back, they love you, respect you, and want to see you succeed and reach your full potential,” Miles continued, advising future graduates to enlist their help.

McDonough said his fellow classmates all will continue down different paths in life.

“Whether we like to admit it or not, being in school has taught us much more than just academics,” McDonough said. “We’ve learned how to challenge ourselves, form relationships with the people around us, and much, much more.”

As a result, he said, their class is far more unique.

“We have more people joining the workforce, entering the military, and looking towards various extensions of further education,” McDonough said. “I know we’ve all got big plans for after high school, and I’m confident we’ll find success in our separate ways.”

Lastly, Kleman said graduation will be “remembered for the rest of our lives.”

“Just take a moment to congratulate yourselves,” she said. “You have earned this. It’s time to go out on our road trip.”

Superintendent’s remarks

District Administrator Rob Abbott acknowledged that the last year and a half has not gone as expected “in just about every conceivable way.”

“Surely, we are living in the cliché of expecting the unexpected,” Abbott told the students. “Believe it or not, these experiences will, in fact, serve you well in your future.”

Graduation is “a time of transition, a time of change,” he said, that places the graduates in “a position of immense opportunity.”

The superintendent encouraged the grads to take an inventory of their supports—their “go-to’s when challenges pop up”—foremost among them, family.

“Your family is who you go to when you need a little guidance, need to admit a little help is needed, or want a guaranteed cheerleader,” Abbott said.

Friends, he said, also can be a vital source of support in the years ahead.

“With graduation comes the opportunity for new relationships as others may change over time,” Abbott said. “Be open to those who you choose to surround yourself with—they need to be a source of support, a source of laughter, a source of motivation, and a source that helps you reach your ever-heightening goals.”

Ultimately, he told the students, “No one knows you better than you,” and added that, if all goes well, the experiences they choose for themselves will enable them not just to continue to grow, but to flourish.

“You know your dreams, you know your goals, and you know your vision for where you want to go,” Abbott said. “Be unwavering in what you value and in what you know is right for yourself—advocate for your needs to find the success you deserve.”

Recently, he said he was asked by a graduate student what he believes has changed the most over the past year or so. That question, he said, really gave him pause to think and reflect.

“I answered with one word: ‘Civility,’” Abbott said. “Somewhere along the line we have lost the ability to talk without shouting, to listen without a need to convince, to hear in efforts to synthesize dichotomy, and to consider context before engaging.

“Thoughts, emotions, words and actions float in our air instantaneously—of late, more often than not—without consideration of civility,” he added. “Without a desire for dialogue or true discourse, but instead to convince, to demand or to put down.”

The superintendent then asked himself what, if anything, could bring about a change and return toward societal gains made through simple acts of civility.

“It is my hope that your generation seeks such a reset,” Abbott said. “To be interested in divergent ideas and ideologies—with curiosity and generosity. Please, be part of re-civilizing our civilization.”

Things are different today, and not the same, he observed.

“Things will forever be altered,” Abbott said. “The difference is your power to be part of who we become in the future. Take your Blackhawk pride and show the world what you can do, who you can be, and where you can take us.”

The world is, and will be, an increasingly complicated place, he said.

“While you cannot change it by yourself, you can have a significant impact, if you choose to do so,” Abbott said. “You will forever be part of our 1FORT family. Where we are one team, one district and one community.”

Faculty speaker

Faculty speaker Mike Hall, retiring English teacher at the high school, said the past year certainly has been a year of loss.

“Some of us have lost family members or friends. Many of us have lost countless opportunities that were afforded to so many people before us,” Hall said. “As much as I find myself thinking of all we’ve lost, I’m beginning to focus on all the things we’ve learned.”

After 35 years of teaching, he pointed out things he has learned from Sunday’s graduating seniors.

“The first lesson you’ve taught the rest of us has everything to do with resilience,” Hall said. “You’ve endured hardships that no other senior class could even imagine.

“Some of you are potential scholarship athletes, and you’ve been robbed of opportunities to show the world your athletic talents,” he added. “Some of you have gone from working a part-time job to being the major income of your family.”

The second lesson he’s learned from the students centers around the idea that mental and emotional well-being means so much more than a standardized test score or a state report card.

“It may be years before we truly know the impact of being stuck inside our homes learning on a laptop,” Hall said. “But you’ve made us realize that whether it be in-person (instruction) or virtually, we should always focus on how someone is feeling before worrying about what they know.

“As much as we want to highlight and foster academic growth, you have taught us that unless we pay attention to mental and emotional stability, grammar, stoichiometry and derivatives don’t mean a thing,” he added. “Your ability to see this and show the rest of the world has much to do with what comes next.”

The third and most valuable lesson he said he’s learned from the graduates might just change the world.

“You may not have a solid grasp of the last hundred years of societal shifts, but over that last year, many, if not all of you, have sharpened your already keen emotional awareness,” Hall told the students. “This approach has helped you understand the dangerous flaws of hyper individualism and dubious tribal mentality. Because of your experience of the last year or so, you guys have solidified the ‘don’t leave anyone behind’ mentality.”

He said he’s seen it time and time again with their generation.

“Instead of running around like headless chickens, yelling ‘me, me, me,’ or collectively yelling ‘us, us, us,’ you have turned society on its ear and learned the ultimate importance of looking back to see who has been left behind,” Hall said. “Your compassion that has been tempered by a long, arduous struggle forces you to look out for the people around you.”

And adults today, he said, are learning from this younger generation.

“The next great movement will be authored and facilitated by you, the young,” Hall concluded. “How you perceive the world and how well you teach the rest of us will truly transform our world.”

Principal’s comments

Before presenting the class, Fort Atkinson High School Principal Dan Halvorsen told the seniors that no matter what they choose to do when they leave here, it boils down to one word: Lead!

“Regardless of your status as a graduate, regardless of where you came from, who you are, where you’re going, each and every one of you have the potential to be a great leader to positively impact the world in which all of us share,” Halvorsen said.

As they move forward, he urged the graduates to challenge the next frontiers.

“Don’t just guess at what success is—think it through, figure it out and do what it takes every single day to be successful,” Halvorsen encouraged. “No one really cares how tired you may be, how hard you worked before, what you look like or where you’re from—they care about what you’re doing now to take care of what’s in front of you or them that needs to be done.

“Be that person others look to and can count on,” he added. “Follow when necessary but be a leader whenever possible.”

In striving for greatness, the principal urged the graduates to stay courageous and true to their convictions.

“Yep, you’re going to be afraid; yep, you’re going to fail; yep, people might not care for you sometimes, but do what you feel is right and go for it!” Halvorsen said. “No matter what it is you choose to do, your goal should be the best of whatever that is for your future. Lead the way!”

Last, but not least, while choosing a career, he said they should do what makes them happy.

“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life is a great adage many of you have heard me say before,” Halvorsen said. “Whatever it is, though, take the lead.”

In closing, Brooke Leibman, class co-president, said this was not how she had expected her senior year to be, but that everyone got through it together.

“Now we are on our way to the next chapter in our lives,” Leibman said. “As we go on, there will always be obstacles, but even the most successful people have had bumps in the road. We’re all on the path that will lead us to where we are supposed to be.

“As we leave today, remember all of the good times you had in high school, but get excited for what is to come,” she said. “This is only the beginning of our journey.”

COVID-19 ceremony mourns losses, celebrates resilience

JEFFERSON — In a Friday ceremony, the Jefferson County Health Department recognized the hardships and losses that the COVID-19 pandemic brought in the local area, including around 134 lives lost to the disease.

At the same time, the health department’s COVID-19 task force celebrated the community’s resilience and the incredible efforts invested by health care workers, community health officials and others to fight, treat and prevent the disease in the local area.

The ceremony, held outdoors at Jefferson County Fair Park, included the dedication of a new piece of artwork touching on the community’s grief, resilience, hope and the memory of those who have passed away from COVID-19.

The colorful, flowing painting, by Robin Chamberlain Sweeney, features a woman whose hair and dress are blowing in the wind, with an eagle flying free behind and a river in the foreground, in which can be seen the figures of cardinals, representing the spirits of those who have passed watching over loved ones they left behind.

The event featured several speakers, almost all of whom served on the county’s COVID-19 team, including a contact tracer, registered nurse, the county’s epidemiologist, and health department director Gail Scott.

Also speaking was Fort Atkinson resident David Stedman, who shared the story of his wife Cheryl’s struggle with COVID-19, of which she ultimately died just before Christmas in 2020.

(A full story on Stedman’s battle with COVID-19 and the legacy she has left in the local community was featured in the Daily Union in February.)

Cheryl, an kidney transplant survivor with a weakened immune system, had been a tireless health care advocate throughout the region, also making a big mark in community theater and through the Lions Club.

Stedman shared the all-too-swift progression of his wife’s disease, starting with her positive test just after Thanksgiving in 2020, through her hospitalization, isolation and ultimate death.

“Knowing a loved one is struggling with this dreaded disease when you can’t hold their hand or be with them, and all you can rely on is phone communication from the hospital while you hold a constant vigil at home was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life,” Stedman said.

He said after Cheryl’s loss, he was fortunate to be bouyed by an incredible support system of family, friends and community members, but in the intervening months, the loss has taken him on a roller-coaster of emotions.

“There are lots of triggers that cause you to weep when you realize Cheryl isn’t here anymore to share her smile or zest for life, but then there are those moments when the memories of her help you move forward,” Stedman said.

“I pray that we never have to experience a pandemic where over 600,000 lives and counting are lost ever again,” he said.

Ellen Haines, who has spent 52 years in local health care, said that she was challenged, but privileged, to work with the county’s dedicated COVID-19 response team, commending the incredible effort this team had put in to try to keep the community safe.

Samroz Jakvani, the epidemiologist who has been working with the county since the early days of the pandemic, recognized all of those who have fallen to this deadly disease, the long-haulers who continue to feel the effects of the disease months after their diagnosis.

He also touched on the hardships felt by the populace as a whole as a result of this pandemic. For many, it meant months spent at home, isolated from friends and family and the schools and other social systems that meant so much in people’s lives. For others, it meant venturing into dangerous, public-facing, high-contact jobs.

In the immediate wake of the pandemic, Jakvani said, so many people lost jobs, while conversely, others had to take on more than they could handle.

Everyone has had to make sacrifices and accommodations. Some families lost loved ones. Businesses struggled, pivoting to curbside service or temporarily closing their doors. Parents balanced remote work with overseeing their children’s virtual classwork. Young adults graduated from “Zoom University.”

People found creative ways to celebrate life, such as drive-through birthday parties. Educators learned new ways to reach students learning from home.

Jakvani commended everyone who did their part to ease the pandemic during the toughest of times, from those who followed public health recommendations to ease the burden on their loved ones and the community, to the front-line health care workers administering to those who became ill.

While it has been challenging, the overall experience has built resiliency within the community, making local institutions, systems, supports and individuals more flexible and better prepared for whatever challenges the future might hold, he said.

Gail Scott, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, commended her team and all health care workers for their tremendous efforts during this past year-plus.

“This has been one of the most trying times for public health and health care in general,” Scott said. “Our field has seen a record exodus of public health officials.”

Under these conditions, the Jefferson County team and its community partners “came together to achieve the impossible,” dedicating long hours to contact tracing, public education efforts, outreach, and now the vaccination effort.

“Everyone in the world was susceptible to this tiny virus,” Scott said. “We found answers and forged ahead.”

Elizabeth Chilsen, public health program manager and incident commander for the county’s COVID-19 vaccination clinics, said that during the pandemic, long and stressful hours became the new norm.

“Despite the demanding days, our team continued to give their all, often times feeling like a cog in a machine that was designed to chase a problem that was neither being solved nor prevented,” she said.

“As the days continued, we could barely keep up,” she said. “The darkness seemed to completely consume us. This is the ‘how’ of the pandemic no one prepares you for — how gut-wrenching it is, seeing your colleagues burn out while the days turned to months and months into what felt like an eternity.”

Yet somehow, the local team found the strength to persevere, she said, coming together to help the greater cause.

“I have never in my life met more dedicated people, and I have never in my life been more proud to be a part of something,” Chilsen said. “Together we navigated through this COVID storm, and things are starting to look brighter.”

(The Jefferson County COVID-19 deaths estimate we are using is based on the New York Times count as of 6/13/21)

Homicide trial set for Ixonia man

WAUKESHA — A judge determined Friday that a five-day jury trial will be scheduled for a 23-year-old Ixonia man charged with being a party to first-degree reckless homicide, reckless endangerment of safety and four counts of obstructing an officer, following the Dec. 13, 2019 opioid-related death of Sylvia J. Kush in the Town of Merton.

In April, Tucker Rain Zimmerman, of N371 Lincoln Road, Ixonia, entered pleas of not guilty to the charges in front of Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Paul Bugenhagen. Bugenhagen Friday afternoon ordered that the trial be set.

Zimmerman is accused of murder in the death of Kush, who was then his girlfriend of about two months. Also charged in Kush’s death is a Milwaukee man, Anthony Ball.

Zimmerman and Ball are charged with providing Fentanyl that was ingested by Kush. She later died of an overdose of the strong, opioid drug at her parents’ home in the Town of Merton.

The Waukesha County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the cause of Kush’s death to be acute Fetanyl and Alprazolam intoxication. According to WebMD, Alprazolam is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders.

According to a criminal complaint on file at the Waukesha County Courthouse, Kush ingested the drugs that eventually killed her Dec. 12, 2019 and died in a bedroom at her parents’ house, with Zimmerman and her parents present, early Dec. 13, 2019.

After the incident, Zimmerman was interviewed repeatedly by Waukesha County law enforcement personnel about the events of the evening of Kush’s death. Those interviews, along with other evidence, including cell phone records, allowed the county to issue the charges against Zimmerman and Ball for their alleged involvement.

If convicted on the homicide charge alone, Zimmerman could face 40 years in prison and a fine of $100,000.

Waukesha County court records indicate that, in that county, Zimmerman currently has three other open criminal cases. These include charges of theft, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and possession of narcotic drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Death of elderly woman investigated in Rock County

TOWN OF CENTER (AP) — The Rock County Sheriff’s Office said it’s investigating what it calls the “complex, violent death” of an elderly woman.

Deputies were dispatched to a residence in the Town of Center about 5:30 a.m. Monday after getting a 911 call from a relative who went to check on the woman. The victim was found dead in the garage.

Another relative in the house who was unaware the 911 call was made was taken to the sheriff’s office for questioning as a person of interest in the case.

The sheriff’s office said it considers this an isolated incident with no ongoing threat to the community.