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Etc.: Five weird years

POSTED May 15, 2017 10:14 a.m.

The page 1 story in The Journal May 9, 2012, five years ago Tuesday, began:

The Platteville Journal has named Steve Prestegard as its new editor, effective today.

The person who wrote that (who looks like a younger version of myself, I must say) should have added this:

Expect a lot of news, some of it grim, much of it strange, to happen from hereon. You have no idea what you’re in for.

I should have known myself that this was going to be the case. The biggest page 1 headline wasn’t me (nor should it have been); it was “21 arrested in drug bust.” The week after that Grant County Sheriff Keith Govier resigned. The next week was the Alice in Dairyland competition at UW–Platteville (and the photo on top of SouthWest each week). The week after that was the closing of St. Mary’s School. The week after that was the gubernatorial recall election. 

So much for the first month. The month after that was the dedication of the Veterans Honor Roll on Independence Day, along with the beginning of the saga of Darrel Kallembach, his houses and their six-digits-in-fines violations of city building codes, and the issue that will never die, downtown Platteville parking. One month later, on the same day, the Wisconsin Army National Guard 229th Engineering Co. left for Afghanistan the same day as the Chicago’s Best fire. 

Then came, depressingly, murders and other of what I call “mayhem.” There was the unspeakable tragedy of the three Wand boys and their unborn sister. Then came the three people beaten to death by Jaren Kuenster. There was Robert VanNatta, who is serving 15 years in prison, which is a minute fraction of the 907½ years in prison he could have faced. On my wall in my cubicle I have the June 18, 2014 front page, which has just two stories on it — the death of Merle Forbes, beaten to death by his cab passenger, Timmy Lansing Johnson Jr., four nights before the first two tornadoes to hit Platteville in 44 years arrived, unannounced, blacking out the entire city.

The unfortunate reality of my line of work is that what I find to be a big and interesting story constitutes tragedy for other people. That was the case this past week and 27 years ago, when I covered my first murder trial, the death of Grant County Deputy Sheriff Tom Reuter. I would not necessarily have expected to have been in this area 25 years later (Parole in 2015? I’ll be 50 by then!, said 25-year-old Steve), but 25 years later, Greg Coulthard, sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in 25 years, made the first of his (fated to always be) unsuccessful efforts to gain parole.

Even non-tragedies (and I consider anything involving a non-natural death to be a tragedy) have their bad aspects. Memorial Day was interrupted one year ago by the 4 a.m. downtown fire caused by an attempt at manufacture of methamphetamine. I’m not sure which is worse, meth or heroin, but either addiction can lead to headlines such as featured on page 1 last week.

Mayhem need not be tragic, unless you consider the totaling of a brand new Ford Mustang convertible when it hit a manure spreader on U.S. 151 to be tragic. (Car lovers might, and imagine the phone call from the driver to the rental agency and the driver’s insurance agent.) I thought nothing would top that crash, until I saw with my own eyes the pickup truck that hit the corner of a house and rolled onto a parked car, with both vehicles hitting another house.

More mundane features of this job include Platteville Common Council meetings (where as you know the council’s position and the editor’s position are often not the same), but then they’re enlivened by, say, a city manager’s resignation, or red budget ink, or a bad idea like the briefly proposed pit bull ban. (Unfortunately I did not think to write after its deserved defeat the headline “That dog don’t hunt.”)

Every once in a while, I’ve managed to make news while not intending to make news. (Remember the ’60s phrase “Question Authority”?) I showed up at UW–Platteville’s Doudna Hall to hear a speech by Madison Catholic Diocese Bishop Robert Morlino. (Who I had seen a year earlier at the ordination of three priests at St. Mary Catholic Church.) Morlino’s speech — at least the public portion of it — lasted five minutes, which included (1) his asking me to leave and (2) my refusing to leave. 

Five minutes was also the length of time of the interview I did at Bridal Boutique, because five minutes in my forehead discovered a clothing rack, thus replacing an across-the-street trip for a story with a trip to the doctor. I took longer than five minutes to finish the Hometown Festival Week eating contest, the first (to some people’s surprise) I’d ever (been) entered (in), which meant I didn’t win, but I also kept the food down, which is more important.

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That was five years in 800 or so words. The somewhat vagabond nature of my career, such as it is, has never found me in any job more than seven years. But as Woody Allen translated a Yiddish proverb, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

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