CUBA CITY—Bill Kessler has spent 45 years volunteering in Cuba City. He moved to the community and got involved with the Knights of Columbus. What started with one or two volunteer activities blossomed into a wide variety.
“When I first came to Cuba City, I was a partner with James Siegert in the Siegert Funeral Home, which is now Casey Funeral Home,” Kessler said. “While I was involved in that, I started with the cemetery as well as my monument business. It tied it together, so to speak.”
Kessler was the business manager of the funeral home.
Kessler has helped at the St. Rose Cemetery for many years. All year long he lays out the graves and shows people potential sites. He and Dave Busch set up the dinners for funerals.
“The funeral homes will call me to let me know that someone has died,” Kessler said. “I have a computer printout of all of the present burials in the cemetery as well as a copy of the maps of the cemetery that I work off of. I lay out the gravesite for the gravediggers to dig out the grave. I’m not involved in any of the digging. We take care of the grave and then the grave diggers come back to fill in the grave.”
The five-man cemetery committee takes care of the needs of the cemetery, including spring and fall clean up. The regular grass cutting and care at the cemetery is hired out.
“Any time I need help, one of the guys is always willing to help me out,” Kessler said. “Lately there has been more work than normal because of the addition we recently purchased. We have to start getting more ground ready for burials.”
The addition was started this past year.
In 1967, the monsignor visited the Knights of Columbus council to ask for help with the Apostolate to the Handicapped program, where volunteers drove registrants to events.
“This was something that was strictly going on in the diocese of Madison,” Kessler said. “Our Knights of Columbus members would drive people three days a year to events. This was primarily handicapped people, but seniors were also involved.”
Initially, most events were held in the Madison area.
“As time went on and the program took off quite well, the crowd got so big that at that point monsignor thought we should have a regional day to hold events down here,” Kessler said. “We went that route for a few years. The events entailed an ecumenical meal.”
He said the crowds continued to grow, so the events were moved back to Madison. Later, Monroe took over the events and they have been held at the Monroe High School ever since.
Kessler volunteered to take care of the Grant County and a portion of Lafayette County, picking up whomever needed a ride. The reservation information would be sent to Kessler and he would call the registrants to make arrangements for transportation.
Eventually, individual member drivers were replaced by a bus service because he couldn’t find enough volunteer drivers.
The Apostolate for the Handicapped program now has destinations such as the Tommy Bartlet Show, a Christmas party the first Saturday in December and a spring meal.
In 1992, Kessler and his wife, Kay, received a plaque for 25 years of service to the program.
“I can’t tell you how many times I would come home from that day and mention to Kay [his wife] that we have no problems,” Kessler said. You see so many mild and severe handicap people and how much they enjoy that day.”
Two years ago Kessler turned his duties over to others in the organization.
Somewhere among his volunteering with the Knights of Columbus, he got involved in the Cuba City Fair and Picnic, more recently known as the Hometown Festival. For the raffle drawing involved, with as many as 71 businesses donating items and cash in 2013. He would handle the business donations and Mary Ellen Birkett would take care of the cash donations.
He was involved until they stopped the raffle in 2013.
In 2000, Kessler took over the ringing of the Salvation Army Bell in Cuba City. He still continues that tradition. The FCCLA (Future Career and Community Leaders of America) organization at Cuba City High School assist with the bell ringing.
“We do the bell ringing on two Fridays and two Saturdays generally a couple of weeks before Christmas,” Kessler said.
Nancy Merwin, the FCCLA advisor, sets up the student volunteers for Friday bell ringing. Kessler sets it up and takes it down each day. He also coordinates the Saturday volunteers.
Smaller Salvation Army kettles will be placed in the Cuba City, Dickeyville, Kieler and Hazel Green communities to seek more donations. Last year he tried it, and thought it worked pretty well, so this year he’s requested 10 kettles to be spread throughout those communities.
“I wanted to put more kettles out to try and help the situation because of the value of the cause, the proceeds and where it goes,” Kessler said. “Eighty-eight percent of the [collected] funds remain in Grant County.”
Kessler also helps with the Knights of Columbus state charity raffle by handing out the tickets to 170 members and ask for donations. A portion of the proceeds goes back to the Knights of Columbus Council while the rest is used to help families with needs, whether it is from a fire, accident or medical situation.
“Whenever we get a request for help, we give the family $250,” Kessler said. “The state also has a form they can fill out for a grant from the major proceeds.”
Kessler spearheads the Knights of Columbus cookouts in the summer. A group of eight is heavily involved, holding 25-30 cookouts each summer.
Kessler and his wife, Kay, have eight children.
“I’m someone who has to stay busy,” Kessler said. “I’ve heard people say to keep busy while you have a few more years in your life. With our large family, I want to get as many years as I can get out of them.”
Kessler worked at John Deere for 15 years in data processing.
“When I was in the service, I enlisted, which meant I could apply for what I wanted to do,” Kessler said. “They had a machine accounting course, so I signed up for it. I took my first eight weeks of boot camp like everybody else does and then when it came to my second eight weeks, I got transferred to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, for the machine accounting course. I was expecting adding machines, but when I walked in it was IBM data punch card processing. I was glad I did it. Having had that for three years in the service made it easier to get a job on the outside.”
Kessler was discharged in 1957 and started at John Deere. During his time there, he started working part-time at the Siegert Funeral Home in Cuba City. He eventually left John Deere to be the business manager at the funeral home full-time.
“With a large family, it felt like we needed a little more income, so I opened up a dry cleaners,” Kessler said. “From there, then I went into insurance at the Metropolitan for six years and then went with an independent agency, the Insurance Center out of Onalaska in the office out of Platteville. I was with them for 17 years before I retired.”
Kessler retired in 1997.
“Up until I retired, I couldn’t spend the time on it that I do now,” Kessler said. “I have to admit, I do enjoy it. I get a good feeling out of what it does for people.”
Kessler is a Dubuque native and a graduate of the 1954 class at Loras Academy. He is in charge of organizing his class reunions every five years, too.
“I always enjoy helping whenever I possibly can,” Kessler said.
“I have known Bill for many years,” Cuba City Mayor Tom Gile said. “He is always ready to help whenever anything is going on in the community. Through the years he has given up many hours of his time working with the Community Fair and Picnic committee as well as being a very active member of the Knights of Columbus Council No. 765. When you need help, Bill has always been there with a smile to do whatever needs to be done.”
Editor's Note: This column will be a special addition to the Tri-County Press on a monthly basis. Look for each installment near the end of the month. All volunteers are recomended for the article by Mayor Tom Gile. If you have ideas for future volunteers in the community to be recognized, contact Gile at 608-744-3203.