EagleHerald staff writer
MARINETTE—Sometimes, sensing the true weight of words comes only in the wake of the context, after the culmination of a lifetime of memories.
So it goes with the following words penned by Marinette native Nancy Kaufman:
“She had come a long way—from the Menekaunee girl called ‘Fishguts,’ who lived on the wrong side of the tracks …”
Lifted from the final paragraph of her debut novel, “The Girl from Menekaunee,” a fictionalized account based on the life of Kaufman’s mother, those words encompass a journey that centers on a woman whose life reverberates within the context of family and mental illness across three generations and in the wake of the Great Depression. And while those words come with the final turn of the page, they offer nothing in terms of spoilers.
Instead, the novel’s richness transpires from the journey of its central character, Catherine Sabinsky and the ordeals she faced living in a family beleaguered by mental illness, alcoholism and abuse. It is a journey that begins in 1937, in the Menekaunee fishing neighborhood of the City of Marinette.
TEARING DOWN THE STIGMAS
Rendered from the empathy of her own experiences with mental illness and pieced together from the events of her mother’s life, Kaufman’s narrates a poignant story that seeks to cut through the stigmas surrounding mental disorders through much of the 20th Century and continue to linger today.
Growing up, Kaufman witnessed those stigmas both personally and professionally, which served as much of the emotional drive behind her novel.
“I was actually looking for a way to explain mental illness in my family and in myself,” Kaufman said. “I wanted to deal with the stigma of emotional illness. I wanted to show that, yes, we all have problems but we can become successful and deal with them through medication and therapy … there shouldn’t be a stigma associated with (a mental illness) any more than with a broken leg or cancer or some other disease.”
Kaufman grew up in Marinette, graduating from Marinette High School in 1960. She lived with her mother and grandmother during those years, both of whom suffered depression and anxiety, some of which stemmed from Kaufman’s alcoholic grandfather. Those experiences, and what she learned about herself, provided her the groundwork for “The Girl from Menekaunee.”
Much of the emotion and the events experienced by Catherine in the novel stem from the fictionalized retelling of experiences and stories that Kaufman learned about her own mother’s youth in Menekaunee in the 1930s and beyond. Those stories convey what it meant to be a young woman, striving to escape a home affected by mental illness, and in some way, at least in Catherine’s youth, succumbing to some of the stereotypes of weakness, or laziness or level of intelligence attached to mental disorders. It tells the subsequent struggle to attain some semblance of freedom and control from those hardships.
Kaufman notes, that while some of the primary scenes in the book actually unfolded in her mother’s life, the details leading up to those events remain a work of fiction and that all the names have been changed.
However, aside from its entertainment value and the historic perspective on Marinette, Kaufman’s book serves as an emotive testament to its readers that acknowledges the family and even generational impacts that mental health and its stigmas create.
Jody Olson, a close friend of Nancy’s and the former Director of the Peace Corps for three years (2018 to 2021), spent 55 years in the organization. She served in many places across the globe, bearing witness to a lot of horrible and historically tragic situations. However, even within those tragedies, she witnessed human resiliency and the kind of commitment that people can demonstrate to one another. Reading Kaufman’s book, she rediscovered that resiliency through the tragedies and triumphs that the book’s protagonist, Catherine experienced as she struggled through mental illness in a Midwestern small-town family.
“I learned about the strength of women even with the struggles that they have,” Olson said. “(The book) made me appreciate the strength to keep going, to keep life going, to keep kids going and resources we have (within ourselves) that we don’t know about.”
On another level for Olson, the book serves as an important conversation starter concerning the serious issues and stigmas attached to mental illness. She feels the book provides an opening to discuss some of the dysfunction that exists among families and, ultimately, a way to minimize that dysfunction and its associated stigmas.
“Those were (Kaufman’s) roots, and there is a strength in that, there is a strength in who her grandmother was, there is a strength in who her mother was, even as there was mental illness,” Olson said. “To acknowledge that when the shades go down and the doors get closed—and it is after seven o’clock at night—things that aren’t very pretty happen in houses … the dysfunctionality opens up conversations about what we can do for each other, be there for each other, put the words out there so we can have conversations about it.”
After high school, Kaufman defied another 1960s stigma that depicted women as homemakers and housewives.
That defiance took her to the University of Wisconsin—Madison where she worked her way to a Ph.D. in the then-emerging field of learning disabilities. She continued in academia at UW-Stevens Point where she schooled other teachers on best practices for the education of children with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the fields of special education had yet to gain much attention and often conspired in public school systems as afterthought programs, clumping children into a single category, barely addressing the underlying issues. Kaufman noted that, like emotional illness, the indignities associated with emotional and learning issues created a great source of angst and obstacle for those children afflicted.
Those issues fueled her passions. In her last role with the University of Wisconsin system, Kaufman spent five years traveling the state to ensure that schools complied with the Free Appropriate Public Education for Students With Disabilities (FAPE), a 1973 law that guaranteed an equal opportunity for education of children with physical and emotional disabilities. Those issues continue to fuel the passions of her writing career.
Even at a young age, those that knew her in Marinette painted a picture of a young girl whose irrepressible drive powered a resiliency in the face of her own bouts with mental illness in herself.
“I remember passing her a lot in the corridor between Marinette Junior High and Senior High,” said former Marinette resident Winnie Johnson, who now lives in California. “What I remember about her is how popular and friendly she was. I didn’t know a single person that didn’t like her. And what I recall for myself is that she always said hello, she was everybody’s friend.”
A few years following high school, after a chance meeting in a parking lot at an old Marinette grocery store, Johnson and Kaufman became fast friends who, despite now living on opposite coasts of the country, speak almost every week. Johnson provided further insight into the novel’s conception.
“I knew Nancy’s honesty about her family; she was very forthcoming about what her mother’s challenges were,” Johnson said. “The book is about a family in Marinette. It characterizes small-town life and is written by somebody who really knows about mental illness.”
CATHARTIC PROCESS OF WRITING
Kaufman explained that prior to writing “The Girl From Menekaunee,” the first scene of the book simmered for years inside her mind, linked to a story she heard about her mother that involved a clenched fist and frosted cake. But you’ll need to read the book to learn the story.
After encouragement from several friends, Kaufman started writing and she said felt like jumping into an ice-cold lake and coming out again.
“I didn’t know I was going to write a book,” she said. “But I just kept writing and all of sudden I ended up with a 520-page book.”
Over the two years working on the book, many friends, including Barry Fulton, a retired Foreign Service Officer and author of four spy novels, offered Kaufman encouragement and advice. Fulton coaxed her into taking courses in fiction writing and assisted in the technical aspects of self-publication.
“The book came out two or three months ago and I think she did a terrific job,” Fulton said. “Her heart is in every word of the book.”
Others agreed with Fulton, illustrating the passion Kaufman demonstrated in her writing process.
“I could see her excitement, I could see how it motivated her,” Olson said. “I could see that it was helping her to understand who she was and what her family is to her.”
The roots of that person began in Marinette. And while Kaufman now lives in Maryland, her connection to this city remains forever in her heart.
“I am proud to have lived in Marinette and I think I figured that out a lot during the time I was writing the book,” she said.
Copies of the book can be obtained on Amazon in hard copy or Kindle version. The Stephenson Public Library in Marinette also carries two copies, although you will likely be on a waiting list.
JANESVILLE, Wis.—“This is part of the state test. You don’t make this, you go home,” barked firefighting instructor Paul Yakowenko to a class of recruits from Blackhawk Technical College last month.
Yakowenko was teaching a basic technique: passing through 16-inch gap between two studs in a burning house in full gear, including a mask and air tank.
The training at the Janesville Fire Department’s training center was part of a course called Firefighter 1.
The state requires 60 hours of instruction before a recruit can go on a call.
Many fire departments require additional training, driven by the fear of lawsuits from damage or injury resulting from wrong decisions by young volunteers, said Rob Balsamo, fire science coordinator at Blackhawk Tech.
Among the recruits squeezing between the studs was Cameron Letts, 22, the newest recruit for the Footville Fire Department. The Janesville warehouse worker said he’ll get paid $7.25 an hour each time he goes on a call.
“I’m not in it for the money,” he said.
The same could be said for many hundreds of rural firefighters in the state these days. They are paid for each call, and they’re still called volunteers.
This “paid on call” system is one of many changes in rural firefighting driven by societal changes over the past 30 years, said Edgerton Fire Chief Randy Pickering, who has served in rural departments around the state during that time.
The result has been a drop in volunteers and in some areas, longer response times.
The problem has crept up slowly, and it’s become a crisis that few outside the fire service understand, Pickering said.
Another recruit in the Blackhawk Tech class was Phil Loduha, 30, a probationary member of the Brodhead Fire Department.
“I want to serve the community, and I know it takes volunteers serving to make it work,” he said.
Loduha grew up in Rockford, Illinois. During his past eight years of living in small towns, he has grown to love rural America.
“And I know it takes volunteers serving to make it work, to keep it what it is, and I wanted to be able to contribute to that. Somebody’s got to do it, and volunteer numbers are dwindling, so I really wanted to help out. …
“That is something that is always top-of-mind for department leadership, the recruiting aspect, finding new folks.”
Pickering, who has been a volunteer firefighter in several Wisconsin fire departments, said American society and the fire service have changed greatly over the years, and those changes are the root of the problem.
Pickering joined his first department 40 years ago. His department answered 356 calls that year, and that was considered a busy year.
Today, the Edgerton Fire Protection District handles 90 calls a month, including medical calls. That’s 1,080 calls a year.
Employers used to let workers run out the door once or twice a week to answer emergency calls. They saw it as supporting their community, Pickering said.
“But as demands have grown exponentially over the past 30 years, my guys were going out the doors three times a day,” he said. “No employer in the world who is trying to stay in business is going to let their employees run out the door three times a day.”
Letts said his employer has been understanding about him leaving work early to get the required training, but he won’t be rushing from work to answer calls. Rather, like a lot of volunteers these days, he will take his turn handling weekend shifts.
Husbands and wives often both work full-time jobs these days, Pickering noted.
“If they want to spend any time with their families, one or two calls a week back 30 years ago was at least doable,” he said.
But three times a day?
“You have more demands for service and people with less discretionary time to offer,” Pickering said.
Rural departments have responded by making changes that cost money. Pickering called it a Band-Aid approach to a problem that never stopped festering.
Paying by the call is one widespread change. Another is hiring a few career firefighters to staff shifts while keeping the volunteers.
Edgerton has six career firefighters and 42 who are paid per call. Milton has three career firefighters plus its volunteers, Pickering said.
Pickering spoke to The Gazette before his department began talking to the town of Milton, which is considering breaking away from its longtime joint fire department with the city of Milton.
The Milton Joint Fire Department, meanwhile, has been moving toward a full merger with the neighboring all-career fire department in Janesville.
Often, career employees staff the ambulances, which handle the bulk of calls these days, and they are there to get things rolling if there’s a fire, Pickering said. Volunteers fill in on nights and weekends.
Another solution is creating shifts that paid-on-call workers sign up to work.
“It really starts to get to the point of a part-time job,” Pickering said. “We call them ‘paid on premise.’ Of my 42 paid-on-call, we average about 1.5 a day in paid-on-premise time.”
The first step for all-volunteer departments is often to hire a full-time chief. Those chiefs typically also become the local fire inspector, a must-have because the state requires fire inspections.
Edgerton is required to perform 620 fire inspections a year, for example. That’s a lot of work on top of administrative duties.
Departments with ambulances often turn to full-time EMTs or paramedics to make sure they have the staff to take calls, Pickering said.
Pickering is a volunteer, but that’s unusual, he said. The advantage of a volunteer chief is that money is available for other paid staff.
There was a time when a volunteer firefighter could jump on the truck and fight a fire with little training, but the state has increased its requirements over the years.
Some departments require even more training, which helps protect them from lawsuits over injuries or property damage during calls, said Blackhawk Tech’s Balsamo.
The minimum training now takes 60 hours. A full Firefighter 1 certification takes more than double that, Pickering said. It’s another burden that could dissuade potential volunteers.
Standards increase every year, Pickering said, and for good reason. Requirements include training on topics such as hazardous materials, blood-borne pathogens and cancer risk in firefighting.
Pickering’s staff must also train in water and ice rescue, as his department covers parts of Lake Koshkonong and two rivers frequented by boaters.
Pickering is proud of his staff’s handling of the situation. He talked about a recent Sunday in which Edgerton firefighters fully staffed two ambulance calls and requests for mutual aid for big fires in Beloit and Stoughton.
“Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be focused on how to solve the problem. Finding people who’ve got the discretionary time to volunteer and assist is really hard right now,” he said.
Pickering’s approach: “Basically, you’re vying for people’s discretionary time. You have to create an environment where they see value in what they’re doing with their discretionary time. If they feel they’re treated with respect and treated to the context that what they’re doing is helping their community, and you provide training and good equipment and facilities, there are people out there who are willing to help. It can work, but takes a lot of hard work to make that work.”
But Pickering knows of three other Wisconsin communities—he wouldn’t name them—where things have gotten so bad that when a call comes in, the 911 center dispatches all three fire departments.
Often, the crew for one call is cobbled together from two or three departments, and that extends the response time as EMTs travel to a next-door community.
Sometimes, volunteers will put off vacations because they fear their ambulance won’t be staffed, Pickering said.
The locals of the unnamed departments organized a meeting two years ago to educate elected officials, but none showed up, he said.
Pickering pointed to a chart by the American Heart Association that shows for every one minute of delay in emergency care of a heart attack, survival chances drop 10%.
Likewise, the chances for a structure to survive drop fast if a fire in a room doesn’t feel the gush from a fire hose within seven minutes, he said.
“The policymakers are absolutely immune to getting their heads around how bad this problem is,” Pickering said.
Lawmakers haven’t been totally deaf. The state Department of Safety and Professional Services recently proposed a grant program to promote training partnerships among fire departments, technical colleges and high schools.
The program would allow training to begin in high school. Credits would apply toward high school graduation and firefighter preparation programs.
Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes promoted a youth firefighting program when he appeared before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee in Whitewater on April 9, requesting $100,000 for a pilot program.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers grants to help fire departments recruit and retain firefighters. But the grants are competitive. Only 17 have been awarded to Wisconsin departments since 2015.
Congressional proposals to make volunteer fire and EMS personnel eligible for student loan forgiveness and housing assistance have not passed, according to news reports. Other proposals include modifying the tax code to make it easier for local communities to offer incentives.
Tax dollars pay for a lot of fire department expenses, but with state caps on how much municipalities can raise through property taxes, most volunteer departments still hold fundraisers to help pay for equipment.
“A fire engine at minimum can cost you $300,000, and that’s a cheap one,” Balsamo said. “Firefighting gear without the air pack is $3,000, minimum.”
“We, thank heavens, have a very, very vibrant (fundraising) association that supports us really well,” Pickering said. “This year, we’re having to replace all cardiac monitors in the ambulances,” at a cost of “well over $100,000.”
“I don’t think people realize the amount of time and energy it takes to manage a fire department as well as all the resources needed to provide that fire (and rescue and ambulance) protection,” Balsamo said.
The National Volunteer Fire Council estimates nationwide volunteer numbers have dropped from 884,600 to 682,600 in 2017.
“The scale of the loss of volunteer firefighters estimated in this report is really disturbing and something that we need to work as a community and a nation to address,” the council’s chairman, Kevin Quinn, said at the time.
The council’s study showed firefighters as a group were aging, with 53% over age 40, compared with 37% in 1987—an indicator of fewer young recruits than in the past.
Brodhead fire recruit Loduha might belong to a small elite group who are inspired by the chance to serve.
“There are some people there who are professionals in other departments as their full-time job, and they volunteer in Brodhead,” Loduha said. “It’s really awesome to be able to train with and learn from people who do it for a living.”
Rural fire chiefs across the state, no doubt, would love to see a lot more recruits with Loduha’s attitude walking through their doors.
EagleHerald Staff Writer
MARINETTE—Despite a shortage of volunteers elsewhere in the state, the volunteer fire departments in Marinette County get the job done and make due with what they’ve got.
The Town of Peshtigo’s Fire Department covers the 75 square miles outside the city limits of Marinette and Peshtigo and has a roster of 20 volunteers. “We would like to have a few more, but it’s always difficult to attract and retain new firefighters,” said Fire Chief Mike Folgert.
“It’s not just a problem in any one community, but nation-wide there’s a shortage of volunteers. There’s a lot of reasons for it; there have been a lot of studies and a lot of looking into it, but there’s no one reason. In general, you’re asking people to do an emergency service that can be dangerous; you’re asking them to put in a lot of time and effort for little or no pay, drop everything to leave their family or work at the drop of a hat,” he said.
In the Town of Peshtigo, Folgert said nobody lives at the station or stays overnight. They’re out in the community, whether at work or with family or whatever it is that the firefighters do. They’re alerted by either a pager or cell phone and go to the station from there. But there are some scheduled times that the firefighters meet up at the station, and in Peshtigo it’s once a week for truck inspections, training drills, meetings or whatever is needed to keep them ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Folgert said the firefighters have to clock over 60 hours of training before they can even set foot on the scene of a fire. The training is often run through the technical colleges throughout the state, and several members of the Town of Peshtigo’s fire department are certified instructors that can bring the training out to the community.
“That’s just the start,” Folgert said. “If you want to get certified, which we highly recommend and almost push that at our department, that’s another 96 hours of certification training, plus 20 hours of Hazmat training, plus state certification and state standards testing.”
Folgert said about 90% of his firefighters are state-certified at either the first or second level of certification, and the other 10% meet the 60-hour minimum.
Wausaukee’s fire department numbers about 19 people, according to Fire Chief Eric Edlebeck. This crew of 19 usually answers about 60 calls per year, though the number varies from year to year. “It depends on how many storms we get, how many wires down, as well as assisting the rescue squad.”
One year the Wausaukee crew answered between 90 and 95 calls, which Edlebeck said was likely their worst year. The Town of Peshtigo’s department usually answers an average of 100 calls in a year, which covers a variety of calls, from fires to extrications to missing person searches.
“There’s 18 fire departments in Marinette County and all but one are volunteer; there’s a bunch in Menominee County and some in Oconto County. We have a state-wide system for mutual aid called the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, or MABAS. Every department through MABAS has predetermined box cards that pre-plans our mutual aid at different levels. So if we have a large structure fire and we want to call it a first-alarm fire, we’ll call a certain box card and dispatch has that on file. We just tell them what card number to pull from and what alarm to pull it at, and all of our aid is predetermined,” Folgert said.
“Being a smaller group, if we get something like a major accident or a building fire we’ll call in for help with MABAS. You’re only going to get so many guys available, so it often extends to reaching out to your neighbors,” Edlebeck said.
Folgert said this system has been adopted in 63 counties in Wisconsin, as well as several in Michigan, including Menominee County. He said his crew has gone as far as Brazeau in Oconto county and up into Mellen Township in Menominee County to help with fires through the use of this system. “This system has only been in place in Marinette County for about seven years, so we’re trying to get more participation,” he said.
The local departments are small and volunteers are definitely desired, but Folgert said it’s not a volunteer job for just anybody. “We can’t afford to have someone who just wants to wear the t-shirt. We’re looking for someone who really wants to do this, someone who has a passion, a big heart and is willing to put the time in. The more they show up, the more they develop their skills, the more important they are to us. We’ll take both men and women, you just have to be over 18 years old, have a valid driver’s license and a big heart,” he said.
The passion for fighting fires is something Edlebeck is familiar with among his volunteers and said they’re sometimes so excited to help that they’ll be ready to go before the call even comes in. “I had a call, it was midnight one night, and I put my clothes on and headed over, and when I got there I had four guys ready with their gear on,” he said.
“When you’ve got a good group of guys underneath you, I know it kind of spreads through the community. It’s kind of a fire family,” Edlebeck said.