Geographic gaps in Wisconsin’s COVID-19 vaccination effort are solidifying four months after immunizations began, with more than half of residents inoculated in Bayfield, Dane and Door counties, more than double the rates in Clark, Rusk and Taylor counties in the central-northwestern part of the state.
Access to vaccine, demographics, hesitancy about injections and political beliefs contribute to the differences, experts say. As health officials strive to vaccinate roughly 80% of the population for “herd immunity” to protect against outbreaks and enable a return to normal life, places with low vaccination rates could become a concern for everyone.
“We’re only as good as our worst areas,” said Dr. James Conway, a UW Health pediatrician and vaccine expert, because counties that remain relatively unprotected are ripe for outbreaks that could spread elsewhere. “It’s essentially an open can of gasoline that’s waiting for somebody to throw a match in.”
The differences in COVID-19 vaccination rates around Wisconsin mirror those for annual flu shots, with Dane and Door counties typically leading the state in uptake of flu vaccine and Clark and Taylor counties at or near the bottom.
But the stakes are higher with COVID-19 shots, said Ajay Sethi, a UW-Madison infectious disease epidemiologist. Not only is the risk of physical harm or death from the coronavirus greater than from flu, the vaccines available against the coronavirus are considerably more effective than those for flu so the benefit from immunization is greater, Sethi said.
“We have to somehow convince people of the importance of getting this particular vaccine even if they haven’t been in the habit of getting vaccines in the past,” he said.
Early variation in COVID-19 vaccination rates had much to do with a county’s proportion of health care workers, the first group able to get vaccine. With people 65 and older becoming eligible in late January, a county’s share of seniors has also played a large role in its overall rate, experts say.
But with everyone 16 and older approved for vaccination early this month, such factors are beginning to wane. However, a county’s racial makeup can also influence its immunization rate, given that rates statewide are significantly lower for Blacks and Hispanics, and somewhat lower for American Indians and Asians, than for whites.
As of Saturday, Taylor County had the state’s lowest vaccination rate, with 21.8% of residents receiving at least one dose, followed by Clark County, with 22.2%, and Rusk County, with 26.4%.
Door County had the highest rate, with 56.7%, followed by Bayfield County, with 53.0%, and Dane County, with 52.4%.
“We are doing the best we can to offer vaccines to those who are eligible,” said Brittany Mews, director of the Clark County Health Department, which has been holding mass vaccination clinics since January. “With less vaccinator options, the vaccine opportunity is not as great.”
Clark County has 11 vaccinators open to the public, according to the state Department of Health Services. Taylor County has three, and Rusk County has five.
Another factor in Clark County is having a sizable Amish and Mennonite population, a group that is typically reluctant to be vaccinated, Mews said. Health officers in Taylor and Rusk counties didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
“I think there is a little bit of vaccine hesitancy” in the three counties, said Christina Writz, vaccine coordinator for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department and leader of the regional Chippewa Valley Immunization Coalition.
Writz said appointments for some vaccinations, such as at the Federal Emergency Management Agency clinic that opened this month at UW-Eau Claire, are generally obtained online, though they can be made by phone. “That might be another barrier to some of the rural populations,” she said.
Polls continue to show more resistance to getting the COVID-19 vaccine among Republicans than Democrats. A Monmouth University poll last week said 43% of Republicans plan to avoid the vaccine, compared with 5% of Democrats, while a Quinnipiac University poll said 45% of Republicans will refuse, compared with 7% of Democrats.
In last year’s presidential election, more than 66% of voters in Clark, Rusk and Taylor counties voted for former Republican President Donald Trump, while Bayfield, Dane and Door counties went for Democratic President Joe Biden, though the race was close in Door County.
“I hate to attribute this to politics, but there is a correlation there,” Sethi said.
Ann Lewandowski, executive director of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, a group that advocates for vaccination, said historically low vaccination rates in certain places can make it harder for people to accept vaccines because there’s no culture of immunizations becoming routine.
“Lower rates can make communities more vulnerable to misinformation because it’s not normal behavior,” said Lewandowski, co-chair of the vaccine subcommittee of the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee, which advised the state health department on COVID-19 vaccine eligibility groups.
Still, Lewandowski said poor access to COVID-19 vaccines may explain the low rates in the three northern counties more than unwillingness to get them, at least so far.
“If it was July and we were seeing these rates, I’d say yes it’s clearly vaccine hesitancy,” she said.
While Door County has only four registered vaccinators, they’re all in centrally located Sturgeon Bay, which may help increase access countywide, Lewandowski said.
Door County also has the state’s third highest proportion of older adults, and Bayfield County has the sixth highest, according to census data. The percentage of seniors in Rusk and Taylor counties is also above the state average, while Clark County’s share is just below average and Dane County’s is third lowest among the 72 counties.
The predominance of retirees in Bayfield County is likely a significant contributor to the county’s high vaccination rate, said Sara Wartman, director of the county health department. Another: The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa was able to open up vaccination to various priority groups, even outside of the tribe, earlier than the health department, Wartman said.
The county has only five registered vaccinators, but the health department has relied on about 20 extra people — some paid, some volunteers — to staff regular vaccination clinics at various locations, she said.
As vaccination continues, Wartman said the county’s rank will likely drop since a portion of its population is known to be against vaccines. “I think you’ll see our vaccine rate slow down,” she said.
In Dane County, high education levels could be one reason for the high COVID-19 vaccination rate, Conway said. But resistance to some vaccines, such as childhood measles shots, is often highest among the highly educated, he said, and school vaccination waivers are higher in the county than in many other parts of the state.
The Dane County Immunization Coalition, of which Conway is a board member, brings together the Madison area’s multiple health care systems with Public Health Madison and Dane County and other groups to encourage vaccination, he said. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the coalition has held weekly Zoom meetings to share information, recently including tips on everything from where to find syringes to how to frame vaccination messages to different groups of people.
“There’s constant communication,” Conway said. “It’s a very unified approach."
Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy director of the state health department, said Clark, Rusk and Taylor counties not only have relatively few registered vaccinators, they request fewer doses of vaccine than other counties. A state-run vaccine clinic that opened last week in Barron County, adjacent to Rusk County, may help and the state may increase its mobile vaccination teams in the region, she said.
But if COVID-19 vaccination was a baseball game, we’d be only in the fourth inning, Willems Van Dijk said. It’s too early to say any county won’t achieve high immunization rates.
“We have a long way to go before we declare that we’re not going to do any better there,” she said.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a reference to the number of counties in the state. Wisconsin has 72 counties.]
6,200 people have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin. Here are stories of some we've lost.
State lawyer wrote to world leaders, had eclectic interests
A longtime lawyer for the state of Wisconsin whose volunteer work involved literacy and libraries, Thomas Boykoff had some unusual hobbies.
He wrote to dignitaries — presidents, popes, the king of Jordan, Fidel Castro — and collected boxes of responses in the form of cards, photos and letters. He was also a devotee of Millard Fillmore, the country’s 13th president, becoming a member of the self-deprecatingly-named “Fillmorons” fan club.
“My dad had a penchant for the obscure, and he had a real devotion to fighting for the underdog,” said Jules Boykoff, the oldest of his three children. “I think he viewed Millard Fillmore as this massively underappreciated president.”
Boykoff, 77, died from COVID-19 on Dec. 28. He had Alzheimer’s disease and prostate cancer that had spread, with the coronavirus delivering the final blow, his son said. Boykoff lived since 2015 at Oakwood Village’s University Woods campus, where he died.
Boykoff grew up in New York City and came to Madison for college. Outside of three years in law school at the University of Michigan, he never left.
“It didn’t take him long to figure out that Madison was the place he wanted to spend his life,” said Jules Boykoff, 50, chair of the politics and government department at Pacific University in Oregon.
His dad worked as staff attorney for the Wisconsin Legislative Council, at the Department of Revenue and at the Department of Financial Institutions. He served two stints on the Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission.
“He believed deeply in government, its necessity, its power, its responsibility,” his son said. “He was a deliberately bipartisan guy.”
Thomas Boykoff, who also taught at UW-Madison Law School, was a hearing examiner for Madison’s rent abatement program, volunteered with the Literacy Network in Madison and was active in the Friends of the Madison Public Library and Friends of the Middleton Public Library.
He was a member of the Jane Austen Society and a facilitator for the Madison-based Sherlock Holmes Society group, “Notorious Canary Trainers.”
He spoke some Swahili and “passable” Spanish, his son said. Even in his last days, his mind fading, he could recite Federico García Lorca’s poem, “Canción de Jinete.”
The family has given six boxes of letters and photos Boykoff collected from world leaders to the First Unitarian Society in Madison, where he was a member, for use as a public archive.
His other children are Max Boykoff, 47, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, and Molly Boykoff, 43, a special-education teacher in the Portland, Oregon area. Their parents divorced in the 1990s.
“I feel really lucky that I had a dad like him,” Jules Boykoff said.
Trombone player, transplant recipient, auditor liked to hike, garden
For Diann and Mike Allsen, Cupid’s arrow came in the form of a trombone.
At Rochester Community College in Minnesota in 1976, they joined the band, both playing trombone. “I got the courage up to ask her out at the first football game,” Mike said. “I was in love with her right then.”
They got married two years later, both at age 20, moving to La Crosse to continue their studies and then to Madison for Diann’s job at the Legislative Audit Bureau.
Allsen, 63, died from COVID-19 on Dec. 17. She had received two kidney transplants, one from her father when she was in high school and the other from her brother 18 years later. The immunosuppression drugs she took, along with diabetes, put her at greater risk for complications from the coronavirus.
But she had been relatively healthy, gardening and hiking much of last summer and regularly riding an exercise bike, said Mike, 62.
Despite being careful and wearing masks, they both developed symptoms of COVID-19 shortly after Thanksgiving and tested positive Dec. 2. She spent a night at UW Hospital and got better. But a few days after she returned home, her breathing suddenly grew worse.
Mike tried to take her to the emergency room, but she couldn’t make it to the car. When an ambulance arrived, she collapsed and died.
Lifelong music lovers, the Allsens played in the Glenwood Moravian Trombone Choir in Madison. Shortly before Diann became ill, the group recorded an online advent concert.
In 1988, the couple traveled to Paraguay to adopt a son, Jeff. Now 34, he lives in Pardeeville and works in customer service at Alliant Energy. He described his mom as a loving person who hugged often and, when excited, did a little dance.
“We called it the ‘Diann Bop,’” said Jeff Allsen, who plays the trumpet, including with the Glenwood group.
Diann Allsen was devoted to her job at the audit bureau, where she worked for 33 years before retiring in 2015. Among the audits she oversaw were the State of Wisconsin Investment Board and the Department of Employee Trust Funds.
She served as a mentor to many, including Kendra Eppler, who works at the audit bureau. “That’s the legacy she really left behind — those she coached and mentored, really helping us in developing our skills,” Eppler said.
Allsen liked gardening at her home on Madison’s East Side. “Something is blooming all the time in the summer,” said Mike, who before retiring in 2018 taught music and the arts at UW-Whitewater and played bass trombone in the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
She volunteered at Olbrich Gardens and delivered meals to families of students at Schenk and Thoreau elementary schools who didn’t have enough food.
“She believed in public service as a cause,” Mike said.
Darlington principal, UW-Platteville instructor valued small town education
When Dave Chellevold took a job teaching physical education in Darlington in 1969, he promised his wife, Sheri, they would live there three years and then move to Madison or another bigger city.
They ended up staying 50 years. He worked for the Darlington School District for 30 years, the last 25 as high school principal. Then he taught education part-time at UW-Platteville for 16 years before the couple moved to Mount Horeb in 2019.
In Darlington, they valued the opportunities their three children had as students at a smaller district, and Dave felt he could directly influence their education, Sheri said. “He always wanted to make a difference, to have an impact,” she said.
Chellevold, 79, died from COVID-19 on Dec. 15. He had sleep apnea and asthma, and had recovered from prostate cancer and been treated for an irregular heartbeat, but was otherwise in good health, his wife said.
He became ill the weekend after Thanksgiving and a few days later was taken to UnityPoint Health-Meriter in Madison, where he was eventually put on a ventilator until he died.
Chellevold grew up on a dairy farm near Ferryville before his family moved when he was in sixth grade to Darlington, a city of 2,300 people about 55 miles southwest of Madison.
He became principal at the same high school from which he graduated. During his time as principal, he was president of the Wisconsin School Music Association and on the advisory council of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.
His children, who were in high school while their dad was principal, said he went to nearly every event, including their football games and wrestling and gymnastics meets.
“He expected a lot,” said daughter Jody Chellevold, 51, of Mount Horeb. “In between every class, he would stand there with his arms folded and monitor kids coming and going from classes, making sure people weren’t screwing off.”
Doug Chellevold, 46, of Menomonee Falls, said his father knew how to read a situation. “Dad was a fire and ice guy,” he said. “If you needed a kick in the tail, he certainly was capable of that. If you needed a hug, he was also capable of that.”
Son Chad Chellevold, 47, lives in Indiana. The family also talks of three “honorary sons:” Larry Green, a friend of Chad’s the family took in as their own; and Julio and Renato Daud, brothers from Paraguay who lived with the Chellevolds as foreign exchange students.
A gregarious man, Dave Chellevold died without being able to have visits from family or friends. Afterward, Jody and her youngest daughter were allowed into the room, where they did a Facetime call with Sheri so she could say goodbye.
“I hate that he was alone,” Sheri said.
Family therapist loved music, learned Spanish in later years
The son of an Episcopal priest, Vince Fish found his calling as a family therapist. Vince’s son, Dave, sees a progression tied to social trends.
“Being a psychologist is a more modern, secular way to help people,” Dave Fish said of the profession of his father, 70, who died from COVID-19 on Dec. 13. “You could describe him as a really caring, intelligent person who inherited all of the socially stiff traits of 1950s-60s, English-Protestant Americans and then tried to break out of them.”
Vince Fish worked at the Dane County Mental Health Center, now known as Journey, and helped form the Family Therapy Center of Madison. He developed Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia nearly a decade ago and had lived in care facilities for about five years, including Fountainhead Homes in DeForest, where he died a few days after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Trained as a social worker and then as a psychologist, his work focused on sexual abuse, eating disorders, compulsive behaviors and complex trauma, said Carol Faynik, another co-founder of the Family Therapy Center.
At his memorial service, Faynik said Fish was “sensitive to the equality of women,” recalling that years ago he did the laundry at home but mistakenly mixed his wife’s delicate professional outfits with everything else. “He humbly admitted to me that he had wrecked all of them,” she said.
At the therapy center, he brought in orchids that lived for years. “I have managed to keep some of those alive and repeatedly blooming thanks to his advice to nurture them with ‘benign neglect,’” Faynik said.
At the UW-Madison School of Social Work, where Fish taught for years, a scholarship is being set up in his name.
Fish was also musical, playing bass guitar and piano with the Dilettantes, an informal group that gathered in Madison for many years.
Dave Fish, 35, of Madison, said his father studied Spanish in his later years, taking two trips to Oaxaca for immersion learning. He also became interested in Latin dancing.
“At his retirement party (in 2013), he had his dance teacher come and teach everyone how to salsa,” he said.
Another son, Jonathan Fish-Lubniewski, 41, lives in Fitchburg. Their mother, Ruth, lives in Madison.
Given Fish’s physical and mental decline in recent years, his death from COVID-19 has brought mixed feelings, Dave said.
“It’s very sad that he’s gone, but there’s also relief,” he said. “He had been trapped these last few years.”
Preschool teacher, active mom stayed busy volunteering
When Jennifer Girard was in synchronized swimming as a child, her mother, Patricia Wahlton, drove her to the meets, even if they were out of state. When Girard joined the madrigal choir at school, Wahlton made her a red velvet dress.
Wahlton took on a big role during Girl Scout cookie sales. “She didn’t just help our troop,” Girard said. “She was the cookie chairwoman for all of that area. That’s mom. She was the go-to one who would get involved.”
Wahlton, 86, died from COVID-19 on Dec. 12. After living for about 45 years on Madison’s Far East Side, she spent her last few years in Oconomowoc, where Girard lives. She had dementia but no other medical conditions, and died at The View at Pine Ridge, an assisted-living facility.
Wahlton and her husband, Ray, who died in 2017, met in Saginaw, Michigan, where she grew up and taught second grade. After spending about 10 years in Green Bay, they moved to Madison, where Ray worked as an audiologist for the state Department of Public Instruction.
Pat Wahlton taught for about two decades at a preschool in Monona, while helping with activities involving Girard, 55, her brother Mark Wahlton, 62, and sister Melissa Daimler, 51, who all graduated from La Follete High School.
“My Mom expressed her love through both her hugs and words,” Daimler wrote in a blog post after her mom died. “I would leave notes on the kitchen counter in the morning. And in the evening, there was usually a note back to me on the counter, always ending with XOXOs.”
After Daimler persuaded her parents to let her get her ears pierced at age 10, earlier than her sister, her mom responded, in a note: “We hope you are ready to accept the responsibility of pierced ears!! Of course, when you wear earrings, you are toooo grown up to bite your nails!!”
Pat and Ray Wahlton were active at First United Methodist Church near the state Capitol, where she was a soprano in the choir. At Olbrich Gardens, they were docents at the Thai Pavilion, helped organize home garden tours and worked at the annual plant sale.
Pat Wahlton also volunteered with Attic Angels, the Dane County YMCA and PEO Sisterhood, raising money to send Madison students to PEO’s Cottey College in Missouri.
In 2013, she slipped on a marble walking out of a store and shattered her femur. Fearing another fall, she restricted her movement. “It completely changed her life,” Girard said.
Two years later, after Ray developed dementia, the couple moved to Oconomowoc. Pat started showing signs of a dementia a couple of years later. After she died, the family received numerous cards from friends saying how much she meant to them.
“She was very loving to all,” Girard said.
'Extreme extrovert' sold construction equipment, loved Badgers football games
From 1952 to 2019, Ron Swann went to almost every Wisconsin Badgers football home game, missing only five.
Growing up in Madison, he attended games with his dad. Later, Swann and his wife, Fran, joined friends tailgating before games and staying for the Fifth Quarter celebration afterward.
“He talked to everybody and loved to make friends,” son Bret Swann said.
“He was an extreme extrovert,” added son Tod Swann. “If he could get two more people sitting on his patio, wherever he was, he was happier.”
Swann, 79, died from COVID-19 on Oct. 25. He had lung disease and high cholesterol, and had a heart attack in his 40s. Leg problems made it difficult for him to walk in recent years, but after foot surgery and physical therapy he was back to walking well by late last summer, his family said.
“In September, he told me he was really looking forward to playing golf this winter,” said Fran, who spent winters with him during retirement in Port Charlotte, Florida. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. He was so much a part of my life that it’s hard to be alone.”
After graduating from West High School in 1959, Swann attended UW-Madison, where he met Fran on a date arranged by her Chi Omega sorority sister at the former Rennebohm Drug Store near campus.
Swann studied mechanical engineering and got a job before graduating selling road construction equipment at the former Drott Tractor Co. He learned about the opportunity from his father, Ray, who worked for the Dane County Highway Department.
Swann sold graders, backhoes, dump trucks, front-end loaders and other machines, later for the companies Aring and Bark River, around southern Wisconsin for 35 years, retiring in 2003.
Just before then, the family built what Fran called her “dream house” on property they bought 20 years earlier just east of Merrimac on Lake Wisconsin. There, they enjoyed boating, fishing, golfing and — at least sometimes — doing home, auto and lawnmower repairs.
“He was always trying to fix something and roping me into helping him, which was fun and frustrating if you know what I mean,” said Tod Swann, 57, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Bret Swann, 47, of Oak Creek, said his dad spent a night at UnityPoint Health-Meriter after acquiring COVID-19 and was sent home because he was doing better. But two days later he returned to Meriter and was eventually put on a ventilator. He died a week later, without the family being able to visit him.
“This disease is horrific,” he said. “It is so hard to fathom loved ones being in the hospital by themselves.”
30-year-old 'lived on hugs' and 'had so much more to give'
Amedeo Lambert enjoyed the communal meals his mother organized on Sundays in the tradition of her native Italy.
“He was a social animal,” Mariapia Lambert said of her son. “By Thursday evening or Friday morning, he would ask, ‘Who’s joining us?’”
A fan of TV medical dramas, especially “ER,” Amedeo regularly volunteered at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital and UW Hospital, greeting visitors, restocking rooms and delivering packages to patients.
“If he could, he would have volunteered five days a week,” said his father, David Lambert. “He loved contributing and being part of that world.”
Amedeo Lambert, 30, of DeForest, died from COVID-19 on Nov. 27. When he was 11, he was diagnosed with Friedreich ataxia, a rare genetic condition that progressively impairs muscle coordination.
The condition weakened his heart, and his life expectancy was shorter than normal. But he had been relatively healthy before contracting the coronavirus and was expected to live for many more years, said his parents, who live in Madison.
Amedeo, who began using a wheelchair at 16, graduated from Memorial High School and audited classes at Edgewood College, where his father is an associate professor of psychology. He had developmental delays and a high-functioning form of autism, and thrived on interaction with others, his father said.
Among Amedeo’s many friends were Jessica Frank, Connor Fisher and Joseph Simonett, whom Mariapia Lambert called his “three musketeers.”
His mom recalled how much her son enjoyed going to Children’s Theater of Madison performances as a boy. His dad took him during a California trip to the set of “ER,” which he didn’t want to leave.
“Like almost everybody I know who has a disability, Amedeo was born with something more,” Mariapia Lambert said. “He had a sheer enjoyment of life that was just uncommon. As far as he was concerned, there was always somebody who had it so much worse.”
“He lived on hugs,” David Lambert said. “Despite his multiple diagnoses, he continued to be positive and loving.”
For the past two years, Amedeo lived in a group home in DeForest. The Monday before Thanksgiving, his parents learned he was taken to UW Health at the American Center with COVID-19. He was transferred to UW Hospital, where he died that Friday.
“We were hoping to have so much more time with him,” Mariapia Lambert said. “He had so much more to give.”
'Auntie Lo' cared for many children beyond her own
Growing up in Chicago, Lolita Dotson was 13 when her mother died. With her father not around, she relied on other family and friends for support.
By age 21, she had four children of her own. After some abusive relationships, she moved to Madison.
“It was a struggle,” said her youngest child, Arsenio Sorrell, 32, of Madison. “We were in and out of shelters and low-income housing when we first moved here, for quite some time.”
Despite the challenges, Dotson had a nurturing nature that wasn’t limited to her own children. She took in several others who needed a place to stay for weeks, months or years.
“She felt everybody deserved the basic needs, the basic love that children should have,” said her daughter Ayshia Green-Calloway.
“She was invincible,” said daughter Beaonca Green. “No matter what she endured in this life, she never allowed it to stop her from giving 100%.”
Known as “Auntie Lo,” Dotson, 53, died from COVID-19 on June 16 at UW Hospital. She had asthma, sleep apnea and high blood pressure, conditions that put her at higher risk for complications from coronavirus infection.
At her funeral, Sorrell read a poem that recalled his mom crying when he was a boy. “I’ve never been in a tsunami, but mama’s tears always seemed to drown out everything else,” he said.
But he also remembers her as a “bright spot, always trying to boost people’s spirits.”
Her resilience stemmed from her faith, he said. She was active at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Madison and then End Times Ministries International, where she was ordained as a missionary. More recently, she helped with the youth ministry for a congregation in Chicago, even though she lived in Madison and did clerical work for Madison’s Veterans Hospital.
Dotson tested positive for COVID-19 on May 14, Sorrell said. She was admitted to UW Hospital’s COVID-19 unit five days later. After developing pneumonia, she was placed on a ventilator May 27.
The next day, she had a stroke. She failed to recover and died after being taken off the ventilator.
Sorrell, a certified nursing assistant at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, worked in the hospital’s COVID-19 unit in the spring and said he wishes people would take steps to reduce the spread of the virus.
“At the hospital, I’ve seen it first-hand. I’ve seen it in my house first-hand,” he said. “It could be anybody next time. It could be your parents. It could be your sister, brother, grandma and grandpa, uncle or aunt.”
Dairy farmer, card player known as 'cream puff lady'
Bonnie Gerner made lefse and lemon meringue pies, but her reputation was tied to another treat.
“She was known as the ‘cream puff lady,’” said her daughter, Becky Sturdevant.
Starting in 1996, when Sturdevant was Blanchardville Dairy Queen, Gerner made cream puffs for the Green County Agricultural Chest, eventually preparing thousands each summer for the Green County Fair and Green County Cheese Days.
“It didn’t take long for her not to like (to eat) cream puffs anymore,” said Sturdevant, of Blue Mounds. “But she put all her love into making them.”
Gerner, 75, who lived near New Glarus, died from COVID-19 on June 12. She had a slow-growing form of leukemia and had received dialysis for kidney failure the past three years, which increased her risk of complications from the coronavirus.
But, “she was still living life with these things,” said Sturdevant, a respiratory therapist at UW Hospital. “You wouldn’t have even noticed she had these conditions. COVID took her away from us.”
Gerner, who grew up near Barneveld and on a dairy farm near Monroe, graduated from Monroe High School in 1963 and three years later married Ed Gerner. They had a dairy farm near Monticello and then near Blanchardville, until an electrical fire destroyed the barn. Later, they moved closer to New Glarus.
She had a variety of jobs off the farm, including at Equity Cooperative Livestock in Monroe, Lands’ End in Dodgeville and the former Betsy’s Kitchen in Barneveld, where she loved socializing as a waitress, her daughter said.
On days off, she and Ed would play dominoes, Rummikub or the card game Skip-Bo. Family gatherings also featured such games.
“You always saw cards or something sitting out on the table,” said Sturdevant, the youngest of three children. Her brother, Steve Gerner, lives in Adams County and her sister, Jennifer Engstad, lives in Belleville.
Gerner was also active at Adams Lutheran Church in Argyle.
It’s not clear where she acquired COVID-19, but she become ill in late May, ending up at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, where she died.
Sturdevant, whose job involves treating hospitalized coronavirus patients, sees up close the isolation they face. That may have made it even harder for her to handle her mom’s solitary last days.
“That’s what haunts me about my mom,” she said. “She was such a social person, and the last two weeks of her life she was alone.”
Woman worked at Oscar Mayer, sold Avon, loved the sun
Martha Peterson was a “pretty simple person” who enjoyed gardening and sunbathing, her son said.
“In the warm months, you couldn’t keep her inside,” Brian Peterson said. “The kids at the apartments called her the ‘crazy sun lady.’ She’d lay out there for three or four hours.”
Peterson grew up on a farm in Star Valley, near Soldier’s Grove. After living for a few years in Janesville, where she worked at Parker Pen, she lived in Madison for 40 years before spending her last years in Richland Center.
In Madison, she worked for about 10 years at Oscar Mayer — in the “wiener tunnel,” sorting good hot dogs from bad ones, her son said — and then sold cosmetics by walking door-to-door on the city’s North Side.
“She did it all on her feet,” her son said. “She didn’t drive. She would walk four or five miles a day to sell her Avon.”
Peterson, 77, died from COVID-19 on Oct. 12. She was living at Harvest Guest Home, an assisted-living facility in Richland Center. A car crash in 2016 broke her pelvis and caused other injuries, leading her to use a walker or wheelchair.
After she became ill with the coronavirus in early October, she was treated at Richland Hospital before returning to Harvest, where she died. Despite her injuries, she had been relatively healthy and may have lived many more years, given that her parents lived until their late 90s, her son said.
Her daughter, Melissa Peterson, lives in Richland Center. One sister, Karen Rayner, is in Viroqua and another, Rebecca Bald, is in Cottage Grove.
Peterson was so careful with money that she didn’t know what to do with the significant settlement she received after the crash, her son said. When he would stop by to bring her a few groceries, she would insist on paying him back.
“She was a penny-pincher,” said Brian Peterson, of Richland Center, who restores log cabins. “She could squeeze a dollar out of a dime.”
He said his mom was also known for baking, including his favorite treats: chocolate-covered Rice Krispie bars and caramel cookies with walnuts. “I’m still chubby because of those,” he said.
Known for frugality and family, engineer liked going for a ride
Mick Von Bergen, who had a hardscrabble upbringing in Iowa, detasseling corn to save money for college, was known for being “overly frugal,” his family said.
On a trip to Washington, D.C., one summer, his kids whined about having to walk to another monument. Von Bergen, who by then had a steady engineering job, loaded them into an air-conditioned taxi. When he learned how much the fare would be, he changed his mind.
“He made us get out of the cab and walk,” said daughter Kate Von Bergen-Donnelly, a triplet.
It was all the more surprising, then, that when she and her brother and sister left for college in 1994, their dad bought a 1964 Austin Healey convertible. His wife called it his midlife crisis but said the family loved taking the car through the rolling hills west of Madison when the weather cooperated.
“We still call nice days ‘Healey days,’” said Judy Von Bergen, who married him in 1973.
Mick Von Bergen, 77, died from COVID-19 on May 25. A high school track and football athlete who enjoyed tennis later in life, he was diagnosed in 2010 with Lewy body dementia, in which the mind and body gradually decline and people often experience hallucinations.
Living at Attic Angel Community in Madison since 2015, he didn’t understand why his family couldn’t visit in person after the pandemic struck. They imagine how difficult it would have been for him to have continued living in isolation through this winter, given his confusion and physical limitations.
“It’s very sad, but there’s a lot of relief too,” said Von Bergen-Donnelly, a speech language pathologist in the Madison School District.
“His body was ready to go,” Judy Von Bergen said.
Her husband worked at Warman International, a machinery manufacturer with operations in Madison, eventually as general manager, until 2001, shortly after it was acquired by Scotland-based Weir Group.
Son Nicholas Von Bergen is a pediatric cardiologist at UW Health and daughter Jacqueline Whitley is program coordinator of UW-Madison’s Women in Science and Engineering residential learning community.
When their father contracted the coronavirus in May, the Vietnam War Army veteran was treated at Madison’s Veterans Hospital, where he died several days later.
He kept in touch with Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers from Iowa State University, to whom he still owes a keg of beer, his family said. He sold them a bunch of cheap beer steins during their college days, the story goes, saying he’d buy them a keg if they bought enough mugs. They did, but he never delivered.
“When it’s safe to gather again, we plan on paying off that debt,” Von Bergen-Donnelly said.
Waiter taught acting, played tough guys in indie films
Kevin Croak, who taught acting at UW-Madison and appeared in independent films, was known for portraying bad guys.
“He loved to play the mob bosses and the gangsters, from James Cagney onward,” said Wil Loper, who directed Croak in several entries in the 48 Hour Film Project, an annual competition.
In real life, Croak was anything but a thug, said those who knew him. “He was very gentle and mild-mannered,” Loper said.
Croak’s sister Cathy Braiman agreed. “It’s funny that the place he landed was this tough guy,” she said. “It’s just the opposite of how I saw him.”
Croak, 64, of Madison, died Nov. 28 from complications of COVID-19, according to what the medical examiner told the family, Braiman said. Single and living alone, Croak was found dead at his apartment a few days after calling in sick at his waiter job at Olive Garden near West Towne Mall. He had no underlying medical conditions that the family knew of, Braiman said.
He was the fourth of five children who grew up on Madison’s West Side and attended Edgewood High School. His siblings left for Colorado, Maryland and Texas — with one living in West Allis — while Kevin stayed in the Madison area, where some cousins remain.
In the mid-80s, Jay Ekleberry hired Croak at Wisconsin Union’s Mini Courses, now part of Wheelhouse Studios. Over more than 30 years, Croak taught basic acting techniques to hundreds of students in the five-week or six-week courses offered several times a year.
“He really engaged people,” Ekleberry said. “He customized the class based on who was enrolled.”
Loper directed Croak in six short films, including one for which Croak won a best actor award in 2016 in the 48 Hour Film Project in Milwaukee. When Loper would ask Croak to give his narration a bit of Rod Serling from “Twilight Zone” or Mr. Phelps from “Mission Impossible,” Croak knew exactly what he meant, Loper said.
“On the next take, he would just nail it,” Loper said. “He lent gravitas towards it more so than caricature.”
Croak was in nearly 400 films and more than 100 plays, including Madison Theatre Guild productions, according his undated online resume. “I have made a career out of playing antagonists who ultimately come to an untimely end, including slippery politicians, smarmy lawyers, corrupt cops, mercurial mob mosses, sleazy nightclub owners, salacious Hollywood directors, eccentric professors and germaphobic pimps,” the resume says.
Veronica Myers, who met Croak a few years ago while waitressing at Olive Garden, said she considered him her best friend.
“Kevin had a way of interacting with people that made them feel like they were the only person in the world,” she said.
Mom valued gift of shared experiences
Anne Heine’s daughters lived near her and saw her regularly, but she would still talk with them by phone almost every day, often several times a day.
“She always had the insight into how everybody else was doing in the family,” said daughter Kate Dale, of Fitchburg. “She was the hub.”
Daughter Meg Prestigiacomo, of Madison, said her mother regularly attended her own sons’ soccer games and band concerts, and liked giving experiences — like a weekend trip to Chicago — instead of items as gifts.
“She definitely valued getting together over things,” Prestigiacomo said.
Heine, of Fitchburg, died from COVID-19 on July 8, her 73rd birthday. She had no underlying medical conditions and had been in the hospital only three times, for the births of her children, including son Tim Heine of Florida.
“I used to say, ‘If I ever got it or my family ever got it, we’d be fine because we’re healthy,’” Prestigiacomo said. “I don’t believe that anymore.”
Despite rarely going out and wearing a mask when she did, Heine became ill in mid-June, her daughters said. By June 24, she was at UW Hospital and soon on a ventilator. The next two weeks were full of ups and downs, with Heine’s condition seeming to improve enough that doctors said she could come off the ventilator before complications caused her death the next day.
Heine’s daughters are thankful the whole family, including their spouses and children, spent two weeks in Italy with their mom in July 2019. “She was so grateful to be a part of that trip,” Dale said.
With the holidays coming up, the daughters recall how much their mom loved entertaining, with just the right music playing and candles lit. “It would be beautiful, down to the flowers and the tablecloths and the dishes,” Dale said. “Everything was always welcoming and warm and cozy.”
Heine made an effort to keep in touch with friends and was good at sending thank you notes. After her death, her family saw reciprocation in the hundreds of notes they received letting them know how kind their mom was.
“Being kind was truly our mom’s legacy,” Dale said.
After 64 years of marriage, 'I really don't have a confidant'
For 28 years, Janet Schieldt worked as a teacher’s aide at Lowell Elementary School in Madison. She was also active in the education of her three children.
“She was on the PTA, she went on all the field trips, she made all the cupcakes,” said daughter Mary Jo Schieldt, of Madison.
Schieldt and her husband, Sheldon, got sick the same day in late March from COVID-19, a few days after encountering a coughing child at a clinic in the early days of the pandemic.
She died a week later, on April 3, at Stoughton Hospital, not far from the couple’s farm along the Yahara River between Stoughton and Edgerton. She was 84 and for years had taken a medication for rheumatoid arthritis that increases the risk of infections.
She and Sheldon, graduates of Edgerton High School, were married for 64 years. They discussed politics, their children, their grandchildren, “whatever was going on in our crazy world,” said Sheldon, 86. “We didn’t always agree, but we were at least a sounding board for each other.”
Now, he said, “I really don’t have a confidant.”
The couple had season tickets to Badgers football games for 38 years and to Badgers basketball games for 16 years.
As they both developed body aches and a fever in the spring, Janet’s weakened lungs left her struggling to breathe and she was taken to the hospital April 1. Sheldon stayed with her, even as his illness grew worse and he had to wear a “space suit,” with a pump supplying air in a hood.
The rest of the family kept vigil in the hospital’s parking lot. “It was completely empty, not a car,” said daughter Jodi Schieldt-Grubb. “It was almost like a ghost town.”
Now, nearly eight months after her mother’s death, with the COVID-19 death toll rising in Wisconsin, Mary Jo Schieldt said she is frustrated so many people refuse to wear masks.
“If they don’t care about themselves, they should at least care about their family, friends and community,” she said.
Father of teenagers cooked chili for neighbors, friends
John Fleck was known for his huge batches of chili.
“I can’t even tell you how many cans of beans and tomatoes he would put in there,” said his wife, Pam. “He would always make way more than we could eat. That was always a reason to invite neighbors over, or friends.”
Fleck, 54, of Mount Horeb, died from COVID-19 on April 4, leaving behind two children: Jack, 16, and Mackenzie, 14. He had no underlying medical conditions.
Pam Fleck said her husband loved cooking, home projects and the outdoors. At Quivey’s Grove, where he was a manager years ago, he started the restaurant’s Beer Fest, which has continued for 27 years.
Shortly before they were married in 1999, the couple had a house built on 15 acres near Blanchardville. They did most of the interior work themselves. John also enjoyed landscaping.
“He appreciated nature, being out where you could see the hawks soar,” she said.
They moved in 2017 to Mount Horeb, with both of them most recently working for the insurer Humana. He had also worked for Duluth Trading Company and Lands’ End.
On March 17, he woke up with a fever. With the coronavirus just starting to pick up in Wisconsin, he was worried, mostly about giving his illness to Pam, whose immune system is compromised from rheumatoid arthritis.
But when he called his medical clinic over several days, they said to stay home and not to worry, Pam Fleck said.
After a co-worker tested positive for COVID-19, John was tested March 25 and learned the next day he was infected. He started to have trouble breathing and Pam took him to UW Hospital, where he was put on a ventilator March 27.
His kidneys stopped working two days later, requiring dialysis, and he developed bacterial pneumonia, Pam said. But by April 3, he seemed to be turning around, with doctors saying he might be able to go off the ventilator the next day.
But the next morning, his heartbeat became erratic. A nurse let Pam listen by phone as a medical team tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him and then declared him dead. Just hours earlier, she learned she had COVID-19 too.
She recovered from her illness, but trying to comfort her children while dealing with the loss of her husband and being ill was a lot to handle.
“We were shut in our house, not being able to mourn with anyone else or get comforted by anyone else,” she said. “It was horrible. I still can’t believe it.”
A teaser who was in tune, despite hearing impairment
Steve Uttech was born with a hearing impairment and couldn’t make out people’s voices, but he could read lips and sing along with others.
But when it came to “Happy Birthday,” he purposely bellowed the tune off key and out of sync with everyone else, said his daughter Karrie Uttech. It became a tradition that made everyone laugh.
“We talk about how boring our family events are going to be now. Somebody is going to have to step up,” she said. “He was always very funny.”
Uttech, 69, of Watertown, died from COVID-19 on Oct. 25. He had no underlying medical conditions, his daughter said.
Unable to hear except for some low-register sounds, Uttech went to a school for the deaf as a child but graduated from Watertown High School in 1969. He worked for Watertown Metals, later known as Western Industries, for 44 years — most recently in quality control — before retiring several years ago, his daughter said.
When Karrie Uttech and her brother and sister were growing up, their father made it clear he didn’t want them to learn American Sign Language, even though he used it with deaf friends.
“Dad wanted us to talk to him by him reading our lips,” she said. “That was very important to him.”
He knew all the words to “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and could sing it on key. “For someone not being able to hear, it was pretty amazing,” Karrie Uttech said.
During retirement, he enjoyed catching up with friends in Watertown and elsewhere he hadn’t seen for years. “He was a true social butterfly,” she said.
He became ill in late September, testing positive for the coronavirus and developing pneumonia. On Oct. 3, he was admitted to ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, where he was put on a ventilator until he died.
At his memorial service this month, Karrie Uttech recalled how her dad would sneak up on loved ones and tickle them.
“He often drove me crazy, but what I wouldn’t give for that now,” she said.
'Gentle giant' initially skeptical about pandemic
Richard Grams had his home built on a wooded hill northeast of Deerfield, with enough land to add two houses for some of his children nearby.
He built Greater Insurance Service Corp., a Madison company he founded in 1974 that today has 18 other locations around Wisconsin.
In his 70s, he built — from scratch, over several years — a log cabin on Squirrel Lake near Minocqua, where the family has three other cabins.
The man whom loved ones called a “gentle giant” died from COVID-19 on Oct. 7, apparently after getting infected over Labor Day weekend in the Northwoods.
Grams, 80, had no underlying medical conditions, said his granddaughter Jamae Wierzba, a UW Hospital emergency room nurse. “He was an 80-year-old who lived his life like a 40, 50-year-old,” she said.
A supporter of President Donald Trump, Grams was initially skeptical about the seriousness of the pandemic. “He was reluctant to believe that this was as big of a problem as they were making it to be,” Wierzba said.
He became more concerned about the coronavirus over the summer, wearing masks and avoiding crowds as recommended, she said. But some doubt remained, said Grams’ son-in-law, Minnesota state Sen. Matt Klein, a Democrat and a doctor.
“I would advise him to wear masks and then to distance socially and follow the usual regulations and I think he was skeptical about those recommendations,” Klein told CNN, noting that he and Grams had a good relationship.
Through his entrepreneurship, Grams encouraged those around him to achieve, said Wierzba, who credits him for helping her pursue a nursing degree and now a master’s in nursing.
“He was somebody who pushes you to your limits, and pushes you to be who you should be, and doesn’t let down,” she said. “But he did that in a very gentle way.”
When he started having trouble breathing in September, she drove him to the emergency room, at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. He was admitted and put in intensive care.
After 16 days on a ventilator, during which no visitors were allowed, he died at the hospital.
“That’s the biggest thing with COVID,” Wierzba said. “It’s not just the sick family member. It’s the dying with loneliness too.”
Doctor, tennis player, role model never complained
As Dr. Timothy Donovan led his daughter and granddaughter on a lengthy hike near Tucson, Arizona, he stumbled and fell. The Madison doctor brushed himself off and insisted the group keep going so his granddaughter, 10 or 11 at the time, could experience success in the outdoors.
The next day, Donovan went to urgent care, where an X-ray revealed a fracture. “He had broken his wrist, but he didn’t say one word to anybody,” said his daughter, Kristin Nelson, who was with her daughter on the hike. “He wanted to give her a sense of accomplishment.”
Donovan was never one to complain, Nelson said, whether it was growing up as the eldest son of 10 children in southeastern Wisconsin, ushering Dean Clinic through mergers as president or fighting multiple myeloma in his later years, when he became UW-Madison’s oldest stem-cell transplant recipient at the age of 72.
“He would listen to the rest of us complain about one thing or another,” Nelson said. “But he’d just focus on the positive.”
Donovan died from COVID-19 and his blood cancer on April 10 at age 82. He became ill from the coronavirus in late March.
“He didn’t even get that sick with COVID-19. But he was so sick with his cancer, that was all it took,” said Dr. Conrad Andringa, a longtime friend and Dean Clinic colleague.
Donovan, from a Catholic family, entered the seminary but started a hunger strike to bring attention to his desire to attend college. “It was to let his parents know he wanted to be a doctor, not a priest,” Andringa said.
After attending Marquette University, Donovan received his medical degree from UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He and Andringa, medical school classmates, ended up at Dean Clinic, Andringa as a pediatrician and Donovan an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Donovan became president of Dean Clinic, helping it merge with another doctor group and launch an HMO, Dean Health Plan.
“He was a friend you could count on,” said Andringa, who played the card game Sheepshead with Donovan and joined him in attending Badgers football, basketball and hockey games.
Donovan was a dedicated tennis player, spending many hours at the John Powless Tennis Center in Madison. He also played bridge, achieving the title of life master.
“He worked extremely hard at whatever he did, whether it be tennis or golf or bridge,” said Nelson, a veterinarian in Janesville.
As with many COVID-19 deaths, a traditional memorial service was not held.
“It’s a big Irish family and there was no big funeral, no big wake,” Nelson said. “There wasn’t a lot of closure.”