As he made final preparations, he thanked friends, family and law enforcement gathered to wish him well, and talked with a small cadre of reporters documenting his trip, noting: it would be nice to maybe get out onto the 50-yard-line, and maybe even meet some players. While that might be a personal perk, his real goals are much larger; Dennis is hoping to raise money for five causes: Law Enforcement Death Response Team, Alzheimer’s disease, St. Jude children’s research, cancer research, and the March of Dimes.
To understand the commitment Dennis has to his 170-mile, 50-day Lambeau Field campaign – which he’ll make by wheelchair, propelling himself with one leg – one must learn the details of his life and the depth of his character.
‘I don’t quit’
His charities are not randomly selected; there is a chapter in his life, and a loved one’s memory and courage, represented by each of the organizations meant to benefit from this, his second journey. A first and similar quest was made in December when Dennis traveled some 120 miles from Beloit to Wrigley Field. That trip, too, was made by wheelchair in support of his causes, but for Dennis, the money is only part of the story: “I don’t answer questions about money... It’s not about the money. I do it because I want people to know that no matter what, there is still good in the world. I have a slogan: ‘Let’s all pull together for those who can’t walk together,’” he said.
Travel by way of wheelchair in the midst of a Wisconsin winter is not for the faint of heart. Describing Dennis as her inspiration, friend and support van driver for both trips, Joan Sohn, said: “I am in awe of this man; his inner strength is immeasurable. I am proud to call him my friend.”
Ever tenacious, Dennis sized his endurance this way: “I don’t quit,” he said.
‘I just wanted to travel’
Born in Stoughton and spending a large portion of his formative years in Beloit, Dennis said he had a desire to “see the country by thumb,” setting out with youthful abandon when he was 17.
“I took off with my clothes and a bag of popcorn and went to Florida,” he said.
For the next several years, he worked his way across the country, visiting 38 states. “I met a lot of amazing people,” he said.
Along the way, he did odd jobs to keep himself going. “I picked oranges, and I would go to local restaurants and do dishes or wipe tables.”
There were other milestones, too. When Dennis was 22, he returned to Beloit and met the woman whom he would later marry; they moved to Baltimore in the mid-1980s and married about a year later, he said.
Having achieved his G.E.D., Dennis discovered another love: “When I was hitchhiking around, I was getting a lot of rides from truck drivers, and I thought, ‘here it is: a job where you are getting paid to see the country.’”
By 1986, having completed his schooling at the Diesel Institute of America, he began his career as a local driver, hauling within the Washington D.C., Delaware and New Jersey corridor, he said.
Over the next several years, life took form: Dennis and his wife returned to Wisconsin, and the couple had two children. Following his parents to Portage, Dennis tried his hand at other types of employment, finding a successful partnership operating a bowling alley. Sometime later, a cousin steered him towards a job at Beloit Corp., where Dennis worked in the grinding department for three years, he said, but, he admitted, his heart was in trucking: “I missed it,” he said. Dennis no longer holds a driver’s license, but he said: “If I could go with one leg, I’d be going; I’d give up everything I’m doing right now to get back on the road.”
Two accidents, different outcomes
By the early 2000s, Dennis was back on the road; “Once I returned to truck driving, it was my full-time career,” he said, but it was a career that came with some perils.
There are many dates that are seared into Dennis’s mind, one of which is Feb. 10, 2010. On that day, he said, he was driving a load of yogurt through North Carolina down a “curvy mountain road” when things went terribly wrong. “I didn’t hear my engine brakes so I started using my foot pedal,” he said. “I tried using it three times, and then I noticed my trailer was on fire, so I turned the steering wheel hard. I wanted to intentionally hit the mountain head on so I wouldn’t go over the side, but instead, I did end up going over the side.”
In the moments that followed, Dennis said, the truck slide over the guardrail and plummeted. “All the while I’m thinking: I’m dead, I saw my kids, I was waiting for my last breath. They (police) told me the truck went 400 feet, end-over-end, in the air,” he said.
When the truck stopped, Dennis said, he noticed it was resting on a tree. “The tree grabbed my front tire and held the 79,000 pounds of my truck and its load,” he said. “I climbed out through the window and walked up the mountain and waited for help.”
Then, on June 20, 2012, fate twisted again: It was 2:30 a.m. Dennis said, when he, having stopped for coffee at a truck stop in Indiana, was preparing to reenter the highway, which was configured such that semis could only travel in two of four lanes. As he and another semi approached the lanes, he said, he noticed a car had pulled over to the side of the road, but a portion of it still blocked the right traffic lane. The truck in front of him swerved into his lane to avoid the car, he said, and while he tried to slow down, there just wasn’t enough time. “I don’t remember too much after that,” he said. “All I know is that I hit him (the other truck) so hard that I went underneath his trailer. I don’t remember that part.
“When I came to, I could reach out from my truck and touch the other guy’s trailer. There was no pain. My steering column and his trailer were embedded in my body. I sat in that truck for seven-and-a-half hours while they worked on getting me out.
“I’d lost a lot of blood, and they had to do something or I was going to bleed out. So they called in a trauma surgeon. The odds were a 41 percent chance of living if I kept the leg, and a 42 percent chance of living if they cut it off, so they opted to cut it off at the ankle. They did it with a local anesthetic and I don’t remember it.
When Dennis arrived at the hospital, he said, his family had already made the three-hour drive to be by his side.
“I remember seeing my son and giving him the thumbs up, like football players do when they are carried from the field, so he’d know I was O.K. When a football player does it, you know that’s a good sign,” he said.
Recovery and hardship
Months of recovery followed, Dennis said, but the path was not smooth: after several infections and seven more surgeries, his lower leg and knee were also removed. The knee was removed as a precaution, he said, to prevent further infections.
Dennis’s knee was removed on Aug. 7, 2012, he said, but it wasn’t the memory of the surgery that brought a swell of emotion. When he awoke from the knee surgery in 2012, his mother, Betty, told him that his father, Richard, had passed away during the night. He had battled Alzheimer’s disease for four years and died in his sleep, Dennis said.
With visible emotion, Dennis noted: “My dad always liked a country western song called ‘My Woman, My Woman, My Wife,’ by Marty Robbins.” On the occasion of their last visit together, Dennis recalled, he and his father sat side-by-side in their wheelchairs. He had been given a five-hour pass from the hospital to visit with his father who was living in a nursing home in Beloit. The song came on the radio, Dennis said, and even with his Alzheimer’s, when Richard heard the song, he held Betty’s hand.
Dennis’ recovery, consisting of the time he spent in a Chicago hospital and then Mercy Hospital in Janesville, took about 70 days, he said. When he was released, he returned home to his mother’s house in Beloit.
Later, he purchased a Wisconsin-based business and a home, and began rebuilding his life.
“One night, I got a call from my cousin saying that mom was going to the hospital because she couldn’t stop coughing,” he said. “That was a Friday night. By Monday morning, the doctors were saying that 80 percent of mom’s lungs were with cancer and she had two brain tumors. The cancer was Stage 4, inoperable, and they gave her six months to live.
“She didn’t want to be in a nursing home; she wanted to come home with me, so I brought her home.”
Visibly moved as he remembered, Dennis described a trip he and his mother took to Las Vegas. “She’d never had a honeymoon,” he said. “I took care of her everyday, with no leg, and I’d do it again if I had to,” he said.
Betty died in 2014. “She passed away in the middle of the night. I promised my mother I’d be with her until the end, and the end came when I kissed her on the head and they closed the casket,” Dennis said.
After Betty died, Dennis returned to his business and one day while working he had a seizure. After arriving at a hospital in Madison, he learned that he had a broken hip, likely from the accident. It was discovered in 2014, he said, learning then that his hip had been completely torn from its socket. He’d blocked out the pain to care for his mother, he said.
Dennis had hip replacement surgery, “and here,” he said, “is where the story starts to get happier.” While he was in recovery in a care facility in Darlington, a process that took some 60 days, he was fitted with a prosthetic leg. He hadn’t walked in two years, he said.
Happy to be upright, two weeks later, he walked in a charity event sponsored through the March of Dimes for his young cousin Mason Bartram. At the time, Dennis said, Mason was 3 years old. Today, fundraising activities continue on his behalf through an annual event called Mason’s Angels.
Losing K-9 Officer Ryan Copeland
November 23, 2015, is another date easily recalled by Dennis, when tragedy struck the family again: this time, a cousin, and member of the McFarland Police Department K-9 Officer Ryan Copeland, was killed in a car accident. Born and raised in Janesville, living in Edgerton at the time of the accident, Copeland, 33, was killed when a vehicle crossed into his lane of traffic on County Trunk N in the town of Albion. He joined the police department in 2013, his obituary stated and was the department’s first K-9 officer.
“When he came home, he said he always wanted to be a cop. McFarland was his first department. He was a member of the K-9 unit, working with his dog, Boris. In 2015, he came home from a trip and got into his car to pick Boris up and was hit by a vehicle and killed instantly,” Dennis said.
Copeland served 10 years overseas, in Iraq and was a Special Forces sniper, Dennis said. He spent seven years as a member of the Green Berets, he added.
Boris is still a member of the department, McFarland Police Chief Craig Sherven said. Sherven was among those on hand to see Dennis off from his starting point at the Big Cow in Janesville.
Those wishing to follow Dennis as he works his way north or make donations to his causes may do so through his Facebook page: Dennis’s Lambeau Journey.