This year was supposed to be different.
This was to be the year we all return to life as usual.
While parades and family gatherings returned in 2021, this year was not much different than the last that was very forgettable.
But there were many positive things that happened this year. Students went to class again. Theater came back with live shows. And music returned to Wisconsin with the Foo Fighters in July being the first national big act to put on a live show.
But problems like worker shortages hit many industries including restaurants, and working from home still was a reality for some.
The vaccines began early this year and continue with nearly 60% of the state having received at least one dose.
We saw images of the Capitol early in the year and many trials. Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, blasted into space. People also started going back to the movies.
No one knows what 2022 will bring, but it will be better than this year.
This is a look back at the top stories in Jefferson County this year that appeared in the Daily Union.
There are photos also to show our year and even a list of famous people we lost this year.So here was our year. May the next be what we want.
10. Super Bowl intro filmed in Fort Atkinson, Jefferson
As Vince Lombardi walked the sidelines of Lambeau Field in Green Bay once again for an introduction to the Super Bowl, Jefferson County residents got to see some familiar scenes.
The introduction for the Super Bowl captured your typical small-town charm. A mixture of charm and grit, whose residents have persevered through many tough times by coming together like a team.
That’s the image filmmaker and location scout Nick Langholff was going for when he sought out a quintessential small town for a signature NFL ad to run as an opener for the Super Bowl in February. As he considered communities all across the area to have the iconic image of Vince Lombardi stroll, he just had to sneak in a few shots from his hometown of Fort Atkinson.
As it turned out, NFL representatives really liked Fort’s atmosphere, selecting the local community as one of those featured in the league’s high-profile commercial which premiered during the Super Bowl Feb. 7.
A lot of other Fort Atkinson and Jefferson County strands wound up weaving into the whole process as well.
Langholff’s resume includes 35 commercials with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and several with Giannis Antetokounmpo from the Milwaukee Bucks. He also has worked on a recent special on Tony Romo, football player turned analyst who served as announcer for the Super Bowl.
Around a year ago, Langholff got the call about scouting locations for the NFL ad, which was to feature a reenactment of some of the inspirational quotes of Lombardi, who coached the Packers from 1959-1967, leading the team to two Super Bowl victories.
The NFL wanted to showcase elements of Wisconsin that would have been meaningful to the iconic coach, using Wisconsin communities as the backdrop for Lombardi’s own words in quotes meant to resonate with the “hard times” the state, country and world are currently experiencing.
The communities of Green Bay, home of the Packers, and Milwaukee, where the team also played some of its games until the early 1990s, immediately came to mind, but the producers also wanted to touch on the small-town aspect of Wisconsin as a way to portray Lombardi’s connection with common citizens from around the state.
The NFL narrowed down that list to their three top choices. Officials liked Oconomowoc’s charm, Jefferson’s river layout and Watertown’s extensive historic downtown, but there was something about Fort Atkinson that really sold them on the local community.
“It was just your quintessential small town — a mix of charm and grit,” Langholff said. “It was authentic.”
Fort Atkinson scenes that made the commercial included one in front of the Powers Tire mechanic shop and a downtown scene in which the Cold Spring building on Main Street is remade into a guitar shop where workers are removing boards from the windows, symbolizing the reopening of businesses across the country.
A shot of Fort HealthCare also made it into the ad, as well as the interior of a home on Sherman Street where a family is shown making dinner.
While the commercial was being shot in Fort Atkinson, crews rented the Creamery building downtown and used that as their “base camp,” Langholff said.
While working on the NFL commercial at Lambeau Field, Langholff noted a familiar name among the photos showcased in the Lambeau Tunnel, that of Fort Atkinson native Evan Siegle who now serves as an official staff photographer for the Green Bay Packers.
A return of shows, parades, and fun
It was almost a year without things like live musical theater, movies, and well, fun.
At least that’s how it seemed.
But 2021 brought those things back, although limited at times.
Holiday parades returned to communites in the county and people started going to the movies again.
There are shows to watch and concerts to enjoy your favorite band.
And perhaps one of the biggest events in the county to return was Gemuetlichkeit Days, Jefferson’s annual German heritage festival.
Following a canceled anniversary event in 2020 and with the COVID-19 pandemic still trailing on, 2021’s delayed fest could have been a bust.
Instead, two years of pent-up anticipation and community spirit all combined to make the delayed “50th” a record-breaking one, with crowds far in excess of those seen in recent years — or perhaps ever.
“It’s a great time to be together with friends and family after what we’ve all been through the last couple of years,” said past queen Kelly Becker.
Indeed, attendees came from near and far, some folks coming out of long-standing tradition and others coming for the first time.
The three-day event, which took place in September, included multiple live bands; German food, dress, dance and entertainment; and a variety of fun contests from the rolling pin toss to a classic car show to sauerkraut eating to the stein- lifting competition.
Many came to relive old memories, and to make some special new ones.
8. Gale Scott retires
One of Jefferson County’s longest-tenured governmental department heads, Gail Scott, is calling it a career after four decades of service, including helping manage the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scott’s retirement is effective Jan. 21, 2022.
“Gail has spent a lifetime of dedication to Jefferson County, not only in her current role as the director of public health, but she also grew up in the greater Fort Atkinson area,” Jefferson County Administrator Ben Wehmeier said in December as he reflected on Scott’s pending professional exit.
Wehmeier said Scott handled emergencies calmly and effectively, no matter their size and scope.
“Gail brought a passion to providing the best public health programs to all she served in a caring and professional manner,” he said. “This included great collaboration with various healthcare stakeholders and the use of community engagement processes.”
Scott will continue to reside in Fort Atkinson as she eases into her post-career — and perhaps especially, post-pandemic, “civilian” lifestyle.
“I have strong ties to Jefferson County because my mom was born in Fort Atkinson and my dad was born in Jefferson,” Scott said one recent day on a break from her daily duties leading the county’s health workers. “They actually met because my dad’s brother was working at the courthouse in the courts and my mom worked in the clerk of courts office.”
She lives in Fort Atkinson with her husband.
“We do plan on remaining here, as we enjoy where we live, and we also like the four seasons. It’s been a great place to live,” she said.
And she is ready to move on from the pandemic, like anyone else.
“We are just as tired of it as everyone else — maybe more so, because we haven’t been able to do much of anything except COVID-19 response,” she said. “I more than tripled my staff, worked very long hours and sometimes didn’t know how I’d get through the next five minutes. That’s how stressful this has been.”
Scott said that a running joke among those in public health before the pandemic was that most people never knew what public health even was, or what the professionals in it did.
“We long for that anonymity again,” Scott said with a laugh. “To be very transparent, the negativity around COVID-19 has been so difficult. We are only doing our jobs and trying to get the best information out there. Yet, we have sometimes been demoralized and threatened. I see my co-workers continue to work despite all of this, and I so admire and thank them for it. They are a great group of people who just want to do the right thing.”
“The stress of the last few years has made it clear that I’ve worked long enough,” she said.
So, what will Gail Scott do in retirement?
“This is the question I get asked the most,” she said. “After 40 years in my job, I want to get reacquainted with life outside of work. The last few years have just been me, my chair and my computer — working sometimes 15 hours a day. I do want to travel, spend more time with family and friends, and possibly volunteer on a board. I’ve always wanted to volunteer at Fort HealthCare, so I am hoping to do that, as well.”Ice Rescue
It was only 12 minutes.
Barely enough time to make a cup of coffee. Certainly, it did not seem like enough time to help save three people who had fallen into the icy Rock River.
Twelve minutes from when the call came in, all were safe. It makes one think of what truly can be done within that short amount of time.
In March, when a 12-year-old girl fell through the ice while trying to retrieve her dog that had wandered out onto the river, the moments that followed showed the training of volunteers and the dedication of fire, EMS and bystanders that exist in Jefferson, and everywhere.
When the call came across the radio, Jefferson Fire Chief Ron Wegner heard that a person had fallen on the ice walking along the river near the Milwaukee Street Pedestrian Bridge.
He, along with other rescue staff, saved three people in the water that day.
Other patrons dining at Heron’s Landing saw a canoe outside the restaurant and attempted to rescue the girl.
However, the canoe capsized and two men who had been in the canoe spilled into the frigid water.
Within minutes, Wegner, Amy Ross and Bridgett Jira, part of the Jefferson EMS Paramedic Ambulance crew, were on their way.
Wegner and the team helped pull all three to safety.
After he was pulled to safety, the last man on the ice grabbed the bag. As he was being pulled, he fell through the ice into the water. Soon, he too was pulled to safety.
“All of this happened very quickly, very efficiently,” Wegner said. “Why? I don’t know. It just did.
“I would like to chalk it up to a great paramedic staff, great law enforcement and great bystanders who followed instructions,” he remarked.
“I was a cog in the wheel,” he said. “And there was a big wheel that night.”
Mike Revolinski, a former fire chief of the Rome Fire Department, was killed in a house explosion, believed caused by a natural gas leak, and resulting fire July 27 in the Village of Rome. His wife, Sharon, escaped the explosion without injury. The explosion, described by residents as deafening, leveled the house and created a large debris field. A plume of dense black smoke also was observed rising into the air. Following the explosion, residents and businesses in and around Rome — a village of some 700 people — were left without power. Afterward, friends, family and village residents assisted with the cleanup effort.
Revolinski was remembered as a “super good guy” who always wore a smile on his face.
Revolinski, who perished in the house explosion and resulting fire in the Village of Rome, was a former fire chief of the Rome Fire Department who had served in that capacity for about 10 years.
“He would do anything for anybody — (he was) very, very helpful,” said family spokesman Kevin Broedlow, brother-in-law to Mike and Sharon Revolinski who had resided at the home destroyed in the blast. “He always had a joke for you if you asked him.”
Sharon, who escaped the explosion without injury, was gathered with her family Tuesday at the site located at the corner of Water and Milwaukee streets.
“Sharon wasn’t in the house at the time, so she escaped unharmed,” Broedlow informed.He described Mike as someone who always kept everyone in the loop.
“He was the type of guy who would call you if there was a bad thunderstorm coming, things like that,” Broedlow said. “He made you aware of what was going on, stuff like that. Just a truly genuine person.”
Also, as a veteran Mike proudly served his country in the U.S. Army, he noted.
“He was a good guy who always wore a smile on his face,” Broedlow recalled.
In earlier years, Mike, who was 69, was a passionate outdoors enthusiast, he pointed out.
“He was an avid fisherman, an avid deer hunter — an all-around good guy,” Broedlow said.
Suspect in custody in fatal Fort fire
A Fort Atkinson woman was charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the death of her grandmother after authorities discovered a body inside a house fire Friday, June 11. Elizabeth M. Durkee has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Durkee was taken into custody as a suspect with the fatal house fire, which investigators deemed suspicious.
After being arrested, Durkee reportedly told authorities that she lived at the Fort Atkinson residence with her 2-year-old daughter and her 72-year-old grandmother, the victim.
According to the criminal complaint, the victim was in poor health and had advanced Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. She also had suffered a debilitating stroke in March, was blind and spent much of her time bedridden.
The criminal complaint states that Durkee said she hoped the victim would fall and hurt herself, or Durkee could take a pillow and smother the victim. Durkee reportedly said that if there was a fire in the house, she would leave the victim in the house.
Durkee — charged in connection with the death of her grandmother in a house fire that occurred June 11 in Fort Atkinson — pleaded not guilty to the charge of first-degree intentional homicide in Jefferson County Circuit Court.
The Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office has charged Durkee, 36, of 415 Foster St., Fort Atkinson, with one count of first-degree intentional homicide, one count of strangulation and suffocation, one count of arson and one count of mutilating a corpse after authorities discovered a body inside the house fire.
According to the Department of Justice, firefighters encountered heavy fire conditions and ultimately located a deceased adult victim in the residence, which was the defendant’s grandmother.
The Fort Atkinson Fire and Police Departments requested the State Fire Marshal’s Office at DOJ to investigate the death. Investigators found the circumstances of the incident suspicious, and were concerned for the location and imminent safety of a child, the defendant’s daughter, that resided at the home.
On Jan. 26, Bryan Palacios, 14, and his 4-year-old nephew, Ethan Graciano, perished when flames engulfed the home owned by the Palacios-Perez family in the 400 block of Milo Street in Fort Atkinson. At the time, Bryan was trying to save his nephew from the fire. A neighbor said the boy’s father apparently smelled smoke and scaled a ladder to an upstairs window to break the glass in an attempt to rescue the two boys. She said the impression was that Bryan was making a valiant attempt to save his nephew. Unfortunately, the flames were too intense for Bryan to reach the window, and both boys were overcome.
It was a Friday night, and Jaime Zuniga-Cortes and Bryan Palacios were having fun, making plans to hang out for the weekend with a few friends, go skateboarding around Fort Atkinson. Something they often did for the last decade.
“If Bryan wasn’t over here, then Jaime was over there,” said Carly Cortes, Jaime’s mother.
Early on Saturday morning, Carly was looking through Facebook posts and had seen a local group chat wondering where all the smoke was coming from along Milo Street.
She saw where the smoke had come from as firefighters battled the blaze. The house where Bryan lived had caught on fire early that morning.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” Jaime said.
They were joking and having fun only hours earlier.For those who never got to meet Bryan and experience his great personality, there is one thing that his friend Jaime wants everyone to know about him.
“He died a hero,” he said.
3. Mask wars
To mask, or not to mask, that is the question.
Parents and concerned citizens packed school board meetings across the county the last few months as the debate on whether to have students and staff mask up or not was on the table.
The meetings lasted hours, and hundreds of people wanted to make their voices heard on both sides.
There were emergency meetings called by districts like Jefferson, and COVID measures adjusted each week to keep up with cases.
Jefferson also decided to update their dashboard daily, instead of once a week.
After many meetings in Fort Atkinson, the district in December made face coverings optional for all groups when on school grounds.
With the new omicron variant now making up most of the new cases for the virus, schools across the state will have more choices to make in the new year.
Warehouse fire in Fort
In what may be one of the largest fires in Fort Atkinson history, nearly 50 fire departments responded to the sceen of a warehouse near the city’s downtown in August.
And more than 1 million gallons of water were used to put out the blaze that would burn for days with rubber that had caught on fire.
When Fort Atkinson Fire Chief Daryl Rausch arrived at the DB Oaks building, flames already were coming through the roof.
First on the scene, he soon was joined by seven city employees who double as firefighters. They were greeted by a line of roaring orange flame and a black billow of smoke that stretched miles into the sky.
In the interim, all 44 members of Fort Atkinson’s volunteer fire department had pitched in to fight the blaze, assisted by volunteers from 48 other departments spread across five counties and two states.
“They did a great job,” Rausch said of all of the firefighters who worked on the scene. “This very easily could have spread to envelop the whole complex.”
There was no one in the building at the time the fire started, but a few firefighters did require medical treatment due to heat exhaustion and at least one significant injury.
In the early hours of the fire, Fort Atkinson police went from door to door in the local neighborhood advising people to evacuate for their safety.
The former Thomas Industries building provided space for a number of local businesses.
Food and water donations came in steadily as firefighters from Fort Atkinson and other departments battled the blaze.
One local business, for example, donated 10 pizzas. Then that business’ customers, hearing about the donation, kept adding to that order as one way of expressing their appreciation for the volunteer firefighters and the efforts they were putting in to keep the community safe.
The vaccines begin
Perhaps no story affected more people this year than the start of the COVID-19 vaccines. Whether you got a shot or not, this story hit home for people as Jefferson County ramped up vaccines.
So far, 55.1% of residents in the county have been vaccinated.
This year also there were three vaccines to hit the market with Pfizer and Moderna being the main two. Johnson & Johnson also had a one shot vaccine, while the others required two doses, and now a booster.
The new omicron variant also is now the dominant version of the virus in the nation, accounting for 73% of new cases.
Last week there were more than 650,000 omicron infections in the U.S.
The virus has been distrupting professional sports, with the NFL having to schedule a game almost every day last week. And the NHL decided to pause their season. The NBA has seen teams with no starting players at times, like the Milwaukee Bucks.
To combat the spread of omicron, the government is making 500 million free rapid home tests available to the public.
The virus does not look to be going away anytime soon.
Here’s hoping that next year this story will not even make the Top 10.