The corporate neighbor

Published in the Minnesota Daily 9/20/2009. First Place winner of the AAJA Student Journalism award for news reporting.

A growing corporate structure to the landlord model is outpacing some city and University tools used to keep an eye on rental property owners. As more homes in the University district become rental property, it might surprise you to find out who your neighbor is.

By most standards, 1231 8th Street SE doesn’t look like a business.

Signs of residential life — furniture on the porch, a few beverage cans here and there — point to this being an average student rental home. But this house and 1221 8th Street S.E., a duplex two doors down, are more corporate than what meets the eye.

They are both registered in the name of two different corporations and run by two different people, but both are technically owned by Jim Eischens, whose business illustrates the complexity of the campus rental property system.

Since a 2003 fire in Dinkytown killed three University of Minnesota students, off-campus housing has undergone revolutionary changes aimed at creating safer campus housing.

City inspections swept through the University district, catching more than 100 code violations of poor property conditions and over-occupancy.

Since then, many landlords have gone semi-corporate, complicating inspections and University policies.

Forged in fire

On Sept. 20, 2003, students Elizabeth Wencl, Amanda Speckien and Brian Heiden died when their 827 15th Ave S.E. duplex burst into flames.

The only exit was through a double door on the porch where the fire started — survivors jumped from the second story window; the three students died of smoke inhalation.

Inspectors cleared property owner Eischens of negligence, but the fire left him, and the rest of the area landlords, in the center of a public outcry for safe rental housing.

In 2003, Eischens owned more than 100 properties. At the time, he was the source of the most tenant complaints through University Student Legal Service (SLS).

“Public officials became up-in-arms, and part of the problem was this level of hysteria,” Patrick Burns, Eischens’ lawyer said. “Now what you’ve seen is the vigilance of the city and the University have increased livability standards.”

The city conducted a sweep of about 700 rental properties around the University, checking all properties with three units or more.

Burns said that at one point city inspectors checked more than 80 of Eischens’ properties in a month, but all violations were fixed and Eischens never lost a renters license.

Dick Poppele, president of Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association and 42-year area resident, said that since the sweeps roughly 2,000 problems have been fixed at properties around the University.

Within the first few months of the sweep, the city found 180 code violations out of 250 houses. Of those, 61 violations dealt with over-occupancy, forcing students to relocate.

St. Paul and Minneapolis city councils enacted new ordinances that could strip licenses from landlords if they found multiple code violations.

The University also created a policy that delisted negligent landlords from their off-campus housing Web site. At the time, the University listed every licensed landlord in the area, totaling 3,166.

But challenges arose when authorities tried to enforce their new policies because of the complicated structure typical of rental housing.

A company neighborhood

Under the guidance of attorneys, many mid-sized and larger landlords now create dozens of limited liability corporations (LLCs), then give their properties to the companies — a common legal step in the industry.

On some streets, Eischens owns up to seven different LLCs — some blocks apart, others separated by less than 100 feet.

This practice is a perfectly legal way to separate personal assets from company assets, University corporate law professor Brett McDonnell said. “If something goes bad in the building, if someone gets hurt and you have some big judgment against you, you don’t want all of your business to be destroyed by it.”

But LLCs have created problems for the city inspectors, Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon said.

“We’ve tried to get more clarity on who actually owns the property,” he said. “Some of these limited partnerships, we don’t know who they are, and it makes it difficult to keep them accountable.”

The Minneapolis city Web site lists renter licenses for properties within the city limits, but doesn’t list who owns each individual LLC. Most attorneys register the company for clients, a step that further limits risk for property owners.

Several years of rental license information can also be lost on the Minneapolis property Web site. The glitch occurs when a property owner or LLC renews a rental license in a property manager’s name.

The result is that the Web site may wipe data showing who owned the license the years before it was renewed.

But from a business standpoint, landlords and property managers praise the practice of creating LLCs and having property managers as a smart, legitimate business decision.

“You do it for tax purposes, you do it for liability purposes,” Burns said.

Bill Dane, an attorney in the SLS, keeps tabs on several of Eischens’ properties, and he gave a list of them to the Minnesota Daily. Through public documents, it was verified that Eischens has a vested interest in at least 41 LLCs, a practice Burns said helps Eischens minimize his risk and help with taxes.

Daniel Oberpriller, who owns 22 rental properties around the University, said “smart” landlords put their businesses into LLCs and then manage their properties through a third-party company because it minimizes the amount for which a person can sue. This is a common practice in the business world.

Jason Klohs, secretary for the University Neighborhood Improvement Association and a local landlord who owns 15 properties, said he looks forward to when his business grows large enough to set his structure in LLCs.

But Dane, who specializes in housing issues and is a resident of Southeast Como and member of the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said that property owners’ use of LLCs is a serious issue.

“We don’t take the position that students shouldn’t rent from any landlord,” he said. “But we do think that students should be able to know who they’re renting from.”

Klohs said that many owners choose to put each house in a different LLC, but keep each house under one name, a practice he said he might try.

But if properties are not under one owner’s name, the myriad of LLCs makes it difficult for the University to keep track of property owners.

University of Minnesota Housing and Residential Life delists landlords who have three or more unresolved student complaints through SLS. But if SLS doesn’t link offenses between different LLCs or property managers, then complaints against a property owner may never stack up.

Right now there are only five names delisted from the off-campus housing Web site: Jim Eischens, his brother Richard Eischens, an Eischens property manager named Yolanda Wolfe, Michael Matejcek and Twin Cities Housing and Realty.]

Eischens has never had a rental license pulled, and much of this scrutiny is because SLS has paid Eischens undue attention, Burns said. “If he was really as bad as they say he is, he would have been shut down.”

Mannix Clark, associate director of University Housing and Residential Life, said the delisting system was created to stop negligent landlords from having employees register properties for them.

“But I wouldn’t lie to you and tell you that some people haven’t tried to do it,” he said.

In past Daily articles, Eischens was quoted saying that it was unfair for the University to create this list. If a landlord resolved a complaint in court, but the student wasn’t pleased with the outcome, the landlord could still be punished by being delisted, he said.

The community’s future

In 2008, the city enacted an ordinance that strips a landlord of all rental licenses if the property owner doesn’t pay court-ordered judgments against their businesses.

This has helped keep owners accountable, Gordon said, because the city can deny all of the owner’s licenses if two are pulled at different locations, even for different LLCs.

James De Sota, coordinator for the Southeast Como Improvement Association, said dealing with LLCs rather than people is frustrating because only half of students know their actual landlord.

Though problems still persist due to the increasingly complex nature of area rental housing, landlords and community representatives say living conditions became slightly better for student renters after the fire-prompted inspections.

Burns said his clients like city inspections and ordinances because the law keeps property safe and livable.

“I think it’s getting better,” he said. “I’ve never had a landlord, never heard a client complain about housing code.”

Poppele and Dane said several property managers have lead to some negligent behavior by less attentive landlords — an outcome of the corporate structure of housing.

“If you are renting from an organization that rents one property, the stakes are a lot lower,” Dane said. “You can just change the name of the [LLC].”

TIL PIGSKIN DO US PART: Yes, Packers and Bears fans can co-exist

Warren Taylor holds out his Green Bay Packer Christmas tree, one of the hundreds of Packer knickknacks, books and memorabilia the Portage resident has collected in the last decade. Taylor found most of his green and gold gems at second hand stores. Several, including a large poster of Reggie White, a late Packers defensive end, have been autographed by some of Taylor's favorite players. When Warren's wife Judy watches her beloved Chicago Bears, she makes him watch the football game in another room because of his shouting. Photograph by Alex Ebert.

This story was published in the Daily Register 1/22/2011.

Fire and water. Positive and negative. Left and right.

Packers and Bears.

The conflict between the two football franchises is the oldest of its kind in the National Football League, and for many fans the great football rivalry has become a defining cultural characteristic of what it means to be a sports fan in Wisconsin.

Sunday, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears will grapple for the right to represent the National Football Conference in the Super Bowl, and the tension and hype around the game is sure to put some enmity between area Packers and Bears fans, and especially couples with spouses who support the other squad.

The collectors

Miniature trucks, hotrods and Matchbox cars emblazoned with green and gold dominate one wall of Warren Taylor's basement. Two of the trucks have signatures from Packers greats Marco Rivera and Gilbert Brown. Photographed by Alex Ebert.

Down in his basement, Warren Taylor feels like the undisputed king of Green Bay Packers fandom.

He has 24 plastic stadium-style cups, painted with bold green and gold Gs; a stash of Packers literature, including titles like “Green Bay Love Stories and Other Affairs”; and an entire Packer-themed set of TV Guides. He even has shelves for his 30 Packers key chains and dozens of toy cars and trucks with Packers paint jobs.

But upstairs, he is in game-day exile.

Upstairs, Taylor only can watch the Packers and Bears play on the little TV in his kitchen.

Judy Taylor, Warren’s wife of 50 years and amateur Bears cheerleader, has banished Warren from the living room where she watches football on their flat-screen television.

“I figure it’s safe that way,” she said. “Warren shouts at the TV in the front room, ‘Oh come on,’ he says, ‘That ain’t fair.'”

After half a century of dealing with each others’ eccentricities, the two say they still clash over football.

So for the last 11 years, Judy has sat in front of the big screen with her cola in hand as Warren squints at the tiny TV and sips from his iced tea.

They’re planing to buy a new house soon and then the Taylors can expand their collections. Warren has eight 20-gallon containers in his garage full of Packers memorabilia he can’t fit in the basement, and Judy has chosen to display her Elvis Presley knickknacks instead of her Bears tokens.

When they move into their new house, they will cover half of a room with Warren’s Packers stash and half with Judy’s Bears paraphernalia.

No matter who wins Sunday, neither Taylor will support the other side.

“It’s gonna be Green Bay and the Jets,” Warren Taylor said.

“No, it’s gonna be the Bears and the Jets,” Judy said.

They both stared each other down.

“Best man wins,” they said in unison.

Adam and Colleen Sengbusch of Oxford pose for a photo at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears and location of Sunday’s NFC Championship matchup between the Bears and the Green Bay Packers. The tickets to this September game (in which the Packers lost a close game to the Bears) were a present for the couple’s wedding. Adam is a Packers fan, and Colleen has rooted for the Bears since childhood, and they both agree being married to a rival can be tough. Photo contributed by the Sengbusch family.

Lost in Bear country

Both Adam and Colleen Sengbusch know that it is going to be a long ride back from Chicago on Monday.

“I hope it’s a long ride for her, not me,” said Adam, who has been a Packer backer since before he can remember.

For the second time this season, Adam is following wife Colleen into Illinois to watch the Packers. The last time didn’t go so well.

“Every time I’ve come down here to watch (the Packers), they’ve lost,” he said. “Maybe the third time will be a charm.”

The newly wedded Sengbuschs received a pair of tickets to the September Packers-Bears showdown, which ended with a nail-biting Chicago victory, 20-17. A photo Colleen snapped after the game shows her beaming, with Adam scowling, as the fans exit Soldier Field.

“If the Packers lose, he’ll be sad,” she said. “He’ll be quiet for a few days.”

Colleen remembers watching Bears games as a 7-year-old growing up in Illinois. In college, she and a group of friends would go out to a bar for every game.

But after she moved to Wisconsin, Colleen became the black sheep of the Packer-loving Sengbusch family. She was the sole Bears fan in a clan of people that bleed green and gold, and the Sengbuschs took every opportunity to give her good-natured abuse, Adam said.

But Sunday, roles will be reversed. Colleen and Adam are meeting some of Colleen’s old college buds at a Chicago sports bar run by her friend from the University of Illinois. There, Adam runs the risk of being one of the rare patrons wearing a Packers sweatshirt and stocking cap.

“I knew she was from Illinois (when I met her), and she always had Bears clothes on, so I was warned,” Adam said. “It could be a long ride back home.”

Marital sacrifice

Bears fan Robert Sheehan proves he’s wearing Packers boxer shorts at his wedding last Saturday. Photo contributed by Sandy Tetzlaff.

“Marriage is sacrifice,” thought Robert Sheehan last Saturday, as he stood in front of his closest family and friends and unzipped his fly.

Moments earlier, Sheehan, the groom and a Bears fan, had given his wedding toast, which included a promise that he was indeed wearing the Green Bay Packers boxers his new wife’s parents had given him as a present.

“It was the least I could do to appease the angry masses, especially because they’re going to lose this Sunday,” said Sheehan later in a phone interview.

One catch, though: His new mother-in-law, Sandy Tetzlaff, didn’t believe him.

“Prove it,” she shouted.

Without hesitation, Sheehan unzipped the tuxedo trouser’s fly and pulled out a chunk of the checkered green and gold material.

The internal rivalry between the Tetzlaffs, from Pardeeville, and Sheehan has been ongoing ever since Michelle Tetzlaff started dating him. Although the two live in California, they still carry their team pride, and occasionally engage in money wagers with each others’ parents.

Sandy Tetzlaff is particularly proud of the $10 bill she won off Robert Sheehan for the Packers 10-3 victory over the Bears in early January. Before handing it over, Sheehan wrote “Go Bears” on the bill eight times.

Sheehan’s parents, also Bears fans, are even warming up to their union.

“They understand that true love is true love,” he said.

A Merry DIY (do-it-yourself) Christmas

Lights from the Houk family Christmas display shine off Claude Houk's glasses. Each year he makes more Christmas decorations in his workshop by bending and soldering pieces of steel. Photographed by Alex Ebert.

Published in the Daily Register 12/20/2010.

Claude Houk has 85,000 reasons to like the Christmas season.

That’s the number of blinking, flashing and strobing lights strung up on decorations he designed at his mother’s Washington Street home.

About five blocks away on Brooks Street, Tim Baggot is planning the next 20-foot custom-made “Happy Holidays” sign he is going to bring out next year. He’ll hang it somewhere between his 22-foot “Merry Christmas” sign and his glowing Santa strung on a clothesline levitating over his backyard.

The Houkses' Washington Street home is complete with a landing pad for Santa's helicopter. Photographed by Alex Ebert.

The do-it-yourself attitude, combined with the desire to outdo the dazzling competition, has driven these two handymen to turn Christmas decorating into a yearlong hobby and test of ingenuity.

“I’m a Christmas decorating nut,” said Houk, who has filled most of his mother Pat Foust’s yard with light displays shaped like reindeer, snowmen and presents.

Baggot takes his celebration, and his handiwork, seriously.

“Everybody knows (my) house, which I am very proud of,” he said.

Don’t mess with Mega Tree

Claude Houk stands in the shadow of his Mega Tree, one of his latest additions to the Houk family's all-out Christmas display. Each year Claude Houk makes more Christmas decorations in his workshop by bending and soldering pieces of steel. Photographed by Alex Ebert.

The last time Portage held a Christmas lights contest, the Foust family won. That was about 30,000 light bulbs ago.

Since then Claude Houk, a retired Army maintenance worker, has added a garage-sized Santa face and a blinking helicopter complete with St. Nick to his ever-growing world of shining decorations.

The secret to the display is Claude’s own Santa’s workshop – his tool shed. As a point of pride, and frugality, Claude makes almost all of the pieces.

He’s particularly proud of his Santa face. He printed a drawing of Santa from the Internet and laid the image on an overhead projector, casting the design onto a bedsheet he hung from his wall.

He traced the image’s lines – the curve of Santa’s hat, the lines of his beard – onto the sheet, and from that outline he cut the garage-door sized design. Outline in hand, he bent and soldered steel pieces to give Santa his grin. When the frame was completed, he and his mother strung lights on their giant jolly elf.

This year’s biggest addition to the Foust display is the “Mega Tree,” a 10,000-bulb “tree” that flashes to music that the family sends over shortwave radio on FM channel 99.3.

As soon as the family flips on the lights at 4:30 p.m., cars are lined up outside 501 Washington St. for classic Christmas tunes and the dazzling display.

Houk spent 100 hours syncing the 40 minutes of music to the dancing light show. But the work is well worth it, he said.

“They love it and showing all of this is heaven.”

Tim Baggot and his daughter Kayla race home every day at 5 p.m. to turn on their Christmas lights. The 22-foot Merry Christmas banner is one of the Baggot's custom-made decorations in an ever-growing display of lights and ingenuity at their Brooks Street home. Photographed by Alex Ebert.

Bigger is better

At 5 p.m., Tim Baggot rushes home from work and calls up his daughter Kayla.

“We need to turn on the lights!” he shouts.

Tim Baggot, who can’t walk through his front door because of the lit-up Christmas tree blocking it, rushes across a lane he shoveled in his lawn to his back door and runs to the basement to plug in a giant extension cord and hit two switches on his fuse box.

With the last switch on, electricity surges into Portage’s biggest “Merry Christmas” sign, which blasts out light from Baggot’s 130 Brooks St. home.

Given the right light and angle, you can see his sign from downtown, said Baggot, who loves to talk about his handiwork.

Baggot made the 22-foot sign completely from scratch at Portage Body Shop where he works. He unrolled yards of chicken wire onto a frame he hammered together with wood from Portage Lumber. Then he and Kayla strung ropes of lights into the cursive “M-e-r-r-y C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.”

“December first is my day because I get to plug them in,” Baggot said pointing out the several strings of lights connected to homemade extension cords. “Next year, ‘Happy Holidays’ will be strung on the side of the house.”

Baggot said his display is only going to grow. He and Kayla drive around, scoping out the competition for fresh ideas.

“I have about 500 bulbs,” he said. “I need to have 500,000.”

Santa Sighting: jolly old elf flies in to town

Santa stares out the window while Tim Dahnke flies the Santa Express into Portage Friday. Santa greeted his customary crowd of wowed children and their camera-flashing parents on the runway before spreading some holiday joy (and candy canes) to shoppers in some Portage stores. Photographed by Alex Ebert.

This story was published in the Daily Register 11/27/2010.

“What year is this plane?” Santa Claus asked, cramming himself and his big red coat in the single propeller aircraft at the front of the runway.

“Seventy-eight … ’79 … whatever,” said Tim Dahnke, this year’s pilot of the Santa Express, the plane that flies St. Nick into Portage the day after Thanksgiving every year. “It’s kind of new compared to some planes.”

Santa calmly took off his red stocking hat. Like a seasoned pro, he arranged a pilot’s headset around his hair and bushy white beard.

“All right, here we go,” Dahnke said, and then the Cessna Skyhawk sped forward and lurched into the blustery Friday morning sky.

Santa Claus was on his way to Portage.

Special Delivery

Every year, on the Friday following Thanksgiving, Santa Claus takes off from the North Pole to visit Where the North Begins. With financial aid from the Portage Area Chamber of Commerce, he contracts a local pilot to touch him down at Portage Municipal Airport, the starting point of a daylong mission to spread cheer across town.

Dahnke, a 22-year veteran in the Air National Guard, made the 45-minute trip a breeze. Mostly.

“I’m going to teach you a little physics lesson,” he said.

“This is a positive G,” he said, pulling back on the controls and sending the plane soaring upward.

Then, quickly pushing the controls forward, sending the plane into a slight dive: “This is a negative G.”

Even from hundreds of feet in the air, people waiting for Santa Claus were visible on the Portage Municipal Airport tarmac.

“Santa Express coming in,” Dahnke said over his headset. Then he smoothly guided the Cessna down to Earth and to the runway’s end, where dozens of people waited for the man in red.

Almost as soon as Portage firefighters Terry Knoll and Craig Ratz helped him from the plane, Santa was swallowed by the arms of waiting children.

“Ho, ho, ho!” and “Merry Christmas,” rang out as Santa made his way through the crowd, handing out candy canes, hugs and beardy smiles.

As a family was walking out of the throng, a dad asked his son if the encounter was going to change his behavior.

“Did Santa say anything about being good?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said the child.

“I don’t know about that. We’d better watch the (video) tape,” said his mother.

The crowd thinned quickly in the cold morning air, and after the last posed photo and wish-list consultation, Santa got into his makeshift sleigh, a Portage Fire Department fire engine.

St. Nick sat shotgun, and the truck left the airport with a final “Ho, ho, ho!”

Candy man

Santa lands at the Portage Regional Airport, where he quickly gets to the business of handing out candy canes and cheer. Photographed by Alex Ebert.

Grocery shoppers at Pierce’s Marketplace in Portage walked home with a little something extra in their carts Friday. That is, if they didn’t eat their candy canes before they got out of the store.

“Merry Christmas,” Santa Claus shouted, announcing his presence in the store’s fresh produce section, frightening a man and nearly making him drop a cucumber. Santa shook his hand and gave him some candy.

Shoppers, toddlers, workers – no one was excluded from the tiny peppermint treats or the smiles they brought.

“You work hard,” Santa shouted to a woman behind the meat counter before giving her a candy cane. “I have a good one for you.”

“I don’t think people realize that people are working to let them have a good time,” Santa said later in a phone conversation. “We don’t stop to think that everything that we enjoy, there’s somebody working to make that happen.”

Santa handed another candy cane to a bagger in the checkout line.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Santa Claus,” said the bagger.

The firetruck’s next trips were to stop in on the Black Friday super shoppers at Kmart and Walmart.

Santa passed a man pushing a cart full of presents and wrapping paper in the Kmart outerwear section. The man was wearing a winter coat and shorts.

“This guy doesn’t know it’s November,” Santa said.

In the Kmart toy section, Santa kneeled down by a little boy.

“Have you been good this year?” he asked while giving the boy a candy cane.

“I will be now,” the boy said. He later tracked down Santa for another candy cane.

In Walmart, children honed in on Santa from all directions.

A little girl near a freezer filled with pizzas asked where the reindeer were.

“Today I came in on an airplane. Reindeer only fly on Christmas Eve,” Santa said.

Another customer grilled Ratz, who was wearing a red Santa hat and fireman’s turnout jacket.

“Hey, Ratz, why are you pretending that you’re Santa?” she asked.

“No, I’m an elf,” said Ratz, who stands half a foot taller than Santa.

Another female customer pointed at Knoll and Ratz and said, “Cute. I’ll take 10 of them!”

In the electronics department, several kids had their eyes glued to a Nintendo Wii video game when Santa walked by.

“I played bowling on that thing last night,” he said. “I beat all of my elves. Ho, ho!”

As Santa was leaving Walmart, heading off to spread cheer at McDonald’s and Portage Theaters, a man with candy cane in hand laughed and shook his head.

“You guys have way too much fun,” he said to Santa and his two helpers.

But Santa later said that fun, and a compelling swell of positivity, are what make the holidays so special.

“You don’t forget a little kid holding your leg,” he said. “You think, jeez, my left leg got heavy, and you look down an there’s a little girl on it.”

As for unbelievers, Santa only received one “bah humbug” during his travels Friday.

“Little kids come over and they hug you. You’re the guy that they know,” he said.

To the unbelievers: “I could be Santa Claus,” he said. “You’re not for sure, but I could be Santa Claus.”

The ‘Reining’ Champ

Alexis Daggett, 16, spins her horse Flash in a tight, dust-heaving circle. It's a key maneuver in horse reining, a sport where the rider guides the horse through a series of moves and is judged on form and composure. Daggett, from Montello, will compete in this year's Adequan North American Affiliate Championships in Oklahoma City this November for a shot at $11,000 in prize money. Photographed by Alex Ebert.

This story was published in the Daily Register 11/25/2010.

MONTELLO – Alexis Daggett needs a bigger wall.

The once-blue wall of Daggett’s bedroom is now overrun with brown plaques commemorating her victories in horse-reining competitions. All of them, including those placed on the floor from lack of space, features a rider astride a horse gracefully sliding to an abrupt stop, with the rider poised and dust flying in the air.

That pose is the precise one she needs to “wow” judges and walk home with $11,000 and bragging rights, as Daggett, 16, recently qualified for the Adequan North American Affiliate Championships. It’s the foremost competition of the National Reining Horse Association, the group that presides over competitions of the fastest-growing equestrian sport in America: horse reining.

In reining, riders take horses through a series of maneuvers – sharp spins, tight loops and sliding stops – all while maintaining complete control with a series of voice commands and only one hand on the reins. In the competition, which started Thursday and runs through Dec. 4 in Oklahoma City, Okla., Daggett will have three to five minutes to show drop judges’ jaws in order to go home with money in her saddle bags.

“No pressure,” she said, because Daggett is no stranger to the national spotlight. This is the sixth year she has made her way through round after round of regional competition to make it to the national championship.

Her bedroom wall of honors didn’t get crowded with cowboys over night.

“I was riding since I could sit up,” said Daggett, who was riding long before she could walk.

“As long as they could hold on to a saddle horn,” said her mother, Anita Daggett.

The Daggetts live on a family farm outside of Montello, where they operate Snow-Crest Christmas Trees and practice their reining in a personal stadium on their property.

Anita Daggett, an accomplished reiner herself, has won $15,000 showing horses in her career.

She helps her daughter squeeze training into the few free hours outside of homework.

“The things we get the animals to do are amazing,” Anita Daggett said.

So the work that goes into it is all-consuming.

The majority of children Daggett competes against are home-schooled, Anita Daggett said, which affords those children hours of daily riding time.

But no matter how great a horse-reiner Alexis is, her mom makes sure school comes first.

Classes include Spanish, modern American history, pre-calculus, physics and AP chemistry – there is no riding until homework is done.

Daggett, who has a 4.33 grade-point average at Portage High School, said she doesn’t let formulas or lab reports get between her and first place.

Her secret?

“I just work harder,” she said.

Daggett is ranked fifth in world standings for her age group on Catalynx Chic, a horse she will ride at the championships.

Along with her plaques and hordes of trophies, Daggett has won six custom-made saddles, each worth $2,000 to $5,000.

Despite the hours of homework that keep her from riding every day, Daggett is on pace to join the highest scoring youth riders of all time.

But for now, she said she’s going to concentrate on getting some sleep to calm her nerves and prepare her to execute her flawless routine.

“This is the biggest show of the year,” she said. “You look for perfection.”

‘Elmer, you are my hero’; Mitchell gets honor for Kiwanis attendance


Elmer Mitchell, 84, listens as he is presented the Van Kleef District award, which he received Thursday for 50 years of perfect attendance with the Portage Area Kiwanis Club. Photograph by Alex Ebert.

This was posted in the Daily Register 11/1/2010.

As a school administrator, Elmer Mitchell encouraged students to have good attendance.

He practiced what he preached.

At age 84, Mitchell is continuing his 50-year streak of perfect attendance for the Portage Area Kiwanis Club. Mitchell has attended a meeting almost every week, totaling more than 2,000 times.

On Oct. 21, the Portage Area Kiwanis Club celebrated Mitchell’s contribution in a heartfelt – and sometimes tearful – award ceremony at Quinn’s Hitching Post Saloon and Eatery in Portage. The surprise came at the end of the meeting when Mitchell’s longtime friend and mentee Jim Burmeister, lieutenant governor of the local Kiwanis Club, put a medallion over Mitchell’s neck that has only been given to 60 other Kiwanis members.

The Van Kleef Fellowship is named for former Kiwanis international president Case Van Kleef. The award is given when a local club donates $1,000 to a Kiwanis college scholarship endowment. The Portage Area Kiwanis Club scrapped together the money for the award and scholarship without the knowledge of Mitchell, who’s face was full of surprise during the presentation.

“Your whole life has been dedicated to kids,” Burmeister said. “Elmer, you are my hero, and the world is a better place because Elmer Mitchell is in it.”

Mr. Mitchell

For Mitchell, one of six children growing up on his Cazenovia farm, being around children and helping children has always been a “joy” and the focus of his life.

“There’s a certain communication that takes place,” he said. “It just makes you blossom.”

And since 1959, Mitchell has never stopped blossoming. After receiving his undergraduate teaching degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Mitchell took $2,250 a year to teach 25 students in his one-room school in Cassell Prairie.

Despite teaching kindergarten through eighth grade at the same time and in the same close quarters, Mitchell said that position was his most rewarding and favorite teaching job.

After seven years in his rural school room, and with a master’s degree from Winona State University in Minnesota, Mitchell took a job as an administrator in the Portage Community School District.

And like how a fish grows to the size of its tank, Mitchell blossomed into one of the area’s educational and volunteering icons.

Somehow, along with his full-time work weeks, he helped raise a family, attended extracurricular events at each of the elementary schools (he went to almost every Christmas pageant), planed weeklong camping trips for students and found ways to integrate children from special education classes into regular classroom settings when possible.

All while doing this, he also went to weekly Kiwanis Club meetings. He was president, secretary and the driving force behind the club’s “Special Day for Special Kids.” For almost 30 years, Mitchell organized an event each year for children with mental and physical disabilities. He raised funds, recruited chaperones and secured food donations.

In 50 years, Elmer “didn’t miss much” of the fundraising opportunities for the club, said Lu Mitchell, a lifelong educator and Elmer’s wife of 50 years. “Any extra program (Kiwanis) had, Elmer would be there.”

When asked what Elmer’s greatest accomplishment is, he said it was the opportunity to connect with so many children.

“It was so fantastic,” he said.

“To this day people will still come up to him and refer to him (like a teacher) as Mr. Mitchell,” Lu Mitchell said.

Crash, cane, comeback

On a Sunday afternoon in June 2008, Mitchell was overtaken by a common Wisconsin urge: He needed to have a strawberry malt.

He fired up his red minivan and took a ride from his home the west side of Portage to Culver’s to get his fix.

On his way home with the malt in tow, he crossed the intersection of West Collins Street and New Pinery Road when a drunken driver ran a red light, smashing into the passenger side of the van, totaling both cars.

Pictures of the wreck show a massive crater in the side of the van, crushed glass, exposed wiring and strawberry malt flung against the dashboard and the windshield.

But by 4 a.m. the next morning, Mitchell said doctors gave him “every kind of X-ray imaginable” and released him with no broken bones, but massive bruises on his arms, legs and chest where the seat belt constricted upon impact.

“I think he was so relaxed thinking about getting home and eating his strawberry malt that he …” started Lu.

“Rolled with the bounces,” said Elmer, finishing her sentence.

Mitchell swore he’d never drive again, and he hasn’t, but even during the next 11 weeks of physical therapy as some Alzheimer’s symptoms started emerging, Mitchell still went to Kiwanis Club meetings.

That Christmas, just like the 30 previous, Mitchell was helping Kiwanis members distribute donated gifts for disadvantaged children. The only difference was the imprint his new cane made in the snow as he carried the presents. Mr. Mitchell was back, and he was there to stay.

Honoring their teacher

At the Oct. 21 celebration, three generations of Mitchell’s students gathered around him. There were those he taught, those he administered for, and those who received scholarships through his work with the Kiwanis Club.

One of those, Jim Burmeister, who was in grade school while Mitchell was administrator, put the medal around Mitchell’s neck and handed him a plaque with the Van Kleef award.

After minutes of raucous applause, Mitchell’s daughter Jean Mitchell-Fimreite, stood up and addressed her father’s students, colleagues and friends.

“What I’ve heard him say in the last few years, is how proud he is of some of you,” she said, starting to cry. “Dad isn’t a Kiwanis on Wednesdays, he’s lived like a Kiwanis his whole life.”

Then, someone handed Mitchell a cell phone. On the other end was Cass Van Kleef, the club’s former international president and the person for whom the award was named.

The crowd grew silent and the phone’s speaker phone crackled:

“You take care and you do your best,” Van Kleef said. “For doing the right thing people will love and respect you forever.”

Skipping stones: Curling Olympian from China playing in Poynette

Betty Wang releases a stone and sends it curling down the ice towards the other end of the Poynette Curling Club. Wang, a Chinese Olympian skip, has been curling in Poynette while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo taken by Alex Ebert.

Published in the Daily Register 9/21/2010.

POYNETTE – The room was just above a chilling 40 degrees, but the harsh florescent lights of the Poynette Curling Club betrayed Mike Murphy’s nervousness. Sweat was beading on his forehead.

His anxiety was understandable: it isn’t every day you get to curl against an Olympic medalist. That is, unless you’ve been around the Poynette Curling Club over the last month while Chinese Olympic skip Betty Wang has been throwing and sweeping.

Wang, 26, cuts an imposing figure even at 5 feet 4 inches. She threw the final stone that ejected the U.S. women’s team from the Olympics in Vancouver this February. At the time, the Chinese were the reigning world champions, and Wang led them to a bronze.

But on Thursday, Mike Murphy earned his sweat. After getting his jacket (which has a patch for the Arlington Curling Club on one side, and Poynette’s on the other) signed by the Olympian, Murphy and his team threw better than they had ever imagined.Wang and eight other Chinese Olympic athletes attended a special course through the University of Wisconsin this summer as part of an exchange program with Bejing Sports University. The crew of far-east sports ambassadors attended non-degree seminars focused on English and kinesiology, which Wang said can last for hours each day, and challenge the student-athletes to stretch their language skills and learn about nutrition science.

The fluid program is meant to last until mid-December, but various training regimens have broken up the crew. Wang herself will be leaving for Canada in October to participate in curling tournaments, and the classes leave ample time for exercise and exploration.

Much of Wang’s exploration has centered on two locations: downtown Madison and the two ice sheets in Poynette. When she wasn’t curling, she spent time with classmates. She even made it to a college house party and practiced two other classic Wisconsin pastimes: beer pong and flippicup.

“I got the freshman 15,” she said with a beaming smile.

As disarming as her smile is off the ice, Wang stood out from the Poynette curlers with her bright red China Olympic Team jacket and her shrill yells of “faster, faster” and “c’mon guys” when calling on her teammates to sweep her stone into the right spot.

It’s a lifestyle Wang is perfectly used to after eight years of curling for the Chinese government. Wang and her crew normally train year-round in Canada, and even though Wang said there are only a few hundred curlers in China her team has won gold and silver in the Women World’s Curling Championship in the last five years.

Midway through the game last Thursday, Murphy said he couldn’t believe his team was ahead of Wang’s.

“I’m so nervous. I even had to buy a new $20 broom head from (Debbie McCormick),” Murphy said, brandishing his new florescent orange broom. “Debbie provides the broom for revenge.”

Actually, providing the brooms is former U.S. Olympian McCormick’s new job. Outside the Poynette Curling Club she was showing off her new trailer full of curling gear.

McCormick, who has been sponsored by the curling equipment company Goldline for 10 years, decided to become a traveling saleswoman for the company and now offers a one-stop curling shop out of a trailer she hauls to curling events across the Midwest.

“There aren’t a lot of places to go to try stuff on,” McCormick said, pausing and then laughing. “Like I’m the ice cream truck. Ding, Ding, Ding!”

Though she doesn’t like backing up the trailer, she has been “pleasantly surprised” how much fun she’s had selling shoes, jackets and broom heads in between her matches.

Inside, that new broom head was working wonders for Murphy .

“You can write this as the highlight of my (one year) curling career: at the third end we were ahead,” he said.

His teammate, 14-year-old Brittany Falk, said that beating an Olympian feels “pretty awesome.” She added that she “didn’t feel phased” by Wang’s credentials.

A few throws latter, Wang’s team conceded in the seventh end, losing 9-3 and fulfilling Murphy’s dreams. Both teams shook hands went to the club house to gather around a pitcher of Miller Lite and some curling talk.

Wang said that of all the Wisconsin things she’ll miss – Madison’s State Street, cheese curds – she’ll miss the people most.

Although she looked perplexed when the conversation turned toward hunting (she doesn’t know any Chinese hunters), she put in tidbits of curling gossip, and laughed when Falk said she would one day make a two-story curling club complete with a jacuzzi.

After the beer had been drunk and the club was packing up, Wang started to leave and gave one last look at her new friends.

“I just got a little bit comfortable. I don’t want to leave (America),” she said.

Then pointing to the crew of Columbia County curlers, she grinned wide and said, “I want to stay longer; they are so friendly.”