Spring 2017

In this issue of On, we explore the American value of Pride. We are proud of the ways individuals, communities, and organizations around Wisconsin have used WHC grants to positively impact the lives of people living in this state. To put together the stories in this issue, we spoke to a veteran of the Vietnam War, students who took first place in the statewide showcase for Project Citizen, and woman in Phillips, Wisconsin who is dedicated to helping her regional neighbors learn more about the people and history of the state. 

We invite you to read On.


In this issue of On:

From the Director’s Desk

There is a reason that dystopian fantasies often feature some form of state-sponsored mind-control.  Every despotic state knows that its downfall begins when one of its citizens dares to imagine a happier alternative and that idea spreads like fire to all the rest.

A government committed to democracy, alert to the risk of tyranny, and trusting in the ability of citizens to discern the one from the other, might decide it was prudent to promote the circulation of as many ideas as possible.  In the United States, the free exchange of ideas is enshrined in the laws of the land as a bulwark against despotism, and has long been cherished as a cultural value.  The more we exercise our minds and our citizenship, the safer we all will be.  

Right now, our two Wisconsin Senators and our eight members of the House of Representatives are debating what the government should and shouldn’t pay for, where the money should come from, and what the various price tags should be.  For the past fifty years, bi-partisan support has enabled the National Endowment for the Humanities to pursue its official charge to nurture wisdom in our citizens, so we can all be informed and thoughtful defenders of our democracy.  For the last forty-five years, the WHC has been here in Wisconsin, doing just that. 

If making all kinds of ideas accessible to every person in Wisconsin is an idea that you support, then you need to share it with your Wisconsin legislators right now.  Ask them to vote in favor of full funding for the NEH and all the state humanities councils in 2018. 

Programs that don’t get funded, like ideas that don’t get shared, soon die out.  You’ve read that dystopian novel, so you know what happens when there are no ideas left.

Get involved, raise your voice, and speak out in favor of the National Endowment for the Humanities. We offer your tools as part of the #SavetheNEH campaign here.


Dena Wortzel’s day job is as executive director of the WHC. The rest of the time she can be found wrestling hay bales, messing with animals, and watching the grass grow on her farm in Hollandale.

Featured: Pride

The day the boys were coming home, their dad loaded two Harleys on a flatbed trailer. Then he joined a cavalcade of friends, girlfriends, and relatives bound for the airport.  At the front was a man people know as Officer H, the kind of officer whose policing includes time spent on the sidelines at the Mineral Point ballpark, ribbing the young guys and jawing with the old farts.  The day the boys were coming home from Iraq, Officer H’s uniform was a stars-and-stripes do-rag that matched the flags flying from his bike. By a hangar at the Dane County Airport, the dozen Harleys from Mineral Point parked where friends and relatives waited to greet the boys, who rode home on their bikes, as befitted returning Marines.

Bruce Canny at boot camp before shipping out to Vietnam.For many veterans of the Vietnam War, coming home was not about waving flags, proud friends and relatives, and open arms, as it was for the two veterans of Iraq who I helped to welcome home.  Vietnam vets often felt, and were indeed treated, like pariahs even by family and friends.  As Wisconsin veteran Bruce Canny told me recently, “Back then it was more or less to your advantage to keep it secret.”  He recalls being shunned by one of his wife’s relatives, though they later became close.

It has been fifty years since Dow Chemical, the producer of napalm, was driven from the UW-Madison campus by the war’s opponents while, from towns across Wisconsin, men like Canny were being shipped to Vietnam – destined to come back changed, or not at all.  One Wisconsin town has become a special place of memory and healing for Canny and many Wisconsin veterans.  Neillsville, in central Wisconsin, is home to The Highground Veterans Memorial Park, founded in the 1980s by a Vietnam veteran in fulfillment of a battlefield promise. 

The Highground is not the typical war memorial. Unaffiliated with any state or federal agency, this 155-acre park built by veterans speaks for and honors the full range of experiences of and perspectives on war. As a gradually evolving project with no single preconceived plan, it has come to include individual memorials to most of the major wars fought by this country with tributes, as well, to women veterans, to families of veterans, and to Native American Vietnam veterans.  It is perhaps the fact that The Highground strives to be open and staffed day and night, every day of the year, that best captures the nature of the community that has collected around it, and their commitment to making it a place of healing.  Veterans gather regularly for events, and come from considerable distances for a few days or even weeks at a time to help staff the facility, encourage visitors to ring the replica Liberty Bell, walk the miles of trails that include a handicapped accessible tree house, or go to the Learning Center for programs.

Canny began visiting Neillsville after he joined a Vietnam veterans group in Waukesha in the 1980s.  For twenty years, he had kind of put his war experience away, he says.  That began to change, and phrases about the war began to come to him.  Over time the phrases, which he had kept jotting down, became “Vietnam, They Ask, So What Was it Like?,” a poem that took Canny years to share even with his family.   He also shared it with June Abrahamson at the Highground. To his surprise, she included it in a photography exhibition she was developing with photojournalist Marissa Roth, called My War:  Wartime Photographs by Vietnam Veterans.

Like Canny’s poem, the photographs in My War – all taken by veterans during their tours in Vietnam — offer a way to understand the war from the perspective of men who fought it.  It is a welcome addition to the more familiar visual narrative of iconic, highly dramatic war photos by professional photojournalists.  The snapshots in the exhibit capture the more mundane moments — guys having a beer with buddies, goofing around outside a tent, or walking through a village market.  One of the most memorable images is from a film roll.  Soldiers on a beach are playing with a few Vietnamese children.  The camera suddenly lifts from the beach scene to the sky overhead, where American bombers flash past toward a forested mountain range in the middle distance.  Seconds later, a series of flashes is visible as the aircraft bomb the mountainside.  On the safety of the beach, the men and children continue to play. 

Fifty years later, the Vietnam war can feel unresolved – for men and women who served, for their families, for folks who protested or who supported the war.  It is a set of experiences and a moment in history around which The Highground has shown that it is possible to gather, reflect, and search for healing.  As Bruce Canny said, “I didn’t have real strong opinions about [the war] at the time.  It was mostly a question, was it right or wrong?  It was kind of like the best way to find out — to go over there and find out.  And I still don’t know if it was right or wrong.” 

Since Vietnam, the public narrative about US military action overseas has increasing distinguished between the men and women who fight, and the politics of those military actions.  The separation of the fighters from the politics has made it easier for Vietnam veterans to take pride in their service in a war that so many Americans opposed, and to express that pride publicly.  And as we have seen with My War, there is more space for veterans to talk about the politics and ethics of war in all their complexity.    

The My War exhibit, which closed this May in Neillsville, has gained national attention, a point of pride for everyone involved.  It will be travelling in Wisconsin and out of state. At The Highground, the work continues. At the WHC, we’re so glad to have played a part.

Images: (Above) As a prank, soldiers would use a friend’s camera to snap a photo of the friend sleeping, surprising him when the film was developed.  Someone got Bruce Canny.  Photo courtesy of Clyde B. Canny.

(In uniform) Bruce Canny at boot camp before shipping out to Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Clyde B. Canny.


Thanks to Our Generous Donors

Become a donor today! You can help us ensure that the humanities remain an integral part of Wisconsin life for years to come with a donation to the WHC. Click here to DONATE.

Thanks to these generous donors

In the Spotlight:

This summer visitors to 16 Wisconsin state parks and forests can experience a 75-minute version of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors

This summer visitors to 16 Wisconsin state parks and forests can experience a 75-minute version of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors preceded by a workshop on the Bard’s history, language and characters. Free of charge thanks to the WHC. Photo courtesy of Summit Players Theatre.

The future is at stake

When I hear stories from veterans like Bruce Canny, or go to a WHC-sponsored event where kids and their families are immersed in learning about our state’s history and culture, I see the true impact of the Wisconsin Humanities Council – a small organization with a huge vision for Wisconsin, on whose board I have proudly served for the past six years. 

Today, our federal funding is at serious risk.  Please help sustain the WHC today for the sake of Wisconsin’s future by making a financial contribution online.  Now is also the moment to call your member of the U.S. House of Representatives and our Senators.  Ask them to support funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and for the Wisconsin Humanities Council. We have information and tools to help you here.

Thank you!

Raúl Galván, WHC board chair


Citizenship 101

Glendale students earned first place at the Project Citizen statewide showcase.

Glendale students earned first place at the Project Citizen statewide showcase. Photo by Lalitha Murali.

What does it mean to be a citizen?

For Lalitha Murali’s Glen Hills Middle School 7th graders it was about being heard.

Murali’s students took first place in the statewide showcase for Project Citizen, a hands-on civics education program WHC has sponsored. The Glen Hills student project explored development options for polluted brownfield sites. While learning about Glendale’s brownfield sites, students talked to fellow students, community leaders and local citizens.  They “realized that there is not one single coffee or sandwich place close to the school and also there is no teen center for Glendale students to go hang out after school, or to do homework, or tutor other children,” according to Murali. Through their research, the students identified two sites near the school where such a community and youth social space could be developed.

Then they took their proposal to the school board, to the city, and to the community.

What stands out is the students’ enthusiasm for their accomplishment: they were heard. Seventh graders made suggestions for turning abandoned properties into social spaces in ways that hadn’t been on the city’s radar.

That insight is important. The city now intends to include listening sessions for middle and high school kids as it explores updates to its long-term plan, says City Administrator Rachel Reiss. Reiss said the project showed her that city leaders need to include kids’ views when thinking about the city: “We want to keep them in Glendale and have them feel a pride in their community that makes them want to stay here.”

Reiss said meeting with the students “just sparked their enthusiasm. They were like, ‘they heard us. Something came from it. I should be more a part of this because I made a difference.’”

Belonging to a place is the concept of citizenship at its most basic. The relationship built between the citizen, his or her government, and that belonged-to place can engender a sense of civic pride, but it’s learned: it requires that we dig into the places we come from and find meaning there. It requires the exercise of that voice.

In a 2013 report, “Youth Civic Development & Education,” a team of education experts at a Stanford University conference stated that “civic education as practiced in schools throughout the United States is not preparing students for effective participation in civic life. Few young people are sufficiently motivated to become engaged in civic and political activity.” Among reasons for this are “the increasing emphasis on basic skills and high-stakes testing,” which “has squeezed out the time and resources needed for the study of citizenship and related subjects.”

That gap has led to the emergence of programs like Project Citizen. This civics program teaches responsible participation in state and local government by engaging students in how to monitor and influence public policy and by providing professional development to teachers, says State Coordinator Jack Jarmes.

Students have spearheaded civic projects such as “a bike path in De Forest, a dog park in Oshkosh, an all-inclusive playground in Franklin and renovation of a track and field in New Holstein,” says Jarmes.

Glendale Mayor Bryan Kennedy’s three children all went through Project Citizen, beginning before he became mayor, and he knows several youth who continue to contribute community service.  

Some students take the lessons on citizenship beyond high school. Heather Tomchek, a Project Citizen teacher from New Holstein, notes that some of her former students have gone on to work in politics and public policy.

Kennedy’s 7th grade daughter and a friend brought the brownfields topic to Murali after catching part of a city council discussion while waiting for a ride. They contacted city leaders, sought brownfields expertise, and contacted property owners about the cost to buy or lease the sites. Through this project, student ideas became part of redevelopment discussions in ways that never would have happened without Project Citizen.

“It’s the kids who reached out to us, kids with all these great ideas,” says Kennedy.


Sculpture park opens a door to the past

A 4th grader who enjoyed Heritage Days notes some of the history demonstrations she liked best.

A 4th grader who enjoyed Heritage Days notes some of the history demonstrations she liked best. Photo courtesy of Friends of Fred Smith.

Driving north on highway 13, just before you get to the town of Phillips in northern Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Concrete Park is hard to miss.  More than 200 sculptures, made of concrete and studded with colored glass, depict giants, winged angels, figures of history and legend, menageries of wild and domestic animals, and various scenes of ordinary men and women in daily life.  All of it sprang from the mind of a local lumberjack and self-taught artist, Fred Smith, who began the work soon after he retired in 1948. For people in the area, Fred’s over-sized creations might be experienced primarily as something glimpsed through the windows of a car.  That has been changing, and more children and families are visiting the park today thanks to the Friends of Fred Smith, a local nonprofit that has been finding creative ways to use Fred’s art to deepen knowledge of local history and life in the early 20th century.

Sharyn Friedell, as director of Friends of Fred Smith, wanted to turn the site into an educational and cultural facility for this region of the state where there are few such opportunities, so she looked to Fred’s work for inspiration. Born in 1886, Fred spent much of his life as a lumberjack and farmer. At the Concrete Park, his loggers fell trees with giant two-man hand saws and haul timber with horses.  His Mabel the Milker milks a cow with one hand and holds up a can of evaporated milk with the other.  What better way to engage schoolchildren and families, Friedell thought, than to connect that past with the present by exploring Fred’s vision of bygone ways of life?

As Friedell thought about how to excite school children, she sought out local historians.  The first Heritage Days event for students and the public was born of their efforts in 2012, with financial and scholarly support from the WHC.  Today the annual event is two days of craft demonstrations, folk music performances, and hands-on learning about local history, traditional folk arts and lifeways of the people who made the region home. 

This year, a new relationship with Lac du Flambeau Elementary School and teachers Wayne Valliere and Brian Jackson means that Heritage Days includes demonstrations of traditional Ojibwe trapping, wild ricing, games, and music.  Friedell says “these northcentral history networks and cultural bridges have a real chance to overcome generations of mistrust and create passionate young historians who will keep history alive and relevant to our lives.”  As she retires this summer, Friedell say funding is a big concern.  There is much-needed restoration of the sculptures to be done – crumbling visions in concrete that we can value as works of homegrown creativity or, as Friedell knows, a terrific way to get kids to think about what is important to them about the place they live.


Slinger High School students

Slinger High School students studied the relationship between the natural environment and the work people do in their hometown 40 miles north of Milwaukee. A year of research, including job-site visits like this one, culminated in a public program where the resulting videos, displays and website sparked community dialogue. Photo courtesy of Nate Grimm.



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