Vernon's gift: He loved New Richmond and New Richmond loved him
The News has written over the last couple of years about the passing of a number of community members including Phip LaVenture, Curt Anderson, Gene Cox and John Beebe who have impacted the history and foundation of New Richmond and whose legacies will continue to influence our future as a community.
There is a very good chance that Phip, Curt, Gene and John all knew Vernon Conrad.
Conrad died on Sunday, Dec. 2, at the age of 72. If you read the News, you probably read the tribute to Conrad by Sports Editor Dave Newman (www.newrichmond-news.com/remembering-someone-special-vernon-conrad). There have been many, many tributes to Conrad including a proclamation by New Richmond Mayor Fred Horne designating Dec. 2 as Vernon Conrad Day. To say that Conrad was a beloved member of this community only scratches the surface of what he meant to many.
Conrad contributed something uniquely human; he brought out the best in us. You are going to read how he did that from just a few of the many people whose lives he touched, but it's really important to understand that everything Conrad did, he did in exchange for one thing: friendship. To be a part of our "families," be that a baseball team, the band, the Knights, the Legion, the neighborhood.
Conrad was born on Feb. 4, 1946 in Amery. He had an older sister Dorothy, a younger sister Evie and a younger brother Donald. Conrad was born with an array of physical and behavioral challenges which he battled his whole life. At an early age, he was placed at the Northern Wisconsin Colony and Training School in Chippewa Falls, where he was cared for and schooled until he aged out and moved back to New Richmond when he was 27 years old. He initially lived at the Lowrey Hotel under the supervision of Jim Murtha where he started peeling potatoes and washing dishes to earn his board. As Conrad became more accomplished in his duties at the Lowrey, he began to earn more money, the managing of which was not his strong suit, leading to the appointment of Wally and Esther Lind as his legal guardians. Murtha described Conrad's "gnome-like presence," which is apt and probably something Conrad would agree with but not without a little friendly banter.
Conrad was dedicated, direct, sometimes difficult, independent, social, persistent, loyal, busy, "smart," resilient, caring and kind, according to those who remember him.
But perhaps his most enduring affiliation was with the New Richmond High School Band where he was the only person ever officially designated as the Number One Band Booster, provided with his own stationary and awarded a set of cymbals in recognition of his honorary membership in the band. Just this year, Conrad collected another award as the Knight of the Year from the New Richmond Knights of Columbus chapter to which he had belonged for 40 years.
In 2012, Conrad consolidated the Citizen of the Year awards previously bestowed separately by the News and the Chamber of Commerce when he won the award defeating local luminaries including Jill Schreck, Morrie Veilleux, Linda Skoglund, Heather McAbee, John Soderberg, Jill Luken, Linda Aton, Warren Bader, Troy Boe and Irv and Mary Sather.
In his acceptance speech Conrad said with typical brevity, "I'm happy, I'm very happy."
Conrad loved sports, pretty much all sports, but in particular those he could receive on his transistor radio. He loved the Packers and the Brewers but mostly he loved the New Richmond Millers.
Ryan Stephens has been affiliated with the New Richmond Millers baseball team for the last 24 years. He is currently serving as the team's manager.
"I've known Vernon since I played high school baseball for New Richmond, so I've known him for a long time," Stephens said. "When I saw that he had passed away, it hit me personally because he's been around me so long. He's been there forever watching me play sports my whole life.
"Vernon was a serious baseball fan. His transistor radio would always be tuned to a baseball game. He liked making fun of the umpires and the umpires loved him. He took a lot of pride in being the Millers' number one fan. From what he did with the Knights of Columbus to his campaign for the new flag pole at Citizens Field, he was so proud to do all of it.
He rooted for us even during our worst seasons. When we made the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, Vernon wrote letters to the editor in his unique style with whatever words he could spell with his backward letters saying how proud he was of the New Richmond Millers and he wished us 'good luck in playoffs.'
"The biggest thing he took pride in was passing the hat at our games. He used to call people out, 'I know you got money. Get it in this hat.' And after everything was said and done, it was, 'Thank you Vernon,' and all you would get out of him was, 'Yep.' He loved doing it.
"He always got a pop and a hot dog after he was done collecting the money on us. He was a class act always. He would send me letters, drop them off personally here at work, when he could get a ride from the taxi, thanking me for being his friend. You couldn't ask for a better guy. I'm a die hard New Richmond guy myself, but I couldn't hold a candle to Vernon," said Stephens.
Turns out Conrad was a pretty good wrestler, not a wrestler wrestler, more like a Hulk Hogan, the Crusher wrestler. Here's how Wally Lind remembered it.
"Vernon was one of the world's biggest wrestling fans, pro wrestling," Lind said. "He had a compadre in town, John Eliason. John lived upstairs above the laundromat next to the News. Jeanie Eliason, who worked at Doughboy at the time, went out and bought a giant 78-inch projection TV. Back in the day, it filled up the living room. She loved wrestling and she would invite anyone who loved wrestling to come over and watch at her place on the giant TV. In the middle of the wrestling match, Vernon would get up and take off his shirt and John would get up and take off his shirt and those two would get down on the floor and wrestle. We would laugh ourselves silly."
Conrad was a fixture at just about every performance of the New Richmond Band throughout the 1970's and 80's. Matt Mealey grew up in the New Richmond School District. He is currently a music instructor at New Richmond High School and Director of the New Richmond High School Bands.
"When I was in high school Vernon was a mainstay at every event he could get to whether it was a parade, football, basketball, or baseball game. He loved to come and listen to the band play and loved to watch hometown sports," Mealey said. "Especially back in the 1980's and 90's when he was more mobile. He used to go around to all the local businesses and ask for cups and napkins so the marching band kids would have stuff to use at every parade. He did it all the time and delivered them up to the high school very faithfully. Everyone knew who Vernon was.
"Once I came on as the band director, he would still come up and visit and still loved to come to the concerts especially the marching concert and the football games.
"I used to create letterhead for him that said, 'Vernon Conrad #1 Band Booster.' He would send letters out to different people inviting them to concerts and the parades. I'd keep him stocked up with letterhead and he would faithfully send letters all the time.
"Vernon didn't mince his words. With fundraisers it was pretty much,'Here's what you're going to give me.' I think people appreciated his straightforward approach.
"As an honorary band member, he received a sets of cymbals which he proudly banged away on at the back of the band during parades. He treasured those.
"He loved coming to the parades. Rich (Gregerson) would let him ride on the bus with us. Rich would always warn Vernon that he had to be here back when the bus leaves, 'If you're not back here by this time, then the band Is going and we'll leave you here.' Well Vernon seemed to know people in every community we'd go to and frequently he would get side-tracked talking with someone. He came close to missing the bus home a couple of times. Vernon used to take his own sweet time," recalled Mealey.
Gregerson taught music at New Richmond High School and served as Band Director for 13 years before moving to the middle school. During his tenure, New Richmond bands regularly toured including performances in the Soviet Union, at Lambeau Field, the Metrodome, and Graceland in Memphis. He retired in 2010.
"Vernon was always the pusher. He always wanted to go places and he wanted the band to go places," Gregerson said. "If I had some sort of negative attitude about a particular trip for whatever reason, he always brought me out of it and said, 'We want the best for this band. This band is going to go and I'm going to write letters.' By golly he did and he always got them answered. He got notable officials to visit our concerts and talk to our kids. He really was an inspiration and he didn't have to do any of this.
"With his unique single-mindedness he made sure that the band was first and I should be thinking about that first.
He would visit me and remind me why we had to do certain things and wouldn't take no for an answer.
"He was very direct. He wasn't afraid to tell you he was mad and we weren't afraid tell him either. We both needed a little straightening out once in a while. He just loved ya.
"All of the band kids adopted him. The parents, all my chaperones, embraced him, made sure that he felt important, included, like he belonged and was welcome to come along as long as he behaved himself. There was never any bias. There was good-natured ribbing once in while which he gave right back. I think he made every body better.
"You didn't have to do a lot to be Vernon's friend and he rewarded you with a lifetime of loyalty," said Gregerson.
Conrad contributed compassion to the quilt of the community. He inspired it in others and shared it himself. He helped us to discover something in ourselves, the importance of putting someone else first, not to make ourselves feel good, but because it is not only the right thing to do, it is also the fair thing to do. He reminded us it is not about being better, or smarter, or richer, or stronger, or more or less able, it is about doing our best every day with conviction and without excuses.
Mike Montello is a 35-year resident of New Richmond. He has served the in various capacities over the years both in government and as a volunteer. He is currently serving as Alderman of the city's 4th District.
"I have been fortunate to have known Vernon for over 30 years,"Montello said. "I remember the joy on his face when he marched as part of the alumni band in the Fun Fest parade and got to play the cymbals. When Vernon wrote letters to the editor, they most often were about the band.
"Because of his disability, I suppose some people (who didn't know him!) dismissed Vernon's capacity for compassion and recall. Over the years I received several cards from him that were full of well wishes and references to current events that were on Vernon's mind. He always signed them 'your friend Vernon' and he was exactly that. There were a number of occasions, after Tiger basketball games when I would see Vernon in the gym and I asked him how he was getting back downtown (he lived at Lowrey Hotel then). He was happy to accept a ride and those trips represented an opportunity for us to get to know each other. Vernon relied on the kindness of people in the community for transportation (especially involving Tiger basketball) and I know a number of folks who were willing to accommodate him.
"Vernon was a kind, gentle person who helped draw out the good of this community. I never heard him speak negatively of anyone, or anything. He was a worthy selection of the Citizen of the Year award bestowed on him a few years back but perhaps a 'lifetime achievement award' would have been more fitting when you consider what his lifetime meant to our community. He brought a richness to life in New Richmond and I am blessed to have known him," said Montello.
Over the course of his life, Conrad was adopted by New Richmond. If you asked him whether he thought he was special, he might have said yes, but not for the reasons you might expect. It's doubtful he lost track of a single friendship. Those friendships were his lifeblood.
"Vernon loved the kids from the band and they loved him back. It was a love affair that lasted generations. Kids would graduate and their kids would join the band and graduate and Vernon would be invited to their graduation parties and weddings," said his sister Evie. "Vernon thrived on the kindness of others and he paid it forward with perseverance and dedication. All those opportunities to raise money and collect napkins and cups and whatever else was needed gave his life purpose and he always came through because he knew his 'family' was depending on him. He took that very seriously and he expected you to as well.
"I knew how much Vernon loved New Richmond. What I didn't realize was how much New Richmond loved Vernon," said Evie.