Everyone should have an uncle like Louie
From time to time, my Uncle Louie appears to me in a dream. Sometimes we're doing chores in his dairy barn or hanging out in the milk house, discussing the latest developments with the Packers or Brewers, the Badgers or the Bucks. Other times, we're working in the hay, me sweating amid the dust and shoving bales onto a chute to the elevator that reaches other hired hands in the hay loft, Louie arriving from the field with another full load. Or we're celebrating a birthday or holiday in the aging farmhouse, the same one where Louie and my mom and their siblings grew up.
Never, it seems, is he at risk of dying of cancer. Cancer did kill him, however, and sometimes it seems it was only yesterday. It's hard to believe he died 10 years ago this week. I only wish every one of my readers had an uncle like Louie.
If you'd like to know why, I'll share a column I wrote a few days after he died. Maybe you read it. If so, I hope you'll do so again. Some of you perhaps have gotten to know me through my daily blogs in the past few years and will be reading it for the first time. I hope everyone appreciates the insight into what made Louie special.
A proud farmer sows final seeds of kindness
(Printed Nov. 26, 2003)
By Greg Peck
Louie Klecker Jr. of Marshall was a little fellow with a big heart.
Louie, as we called him, was not the sort who made headlines. But he served nearly 30 years on the town board, and there was the time a Madison newspaper pictured him carrying a sign at a protest overpower lines crossing his land, the farm where he was born and raised and where he tilled still. The sign read something like “Us dumb farmers do have rights.”Louie was a good farmer, the kind who did things right, kept his dairy herd well fed, his buildings repaired and his machinery in good shape. He knew he could make a decent living—though one of long days and no vacations—through hard work.
When three semis pulled up to haul away his milk cows in 1997, it was the talk of the town.
A year ago, at age 72, Louie was still playing softball. Not in a senior league, mind you, but in a league with men young enough to be his grandsons. He got a kick out of how his cancer doctor at UW Hospital would see him and say, “Here comes Louisville Slugger.”I find it ironic that last week Tuesday, our editorial board met with two American Cancer Society representatives. I resisted asking them how they could save Louie from prostate cancer, why they couldn't. For four months, Louie had been bedridden, reduced to a shell, reduced to helplessness, wearing a diaper.
I'd gone to visit him each week, sort of my own version of “Tuesdays With Morrie.” But I'd go on Thursdays, sometimes Wednesdays. And we didn't have big philosophical discussions. Rather, we talked, as always, about the Badgers or the Packers. We'd watch a Brewers game, then the World Series, then a Bucks game as autumn aged.
We'd also reflect on the past. Louie told how, as a young boy, he shared twin beds with his older brothers, Roy and Erv. He'd fall asleep with one, roll over and wake up with the other. One time, Erv pulled a stunt on him, separating the beds after Louie had dozed. When Louie rolled, he fell onto the rough layer of hickory nuts his mother had placed under the beds to dry. Louie got even by placing a mousetrap on the stairway and catching Erv's big toe.
When I called last Wednesday night, the news wasn't good, the end was approaching with startling swiftness. I was told Louie had that death rattle, much like his brother Erv had in the final hours before death came calling, likewise of cancer, in 1996.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” my wife, Cheryl, asked before we headed for Marshall. I was sure, I said.
But I wasn't prepared for what I saw. One never is.
Louie had raised three daughters. His soulmate, Dinah Galston, had given birth to eight kids—two of them my classmates—in just nine years. Nine years ago, Louie and Dinah, both divorced, found each other.
Though they never married, and despite what the Catholic Church might say, it was a match—pardon the pun—made in heaven. They gave each other the best years of their lives in an inspirational love story. This fall, I marveled at Dinah's strength. Still employed, she found energy to feed Louie, change him, bathe him.
When Cheryl and I arrived at their home, it was full of people, Louie's children and Dinah's. Louie, struggling for each breath, slept during our entire visit. I could do little but hold his hand, kiss his cheek, his forehead, and tell him I loved him before walking away in tears.
Four hours later, the alarm clock read 12:36 when I awoke to a ringing phone. Louie was gone.
I won't remember Louie for the way he looked that evening, nor the house full of sobs and tears or the last rites performed by a familiar face, Monsignor Raymond Kertz, formerly of St. Mary's in Janesville and now of St. Pat's in Cottage Grove.
Instead, I'll remember the smiling, positive, spirited man. I'll remember the image in a photo of a boy, perhaps no older than 5, with a floppy hat and holding up a catfish as big as him and sharing an equal smile. I'll remember the skinny kid in the photo of Marshall High School's basketball team and his humorous stories of how the squad came within a whisper of knocking off Beloit Memorial and going to state in 1947 in the days before schools were split into divisions by size.
I'll remember the last time Cheryl and I and Louie and Dinah went out for fish and Louie told of stalking spring turkeys. Later, we played euchre late into the night, and I'll remember how the cards always fell right for Louie and me and how he laughed, we laughed.
To say that Louie Klecker was my favorite uncle is unfair to my mother's other three brothers. But as a boy and young man, I'd worked on the farm with Louie many summers. We had a certain chemistry, an ease of conversation. Maybe it was just Louie. During one recent visit, a neighbor family was with Louie.
When they left, Jared, a spindly boy of about 12, promised he'd call Louie the next morning. “That's my shadow at the farm,” Louie told me, and I felt a tinge of jealousy, as if I'd somehow been replaced.
I'll be thinking of Louie tomorrow, on Thanksgiving Day. I'll never be thankful for the way this hideous, insidious disease killed him. But I'll forever be thankful for having known, and loved, a truly special man.
In Louie's dying days, a Marshall resident called Louie the kindest man who ever walked the face of the Earth.
When told of the compliment, Louie's reply was simple.