Saturday, December 31, 2011

Community Spotlight: Chiara’s Quiet Grace Gazebo, ‘Where trouble melts like lemon drops’

By Matt Marn

Published by the Rockford Squire, December 29, 2011

What began in tragedy for a Rockford family soon grew into a life-affirming memorial. Now the city can remember young Chiara Howard’s selfless nature and warm smile for generations to come.

Chiara’s Quiet Grace Gazebo was built to honor the life and memory of Chiara, who drowned in Lake Michigan in July 2008. The gazebo, which sits on the campus of Roguewood Elementary School, was dedicated with a ceremony held last month.

“It’s not time to be licking wounds, but time to celebrate her life, and be inspired,” said Carrie Wysong, Chiara’s mother.

The gazebo has eight windows, each representing one of Chiara’s strongest virtues: humbleness, sincerity, joyful, compassionate, considerate, loving, creativity and kindness.

Wayne Visbeen of Visbeen Associates came up with this preliminary sketch of the gazebo after sitting down and talking with Chiara’s mother Carrie.

Wysong said the landscape around the gazebo was planned by a professor and a student at Calvin College. She said all plants and flowers in the surrounding area are native to Michigan, and there will also be a garden for butterflies—a sign of new life.

“Classes in Roguewood and other schools can learn about plants and wildlife, and all of it is specifically designed towards Chiara and her love of learning,” Wysong said. “I feel what really matters in life are the simple things. The gazebo has no bells and whistles, no neon lights. It’s just simple. That’s Chiara.”

Wayne Visbeen of Visbeen Associates was the designer and architect of the gazebo. Visbeen said, while he didn’t know Chiara, Wysong came to him and told him the story of her daughter’s passing.

“She knew we create a lot of things based on people’s emotions,” Visbeen said. “We just started sketching and drawing. There were a lot of ideas with windows and stained glass that really harkened back to her daughter. I sat down with her and came up with some original sketches, and created the vision that everybody could draw onto.”

Wysong said as people enjoy this gazebo, she hopes they are encouraged to remember and be thankful for who and what they have.

“I hope more people can come here and meet. When I see kids in the gazebo, playing or reading to each other… words cannot express the relief and gratitude I felt,” said Wysong. “Chiara’s third out of four kids. Right from birth, she loved to smile and smile back. She gave tight hugs, and her smile brightened the room. Right then, we knew she was special.”

Wysong said Chiara spent five years going through school with the same classmates, and she always was thinking of others.

“Whether it was flowers or a picture she drew or baking cookies to take to a friend’s house, it was rare for Chiara not to feel moved to help,” she said. “When you lose someone, you realize how much of an impact they had on your life. How kind, loving, caring they were. Chiara was that comforting, selfless child.”

Wysong said, soon after the tragedy, friends and family members surrounded the family. In the days that followed, there was a lot of talk about Chiara’s purity and grace, and how quiet she was in her kindness.

“That’s how we came up with the phrase, ‘Chiara’s Quiet Grace,’” she said.

The road to the finished gazebo was not an easy one. Wysong ran into roadblocks coming up with the funding required by the deadline.

“We had a benefit in the first year,” she said. “I thought that would take care of it, but we didn’t even come close. It took close to two years to get full approval from the school board. Then the people in the community and the church, and local businesses stepped forward. People had read stories in the papers about Chiara, and they helped out.”

At one point, Wysong said it was looking as if they would have money enough for a scholarship, but not for completion of the gazebo.

“To be honest, I find the gazebo being built much more comforting,” she said. “Every piece of it is tailor-made to her and her artwork and spirit.”

Mike Cuneo, assistant superintendent of finance for Rockford Public Schools, said Wysong did a wonderful job planning the project.

“I never met Chiara, but my kids went through Roguewood,” Cuneo said. “I know the family, and Carrie. The passion she had for the project showed in the results. Any time you can achieve a goal like that, it’s really fulfilling. It was a big group, but she spearheaded it and saw it through. We are all very appreciative of the gift given to the school.”

Now completed, Wysong says the gazebo is meant to be a happy memorial.

“We have a grave site for Chiara, but this gazebo is about life, a celebration,” she said. “Life is for the living. Be in the moment, enjoy who and what you have. Focus on the present and the future, not the past.”

As Chiara was very active in sports and other activities, Wysong also said she is planning to start Chiara’s Quiet Grace Foundation, a fund to help students participate in activities they may not otherwise.

“The foundation will be to give kids an opportunity to participate in sports, or art or music,” she said. “This will let them be on the basketball team, or to get that guitar. This will help kids find their place, their joy; to be who they can be.”

The quote atop the gazebo reads, “Where trouble melts like lemon drops,” a line from the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as performed by Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Wysong said the family got his CD when they were in Hawaii together, and after Chiara’s passing, they found the song once more.

“It has gotten us through,” she said. “It’s her song.”

Now, Wysong said she has made it her mission not only to educate others on water safety, but to honor Chiara’s warmth and kindness.

“She’s very passionate,” said Cuneo of Wysong. “It’s very important with something like this; you need a champion to continue on. She’ll really work hard to keep the memory alive.”

Wysong realizes that in time, Chiara may not be remembered as quickly. But the most important thing, she said, was the message Chiara still can teach us all.

“People don’t know how another person’s day is,” Wysong said. “Maybe they had a bad day… It can do so much to just smile. You have to look at the good, the positive. Cherish what you have.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jamming, learning, teaching – the music never stops for Glendale’s Tom Mein

By Matt Marn

Also posted on

Not a day that goes by when Glendale guitarist Tom Mein doesn’t work the strings. He would go crazy without it. In 34 years, the longest he has ever gone without playing was four days… his first honeymoon.

As far back as Mein can remember he has been attracted to the guitar. But what really did it for him was listening to Jimi Hendrix work his magic.

“I was a teen, and he was like the first guitar hero,” Mein said. “I used to draw pictures in my notebooks about guitars. I bugged my parents for one, and they got me a classical guitar. When I was 16, I saved up and bought my own electric.”

He took a few lessons, but had no formal music education growing up.

“I didn’t want to ‘learn,’ just wanted to play,” Mein said. “Most of what I learned was in the west suburbs of Detroit. A lot of my friends learned and had guitars, too. We didn’t have a guitar class in high school, so we all just jammed and learned from each other. That’s how I learned, that and by reading.”

Music was not Mein’s profession at first, but he moved out west to start fresh. His goal was to become a studio guitar player. He didn’t know where he was going to wind up, but Phoenix was close to Los
Angeles, so he stopped here. He got a job in printing, and played gigs with local bands on weekends.

“I worked night jobs to earn money, and squeezed bands in when I could,” he said. “I hated it. That’s when I decided, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do.’ I decided to earn money doing music… and I fell in love with it.”

Since then he has performed in countless bands, including rockabilly group ’56, as well as the Next Band, which leads open mike night, “Tuesday Bluesday," where musicians of all styles are welcome to bring their instruments and share the stage in an evening jam session.

“We just go with it,” Mein said of sharing the stage. “That’s how I grew up. I have a good ear because of that. I hear a song, and I play it. For me, the most fun thing is playing with others and improvising. That’s why Next is a blast, especially with good players. I live for that stuff.”

As if his schedule was not quite full enough, he also began teaching guitar students from out of his own home. He currently instructs over 20 students.

“I love teaching kids, seeing them learn and grow,” Mein said. “The more I got into it, the more I became absorbed by it. I have been teaching since 1993, it will be 19 years this year. It’s different than school teaching – I don’t see my students for just one year, and then they graduate and move on to the next thing. They come to my house; they are like a part of the family. And sometimes, you have moments where they get it, when you see the light bulb go off in their heads. That’s what it’s all about.”

Mein recalled one of his past students, Tyler Barkley, who was auditioning for a student jazz program, Young Sounds of Arizona. A difficult program to be accepted into, it all but guarantees a college scholarship, Mein said. He helped Barkley practice his pieces, and Barkley was accepted into the program.

“Just being able to help him was huge for me,” Mein said. “I might have been more thrilled than him – I was telling all my friends. He did the work, but it was just nice being a part of that.

Mein is currently attending classes at Glendale Community College, working toward a degree in music education, with which he hopes to teach guitar in the classroom. He is taking a variety of classes, including a Jazz Combo class, complete with recitals.

“Sometimes, I still get butterflies,” he said. “I play 200 gigs a year plus, but in the recital for my class at GCC, I get more butterflies than any other gig. We played three songs, played them out as a small group. We played well, but I was more nervous than any other time.

With his full schedule of gigs, students and classes, he keeps in mind why he takes these extra classes: the extra students he can reach, as well as the consistency of a school teaching role.

“I’ve always got ten things going at once,” he said. “It keeps me busy. I have to, because the last three years have been steady, but you have no gigs for a month and you don’t eat. I’ve been working out of my house for years; it would be nice to have security. Every steady gig, no matter how steady it is, every gig comes to an end.”

As well as the list of gigs on his schedule, Mein also sees the genre of jazz as a changing field.

“Jazz used to be what rock is now, they didn’t teach it in schools,” he said. “You had to get a classical music education, and then apply it to jazz. These jazz musicians, they learned and created as they went along. Now there are very few jazz artists who did not take classes on it in school. There used to be only a few schools, now it is widely academic.”

Mein said it is important to have a formal education in music, but also to have real-world experience.

“It depends on what you do, what music you want to play, as for which is more important,” he said. “Most musicians are schooled. I’m not, but I’m going back. I can see a different side of the issue. Obviously there’s a lot of value in formal learning, too, or I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Formally educated or self-taught, the one certainty with Mein is he does what he loves for a living.

And he’ll keep doing it as long as he can.

“It’s kind of weird, I was backed into this life,” he said. “I’m not really a religious person, but fate forced me into it. My printing business went down the tubes. I did more and more gigs, and was exhausted and could barely make it, but I was happy. It felt great. And the whole teaching thing, I love that, too. And if I can get a day teaching job, that’s great. Les Paul played gigs until the week he died at 94. That’ll be me, and I’ll be a happy man.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Community Spotlight: Rockford runner set to pound the pavement straight to MSU to raise awareness for U.S. troops

By Matt Marn, published in the Rockford Squire

Rockford resident Tim Klaes has a vast running background, including many Relay for Life teams in Rockford and the local Early Bird Running Club. Not to mention, he has run eight marathons in the past, including more than one stint in the Boston Marathon. But the run he will undertake Saturday, October 15 will be the longest distance he has tackled in his life.

Klaes is running from Forest Hills Foods in Cascade all the way to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, a distance of around 100 Kilometers, or 62 miles. For those who are keeping track, that’s over two full marathon lengths. Straight.

Klaes plans to make this run to East Lansing with a friend with whom he has ran and trained in the past. His friend is running for another cause, but when Klaes made the decision to run this vast distance, he knew he wanted to do it for more than just his health. He wanted to run for a cause that held a special place in his heart.

“As soon as I looked into the Wounded Warrior Project, I knew that’s what I wanted to support,” Klaes said. “Wounded Warriors gives opportunities for soldiers to stay active.”

From running and athletics to hunting and more, Klaes said the Wounded Warrior Project helps injured service members continue to do what makes them happy and be successful, including business mentoring.

“They want to provide these veterans with as many opportunities as possible,” he said. “I see that as a great cause, if I can use my talents to raise money and awareness to help, that’s great. I can run, and I can use that to help. It makes absolute sense.”

The Wounded Warriors Project states on their website that their mission is to honor and empower wounded warriors, and their vision is to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded warriors in this nation’s history. To Klaes, that is a purpose well worth running for.

“People come home, they have left a lot there, for us,” he said. “They gave their leg or their arm… We owe it to them to make them as whole as we can, whatever that means.”

Klaes said regardless of politics or how you feel about the war, it comes down to appreciating what our military forces and personnel are doing.

“People deploy, the family watches and walks away… How do you do that? I have a family and I can’t imagine that,” he said.

That family of Klaes’ is very proud of him and how hard he is working for something he cares about.

“I am so proud of Tim,” said Klaes’ wife, Kim. “As a family we really care a lot about this cause. Bottom line, he lives in a time of war where the draft never called him to step up, as his father and grandfathers, and yours and mine were, but he truly respects what he can do on a Saturday, because of our U.S. troops.”

Kim said her husband knows of no better way to honor those in the armed forces then to run a distance most people would never attempt in their life.

“This run is putting a toll on his body to help carry those that daily put a toll on their own for our freedom, leaving their kids and spouses for us,” Kim said. “That is freedom. That is giving back.”

Klaes said yes, there are times when the fatigue and mental stress grow overwhelming, but he said there is no way he is stopping yet.

“You’ve got it in your head, ‘I’m not stopping. I’m going to finish this,’” he said. “There are days you don’t want to go out and do it, but you always feel better when you do it. It can apply to a lot of situations in life. The battle is greatly mental. Your body is going to hurt no matter what, just finish what you started. People are a lot more capable of finishing what they set out to do than they expect.”

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Community Spotlight: Historical encampment brings flesh and blood to the history books

By Matt Marn

September 29, 2011 By The Rockford Squire

Reenactors often have actual equipment from the era they represent.

From German WWII trucks to working British Revolutionary War cannons, the Grand Rogue Living History Encampment helped history come alive. From excited young children to individuals who lived through some of these time periods, everyone who walked through the encampment stepped through to another time. What’s more, they all learned something about what shaped our country and the people in it into what they are today.

The encampment was held Saturday and Sunday, September 17-18, at the Grand Rogue Campground and Paddle Sports, 6400 West River Dr., Comstock Park.

“The encampment was an example of many held around the country,” said Dave Schmid, a 34-year reenactment veteran at the professional level, working before classes and crowds on a regular basis.

Reenactors at the annual Grand Rogue Encampment love to answer questions about their chosen time in history. There are many hands-on activities to teach the public—young and old—about America’s past.

“Most have a hard time understanding how life was like back then,” Schmid said, who joined the ranks of reenactment participants right out of high school. “As you watch their faces… then they get it, like a light was switched on. They start to ask questions, and they go home and learn about their own past, and they learn from that. There’s the reward.”

The encampment portrayed a wide array of time periods, from a World War II German camp to colonial times and Revolutionary War soldiers from both sides of the field to French and Indian War time period with authentic Native American camps and tents.

Schmid, dressed completely in traditional frontier explorer attire in the Native American camp area, said he was portraying and studying Champlain, the founder of Quebec.

“In dealing with both royalty and the colonials, and keeping everyone happy… His story was amazing,” Schmid said of Champlain. “So many heroes of the past, they turned out to be ordinary, nondescript people who just stepped up.”

Encampment visitors Robert and Cammi Adams and their children know this better than most. Their family travels to all kinds of reenactments, and appreciate this one is locally based, and covers more than one time period. One of the kids went to the encampment as a class trip Friday, so the family decided to make the trip out the following day.

Exploring the German World War II campsite in the encampment, Cammi said she has been all over the world, including a trip to Europe as a teenager. She said in Germany, she and her family visited a large graveyard with American soldiers who were killed during World War II. She said her family decided to also travel to the smaller graveyard of German soldiers, out of respect for all who lost their lives.

“With four children, it’s harder to travel abroad,” said Cammi. “It’s nice to learn these lessons of history locally, especially with the time span they cover here. The kids love it too; it was their idea to come here. We went to Fort Michilimackinac earlier this summer, and we had to pull them out by their toenails.”

Mark Biolchino is a former teacher from the Detroit area who has been participating in reenactments with the 2nd SS Division Panzer Grenadiers reenactment unit for over two years. Dressed as a German medical officer, and a medic himself for the U.S. military in Vietnam, he wants to pay respect to the past and all those who fought in World War II. And as many of them pass away, Biolchino said he and his colleagues in the reenactment unit help bring that time period alive again.

“There’s so much to absorb here, “ Biolchino said. “It gives flesh and blood to the history book. It brings to life the conflict.”

Back in the Native American camp, Schmid extended an invitation to anyone with an passion for history and an openness for trying new things to come to a reenactment and learn more.

“What I like about living history is that people find a time period and a niche that they love, it becomes their passion,” Schmid said. “They study it so intensely; it’s amazing what they come up with. If you have a passion for learning about history, come out to a reenactment. If you see someone wearing what you like, talk to them. We’ve done research, we can give guidance… Do honor to those of the past.”

Community Spotlight: Local Tour de France competitor helps teammate grab yellow jacket

September 29, 2011 By The Rockford Squire


Only a decade ago, Brent Bookwalter was a local cycling enthusiast when he began competing in local amateur events. Years later, he met Cadel Evans, a professional cyclist, and asked for his autograph.

In 2011, Bookwalter helped his professional cycling team bring home the win at the most prestigious cycling race in the world.

Bookwalter is one of the competitors on the BMC racing team who recently traveled to France to compete in the 98th Tour de France, a cycling race spanning 21 stages in over 23 days, measuring over 3,400 kilometers in length, also stretching part of the route into Italy.

The competition ended on July 24, 2011 with Evans crossing the finish line and taking home the win for BMC. And he couldn’t have done it without the help of a long list of support teammates, including Bookwalter.

Bookwalter grew up ripping around Rockford on his bike, where he often saw signs for local mountain bike competitions over at Cannonsburg and Pando ski areas. When he was 12 or 13, a friend took him to a competition, and he has never looked back.

Connie Zinger, Bookwalter’s mother, remembered that since then he rose through the local mountain

biking ranks by entering those same competitions

he went to watch, and moving on to state and even national championships.

“He started out like any kid, riding a bike and loving it,” Zinger said.

“I don’t come from an especially athletic family,” Bookwalter said. “When I was younger I played a lot of sports, but began doing more and more cycling. I was always ‘ok’ at every sport, not the best… here I am out there alone, and control my own success.”

Bookwalter also pointed out, however, at that time he had no idea cycling was such a team sport.

“It wasn’t even in my scope at all,” he said. “It’s a sole pursuit, but it’s also very social… You have control, but it’s a team sport. It’s the best of both worlds.”

He stuck through his education through college, where he got a degree in biology from Lee McCrae, where he also made more of a name for himself behind the handlebars, winning numerous championships at the collegiate level.

After riding for a variety of teams and sponsors both in America and abroad, Bookwalter signed with BMC, a Swiss cycling company, with whom he has ridden for years. Together they have toured Europe in a myriad of races from Italy and Spain, now to France once more for the most prestigious cycling race in the world.

The road has not been without its struggles. Four years ago he hit a lamppost, shattering a leg bone, and was rushed to the emergency room. He required surgery, and then another later back in Grand Rapids when the first surgery was found to not have healed properly. He also broke his collarbone during a race in Spain.

Zinger says yes, it is stressful and scary being a mother watching from the sidelines, but she supports him with everything she has.

“We all just have a lot of faith,” she said. “We are happy and thankful for what we have. He takes risks, but its part of his dream. We encourage him to do what is best; there are times I want to despair, but I encourage him. When he was younger, I guided him, but he’s very levelheaded and disciplined. I admire him for that.”

Bookwalter said some days take more discipline than others. First it was a hobby, which changed to a sport, then an obsession.

“Like many things in life, it changes as you go,” he said. “It’s still a passion, but now it’s my job, too. Responsibilities and pressures greater than before; some days it is more about trying to punch it in, get it done.”

But like all athletes, he finds a special place where he can find the strength to finish strong. The first place he looks is to his teammates and family.

“I was blessed with a lot of support, mental and financial,” he said. “The people that supported me every step of the way set me up with the team, and I rose from there.”

Bookwalter was interviewed by VeloNews in an article which can be found on his blog at VeloNews asked about how Cadel Evans, BMC teammate and winner of the 2011 Tour de France, inspires Bookwalter and the rest of the team when they see him dig so deep inside for drive.

“You see the pictures coming across the line, looking like he’s ready to eat someone, we’re like, whoa! That’s our guy,” Bookwalter said. “He’s ready to ball. So we’re ready to go to war for him. It charges us up and inspires us. Eyes on the prize.”

When asked about the comment he made to VeloNews, Bookwalter said when it comes to what drives him and the others in his team, as well as the others in the sport, it is hard to put into words.

“What works to push me… would have to be the fascination with pushing through, finishing tough. After you make it to the finish line, you are changed as a person and as an athlete, it is a powerful, transforming experience.”

Bookwalter also said it helps his team drive each other to be part of a common goal.

“A lot of people worked hard to get me there, and have a lot invested in me. They help keep me going as well,” he said.

“Don’t underestimate the power of believing in yourself, and surrounding yourself with people who believe in you, too,” Bookwalter added. “People who can pick you back up when you fall, people who believe in you—it has done a lot for me, I can’t say enough about that. I wouldn’t be here without the effort and heart of supporters around me.”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Community Spotlight: Local family man risked all, lives on as national hero

Major John C. Sjogren helped win key battle in WWII, awarded Medal of Honor

by Matt Marn

Published May 26, 2011 by the Rockford Squire Newspaper

Memorial Day, a time to commemorate U.S. soldiers who died while in service of their country, began after the Civil War as a day of remembrance and reconciliation. Memorial Day has now evolved into a general day of memory, in which families and loved ones visit the graves of deceased relatives who may or may not have served.

This Memorial Day, Julie Sjogren, administrative assistant with the Algoma Planning and Building Department and president of the Algoma Historical Society, will remember a national hometown hero in her husband’s family.

John Carleton Sjogren, or “Uncle Carleton” to his family, went to family gatherings with his wife Jean, and Julie remembers her relative’s warmth toward his family.

“John and his wife were always on the go,” Julie said. “But when he did come, it was a real treat. He was a very friendly, nice man; such a gentleman. One Christmas party, he took my daughter up on his knee. He took a lapel pin off of his suit coat, and pinned it on her dress. To me, that was a big deal.”

But in addition to love for family, she will remember the courage and devotion to country he showed to the entire nation.

The following is derived from an article published in the January issue of the Algoma Township Historical Society’s quarterly newsletter, based on “A Grenade and A Prayer,” an article written by Lt. George H. Larson, written with excerpts from a piece by Judy Helsel.

Sjogren was born and raised in Algoma to parents Carl and Anna on a farm full of corn, beans and potatoes in 1916. John had an older brother, Elmer, and a younger brother, Norman, and his sisters, Lillian, Edith and Esther. From an early age, he worked in Chicago as a bricklayer and came home on weekends.

In 1929—the year he graduated eighth grade and the year the Great Depression began—he once more showed his dedication when he spent eight years working on his family’s farm as well as another family farm nearby to see himself and his family through. In 1938 he went to work for Wolverine Shoe and Tanning Corporation in Rockford.

In 1940 Sjogren was called up to serve through the draft. After a bone specialist took a look at his X-ray, he lay a hand on Sjogren’s shoulder and said, “You’ll never get in the Army, son.”

The doctor explained that two of Sjogren’s vertebrae were deformed, and it was unwise for him to perform combat duty, and he was classified as “4F,” which meant the applicant was under the physical, mental or moral standards and was therefore not fit for military service.

As he grudgingly returned to wo rk at Wolverine, a civilian once more, Sjogren heard his brother Norman was among the first invasion wave of troops into Casablanca in North Africa. He wanted so badly to serve his country. When he was once more called upon for limited service by the draft in 1942, he knew he had to act. By now, Norman was stationed in Rome, Italy, and following suit, John asked for a classification of 1A—availability for unrestricted military service. That request was granted.

Sjogren also requested an assignment to infantry duty and the next overseas assignment. This was also granted, and he was on his way to Camp McCain in Mississippi to train, then to Hawaii for jungle training. Upon completion of training, he joined the United States Army, 40th Division, 160th Infantry Regiment, I Company, Third Platoon, First Squad, where he was named to the position of First Scout.

He saw a great deal of combat in the first half of 1945, from enemy ambushes to mortar attacks, and was wounded on more than one occasion, and saw many people in his unit die. After some time in an infirmary, after his leg was hit with shrapnel from a mortar, he rejoined his division on Negros Island in the Philippines.

May 23 was the day Sjogren (at the time, a staff sergeant) and his unit was given the order to take an enemy position on the banana-shaped Hill 3155, also called Suicide Knob. Sjogren’s squad moved in after an Allied air strike, but many Japanese soldiers survived the strike and had holed up in fortified pillbox bunkers along the ridge.

Sjogren’s company was tasked with outflanking the Japanese on the hill, and their platoon was chosen to lead the attack. As the first scout of the first squad, Sjogren began the move to the crest of the hill through darkness so thick his squad had to hold hands to move forward.

Sjogren and his squad saw it as a suicide mission, but pressed on. Sjogren had scouted out the terrain earlier that morning, but still feared a trap as they crept through the darkness. As Allied troops crept up both ends of the hill, the Japanese forces opened fire. They began lobbing grenades and anti-personnel bombs, but the squad still worked their way up the hill.

Sjogren saw his second in command (and close friend) hit by sniper fire as he was crawling over a log. Sjogren crossed 20 yards of exposed terrain and continued automatic weapon fire from the Japanese to get his friend back to the edge of the hill where the medics could administer first aid. It was then Sjogren learned that his friend had been killed by the sniper’s shot.

After losing his friend, Sjogren had only four men left in his squad, and they were pinned down by constant machine gun fire.

“I told the rest of my squad to start passing up hand grenades, which they thought I was being a fool as this would give away our position, but I started heaving them wherever I figured [they] were,” Sjogren recalled. “I could hear them holler. Bullets were flying all around us. Sometimes I threw them from my knees and other times on my belly. I was lying behind a log a few yards ahead of my unit and I could see some of the [enemy soldiers] starting to take off. I shouted, ‘Let’s go!’ and we pushed ahead.”

“I was watching a pillbox when a [soldier] who was playing dead fired three shots at me,” he said. “They went right past my ear and I hit the ground. I don’t see how he missed! My second shot knocked him down with a rifle and I crawled up and threw a grenade into the hold. Then we moved on up and blasted a machine gun position.”

“I squirmed up close enough to toss a grenade through the hole in the top of the pillbox,” Sjogren continued. “My squad kept picking them off as they tried to run from their holes. They also kept me covered as I crept up close to one pillbox after another. Sometimes I threw a grenade from 20 yards and sometimes I got within a yard and pushed grenades in. That’s about all there was to it. The rest of our platoon came up from behind and another company rushed them from the other end and it was soon over.”

After the battle was won by the Allied forces, there were many soldiers on both sides of the field that lost their lives, but his platoon agreed Sergeant Sjogren accounted for at least 43 enemy Japanese killed; at least one he had defeated in hand-to-hand combat. He and his squad, who had gone 50 hours without food or water, had succeeded in systematically destroying nine pillbox encampments on the hill.

Sjogren held each grenade for two seconds before he threw them, helping prevent the enemy from throwing them back. He was even injured by an enemy-thrown grenade, but he continued with the assault. At one point, he grabbed the hot barrel of an enemy machine gun and ripped it out of the pillbox.

After that, his platoon began calling him “Grenade John.”

Sjogren was asked on July 5 if he wanted a field commission, and was granted the rank of lieutenant. While he was still in the Philippine Islands on August 19, his 29th birthday, he was leaving church when he was informed he had won the highest award that can be bestowed in the United States military: the Congressional Medal of Honor.

He flew back to the states, where President Truman gave him the honored medal October 12, 1945.

When Sjogren returned home to Michigan, he was welcomed as a true hero.

Michigan Governor Harry S. Kelly officially proclaimed Friday, September 14, 1945 as “Sjogren Day.” During Sjogren Day, the lieutenant was awarded with a new 1946 Ford Super Deluxe Sedan, paid for by the Rockford Chamber of Commerce and most of the town’s 2,000 citizens.

The Sjogren Day celebration also included a parade through downtown Rockford to the Rockford High School football field, where they held a special ceremony in Sjogren’s honor.

There were many speakers who praised Sjogren’s selflessness and bravery, including the Rockford mayor and a number of Michigan senators and representatives, and culminated by Michigan Lt. Governor Vernon J. Brown.

“Words are too weak and inadequate to express truly the feeling your fellow citizens hold toward the record of courage and devotion to duty which you have established,” said Brown to the crowd, as recorded in the Rockford Register. “Your country and your state are pledged to express their gratitude to heroes like yourself in action… for the welfare of you men who risked your lives in the service of this nation.”

“Michigan is proud to call you its own, Lieutenant,” Brown continued. “The whole nation owes you a great debt of thanks. You and other young men like you saw this nation through the dark days of the past to the broad, sunlit uplands of victory and peace. You justified beyond our most hopeful dreams, the confidence we had in you. And—most important, perhaps—you gave America a powerful assurance for the future. We know of no task the future may impose which is too great for a nation which can produce men like yourself… On behalf of the people of Michigan, I say thank you, Lieutenant Sjogren, for the deeds of war you have done and the deeds of peace we know you will yet do. Thank you for the victory of yesterday and the faith you have given us in the security of tomorrow.”

With the audience emotional already, when Sjogren himself took the podium and spoke—far fewer words than anyone before him—he left everyone in tears.

“To me there is no honor, surely not the Medal of Honor, that should compare with the honor that should go to those boys who will not come home ever again,” Sjogren said. “Many of you people… do not know, nor will you ever know, what those boys who gave their lives went through.”

With a prayer for safe return of all the boys who were yet away from home, and with a brief statement of profound gladness to be home again himself, Lieutenant Sjogren thanked all who had come to honor him that day.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Community Spotlight: Nanny on Demand service offers solutions for busy parents

Published February 23, 2011 by Advance newspapers

By Matt Marn

Nanny on Demand, a franchise started in Caledonia, is now coming to the rescue of parents on the southwest side of town.

The staff at Nanny on Demand’s Wyoming location, at 5783 Byron Center Ave. SW, will watch young children for up to 4 hours while parents switch shifts at work, travel to medical appointments, or even get away for a much-needed break.

Children age 1 through 7 are welcome at the facility.

“I love this age,” said Shannon Schut, owner of the Wyoming facility. “My kids are all teens. Seeing them learn something new, their laughter, the convenience... I wish I had this service when my kids were this age.”

Since the Wyoming facility opened, they have been featured in newspapers and on local news programs, but most of all, they have grown by word of mouth and by handing out flyers around the community.

“People are starting to get very excited and pick up on the idea,” Schut said. “We are the only drop-off facility for short-term day care in Michigan.”

Schut said there are different areas of the room for a variety of activities the children participate in, from crafts and puzzles to reading and learning numbers.

“We just try to give them a new experience every time they come in,” she said.

The staff is also setting up specific times for larger playgroups, which will focus on more group interactions as well as helping build stronger friendships between the children.

Schut and the two other staff members all have backgrounds in child development or teaching. Schut said getting the children off on the right foot with the right influences is critical at this early age.

She encourages parents in need of short-term day care to come in and give it a try.

“Just bring your kids in here, and you’ll be so much more relaxed,” she said. “Let them enjoy the crafts, and have fun. Give them a break from traveling to all the appointments.”

Kim Jackson, of Grand Rapids, has children 1 and 2 years old. Jackson had never left her kids alone with anyone besides her husband before she walked in to Nanny on Demand.

She was nervous at first, having never left her kids with another person. When she came in the first time with her children, she conducted a “two-hour interview,” she said, but when she left, Jackson was satisfied that her kids were in very good hands.

“I have been bringing my two kids here for about a month now, and I hope that speaks volumes,” Jackson said. “I enjoy it. I love the people. I love the security about this place. After you bring them back time and time again, they get so comfortable, it’s like a second home.”

Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Saturdays by appointment. Rates are $10 per hour, and packages are also available at $90 and $150 which offer lower hourly rates.

For more information about Nanny on Demand, call 608-6623.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Community Spotlight: Art show at West Godwin makes teacher's heart smile

Published February 14, 2011 | Advance Newspapers

By Matt Marn

Students at West Godwin Elementary school, 3546 Clyde Park Ave. in Wyoming, will get to flex their artistic muscles at their annual student art show from 6-8 p.m. this Thursday.

The show has been put on for the past few years by the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, and Principal Phil Haack said the PTO takes pride in “going all out” for the event.

Erika Redrick, the art teacher at the school, said it was a great thing for the PTO to organize for the kids. While there was a districtwide showcase earlier in January, Redrick said the show at West Godwin has more of a competition feel.

“They enter their own ideas, their own concepts,” she said. “They have some freedom in art class, but in essence, they are all working on the same general project. Here, it’s really great they can express themselves, and feel comfortable doing it.”

Redrick said students all have a favorite medium through which to express themselves. She introduces them to many varieties of media in art class, and the competition is the open forum in which they can completely direct their own artwork.

“We don’t always get to fit their favorite works into the class,” Redrick said. “Now is the perfect chance for the kids to express themselves. They come and show me, they take what they learned in my class and make it their own. It makes my heart smile. It shows me I’m doing this right.”

Haack said the organizers have printed out ribbons for the winners, and arranged for a student piano player to come from the high school to play for the evening. All entries will be on display during the show, and winners, judged ahead of time, will be announced at the end of the evening.

“Everyone can enter whatever they’d like,” Haack said. “They work on it at home, using whatever medium they want, from coloring pages to clay to beads glued together... whatever the kids want to do.”

Haack said classrooms have been encouraging kids to enter.

“Many entries have already been from kids not always as active in class,” he said. “Parents have always played a key role. I’m impressed. Especially in a time where we push kids academically, it’s a great way to blend art and academics.”

Monday, February 14, 2011

Community Spotlight: Gaines gets ready for first Community Expo on Saturday

Published February 03, 2011 by Advance Newspapers

By Matt Marn

The Cutlerville-Gaines Chamber of Commerce will host the inaugural Gaines Community Expo on Saturday, Feb. 5. The free expo, which will run from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., is an experience for the whole family designed to encourage community pride.

The expo will be held at the newly built gymnasium at Providence CRC, 7730 Eastern Ave. SE.

The expo is designed to help showcase all that Gaines Township has to offer, from businesses and industries to organizations. The expo is a chance to see a sampling of those businesses, and see firsthand how they impact the community.

“Gaines Township has a ton of businesses and local opportunities people may not even know about,” said Robin Halsted, executive director of the Cutlerville-Gaines Township Chamber of Commerce. “I hope it’s a great way to learn about the businesses in our community.”

Local schools will help provide entertainment, and there will be other events throughout the day to enjoy, including karate classes and the awarding of the 2011 Dutton Snowman Festival Awards.

In addition to the vendors, organizations and businesses, expo visitors can shop at the “Business Garage Sale,” which will showcase items from those businesses available for purchase.

“The business garage sale is a good opportunity for the businesses to bring in overstock items,” Halsted said. “It’s always good to shop locally. It builds the economy, it supports your community. So come by and see what local businesses have to offer.”

For more information on the Gaines Community Expo, contact the Cutlerville-Gaines Township Chamber of Commerce at 890-1378 or at

Community Spotlight: Wyoming Senior Center ready to step up its game

Published: January 24, 2011 | Advance Newspapers

By Matt Marn

Later this year, Wyoming area seniors will be enjoying more space in the game room at the Wyoming Senior Center.

Bids were recently submitted for a project to expand the room, and city staff will now review the bids and present their findings to the City Council at a Feb. 14 work session.

Molly Remenape, recreation programmer for the Wyoming Senior Center, said about seven years ago the center started the Senior Visioning Initiative (SVI), in which they had hoped to redo the whole center. But the funding was not available to revamp the entire senior center, so the staff decided to move forward with smaller projects as money presented itself.

When the opportunity arose from Community Development block grants (CDBG) and other sources, they decided to work on revamping the game room. Remenape said the project, which should be started by early April, should last about three months.

Remenape said they plan to expand the center’s game room to the north, keeping the four current pool tables but also improving the card player seating area and creating a specific area for their Nintendo Wii game system. Overall, Remenape said, they want to improve the programming, and make it easier for the seniors to relax.

“The seniors are very excited,” Remenape said. “We get so many card and pool players, and they are all excited to have more room. They appreciate us improving on aspects of the building. This is their second home – they spend as much time here as they do at home.”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Community Spotlight: Kentwood, Caledonia join forces for reading project

By Matt Marn

Published January 17, 2011 by Advance Newspapers

Kentwood and Caledonia students appeared at the Kentwood Board of Education meeting on January 10 to launch “Two Communities, One Book,” and announced that the book leading the program would be The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

Donna Smith is one of the coordinators of the event. As a Caledonia parent, she has been involved in many past literacy projects, and has helped bring the school districts together to celebrate literacy and their new libraries while at the same time bringing the two communities closer together.

“I really want to emphasize, not just for high school, but this is important for all ages,” Smith said. “We are promoting literacy, celebrating two new libraries, and building relationships between the communities.”

The schools have filmed four public service announcements about the program and the benefits of picking up a good book. The announcements will be playing on local cable stations, including Caledonia Cable and The Falcon News, the two schools’ broadcasting networks. The students played one of the clips for the board.

On March 21 at the Kentwood Library, Kentwood students, in conjunction with Davenport University, will host Betty Zylstra, the director of the Grand Rapids Salvation Army. Zylstra, along with a representative from a local clinic, will discuss and help localize health issues raised in the book. The students from Davenport will also facilitate a book discussion group.

As a finale to the program, Skloot, the author of the book, will speak at Grand Valley State University’s Pew Campus in downtown Grand Rapids on March 28.

The students are continuing their appearances at City Council, Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce meetings. The Kentwood students who attended the Board of Education meeting were seniors Dominique Brown and Deleon Marks, and juniors Jayde Niblack and Meghan Baldridge. The Caledonia students were Emily Hazelbach and Madison McClain, president and treasurer of Caledonia’s student council.

“There’s going to be a great networking opportunity there,” said Baldridge. “It’s cool to get the student body and other communities involved. It’s going to be interesting to see what we can do.”

© 2011 All rights reserved.

Community Spotlight: Wyoming Police to receive federal grant, boost ranks

By Matt Marn

Published January 03, 2011 by Advance Newspapers

Amid the Merry Christmas and Happy New Year wishes, the final Wyoming City Council meeting of 2010 included the passage of a resolution to accept grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS Hiring Program.

The grant awarded to Wyoming is $2.2 million, which will provide 100 percent funding for four police officer positions over three years. But the city had to commit to funding the positions for a fourth year, and the vote taken last month approved the budgeting for that fourth year.

In a city council work session the week before, Wyoming Police Chief James Carmody explained that the COPS grant funding, which came from a portion of the federal stimulus, was to retain or replace public safety officers.

An earlier grant application from the city was denied, but that was prior to the General Motors plant closure as well as closures of other local businesses. The application was held over and Wyoming became eligible for funding once more when economic data was updated and provided.

Carmody said two of the four positions will be in the investigative division and focus on juvenile issues such as truancy and bullying, while the other two positions would be for liaison positions to work in the community and with local businesses.

Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt said the grant can help the city catch up on understaffed police efforts.

“Part of what I think gives us a productive force is not all reactive but also proactive activities, and, if but for a short time, this will help us catch up,” he said.

Holt said two years ago, a study was done that showed room for improvement regarding the understaffed police and fire services in the city of Wyoming.

“As a city, we need to work for constant improvement,” he said. “That makes your city more sustainable in the long term. If you don’t take care of roads, fire safety, or police departments, the bills and problems add up. But by being proactive, by having more police and prevention, we can help people find peaceful solutions that keep them out of the legal system.”

Holt said the officers in the new police positions would work closely with youth as well as community and businesses, addressing things head-on in both realms, taking an active role in citizens’ daily lives.

“Wyoming’s crime rates are traditionally low, largely because of good, quality police work and involvement in the community,” he said. “As we continue to drop officers, you may not see an immediate impact, but over time, your community will change, and not always for the better. That is why this grant is so important – we want to always keep moving forward.”

Matt Marn can be reached at

© 2011 All rights reserved.

Byron Center Kiwanis Club ready to make a difference

By Matt Marn

Published December 13, 2010 by Advance Newspapers

With the holidays upon us, many take an opportunity to turn to others and think of giving rather than receiving. The Byron Center community is no exception. A group of educators, businesspeople and other community members are starting a local club of the Kiwanis organization to help kids in their area.

Kiwanis is a group based around helping children the world over. They are a self-described “global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world, one child and one community at a time.”

From local clubs such as those in Caledonia and the new club in Byron Center, to groups in high schools and universities on to the international level, they are already changing lives the world over.

The Caledonia club, for example, offers infant car seat inspections, providing families with a new seat if theirs does not meet current safety standards. They also provide dictionaries to every third-grade student in the school district, as well as a thesaurus to every fifth-grade student.

And with weeks left before their chartering dinner event, the Byron Center club wants to make the same impact in their own community.

Mark Marlowe, general manager of the Courthouse Athletic Center and a member of the new Byron Center Kiwanis club, said they are looking for more members who want to make a difference.

“It’s a great thing for the Byron Center community,” Marlowe said. “I looked into Kiwanis, and it’s a great way to get to know more people, and give back. And the more people get involved... it’s better for everyone.”

Marlowe said when you work with kids as much as his staff does at the athletic center, joining a group centered around kids seemed like a natural fit.

“It’s an organization about kids,” he said. “And 99 percent of my business here is kids. I saw this as an opportunity to give back to the community. Also, it is a nice way to meet other people in the community, in a different environment than walking in and out of the athletic center.”

Marlowe said the Kiwanis club from Caledonia has been helping get the Byron Center group off the ground, led by the Caledonia club president, Vince Weiss.

“They are filling us in, giving us the background,” Marlowe said. “The Caledonia group is passionate, fired up. When I see that kind of passion, that tells me something. They’re not trying to make a sale; they want to be a part of it. You can tell the group has had a positive impact on Vince’s life.”

Weiss has been involved in Kiwanis clubs for 20 years, starting in Virginia, when joining Kiwanis was a part of a job he held. But then he found out how much fun it was to help kids.

Weiss said Kiwanis is a great cross-section of the community. From educators, business people, and retired individuals, he knows the Byron Center community will benefit greatly from this new club. And so will its members.

“It’s amazing,” Weiss said. “You get involved because your job asks it, but it’s not long before you’re in – hook, line and sinker. And the enthusiasm from the Byron Center club is extraordinary. We want 30 charter members, and that should not be a problem.”

Kurtis Marlowe, Mark’s son, is also a member of the Byron Center club. While he didn’t quite know what to expect in the beginning, he knew he wanted to be a part of the effort from the ground floor up.

“For me, getting to meet people in the area is big,” Marlowe said. “I’m from the Kalamazoo area, so this is a great way to meet businesses and educators in Byron Center. But most of all, I’m here to give back. At the athletic club, I do all basketball. It would be nice to help in other ways, like in schools and with other community projects.”

Marlowe also said it was good to see a variety of age groups in attendance at the first meetings.

“Today, I was one of several younger people at the meeting,” he said. “It’s not just for older individuals, it’s really rewarding for younger people as well.”

“You see people come in and out of here all the time, and you recognize their faces, but that’s it,” he said. “This way, you not only know their names and faces, but you get to know who these people really are.”

For more information on the Byron Center Kiwanis club and joining the ranks, contact Caledonia club president Vince Weiss at (616) 890-5776.

© 2011 All rights reserved.

Wyoming teens stepping up to volunteer on council

By Matt Marn, Published in Advance Newspapers December 6, 2010

Teens from a variety of Wyoming area schools are taking an active role in the community through the Wyoming Parks and Recreation Department’s Teen Council. The council is involved in planning events for all ages in the community, from teens to seniors and everyone in between.

Not only do these young leaders work with the council, but some also serve on the Youth Advisory Committee (YAC), a part of the Wyoming Community Foundation that helps identify youth-centered needs in the community and reviews grant applications to decide how to disperse their available funding.

Members of the parks and recreation teen council have also begun to serve on the recently formed Wyoming Community Youth Coalition, a collaboration of area groups which provides programs and services to local youth.

Eric Tomkins, Wyoming Parks and Recreation Department recreation supervisor, said teens from the council could surely serve in all capacities.

“There was no use in recreating the wheel,” he said. “Besides, the coalition’s intent of being a collaborative really made this idea a natural fit.”

Valarie Brochu, recreation programmer for the Wyoming Parks and Recreation Department, said the teens on the council are a great resource – a great voice to find out what more to offer teens.

“When I first started here, I was given the task to start a teen board, and I was nervous. But it has worked really well. I’m proud of all of them. They’re great kids, they love to be involved. It’s one of the best parts of my job.”

Sydney Birge, a sophomore at Grand Rapids Preparatory school, was in eighth grade when her teacher gave her an application to join the Wyoming Parks and Recreation Teen Council, and she became one of the original members. Birge is now the vice-president.

“Our goal is to plan events for teens, give teens ways to help the community and be in a safe environment where they don’t have anything to worry about,” Birge said. “When I first started, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Being involved in the community, planning events, it’s a lot of work, but worth it when we see how it affects the community, and all the people we helped.”

Birge said the project the group worked on that meant the most to her was “Rethink the Drink,” a pair of homemade public service announcements, one directed toward teens, the other toward their parents, about the dangers of alcohol.

“If even a few teens saw that, if you could only help out a few people, it may save them,” she said.

Birge invited others in the community to consider joining the teen council, or start to volunteer in their own community.

“It may be daunting at first, but you meet a lot of people, and it’s worth it, giving back,” she said. “Not everyone listens to teens, but having a whole council for teens... it’s totally worth it.”

Louise McKenzie, a junior at Wyoming Park High School, is the president of the teen council. She said she was recruited thanks in part to her volunteer work in her community.

The teen council has a respected position in the community, McKenzie said.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “We have a voice now, people know how we feel. We go to board meetings, and the community knows we’re out there.”

The project of the teen council that had the biggest impact on McKenzie is the reverse mentoring program, where the council visits the Wyoming Senior Center twice monthly, helping seniors learn to use computers, cell phones and other technology.

“We help make them more efficient in the work world and in their personal lives,” she said.

The teen council’s next project is a teen luau from 7 p.m. to midnight on Friday, Feb. 18. Ages 13 to 18 are welcome, McKenzie said, but must register to participate. Teens interested in attending should contact Wyoming Parks and Recreation for more information.

McKenzie also has advice for those teens hoping to get involved. “Don’t be afraid of adults,” she said.

“They’ve gone through the same things. If you have something, an idea, feel free to take it to an adult, someone with more experience. Also, get some of your friends behind you, and get something started.”

Written by Matt Marn, who can be reached at

© 2011 All rights reserved.