By Jennifer Eisenbart
The year 2023 provided numerous challenges for the area, as well as both good news and sad deaths.
Here are a selection of the top news stories of 2023 in Walworth County:
After the retirement of Kurt Picknell in December of 2022, Dave Gerber took over as the new sheriff of Walworth County.
Gerber was a long-time undersheriff to Picknell and oversaw all office operations and the department’s $28 million budget.
Gerber has 28 years of full-time law enforcement experience, starting with the Village of East Troy Police Department. He joined the Walworth County Sheriff’s Department in 1997 – and continued as a part-time officer for another 15 years.
Elkhorn attempted book ban
In late November, a parent of an Elkhorn Area School District student attempted to have 444 books removed from the shelves of the middle- and high-school libraries.
Melissa Bollinger challenged 163 books in the Elkhorn Area Middle School library and 181 at the Elkhorn Area High School library.
While the majority of the books had cleared the review process, according to EASD Superintendent Jason Tadlock, he anticipated that some of the books would, in the future, require parental permission to check out.
The 444-book list included classics like “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Anna Karenina” and “Lord of the Flies,” plus popular young adult titles like “If I Stay” and “The Fault in Our Stars.”
The challenge is one of the largest, if not the largest, challenge to library content across the country. Bollinger challenged each book via Wisconsin State Statute 948.11, essentially saying the contents of the books were harmful to children.
Death of Elkhorn coach, memorial fund established
On Oct. 2, long-time Elkhorn Area High School physical education teacher and cross-country coach Randi Wulf died in a motorcycle crash just outside the city proper.
Wulf was remembered as a man who positively impacted many people.
“I don’t think there is ever a negative thing I’ve ever heard about Randi,” said Kasey Smith, a former cross-country runner and of the organizers of Run4Randi, which took place Nov. 18.
The first-ever event, the 5K run/walk served as a fundraiser to establish a scholarship in Wulf’s name through the Elkhorn Area Scholarship Foundation.
The event drew close to 600 participants, including cross country runners and coaches from around the area and alumni.
Organizers estimated following the event that at least $35,000 had been raised.
Delavan-Darien School Administrator resigns
Following an extensive internal investigation, Delavan-Darien District Administrator Jill Sorbie resigned in July.
The district provided no statement about the agreement that led to the resignation and did not take any action on charting a course forward at this meeting.
Sorbie was made interim administrator in January of 2019 when the board parted ways with previous administrator Robert Crist. Sorbie had been the Director of Curriculum and Instruction since 2017 and retained that role as Administrator.
Sorbie was placed on paid non-disciplinary leave on Feb. 13. No explanation was given for the leave or the investigation the district began and conducted.
Business Administrator Anthony Klein was appointed interim administrator in the wake of Sorbie’s resignation, while Mary Burke was named interim curriculum and instruction director.
Gebel impresses national audience on ‘The Voice’
As the Gebel Girls – sisters Micah and Rachel Gebel – began touring the area extensively in the last year, Rachel took a hopeful step forward in her solo career.
Gebel auditioned for NBC’s “The Voice,” and was accepted into the competition. The show’s 23rd season saw Rachel Christine – as she went by on the show – selected by coach Kelly Clarkson.
Rachel auditioned with the song “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette, and survived the Battle Round with fellow team member JB Somers by singing “Light On.”
In the knockout round, Rachel was defeated by Holly Brand, but became an instant trivia answer, as Blake Shelton – in his final season on the show – “stole” Rachel onto his team.
Rachel’s final show aired May 1, when she was eliminated in the playoffs after singing “The Only Exception.”
Rachel and Micah Gebel continue to tour the area as the Gebel Girls, with many packed small venues.
School referendums see mixed results
Numerous area schools had either operational or other referendum questions on the April spring ballot.
Almost all failed, with the exception of East Troy, which had tried for many years to get a referendum passed.
Voters in the East Troy Community School District voted yes on a non-recurring operational referendum on the April 4 spring ballot, giving the district permission to exceed state-set revenue limits by $3 million each of the next three years.
The funds will be used to maintain programming and staffing.
Referendums at the school district level have become more common in the last decade, as state aid has failed to keep up with the cost of inflation and rising costs for everything from staffing to health insurance.
Referendums were also on the ballot in the Elkhorn Area School District and Walworth J1 District, but both failed.
EASD has said it’s researching another referendum question, which may be back on the ballot this spring.
Powerlifter wins national, international titles
Elkhorn Area High School senior Jessica Haggerty has certainly had a 2023 to remember.
A powerlifter who started with the Elkhorn club team, Haggerty won her weight class at the Wisconsin High School Powerlifting meet in March. She made it clear then that she had bigger goals.
Less than a month later, Haggerty won the American High School Nationals in Scranton, Pennsylvania. That qualified Haggerty to compete at the International Powerlifting Federation World Classic and Equipped Sub-Junior and Junior Powerlifting Championships in August in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Haggerty came home a world champion in the 52-kilogram (114 pound) division, scoring 90.37 points.
She squatted 130 kilograms (286.6 pounds), bench pressed 82.5 kilograms (181.88 pounds) and deadlifted 140 kilograms (308.6 pounds).
She finished second in terms of weight lifted in the squat, won the bench press and finished second in the deadlift.
That placed her ahead of Elisa Misiano of Italy, who took second, and Cassandre Olivier of France, who was third.
Frank’s Piggly Wiggly gets new owners
After 42 years of owning a grocery store, and more than 60 years in the business for Frank Lueptow, and 50 for Stephanie Lueptow, the two decided to retire in 2023.
According to a news release April 25, the Lueptows sold their stores and shopping centers in East Troy and Elkhorn. Hansen’s IGA Markets purchased the businesses.
In 1981, Frank and Stephanie Lueptow opened a 5,000-square-foot store, Frank’s Quality Market in downtown Elkhorn. Within a year they bought their nearest competitor and moved across the street to a 10,000-square-foot location and rebranded as Frank’s SuperValu Discount Foods.
Economic development happening in cities
Both Elkhorn and Whitewater saw new business come to town in 2023, with both cities adding a Starbucks, and Whitewater planning to add an ALDI grocery store.
The addition of the ALDI was of particular interest, as the city had been without a grocery-specific store for more than seven years, as the Sentry store closed in late 2015. Whitewater residents either had to shop for groceries at Walmart or travel to Fort Atkinson.
In addition to the Starbucks in Elkhorn, a Taco Bell opened Sept. 14 and an AnyTime Fitness location is currently being constructed.
Woman charged in newborn’s death
Whitewater residents were rocked after a newborn was found dead in a field near the Twin Oak Mobile Home Park in early March.
Santos Asucena Caseres Cruz, 39, was later charged with neglecting a child leading to death and attempting to move, hide or bury a corpse.
According to the criminal complaint, the woman gave birth in late January, and admitted she did not call 911 for help because she was afraid her family finding out she was pregnant.
She hid the newborn initially in the home, and then hid it in the field the next day.
A competency hearing for Caseres Cruz is scheduled for Jan. 8.
Camp Timber-lee remains open
In February of 2023, Trinity International University announced that Camp Timber-lee in East Troy would be closing.
However, roughly a month later, area philanthropist Gregg Kunes announced he was purchasing the Christian camp so it would remain open.
Kunes, the president and founder of Kunes Country Auto Group, said that they were working to keep the camp’s 2023 programming intact, including the annual Burn Camp.
According to the Burn Camp website, “Burn Camp is a free, week-long, overnight summer camp experience for kids with life-changing burn injuries to grow their lifelong support system, continue to heal from the emotional trauma of their burns, and just be a kid. The dedication and participation of more than 100 burn survivors and volunteers makes this camp special for everyone who attends.”
Camp was held Aug. 13-19.