Palmeri's Oshkosh Newsmakers of 2003

December 24, 2003

by Tony Palmeri

Near the end of December, corporate media in most American cities come up with a list of the year's top newsmakers. Reflecting the depressing realities of modern journalism, the lists are typically weighted heavily toward newsmakers favored by local chambers of commerce. Last year, I decided to stop whining about the corporate lists and come up with my own instead. In this column I reveal my list of top Oshkosh newsmakers of 2003. They are: All Oshkosh Peace Activists, the late PFC Rachel Bosveld, SPC Jason Moon, UAW local 291 president Alan Sawitski, UW Oshkosh Associate Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts Andrew Robson, Oshkosh Common Councilor Brian Poeschl, downtown merchant Jennifer Monk-Reising, historic building restoration contractor Terry Laib.

*All Oshkosh Peace Activists: On February 15, 2003 more than 11 million people worldwide demonstrated against war. In Oshkosh, the peace movement had been in place long before that date; as early as October 4th, 2002 protesters stood in the downtown Opera House Square Park and made their feelings known. A large rally was held on Martin Luther King Day 2003. Then on March 5th, 2003 UW Oshkosh Students for Peace joined other Winnebago County activists in sponsoring a local "Books Not Bombs" event. Student organizer Bob Poeschl addressed the crowd, as did Fox Valley activist Barbara Hoffman and UW Oshkosh media studies professor Andrew Schroeder. Also in March, the Wisconsin Green Party held its annual convention in Oshkosh and they too held a peace rally downtown. The message was that to support the troops means to bring them home. On March 16th, 2003 over 6,000 cities in 129 countries participated in a peace vigil. Due to the efforts of peace activists, Oshkosh was one of those 6,000 cities. In August, activists with the Winnebago Peace and Justice Center sponsored a Hiroshima Day of Remembrance, itself a peace rally.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." In 2003, Oshkosh peace activists gave us a living, powerful example of what King was talking about.

*The Late PFC Rachel Bosveld: Operation Iraqi Freedom hit home in a personal way for Oshkosh residents upon the tragic death of PFC Rachel Bosveld, a 19-year old soldier who went to high school in Oshkosh for two years and in her short life displayed a remarkable degree of courage and integrity. Governor Doyle issued an Executive Order on her behalf, while the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported praise from family and friends.

Rachel Bosveld was the fifth Wisconsin soldier and first Wisconsin woman to die in Iraq. Those gutless members of congress who voted--without a shred of sound evidence demonstrating that Iraq was an immediate threat to the US--to give the president unlimited authority to fight the war should think about Rachel Bosveld next time they have an opportunity to vote on war or peace.

*SPC Jason Moon: Folk singing soldier Jason Moon is with the 724th Engineering Battalion of the Wisconsin Army National Guard in Tallil, Iraq. He has been in the Guard for 9 years. His enlistment contract ended on July 30, 2003, yet he has been involuntarily extended until March 14, 2004. Jason has developed a strong set of pacifist beliefs over the years, which prompted an editorial from the Oshkosh Northwestern and a response from Moon, part of which said,

I would like to extend to you my most esteemed gratitude for pointing out the flaws of my compassionate approach to military service. You are absolutely correct in stating that there is no room in our military for compassion. We need a military filled with soldiers who will, on command, disregard their morals, ignore their conscious, and willfully kill women, children, and other innocent people. From the Commander in Chief to the Sergeant Majors right down to the lowly Private, we need soldiers who can look through the sights of their M-16’s and not see a fellow human being at the other end. We need pilots who will cheerfully drop bombs on enemy, even if that means killing a couple thousand Iraqi children at a time. I assume that we as a nation don’t want our soldiers to question the justness of their actions. We will also as a nation not hold them accountable for those same actions no matter how atrocious or inhumane they are. And as the soldier lays foaming at the mouth and convulsing from exposure to a chemical agent which the United States invented, perfected, and supplied to Iraq, they will die with a clear conscious and the knowledge that every American citizen will save $0.03 a gallon on gas.

In mid-November Jason came home for a two week furlough. He left a message on my answering machine on November 13th, saying he was at the Towne Motel (the raunchy place on Division St.) and that he was going to be leaving in the morning to visit his young son in Milwaukee. I went to the Towne Motel and met Jason in room #44. He looked very tired, sounded very depressed, and quite frankly I left the room after about 90 minutes feeling sorry and worried for him, angry at our government, and frustrated with my inability to do anything meaningful about either one.

We spent a long time talking about what's actually going on in Iraq. It did not sound pretty. He said that when our media reports that the majority of the violence against American troops is occurring in the "Sunni Triangle" around the Baghdad area, that is simply not true. Jason is stationed in Tallil, in Southern Iraq, and said that there are attacks against his division every day. He said that the Iraqis in Tallil (most of whom are Shiite Muslims as opposed to the Sunni denomination of which Saddam was a member) at first liked the Americans, but now we are hated as much as Saddam. The reason, claims Jason, is because the Iraqis see the Americans building the military base while they are still suffering without power, clean water, or other necessities of life.

Perhaps the most frightening thing Jason told me concerns the amount of road side bombs the troops have encountered. Most of our soldiers getting killed have been killed by "Improvised Explosive Devices" (IED) that are apparently easy to manufacture and hide in a road. Jason said that often there will be signs written in Arabic warning Iraqis not to go down a certain road because there may be a bomb in it; the Americans go down that road because we do not have enough soldiers who read Arabic.

Jason told me that for most soldiers on his base, the majority of the day is spent on building projects for the base, playing games like volleyball to pass time, and patrolling the area. He said that boredom is a major problem for the troops, especially since they are not allowed to drink. He said a huge black market for liquor, pornography, and drugs (especially hashish) has developed.

Jason spends much time talking to his fellow soldiers about their views on why they are there, and he said that a few months ago most people said, "to find weapons of mass destruction." Now almost no one mentions WMDs, and instead say they are there "because I have to do what my superiors tell me." The morale is not very high.

Jason has come to the conclusion that it simply would not be practical or realistic for the United States to leave Iraq at this point. If we did, he believes the country would face a civil war that could leave many thousands of people dead, and maybe even provoke similar unrest in other countries. On the other hand, Jason does not know how the Iraq situation will play out--perhaps if they are able to elect their own government that would be a start.

Jason does have a guitar with him in Iraq, and he did say that he was able to perform for about a thousand troops at at USO show. He did sneak one antiwar song into his set, and much to his surprise the troops all cheered!

Jason returned to Iraq on November 22, 2003. We can only pray for his safe return in March.

*UAW Local 291 President Alan Sawitski: In late 2002 and early 2003, AxleTech International extracted major concessions from union workers As noted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "autoworkers at AxleTech International in Oshkosh have agreed to cut their wages, to pay more toward health insurance and to drop medical coverage for retirees. "

Because elected and appointed government officials in this part of Wisconsin do not believe they can do anything to help workers (only Oshkosh Common Councilor Paul Esslinger openly admits this), corporate greed has to be fought by the workers themselves. As noted by Cheryl Hentz for Eye on Oshkosh:

Sawitski said some local leaders at the county level have been wonderful in expressing support for the workers. He said state Senator Carol Roessler called to say she appreciates what the workers are going through, but encouraged them to accept the company’s offer, basically saying a job was better than no job. State Rep. Gregg Underheim had left a message for Sawitski, but Sawitski said he was unable to get back to him as of the taping of the show. He also indicated that Sen. Russ Feingold and Sen. Herb Kohl were helping the union with questions about unemployment paperwork, etc. Sawitski expressed great disappointment in city leaders saying he had tried reaching city manager Richard “Dick” Wollangk with absolutely no response, nor had he heard from any members of the city council with any offers of help or words of encouragement.

Doug Pearson, the executive director of Chamco, Inc., the Oshkosh Industrial Development Corporation, had been quoted in the paper as saying he’d been working hard to bring both sides together, but Sawitski said he had not heard one word from Pearson.

Pearson did eventually meet with the union, but it is not clear what the Chamco director can do when the government that supposedly represents working citizens believes that to join a picket against a company owned by people who have no commitment to the community is to "take sides."

The time for government leaders to speak was in December of 2002, when Wynnchurch Capital purchased a controlling interest in ArvinMeritor (which later became AxleTech). According to its Web site, Wynnchurch, "specializes in management buyouts, recapitalizations, restructurings, acquisitions and growth capital investments." One of Wynnchurch's objectives is, "increasing profitability through cost reductions and operational improvements"--code words for union busting. When Axle Tech purchased Arvin Meritor, they immediately voided the contract in place and put workers in the position of taking drastic cuts or losing their jobs.

For standing up for decency and fairness without the help of elected and appointed officials, Al Sawitski is one of the newsmakers of the year.

UW Oshkosh Associate Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts Andrew Robson: Gentleman, scholar, and one of the most decent human beings around, Andy Robson in 2003 organized the third annual and most successful to date "Earth Charter Community Summit." Photos from the event can be found here. Though Andy would be the first person to claim that the event is the result of the efforts of dozens of people, there is no doubt that he is the guiding force. Like the Experimental Aircraft Association and Oshkosh B'gosh, the Earth Charter Summit brings international attention to Oshkosh. But unlike EAA and B'gosh, the Earth Charter doesn't inflate its attendance or exploit Honduran workers.

*Oshkosh Common Councilor Brian Poeschl: The April 2003 Common Council election in Oshkosh featured a stunning upset. As noted by Commentary pundit Dan Rylance:

The results of the Common Council election demonstrate the power of the voters. In a totally unexpected ending, Brian Poeschl, a first-time challenger, won a seat on the Council. Poeschl, however, not only claimed victory but he ran second in a field of six to Mark Harris. There was more surprise. Jon Dell'Antonia, former mayor and 10 year veteran got the boot. He not only got the boot, he ran last! Last! What happened to the darling of the Chamber and the "never can do wrong" endorsee of the Oshkosh Northwestern? I doubt anyone could have predicted this exit for a very proud, and, at times, somewhat arrogant incumbent.

The other three Council incumbents have little to celebrate, either. Mark Harris, who will replace Hintz as mayor could not even poll 4,000 votes. Bill Castle ran fourth beating Bender by only 22 votes. Shirley Brabender Mattox, ran ahead of Castle, but was 500 votes short of her first win two years ago. Bender's vote total, on the other hand, increased by 783 over what he received in April of 2002. Clearly the voters aren't that supportive of the three returning incumbents and a larger field could very easily have put two of them in the dugout with Dell'Antonia.

Since taking his seat on the council, Poeschl has brought a tone to body quite the opposite of the irascible Dell'Antonia. While I don't always agree with Poeschl, I can't imagine him ever asking the city attorney to "go after" a citizen.

*Downtown Merchant Jennifer Monk-Reising: Due largely to fiscal mismanagement and poor planning (often called "market forces" by the poor planners and fiscal mismanagers), downtown Oshkosh sits is a depressingly dormant state. If and when downtown becomes a thriving commercial and artistic center, it will be largely due to the efforts of private business owners like Jennifer Monk-Reising. Since coming to Oshkosh barely three years ago, Jennifer has almost single-handedly created enthusiasm for downtown initiatives. In 2003 she also played a key role in the successful "Unmaking Hunger in Winnebago County" charitable event.

*Historic Building Restoration Contractor Terry Laib: For quite a few years now Terry Laib has invested a significant amount of his expertise, time, and even personal finances to keeping historic Oshkosh alive. Perhaps more important than the actual restoration of homes and other buildings by Laib Restoration is the fact that Terry Laib forces people to think about what kind of city they really want to live in. As noted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "Historic preservation has many advantages, but most of all, it’s simply a matter of good sense. It's smart to protect older buildings and neighborhoods because they’re good to look at, they’re useful, and they help us understand ourselves as individuals and as a nation." Few individuals in the Fox Valley promote this good sense as well as Terry Laib.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that "you must be the change you wish to see in the world." For examples of what Gandhi was talking about, we need look no further than Palmeri's Oshkosh Newsmakers of 2003. Let's hope that we can all see fit to follow their example in 2004.

Tony Palmeri welcomes your feedback

Return to Commentary