December 6, 2008

What's better than a book? A big handful of them!

Books everywhere, as far as the eye could see -- piled on the floor, in boxes, tightly clutched in the hands of hundreds -- thousands, actually -- of eager Racine kids.

This was the scene at Merchants Moving and Storage warehouse Saturday as Cops N Kids and the State Street Civic Association -- assisted by more volunteers than you could count from all over the community -- handed out some 40,000 books. There was no assigned reading; each child filled a bag with as many books as would fit ... and just the books he or she wanted.

This is the seventh year Julia Burney's dream has been fulfilled in such a massive way, as moms and dads escorted their kids to the age-appropriate stacks of books -- continually refreshed -- and helped them choose what they want. In between treats from Culver's, a visit to Santa's lap for a photo, arts and crafts projects, signatures from law enforcement personnel and more. But enough talk: Let's go right to the pictures.

Santa joins Merchants' Jim Eastman
and Cops N Kids' founder Julia Burney Witherspoon

A cold start to Downtown's Santa Saturdays

There was a lot of pre-Christmas activity scheduled at Monument Square Saturday -- the first of the Downtown Racine Corporation's three Santa Saturdays. And although it all went off without a hitch, if truth be told it was too darn cold for many to come out and enjoy the festivities.

Nonetheless, there was music and dance, and Santa in his chalet; also hot chocolate and carriage rides around downtown.

And -- don't tell the kids -- there actually were two Santas downtown at the same time, one at north end of the business district in front of JoJo's Toys, waving to passing motorists and talking to kids who walked by, and the other in Monument Square hearing children's wishes. (We won't even mention a third Santa at the Cops 'N Kids book giveaway up on State Street.) In any case, kids, you had no excuse for telling the Jolly Old Elf himself just want you want for Christmas.

Here are some pictures:

Two dancers from the Racine Studio of the Performing Arts

And when they were done, seven crowded onto Santa's lap

Devin Shirley and Stephanie Besaw played at Northern Lights

Photo op with Santa Bear and Mr. Spruce
(I must've missed that Disney movie.)

New and old art techniques at artists' open house

I learned a new art word today: encaustic.

It's an ancient technique for making art, thousands of years old -- perhaps originating in Egypt -- that uses melted wax to create "paintings." I found not one or two but three local artists displaying their encaustic techniques at the open house of the Racine Business Center Saturday -- in their studios on the top floors of the former Wheary Wagon Wheel factory building.

Below: some pictures from today's event.

Greg Helding with one of his encaustic creations

Maggie Venn with one of her encaustic pieces, reusing an old cigar press

Janet S. Hoffman with her painting, Encore

Raku artist Tony Macias with a favorite piece

Marilu McCartney with a woodcut used to make prints

Ruth Fangmeier with an old-style embroidered cross-stitch quilt

Printmaker Ed Kalke with his George W. Bush Zero Dollar bills

Maggie Venn shows youngster how to make art from recycled materials

Tom Hoffman's Racine Art Capitol of the Mid-West T-shirts

Jingle Bell Run for Arthritis draws 1,000

5K event included a run and fun walk. (Photos by Julie A. Jacob)

By Julie A Jacob

The overcast December sky and soft snowfall did not faze the thousand or so people who gathered at Racine Lutheran High School on Saturday for the 12th annual Racine Jingle Bell 5K Run/Walk for Arthritis.

The walkers and runners, many dressed in festive holiday clothing including antler hats, red bows and, yes, jingle bells, participated in the race around Island Park to help raise money for the Arthritis Foundation to fund various education and research programs.

The Wisconsin chapter of the Arthritis Foundation estimates that the Racine race will raise about $30,000; it was just one of several Jingle Run/Walk events held in the state, including one last month in Milwaukee.

The run/walk began at 9:30. Santa and Mrs. Claus were on hand to wave to the runners and walkers at the start of the race. Some people walked individually or with friends, while others were part of organized teams. Several participants walked with their children, while other runners and walkers brought along their dogs, decked out in red bows and holiday collars. A group of runners from Waterford dressed as a team of reindeer. One brave man dressed as a rabbit wearing a Packers uniform.

High school students handed out hot cocoa, waved pom poms, and cheered on the participants as they ran or walked along the picturesque race route lined with lacy, snow-covered trees and Victorian houses hugging the Root River.

Behind the merriment and costumes, however, was a serious purpose: to raise money for arthritis research, education and services. About 46 million people in the United States have some form of arthritis, including 1.1 million in Wisconsin, and 5,400 children here. Wisconsin has a high rate of arthritis compared to other states, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

These Waterford Bucks and Does were among the participants

“The funds raised at these events go toward important programs and services that help people improve their quality of life including self-help classes, land and water-based exercise classes,” said Jennifer McTavish, public relations coordinator for the Wisconsin chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, in an e-mail interview. “We also have an 800-number information and referral hotline where people can call in and get help. Oftentimes people call in to get help or just to talk to someone about their disease when they are first diagnosed, or a family member might call in for a parent or child who has arthritis to get more information. Funds also go toward critical research projects that might just be the key to finding a cure. There are three Arthritis Foundation funded research projects going on in Wisconsin right now.”

There are many misconceptions about arthritis, McTavish noted. One is that arthritis is just one disease. In fact, the term “arthritis” refers to more than 100 different diseases that can cause joint inflammation, pain and damage, and sometimes also affect other parts of the body.

Another misconception, McTavish noted, is that arthritis affects only elderly people. In reality, people of all ages have arthritis. In fact, this year’s honoree of the Racine Jingle Run/Walk is 14-year-old Kelsey Chester, who has both psoriatic arthritis and Wegener’s Granulamotosis. Kelsey takes medication that controls her symptoms and allows her to lead a normal teenager’s life, according to an Arthritis Foundation news release.

Finally, there’s the misconception that osteoarthritis – wear and tear of the joints caused by repetitive strain or injury — is a normal part of aging. In reality, osteoarthritis can be prevented or minimized by being careful not to injure one’s joints and staying at a healthy weight. For more information on arthritis, go to

Obama volunteers look to channel election energy to local issues

Cory Mason addresses the Yes We Can Racine meeting at Blueberries in Downtown Racine.

Local Democrats still glowing from Barack Obama's victory in November gathered in Downtown Racine Saturday in hopes of channeling momentum from the presidential election to local causes.

About 70 people turned out for the initial organizing event for Yes We Can Racine, the new organization that's forming around the volunteer-base Obama's campaign left behind. The event drew dozens of campaign volunteers and was even held at Blueberries in the old Century Market Building - former home to the Obama's local campaign.

Kelly Gallaher

The initial meeting laid out a map for where the organization was headed. A national organizing meeting at O'Hare Airport in Chicago ran concurrent to the local meeting. Both groups - national and local organizers - are trying to figure out how to build off of Obama's victory.

In Racine County, Obama flipped Bush's victory margin from 2004. Bush won Racine County 51.6 to 47.5 in 2004. Obama won the county 53-46.

Locally, Kelly Gallaher and Tony Loyd have emerged as leaders of the new organization. While Loyd attended the national meeting in Chicago, Gallaher led the Racine meeting. She was joined by local volunteers and Democratic elected officials in laying out plans for the group.

Renee Lee

After Gallaher welcomed the crowd, local organizer Diana Kovacs recapped the successful presidential election and Renee Lee talked about the joy Obama's victory brought to her life.

Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, dug into obscure U.S. history in talking about Frances Perkins, a progressive member of President Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet. Perkins, Secretary of Labor, wanted to make a number of important changes to enhance worker rights. Roosevelt supported her, but said she needed to rally the public to make it politically possible. "Organize people and make me do it," Roosevelt told Perkins about the changes.

Diana Kovacs

She followed through by bringing the Labor movement into the New Deal and ended playing an important role in passing a minimum wage law and creating the Social Security system.

Mason related to the story to the present by saying Obama is in a similar situation. He supports progressive change, but the change has to come from the people.

The challenge for Yes We Can Racine is retaining the volunteers who worked for Obama, and then focusing them on local issues. Gallaher admitted during the meeting it's unclear how the group is going to do that. They handed out a survey to people in attendance to gauge support for a variety of issues, and suggested they would retain the "team" concept used by Obama's campaign.

John Lehman

But from the meeting it's clear the organization is an unformed lump of batter at the moment. What form it takes, and what gets it cooking, is still up for debate.

The hope comes from the people who attended. Several elected officials and candidates attended the meeting including: Mason, Sen. John Lehman, Dennis Wiser, Julie McKenna, Keith Heck, Paulette Garin and John Dickert (apologies to anyone I missed). The organization has the attention of influential people in the community, and that could sustain it beyond Obama's inauguration.

Paulette Garin

One concern is the minimal presence of the minority communities at the meeting. Part of the success of the Obama campaign on a local level was it brought people of different backgrounds together around a common cause. Yes We Can Racine needs to do that same.

If you've seen the Insider News in recent months, you may have read a series of columns by former JT Editor Randolph Brandt titled, "10 Steps to Save A City." Each column focused on the racial divide in Racine, and a step we could take to heal that divide. It's powerful stuff and a clear map for an organization searching for a way to make a lasting difference in our city.

In numbers and excitement alone, Saturday was a promising start for Yes We Can Racine. It's the most ambitious community organizing plan I've seen in the city in the last 10 years. Let's see how they build on a solid beginning.

Bethany Zimpel fills out the Yes We Can Racine survey.

December 5, 2008

The most beautifully decorated tree in Racine

Emile Mathis and his Christmas tree (Photos by Jason Madson)

For some of us, the toughest decision we make at Christmas is this: a live tree or an artificial one?

But for Emile Mathis, owner of the Mathis Gallery and Frame Shop at 328 South Main St., that decision is easy (artificial, fire retardant, as required by law for retail stores). The hard decision is where to put each of his hand-blown glass ornaments.

He has more than 3,000 ornaments ... a collection that's taken him 50 years to amass.

Now, for the first time, they're all on a tree. Not at home -- "That one will be all family ornaments I remember from my childhood," he says -- but on a 15-ft. tree in his gallery.

"We used to sell ornaments," Mathis said, recalling his former gallery on Center Street. He even met Christopher Radko, the most familiar name in glass ornaments, at the Chicago Merchandise Mart, the year after Radko made his first glass ornaments. "They cost considerably less then than they do now," Mathis said, and were more "traditional, less hokey."

(A quick glance today through eBay finds 3,504 Christopher Radko ornaments for sale -- ranging in price from $399 -- for one! -- down to the more reasonable.)

Mathis bought his big artificial tree five years ago, but never found the time to put it up and decorate it. He fondly remembers back in the '70s, when live trees were still allowed in retail stores, going down to Wes Hansche's house in Mount Pleasant, having coffee and pastry with Wes and his wife, and then picking out a spruce tree for his store. "One of Wes' employees would cut it down and we'd set it up. One year we had a 17-ft. tree, with a spread of about 12-ft. -- it took us three hours to get it through the door!"

Mathis also remembered who decorated that tree, some thirty years ago, an employee named John Nowicki. "He did a spectacular job... and this year I finally got the guts to call him and ask if he'd like to do it again. And he did."

Nowicki spent about 40 hours hanging the ornaments on Mathis' tree ... with some "help" from Mathis. "We had a nice time doing it," Mathis says.

I had to ask: "And how many ornaments dropped and broke during the process?" Mathis laughed ruefully. I never got a number, but he did describe the breaking of "a sorta special ornament, a replica of an Austrian Chapel I bought at a huge ornament shop in Frankenmuth, Michigan, the largest Christmas store in the world (Bronner's Christmas Wonderland). I'll get another one!"

We'd guess that Emile Mathis' tree is the most beautifully decorated in all Racine -- if not all Wisconsin. If anyone would care to nominate another, we'd love to see it.

December 4, 2008

Mayor Becker released from hospital

Racine Mayor Gary Becker was to be released from the hospital today at 11 a.m.

Becker, who had a cancerous kidney removed Monday in a 90-minute operation at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa, will return home to continue his recovery.

City Administrator Ben Hughes told aldermen this morning that Becker "sounded energetic and positive on the phone. He said that everything has gone well with his recovery."

Hughes added, "The mayor also indicated that he plans on returning to City Hall at some point next week to work a few half days. He asked that I thank everyone for the overwhelming support and kind wishes that he has received."

December 3, 2008

Shop Downtown -- and get a gift from Rudolph!

If Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer chases you down Main Street tonight, don't run: Let him catch you!

He's got a special gift for the first 200 shoppers he catches.

Downtown merchants -- from Main Street and Sixth Street -- are working together again, making shopping locally an especially rewarding experience. Rudolph will be handing out snazzy red envelopes packed with an assortment of goodies from a variety of merchants. "This is going to be a valuable envelope, full of good stuff," said Jo Labre of Dover Flag and Map, who's been stuffing them all week.

Fifty-five Downtown Racine businesses have provided gift certificates or coupons that have been assembled into packets -- those red envelopes labeled "Shop Local, Shop Downtown Racine." Each envelope contains an assortment of 26 different enticements. Like:
● A certificate for a free piece of cheesecake from Cheesecakes by Jewels
● $5 gift certificates from Copacetic, Molly Magruder, Dover Flag & Map or Salute Italian Restaurant
● $10 gift certificates from Inside Out, Elegant Pauper or Jeff Shawhan pottery at Elements
● Buy one breakfast get one free at the Chancery
●$5 off framed or unframed art at Photographic Design
●15% off dinner at Sticky Rice Thai Restaurant
●20% off Santa's Special Selection at Plumb Gold Ltd.
●And much, much more!
The packets will be distributed to the first 200 lucky shoppers by Rudolph the Reindeer, tonight from 5 to 6 p.m. and on the following two Thursdays, Dec. 11 and Dec. 18.

Rudolph, by the way, is Doug Wick, owner of Common Scents. Wick adopted the character years ago as a mascot for his Pack 'n Ship business -- "Rudolph guides your packages" -- and has worn the costume to deliver packages to customers' houses, and in parades, events and caroling.

This Downtown promotion has been spearheaded by Labre, assisted by other merchants inspired by a marketing seminar in October at the Golden Rondelle, presented by Bob Negen of WhizBang Training. Negen's message, titled Turbocharge Your Sales, was focused on ways small merchants can get people into their stores and turn them into customers. In a nutshell, Negen said this would be a fun way to get new customers, and local merchants took his gift certificate advice to heart -- but Rudolph is their own idea!

Some two-dozen Downtown merchants already banded together to provide longer shopping hours between now and Christmas: they're staying open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Each of the participants will fly a big red flag (that's Jo Labre, who made them at Dover Flag, holding one, above) in front of their stores to let potential customers know they'll have longer hours and special offers.

The man behind ... um, inside Rudolph: Note carefully
the absence of Doug Wick's 14" ponytail, grown since 1993, recently
donated to a charity helping kids who've lost their hair to cancer

Vote now: Case HS Choir competing on WMYX

Hurry! There's not much time left to vote for the Case High School Choir in WMYX's Jane and Kidd's Christmas Choir Competiton.

Go HERE to vote! And also to listen to a sample.

The winning school gets a $1,000 contribution to its music program.

UPDATE: Case did well in the first round, garnering 48% of the vote, against Waukesha South High School's 31% and Pius High School Concert Choir's 21%.

December 2, 2008

40,000-book giveaway for kids Saturday

Happy young reader from 2007 (Photo by Mary Hauch)

Little-known fact: Santa Claus loves kids who know how to read.

And so, on Saturday, Santa and about 100 of his elves will give away books to perhaps 2,000 Racine kids. For free. Books by the handful! Colorful, age-appropriate, new books.

40,000 books!

All a kid has to do for the opportunity to pick through those thousands of books and choose an armload of his or her choice is show up at Merchants Moving and Storage on State Street between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. There's no need to prove income or need ... just a desire to read. The program is open to pre-school through middle-school kids.

The book giveaway started six years ago by the State Street Civic Association – local merchants, churches and residents – an offshoot of Julia Burney Witherspoon's well known Cops N Kids program. In its first year, 500 children received books.

Last year, 1,500 kids showed up.

This year, says Jim Eastman of Merchants Moving, 2,000 kids are expected. Eastman's eyes light up as he takes a visitor through a massive storage room. “Racine Police and members of the Milwaukee FBI office will be at tables, here,” he points to one wall, “autographing books for the kids. Remember, Julia Burney started this program out of the trunk of her squad car, handing books to kids to help them learn to appreciate and respect the police.”

“Here," he says, pointing to another wall, "we'll have tables for the United Way, the Health Care Network, the Racine Fire Department, the Public Library – all with information for the kids and their parents. There'll also be music from church choirs, and volunteers from the Junior League, the Volunteer Center and different agencies. This thing has just grown and blossomed. Racine Unified is distributing 11,000 fliers to kids this week, sending information about the book giveaway home.

“And over here, volunteers will gift-wrap books for the kids, since many will be taking some to give as gifts for their brothers and sisters.” Eastman pauses, then launches into what is obviously one of his favorite stories – he has a slew of 'em – from a past book giveaway:

“Mary Hauch asked one little boy who brought a book to be gift-wrapped, 'And who's this book for? Your grandpa, your brother?' 'No,' the kid replied, 'It's for me. I've never gotten a wrapped present.'”

In another corner, parents will be able to run their kids through Safe Assured ID, a child identification program of the Racine Police Athletic Association. The kids are photographed, fingerprinted and videotaped ... all in case a parent ever needs certain identification to help located a missing child. This will be the third year Safe Assured ID is offered at the book giveaway.

Eastman says $3,700 was raised for the Safe Assured ID program without even a single phone call. “I got $1,000 from the Rotary Founders Club, $500 from the Kiwanis Club, more from a couple of companies. Zap, the money was raised.”

Caron Butler, Racine's own NBA star (whose English teacher at Racine's Middle School Academy was Bonnie Eastman, Jim's wife) has donated several hundred sweatshirts (one presumes they're Washington Wizards sweats, but the boxes haven't been opened yet) and several companies have mitten drives under way.

Merchant's involvement with Cops N Kids began long ago, when Officer Burney answered a burglar alarm call at a book warehouse, and asked the owner to donate a few books. He gave her 10,000, someone had to pick them up, and the rest is history: her appearance on Oprah, the Angel Network's furnishing of the Cops N Kids house, her being honored by ABC-TV's Charlie Gibson as Person of the Week in September.

Now Merchant's picks up and stores books from all over. “We picked up 6,000 new children's books, specializing in African-American themes, from CorpCare Distribution this week. They're an organization that distributes clothing in Milwaukee's inner city. Jessica MacPhail, Racine librarian, called them and asked if they had any books. After Julia appeared on Charlie Gibson's program, a large skating rink in Gurnee called, wanting to become involved. We're picking up their books today,” Eastman said.

The book giveaway is the signature program of the State Street Civic Association. Besides Eastman, other prime movers are Ron Frye, of the Racine Lighthouse Ministry, and Keith Evans, pastor of the Greater Mount Eagle Baptist Church. Don't tell the kids, but it's usually Evans in the Santa suit, talking to each of the kids and posing for a picture with each of them to take home.

One final note: If you're an adult, don't bother coming for free books – unless you're accompanied by a child.

Julia Burney Witherspoon and Jim Eastman (Photo by Mary Hauch)