Written by Katie Rosenberg
There is a secret to how the seating chart is made for the Marathon County Board . . .
It’s not alphabetical. And it’s not numerical. When I asked someone about who decided on the seating chart, the only answer I received was, “Nobody knows.”
But as fate (or luck) would have it, 2 ½ years ago when I became a County Board Supervisor, I was assigned a seat next to Supervisor Richard Gumz.
Now, Rich (he told me I could call him Rich) isn’t the kind of person who will mince words or tell you what you want to hear. He has no problem calling out injustices as he sees them — whether he’s talking to a colleague or a state senator. But he IS the kind of person who will introduce himself to you one minute and put you on his Christmas letter list the next (and it’s a well-written Christmas letter at that!).
So, when I asked Rich if he’d be willing to let me write a profile of him for the County’s newsletter, I wasn’t at all surprised when he not only said yes, but also invited me over for lunch.
It took about 40 minutes for me to drive from my house on Wausau’s southeast side to his house in the heart of rural Marathon County, in the Town of Holton. It was a perfect August day — blue skies, puffy white clouds, and a warm but not sweltering breeze.
During my drive there, I recalled a story he had told at the most recent Western Towns and Villages Association meeting about a stray dog . . .
According to state statute, Town Chairs are responsible for reuniting stray dogs with their owners, so when a passerby captured a giant Bernese mountain dog running down the highway, the Sheriff’s Department directed her to Rich, Holton’s Town Chair. Because of his adept storytelling skills, meeting attendees were rapt with his hilarious 5-minute stray dog tale.
Turning off of Highway 29 onto F and then heading down County Highway A, you pass a couple of Gumz Farms. One with several impressive silos, another with fields of corn ready for harvesting, and then there’s Rich’s farm — a small dairy and beef operation.
The Gumz family has lived on that plot of land for more than 100 years after arriving in Wisconsin from Germany. When I pulled up, an old farm dog named Pretty waddled up to investigate.
When Rich saw me arrive, he motioned for me to come inside, where he loaded me up with plates for us to have lunch out on the front lawn. On the menu, mostly local fare: corn grown across the street at his brother’s farm, cucumbers grown in Rich’s own garden, a freshly baked apple pie, and a PBR for good measure.
As we ate, we talked about the state of the dairy industry – awful; Rich’s grandchildren – adorable; and the fact that Marathon County’s oldest tree is less than a mile away.
He also told me about the German foreign exchange student who stayed with his family several years ago. He and his wife stay in touch with her and had even spoken with her just a few days earlier.
It was the best lunch I’d had all month.
I haven’t spent much time on farms, so when we finished up, Rich brought me over to his barn, where the cows were mooing in anticipation of their own lunch. We headed up into the hay mow, and once my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I saw half a dozen pairs of tiny eyes staring back at me.
Above, you could see the careful century-old proud craftsmanship of the Gumz family, the beams and joints perfectly constructed to last generations. Rich pointed out:
“Look at how the barns were constructed years ago. Look at how those timbers were put together and how the wooden pegs fit perfectly in there to hold it together. How the hell did they get the timbers up that high?! They didn’t have cranes.
An old barn is beautiful.
You see there are spaces between the boards? That was their ladder as they were putting the shingles on. Can you imagine? I just think it’s amazing how they fit it all together.”
Rich started throwing hay down the chute and the mooing from below intensified. The cows were at a fever pitch when Rich told me to bring a bale to the cows on the far end. As I unfurled the twine, the cows strained to get at the hay and Pretty shuffled along beside us, ensuring I gave enough to each of the cows.
As we left the barn, Rich pointed over the corn fields toward a grove of maple trees. Right in the middle, a tall pine tree jutted above the canopy.
“Do you see that pine tree over there sticking up above the rest? That’s the oldest tree in Marathon County.”
We jumped into Rich’s truck, with Pretty in tow, and headed over to see the oldest tree.
As we drove through the countryside, I picked up on Rich’s tips for embracing public and farm life . . .
Tip #1: Be friendly to everyone by honking or waving to say hello if you don’t stop for a quick chat.
We passed Town of Holton Supervisor Pat Tischendorf riding by on a tractor. We honked at Bruce Gumz, who was busy checking on his herd. We even waved to fellow Marathon County Supervisor Allen Drabek as he cruised by in his pickup truck.
After a short drive, we were out of the truck again and looking up to find the tree. I asked Rich how he knew this tree was the oldest tree. His response,
“I told you it was. You got an older one?”
I thought about that for a second and concluded that I definitely didn’t have an older tree. However, if you want to check this fact, Rich said The Lone Pine Remembers, a book about family farms in Central Wisconsin during the mid-20th century, has an account of the tree.
As we gazed up, the tree’s height made us both feel tiny.
“The rest of these trees are at least a hundred feet high. Look at it. How does it not get hit by lightning, sticking out up there? It’s got a pretty good root system.”
Tip #2: Ask questions and bring along your tools for getting your questions answered, whether it’s an acerbic comment at a meeting or an actual tool. When we got up to it, Rich pulled out a tape measure so we could record how big around the tree was: a little more than 12 feet around.
Rich surely is an impressive storyteller, but it especially comes through in his writing, which brings me to what seems to be Tip #3: Document everything. Back at his house, Rich let me sift through his writings — everything from the story he wrote up about the escape of the Bernese mountain dog to stories about vacations and years of Christmas letters.
We chatted for a while on his porch. It turns out that he and his wife of over 40 years were getting ready for his family to visit during the Athens World Fair. He spoke about a family reunion he attended in Saskatchewan, Canada, and the state of the roads in Marathon County.
Tip #4: Take your time conversing with someone. You may just be surprised at how your values and experiences align in delightfully complimentary ways.
Turns out the randomness of the County Board Supervisor seating chart is working exactly as it should, bringing leaders together in unpredictable ways so they can see issues — and one another — in a different light.
Marathon County Board Supervisor | District 1
Katie Rosenberg is a Marathon County Board Supervisor representing District 1. She is passionate about engaging the community and is active on social media and in organizing neighborhood constituent meetings with her Wausau City Council counterpart, Alderperson Pat Peckham. In her free time, you can find Katie enjoying the outdoors with her husband on bike, on roller skates, and in trail shoes. She also enjoys attending all manner of political events, traveling the world, and cooking up a mean vegetarian soup. Email Katie Rosenberg
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