Written by Chad Dally
Marathon County Board Supervisor Gary Beastrom remembered when a high school teacher told him his future, and he didn’t believe it:
“He looked at me one day and said ‘You’re going to go to college.’ In those days you didn’t talk back or anything, but I just kind of looked at him, and in my mind I was saying, ‘You’re absolutely nuts.’ But when I got to be a senior, I took him at his word.”
Beastrom is Marathon County Board Supervisor for District 34, which includes the Village of Athens; the towns of Bern, Halsey, and Hamburg; and Ward 2 in the Town of Berlin. He also serves on the Marathon County Public Library’s Board of Trustees and serves as Treasurer and at-large member for the Golden Sands Resource Conservation and Development Council. The latter is a nonprofit organization that looks to address large-scale environmental issues across a 13-county area.
But all of his current public service work came about after he retired in the late 2000s from a career in education. Beastrom grew up on a small dairy farm (by today’s standards) south of the Village of Ellsworth in Pierce County, Wisconsin, where he helped his parents and 2 siblings tend to 20-some cows and farm the surrounding 120 acres.
Rather than carry on the family farm, though, a college education seemed like the logical step. So he commuted from his Ellsworth home to the campus at University of Wisconsin–River Falls, and he obtained a teaching degree with a focus on Agricultural Education.
Thus began more than 3 decades as an educator, starting in Athens in 1966, with a 1-year stint in Amherst, Wisconsin, and about 6 years away from the classroom as an Agriculture Loan Officer for what was then the Bank of Athens. Once he and his wife Barb, whom he met in college, decided to call Athens home, they’ve stayed there happily ever after. Supervisor Beastrom said that part of the reason they’ve stayed in the Village of Athens for decades can be traced back to college:
“When I was in college, there was a steady dialogue from the professors about finding a place and staying there as a teacher, to live in your community and stay there. At that time, it was nothing for guys to have been in a community for over 30 years.”
Athens also is the place where the couple raised their 3 children — Eric, Rob, and Heidi — and where Supervisor Beastrom volunteered for the Fire Department for more than 40 years and served as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). In addition, he’s been involved in the annual Athens Fair for more than 50 years.
He remembers the days before Athens purchased its own ambulance in 1973, when a local funeral director would transport patients to the hospital in a hearse — and who would stop to buy gas along the way, with the patient in the back, because he didn’t want to fuel up the hearse if it wasn’t necessary, according to Beastrom.
Occasionally during our interview, Supervisor Beastrom expanded on his answers, but he said relatively little about his experiences as a firefighter and EMT or about the fact that he’s had a hand in delivering 2 or 3 babies over the years and has responded to calls involving his friends and neighbors. He simply said:
“Sometimes, you know, delivering babies is enlightened work.”
“Sharing a death with someone is heartbreaking.”
Teaching also was enlightened work for Beastrom, and high school isn’t the only place he helped others learn the ways of an agricultural life. He taught Agriculture for 6 years at what is now Northcentral Technical College in a program that was specifically designed for veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Though the Korean War ended about 2 decades before Beastrom started teaching in the program in the mid- to late-1970s, he and his students didn’t have much distance from the end of the Vietnam War. Talk of the wars came up occasionally, he said, but mostly the students — adults in their 20s up to their 40s and 50s — focused on the coursework.
“I really didn’t notice [the effects of war on students] that much other than demeanor of students. Some days were fine and normal, other days off the wall. But all of them were very strong in their opinions and responses, asked good questions, and kept things going. With 30 in a class, someone always had a question, and sometimes in a 3-hour class period, the question would take you an hour to answer by the time you got to the root of everything.”
Fast-forward through 30 years of teaching and we come to 2006, when Beastrom retired, and he knew he’d “have to retire to something,” he said. After a couple of unsuccessful campaigns for the Village Board of Athens, he won a spot on the Marathon County Board of Supervisors in 2010, following in the steps of his next-door neighbor. He’s had little opposition since. He shared:
“Because of my position with the school and so on, everybody in town knew me, so I didn’t do a lot of active campaigning, and I still don’t. I run as an Independent. I’m not tied to any political party. That’s kind of been my forte, if you will.”
The County Board — and elections to the Board — are non-partisan. However, independence, in the abstract sense, is a point of pride for Supervisor Beastrom, and he tries to consider each issue on its own merits, saying, “I try not to have a pattern of voting any particular way just because.”
One example of that came in 2019, when Supervisor Beastrom surprised some people after the Marathon County Board designated June as “Pride Month” in support of the LGBTQ+ community… Beastrom voted in favor of the resolution when it passed in June 2019, but later was the supervisor who requested that the Board reconsider its decision when his phone was “jumping off the wall” with calls from constituents who opposed the resolution. The vote to reconsider narrowly failed, which meant the Pride Month designation stayed on the books.
Beastrom added that his independent streak leads to frustration with the current state of divisive politics at the state and federal level — especially frustration with politicians who strictly vote along party lines:
“That, to me, is a gross disservice to everybody. When the party becomes more important than your vote and making the right vote, then I think it’s time for some of them to stay home. More and more, I’m finding it’s really hard to vote for an incumbent.”
Whether it’s through his spot on the County’s Board of Supervisors, or on the Marathon County Public Library’s Board of Trustees, “Mr. Athens” (as he’s known in many circles) continues to look out for the rural parts of the county — a dedication that has its roots in his college days:
“There isn’t the loyalty to a community or school system like there used to be. I think in all fairness, in those days, that was a thing with the Ag education department more so than other places. Teaching Ag is sort of like coaching: Long-term coaches are typically successful, and long-term teachers are also successful.”
One might also say the same about long-time firefighters and EMTs — as well as those with a decade of service as a dedicated elected official.
Library Specialist | Marathon County Public Library
Chad Dally is a library specialist with the Marathon County Public Library, where he’s worked since 2012. He splits his time at the library between reference and programming, and generally prefers to read nonfiction over fiction. Email Chad Dally
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