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Rory O'Driscoll, La Crosse Tribune 

Onalaska Luther's Cameron Schroeder, right, competes in the Division 3 110-meter hurdles at last season's WIAA state track and field meet at UW-La Crosse. UW-La Crosse is hosting the NCAA Division III national championships May 24-26, then the WIAA state meet June 1-2. 

Mother's Day stories: La Crosse woman marks 30th anniversary of life-changing surgery with quilt for church

Joyce Abernathy has a couple of related reasons to celebrate Mother’s Day, in addition to her two sons and grandchildren, of course.

  • Today is the 30th anniversary of a brain surgery that halted epileptic seizures that had bedeviled Abernathy for 35 years.
  • Abernathy, who wasn’t a quilty before the surgery but has mastered the art since, will present one she designed and stitched for her church, Trinity United Church of Christ in La Crosse, to the congregation today. She created the quilt to celebrate 30 years of being seizure free, she said.

The quilt, an intricate piece of art titled “Rooted Deep, Growing Tall,” features elements that reflect the heritage of the congregation, founded in 1895.

Abernathy’s explanation for the title is simple: “I wanted to put in those words for what it means to me, tying it into faith.

“The church started under an oak tree,” she said, and she patterned the tree on the quilt on a photo she took of the oak outside the church.

The quilt will hang in Trinity’s sanctuary, according to the Rev. Brandon Perrine, the church’s pastor, who said, “I think it’s absolutely stunning. Joyce has an incredible gift and a vision that I can’t begin to understand.

“We are incredibly blessed to have Joyce’s vision,” he said. “She sees beauty in the world” that others might miss, and she incorporates that elegance into her craftwork.

The quilt incorporates the symbol of the Trinity, a sign of love befitting the name of the church, just a few blocks from the home where she and husband Brian live on La Crosse’s far South Side.

Abernathy explains the divided trunk by saying, “I wanted to show how the tree splits,” with the additional significance of what she crafted into each side.

On the right side, she embedded tiny words — some, almost impossible to find without her guiding eye and some of which she has trouble locating herself — to reflect happy circumstances, such as joy and forgiveness, she said. On the left are words from the dark side, such as judgment, guilt and anxiety.

The overall pattern is one of openness, like a tree opening itself to the heavens, also reflecting humans’ openness to God, Abernathy said, standing in her sewing room and extending her hands outward and upward, as if she were a tree.

Similarly, she cut each leaf individually, she said, adding, “I made them look like open hands.”

Acorns symbolize the fact that many good seeds — humans — are planted, although some are bad and/or fall on barren ground, and “we have to be accepting,” she said.

The details and animals, including an eagle, a raccoon, owls and robin eggs, are elaborate designs meticulously planned for the quilt, which Abernathy said she designed by sections and took seven months to complete.

The quilt reflects Abernathy’s openness to God in her life, which included desperate prayers during her childhood.

“I grew up in school, praying not to have a seizure,” she said. “My focus wasn’t on what the teacher was saying but on not having a seizure.”

She didn’t attend college, she said, smiling as she added, “I was lucky to make it through high school.”

The seizures, usually preceded by an aura that warned her one was coming, occurred as many as 10 times a day, she said.

Her brain surgery was something of a shot in the dark, during an era before MRIs provided physicians with intricate views of the anatomy.

In her case, doctors were able to put parts of her brain to sleep and use heat imaging to arrive at a guesstimate where the source of her problem was. Surgeons cut a large, L-shaped incision on the right side of her head and shaved a 3-inch slice from the surface of her brain, she said, showing a photo of her head after surgery.

Underneath was a small tumor that was removed, and Abernathy hasn’t had seizure since, she said.

“It was brand new, and they basically were operating blind,” said Abernathy, who says, “Thank God for Dr. Lincoln Ramirez,” a neurosurgeon at University Hospitals and Clinics in Madison.

“At the time of the surgery, my son Kyle was 4 years old and my son Will was 3 months old,” Abernathy wrote in her submission to the Tribune of a Mother’s Day memory. “My husband Brian and I couldn’t have gotten through this stressful time without the help of our mothers, my twin sister Joanne, and his sister Colleen.

“Friends, neighbors and other family members were also a big part of the healing process,” she said.

Abernathy took up quilting during her recovery, a hobby that turned to a passion so strong that she does also elaborate quilts by commission.

Asked how she became so adept in quilting, with no formal training and previous experience limited mostly to sewing projects, Abernathy shrugged, reluctant to claim her talent as a result of the surgery.

Indicating instead that she credits God with her ability, she spread her arms again as she said, “This is a vessel who has been given a very special work. This is coming through me.”

She also attributes part of her knack to the fact that, before the surgery, “I was in my head so much (fearing seizures). People think it’s funny when I say that,” she said.

A frequent speaker to quilting groups, Abernathy is able to complete only two quilts a year, relying on two Pfaff Creative 7530 machines that she vows she wouldn’t trade for newer models.

“These babies have been good to me,” she said.

Although the machines feature a plethora of stitch patterns, Abernathy said she uses only two — straight and zig-zag.

“The needle is going up and down, and I’m drawing with it,” she said. “I’m filling in colors, drawing on my own.”

People who commission Abernathy to make quilts are looking for keepsakes, she said.

“Nothing is more satisfying than giving somebody their story” on a quilt, she said.

Following are anecdotes people submitted to the Tribune recalling favorite memories of their mothers.


Mom was kind, compassionate

My favorite memory of my mother, Cindy Steele, was her kindness and compassion to all people. She was everyone’s Mom and would help anyone out.

I was a teenage mother, and she stopped working to do daycare to take care of my daughter so I could work and finish high school. (There were other teen mothers in my class — she babysat for them, too).

My mom’s smile and laugh are what my family and friends miss about her. She passed away at age 59 a year and half ago.

The best advice she gave me was to smile, tell people you love them and be nice (even if people are not). Her biggest regret was not traveling with her husband. My husband and I will carry on her wishes and we travel one or two different places a year.

— Tasha Rice of La Crosse



Proud, not boastful; positive, joyful

“I have a good bunch.”

This favorite expression of my mother, Rita Boland, so captured her approach to life: proud, yet not too boastful; no hint of the sometimes-difficult journey; still, positive and joyful.

Pregnant with their 14th child when Daddy died at 50, this town girl was left to run a farm and raise a family on her own. The baby lived to be only 2 — my mother’s third child lost to death; twins, the daughter shortly after birth and a 15-year-old developmentally disabled son, raised at home, passing a year before my dad.

Her own mother died when my mother was 7. With her father running the general store and her three older brothers off to boarding school, she was sent to live with relatives.

After Daddy’s death, Ma was hospitalized with her own health issues. In this low moment, she began to tell the oldest what she felt they needed to know. The family doctor, who was her next-door neighbor growing up and best man in their wedding, offered his firm comfort and helped her realize how much we all needed her.

By her example, we know this: Work hard. Smile often. Family is all-inclusive. Always a guest room and an open door for visitors and those without a place to go. Treat others with genuine interest and respect. There is wit and humor in all aspects of life. Be proud of your Irish heritage.

She found the strength to go on, raise that family and remain on the farm for 35 more years.

Her “good bunch” is 178 and growing!

— Marleen Venner, Genoa

I’d love to hear that giggle

One day mom called and asked what I was making for dinner. Fifteen bean and ham soup, I replied. I will never forget her tone when she said, “YOU’RE ONLY GIVING HIM 15 BEANS IN HIS SOUP?!?!” We took her over some, still laughing.

She loved it. She giggled like a little girl when she saw it was 15 types of beans — not 15 beans.

I’d give anything to hear that giggle. She has been gone just shy of 10 years. Not a day goes by that we don’t miss her.

— Tammi Collins of La Crosse

mtighe / Contributed 

Rachel "I'm not an 'oops'" Feehan and her mom, Bonnie.

I was a ‘surprise,’ but not an ‘oops’

My blessing of life came at a rather inopportune time and unplanned fashion for my parents (as most things do). With the youngest child almost off to middle school and the oldest graduating high school, my 40-some-year-old parents thought they were done, but they never bargained for such a “surprise,” as my mom, Bonnie Feehan, likes to call me.

I was “the baby,” am “the baby,” and will forever be “the baby,” but I was never an “oops” — even 27 years later.

My mom has always wanted me and loved me through the good, bad and ugly. I am forever grateful that she took the time to teach me “the right way to do everything,” as the saying goes, for forcing me to tag along to the church dinners that seemed so frequent, for making me write sentences when I left my dresser drawers open, for always setting the record straight when someone called you my grandma, for keeping the house under control when Dad was gone working, for installing a strong sense of faith in my life and now sharing that with my daughter, and for being the strongest person I know.

The world is a better place with you in it. I love you, Mom! Happy Mother’s Day and Happy Belated Birthday!

— Rachel Feehan of La Crosse

Mom was glue that held us together

One simple word describes my mother, Shirley Storandt. That word, simply, is “everything.”

She left us 11 years ago. She really was the glue that held our family together. Mom was the bravest, most compassionate, generous, beautiful person I have ever known. She raised my sister and me to be the strong women we are today.

Christmas was her favorite time of year. Having her family and grandchildren gathered around the tree brought her so much joy. I can’t forget all the delicious food she would prepare.

I admire my mother for so many things, but most of all, I admire her heart. Up to and including the time during her illness, she never complained. She only talked about how there were less fortunate people than her. Her heart was made of gold.

I am blessed to be able to call her Mom. She was just as much an angel on earth as she is in heaven. I miss her every day and look forward to the day we meet again.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

— Nicole Nelson of La Crosse

Mom put faith, family first

Our mom, Betty Rodgers, went home to heaven in 2017. She was known for her “gift of gab” and love of a good laugh, but most of all — her faith.

Mom knew the Lord, showing us how to live for him by example as she prayed for us and others, serving the Lord every day as a farm wife, mom of seven, neighbor and friend. We received a priceless gift reminiscent of “a coat of many colors” from our “Mama” Hartert and her daughter that keeps our mom close.

Mom never wore pants (unless it was really cold — then she pulled on a pair under her dress to stay warm while doing chores), and being practical minded, her dresses became “every day” dresses when no longer “for good” worthy. The dresses were bagged up and bound for Goodwill when Mama said she would make them into quilts.

The result? Quilts made of Mom’s dresses, each square holding memories of everyday moments with our mom: lessons she taught us (ALWAYS say thank you; it costs nothing to be a good neighbor/friend; do your best; follow God’s calling for your life).

The mom who put faith/family first as she helped with homework, mended clothes, farmed beside Dad, played games, read books, gave us (not always very good) haircuts, got us ready and to church on Sundays and just did “what needed to be done” every day.

Mom waving from the kitchen window as we pulled out of the driveway — always remembered, forever loved.

— Kerry Rodgers, Onalaska


Shapiro Baumgardt

I got lucky

When I reflect on my life, where I have been and where I might be going … my thoughts often turn to my Mom, Sandy Friske.

There are many theories as to how we landed the parents we have…and I don’t know that I will ever know exactly how, or why, I landed mine. But when it comes to parents, I got pretty lucky. Today especially, I am thinking fondly, and oh so appreciatively, of the woman I got to call “Mom.”

Growing up, I had someone in my life on a consistent basis who had a moral and compassionate compass. It served her, and those around her, very well.

I learned early on not to judge others until you have walked in their shoes. I learned that focusing on others can relieve you from too much focus on yourself. I learned that humanity leans on each other, laughs with each other, and ultimately really can love each other (and often does).

My mom had physical challenges from the tender age of 5, and she is one of the strongest people I have EVER known. Her coping skills were refined…and they very much defined her. She believed every single day was a gift.

Though she passed on in 2011, her memory continues to remind me of what is important in life…and my journey on this earth has been so rich largely due to her influence.

Yeah, I got lucky.

Thanks, Mom.

— Stacy Shapiro Baumgardt of Stoddard



Mom’s lessons, tips live in me

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, I find myself reflecting on the memory of our mom, Leona Erickson. Despite leaving this world nine years ago, there is not a day that goes by when I do not think of her.

She lives on in me. Her lessons, tips, her takeaways are in me, and I try to pass that on to our family. I see her authenticity, genuine caring and love of family in the faces of both our children and grandchildren.

Mom cared little for material possessions and social status. She was too busy just being Mom. Despite being strong as steel, she displayed tenderness, goodness, grace, perseverance and reliance. These were life lessons shown to us on a daily basis.

In the past few years, authors, speakers, even colleges and universities have developed courses using the theme of servant leadership. They use the theme freely in an attempt to teach the meaning of servanthood and apply it to daily living.

Mom did not need to read any books, listen to a speaker or take any classes to learn how to serve others. It just came naturally. It was her gift to the family

I am truly blessed as that gift of serving the family first exists in our home with my wife, Sue, and with all the moms in our family. They nurture, build a solid team and see the potential in their children. It is their gift to our family as well.

That’s what mothers throughout the world do. They serve their families with love, inspiration, humility, devotion and determination. Unfortunately, that sacrifice is not always recognized.

My wish is that all children in the world have a mom that displays unconditional love and acceptance, and are nurtured, soothed and cared for by a mom like mine. Yes, I was blessed. I hope you feel the same way about your mom on this very special day.

— Terry Erickson of La Crosse

Bill Brown and his mom, Louise, in a 1951 photo.

Loving, caring — and great sense of humor

I was fortunate to have a mother, Louise, who was loving, caring and had a great sense of humor.

When I was old enough to accept and not be offended, she had short jokes just for me, things like, “When you were born, you were so ugly the doctor slapped ME!”

Once, I told her I threw a ball with my left hand but wrote with my right. She answered, “You’re ambidextrous — you’re equally unhandy with either hand.”

Another line, “Bill, you should have been a twin.” I said, “Why?” She said, “One guy can’t be that dumb!”

Mother’s been gone for almost 26 years, but it’s easy to recall her and her wit.

— Bill Brown, Tomah

David M. Bahr's mom and dad see him off at the La Crosse Airport en route to his first duty station in Fort Beloir, Va.

Mom tricked me into letting her shave me

The other day while I was shaving with my razor and shaving cream, I had a flashback of my first shave with a razor. My mom gave me my first shave!

She begged me to do it. She said she did this before. Well, she is my mom, so I let her do it. She rubbed the cream all over my face. She had this sinister smile on her face the whole time.

With each stroke she made with the razor, she just beamed! She told me how to hold my face, and we were both laughing. She told me she watched her dad shave, so she knew what to do.

When she was done, she wiped my face with a washcloth. After all the soap was dry, she lightly slapped my face with both hands. With a huge grin, she said, “That was fun, for my first time!”

We both laughed and hugged each other and enjoyed the rest of our day.

My mom always gave us some neat advice. She said, “Dave, if you find that special woman, you hold her face in your hands and you kiss her tenderly. If she likes it, you will know.”

Well, I found out Mom was right!

Mom was full of life when she was with us. She passed away 13 years ago.

— David M. Bahr, Holmen

She made this old house loving home

Our mother, Josey Borge, took an old house and turned it into a loving home. Scrubbing floors on her hands and knees. Hanging out loads and loads of laundry. She understood things that were hard for us to say, and somehow — without us knowing — she made things seem okay.

Always our mother and forever our friend. Mom never got tired of hearing the “good nights I love you” to no end. We’ve all grown up, left to be on our own but never stopped visiting mom at a place we called home. In our hearts, memories we preserved of our mother. She brought love to all of us from the day we opened our eyes to the day she closed hers.

— Renae Bisek

Linda Steinhoff

Katie Steinhoff

Mother’s Day serenade on replay

My mom, Katie Steinhoff, was a mother of 15 children. One of my favorite Mother’s Day memories is when my niece Jenn had some boys from the Sparta High School come to her home for a Mother’s Day serenade.

She asked them to sing one of her favorite songs, “The Rose,” which they quickly learned. As the family gathered for her special day, the boys brought roses and sang this special song to her.

To our surprise, the local television came to record this special moment for us. My mom, this special woman, deserved so much more for all she had done for us.

The bonus part of the day was when she got to watch herself on the local news. The smile on her face was priceless. Needless to say, we watched this moment many times.

We love and miss you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day, your family.

— Linda Steinhoff, Sparta

Film puts meat behind the 'Notorious RBG' image

NEW YORK — So how do you ask 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to let you bring video cameras into the gym to record her workout?

The answer, according to the makers of the “RBG” documentary that’s in theaters now and bound for CNN later this year, is “very meekly.”

A trainer pushing Ginsburg on the free weights provides one of the smile-worthy moments in the documentary, which puts meat behind the cultural phenomenon created by the 2015 book, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” The film’s story traces her legal work advancing rights for women leading up to her 1993 elevation to the top court, and her role as a justice since.

Mixed in is the tender love story with her husband Martin Ginsburg, who died in 2010, and rich personal touches including her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia — bringing a liberal and conservative together in a way that seems alien to modern Washington.

Watching the “Notorious RBG” fame, film director Betsy West said that “we felt that many of her millennial fans didn’t know her full story.” West and co-director Julie Cohen set out to tell it.

When they first approached Ginsburg with the idea, her answer was “not yet.”

“We noticed the two words not in her email to us were ‘no’ and ‘never,’” Cohen said. So they got to work, and later Ginsburg cooperated with interviews.

Ginsburg met her husband as an undergraduate at Cornell University. When she was admitted to Harvard Law School, a dean famously asked her and the other eight women in the class why they deserved to take a place in the class that should have gone to a man.

It was a far different time. Ginsburg attacked sexism methodically while working for the American Civil Liberties Union, using the words of the Constitution to fight gender roles that had been enshrined into law. She won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court.

Filmmakers outline that effort by mining archives with tapes of her legal arguments. Research also uncovered one priceless moment in Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing to the court. As the still-novel idea of women on the court was being discussed, the camera pans to senators at the hearing where, behind them, a young legislative aide and Ginsburg’s future colleague on the court, Elena Kagan, was working.

Ginsburg provides a still-relevant model for activism, Cohen said — even if her quiet, persistent, “long game” strategy can make younger idealists impatient.

Cohen and West’s portrait is mostly loving, although Ginsburg’s unusual criticisms of Donald Trump when he was a presidential candidate were addressed. Trump’s supporters didn’t like them and many Ginsburg fans thought them ill-advised.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the film received a three-star review (out of four) from the conservative website Newsmax.

“You can completely disagree with everything Ginsburg has ever done as a lawyer and/or a judge but as a subject for a non-fiction film, she has few peers,” wrote Newsmax’s Michael Clark. “Like it or not, Ginsburg’s story is captivating and ideal fodder for a movie.”

The film began appearing in a limited number of theaters this month and is starting to expand its reach this weekend. The one critic Cohen and West were most interested in saw it for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival. Cohen and West sat across the aisle from Ginsburg, stealing nervous glances.

“As it went on, I think we started to relax because she was completely engrossed throughout,” Cohen said. “She laughed repeatedly, she pulled out a tissue and cried a number of times, including in an earlier scene of watching herself watching a beautiful opera duet that she loves. Wouldn’t have occurred to us as being ... a strong emotional point in the movie, but that really seemed to move her.”

For the workout scene, it had been West’s job to ask if Ginsburg would allow a camera. The request was met, as was often the case, with a dramatic pause. Then came the answer: “Yes, I think that would be possible.”

“We weren’t in that room for more than a few minutes, then we knew why she’d let us film this,” West said. “She’s an elderly woman who is keeping herself in very good shape to do the job that she loves and I think she’s proud of this.”

top story
Single mom, UW-La Crosse graduate beats odds to become statistician

A tattoo wrapped around Leah Voit-Osticki’s right biceps tells the story of her life.

There’s an image of her inside an hourglass, meant to represent the time she spent trapped in addiction and jail, “always feeling like I’m running out of time and I’m stuck.” There’s the date in 2014 when she stopped using heroin. And nine months later when her son was born.

On the back is a quill pen, a symbol of her will to re-write the ending.

Sunday will mark the close of another chapter in that story, when Voit-Ostricki graduates from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with a degree in statistics.

Voit-Ostricki, 28, grew up in Milwaukee and Arkansas, the oldest child of a single mother serving in the Army. She graduated from Greenfield High School at 17 and enrolled in community college.

She said she started using Vicodin when she was 19. One day she didn’t take a pill and felt sick, and that’s when she realized she was hooked. After a stint in jail, she turned to heroin, which she didn’t like as much but was cheaper than pills.

“I never imagined I’d snort a pill, much less stick a needle in my arm,” she said.

During those years, Lynne Ostricki said she slept every night with the phone by her bed, worried her daughter would become another statistic in the opioid epidemic. 

“I was waiting for somebody to call me and tell me she was gone,” she said.

Later fell in love with a man “who told me he didn’t want to marry a hype.”

That was her motivation to quit.

Voit-Ostricki said she found an affordable clinic where she could get Suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction. She got high for the last time on April 27, 2014, before heading to Texas with her boyfriend to detox. The next month she learned she was pregnant.

Later that year she moved in with her mother, who encouraged her to go back to school.

“You are so darn smart,” Lynne Ostricki told her. “Use that toward something legal.”

She finished one of her final projects for her associate degree at Gundersen Medical Center, where her son, David, spent his first month in the neo-natal intensive care unit. That’s also when she applied to UW-L.

The university doesn’t track the number of students with dependents.

“They’re invisible,” said Andrea Hansen, director of the Self-Sufficiency Program, a semester-long course to prepare low-income parents for college. “The thing is they have lives outside of campus. Their connection to campus is really classrooms …. Then they beat it home and go to work. Childcare, transportation, living on the edge financially. It’s amazing that they’re doing it.”


Andrea Hansen

Single mothers face even greater challenges, with most working more and sleeping less than their traditional student counterparts, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, which found just 28 percent graduate within 6 years and more than half drop out.

A typical day for Voit-Ostricki starts around 7:30 a.m. as she drops David at daycare. She tried to schedule her classes in the mornings so that she can work from noon to 5 p.m. Then it’s time to make dinner and hang out until David goes to bed around 10 p.m. Then she starts her homework, which sometimes keeps her up till 2:30 or 3 a.m.

“She’s a strong woman,” said Barb Pollack, who attended UW-L as a single parent and now runs the Three Rivers Scholar House, where Voit-Ostricki has lived for the past year.

Having a young child forced Voit-Ostricki to ask for help, something she said she wouldn’t have done before. She sought out tutors, despite the stigma she felt came with the word, learned to lean on others to make it work.

Voit-Ostricki knows she’s survivor. While in jail, she lost her house and her car, not to mention clothes and jewelry, but she says now “being clean and broke was better than rich and high.”

She hopes her son will never have to use a QUEST card to buy groceries, and she’s shopping for a car with all the latest safety features to give him the best shot possible. That’s what kept her going in school.

“I’ve grinded so hard and know so much about the streets,” she said. “But now I’ve switched gears and I’m going about things the right way and that’s only because of my son.”

When she first enrolled at UW-L, Voit-Ostricki said she decided to study math because it was a subject she was comfortable with, but the first semester she took a statistics course, which was the first time she’d ever encountered anything so complex.

“Everyone else hated it,” she said. “I loved it.”

Her knack for numbers landed Voit-Ostricki a job in the research department at Fastenal, which she did in addition to a campus work-study position.

Last summer she was hired as a biostatics intern at Mayo Clinic, where she is helping Dr. Charles Watts research new treatments for Alzheimer's and brain tumors. Watts said Voit-Ostricki has done well, especially for someone without a chemistry background.

Dr. Charles Watts

Voit-Ostricki is more modest.

“I just do the numbers,” she said.

Voit-Ostricki says her goal is to work in the business sector, though she just learned she’s been accepted to a graduate program in applied statistics.

Watts said Voit-Ostricki has handled the demands of being a single parent/student and will do well in whatever path she choses.

“I’m optimistic for her future,” he said. “I expect good things from her.”

Lynne Ostricki said she was proud of her daughter for wanting to go back to college but wasn’t sure she could follow through. Now she gets to celebrate Mother's Day by watching her graduate.

“I’m so proud of her,” she said. “Proud isn’t even — I wish there was a better word.”