As Randy Bjerke walks through the halls at the Jackson County Courthouse, he can’t help but look up and reminisce about the 272 veterans that are honored with their casket flags that adorn the courthouse hallways.
“The local people come in and they see the flags and they recognize the name and it brings back a memory for each of us. It is just a nice, warm feeling knowing that these are those people’s flags,” Bjerke said.
Bjerke, the Jackson County veteran service officer, has been serving the county for more than nine years after serving for 20 years as a Marine. He has yet to find anything like the casket flags in the Jackson County Courthouse.
“No other courthouse or area that I am aware of has such a thing,” Bjerke said explaining that the flags began to be placed in the courthouse about 30 years ago when Bob Teeples, a local veteran, thought of the idea.
“I don’t know where Bob got the idea, but it has taken here,” Bjerke said. “When we get visitors in from out of the county or out of the state, they come in here and they stop and go, ‘What is this?’ We tell them those are veteran’s casket flags and they just can’t believe it.”
Each casket flag has the same box and is held on the wall by a shelf made by the maintenance department. Local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion groups donate money for the shelves, so the families of the veterans only have to pay $35 for the box and $5 for the name plate.
Ed Nemec, who served with the National Guard for 12 years including 10 months active duty, makes the boxes on his own time. He also is in charge of arranging firing squads for veteran’s funerals in the area.
“I just think it is a nice thing to do,” Nemec said. “The last thing I can do for someone is make a box.”
Nemec started making the boxes several years ago when Jerry Paar, then veteran service officer, asked him to help.
“The fella that had been making them, I guess he had been wanting to quit. Jerry asked me because he knew I did a lot of woodwork and asked if I would make the boxes. I took one home and got all the measurements off of them,” Nemec said.
Nemec now has the process down to a science, “I try to get enough parts to make probably 15 or 20 boxes and then I just store them. Then when someone orders a box, I just go get the pieces, sand them, assemble it and I can probably assemble one in 15 minutes.”
Even though all 272 casket flags that are in the courthouse hallways have special meaning, some casket flags are extra special to some of the employees in the courthouse.
Shari Marg, the Jackson County register of deeds, passes by her dad’s casket flag every day outside her office. Marg’s dad is Paar, the previous Jackson County veteran service officer.
“It’s comforting because he roamed these halls for a lot of years. It is nice to have him so close,” Marg said. “He was such a jokester. The people in the courthouse have so many stories.”
Bjerke said Paar’s casket flag was the last one placed in that hallway, and it was placed there by a special person to Paar.
“Mike Kutcher was the head of maintenance at the time, so he actually let me hang it on the wall, so it was a pretty cool experience,” Marg said.
Bjerke has several special stories about the veterans that are honored in the courthouse, but one of his most special is a story about Glenn and Audrey Voskuil.
Glenn and Audrey Voskuil both served in WWII in the Navy. When Audrey Voskuil passed away, Glenn Voskuil wanted her flag put up in the courthouse, which Bjerke was happy to do.
“When we put it up, it was one flag from the end of the shelf so there was room for one more flag. When the next flag came up to be put in, I told the maintenance guys who installed the flags and said, ‘Leave that spot open, we are going to need that spot one day,’” Bjerke said.
A few years later, Glenn Voskuil passed away and so was placed next to his wife. Glenn and Audrey Voskuil’s daughter Heidi was in the same class as Bjerke’s wife, so he had known her for a long time.
“Heidi came and she looked and came in with tears in her eyes. She said, ‘Randy, they are side by side.’ I said, ‘I know Heidi. I did that on purpose.’ Sometimes we can do things like that. It didn’t take much to save that spot, but it really meant a lot to the family,” Bjerke said adding that there is a father and son that are also placed next to each other in the courthouse.
Unfortunately for the last two years, Bjerke has had to stop putting up casket flags in the courthouse because there was no longer room.
However with the completion of the new courthouse addition this year, new space has opened up on the second floor and so Bjerke has begun accepting casket flags again.
“I am in the process of collecting donations from the (American) Legions and VFWs to get some shelves built, and once we do then we will be putting more flags up,” Bjerke said adding that he hopes the new spot will provide ample space for many years to come.
“When we are full, we are full. Hopefully it will be long after I am gone,” Bjerke said.
For a complete list of the casket flags in the Jackson County Courthouse, go to the Jackson County website at www.co.jackson.wi.us and go to the Veterans Service Office department page.