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Todd Sommerfeldt / ASSOCIATED PRESS 

Milwaukee Brewer and former La Crosse Logger Eric Thames smiles after hitting an infield single during the second inning of Wednesday's 7-3 victory over the Washington Nationals at Miller Park.

Tribune honors area's top nurses in La Crosse area at inaugural gala
Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Alyse Betchner, an oncology and hospice nurse with Gundersen Health System wipes away tears Wednesday as she is honored as Nurse of the Year at River Valley Media Group’s “Nurses: The Heart of Healthcare” inaugural event at Court Above Main. Betchner was among the 10 area nurses recognized at the event.

The area’s top nurses traded their scrubs for dresses and heels, if only for a night.

Ten nurses from across the Coulee Region were honored Wednesday at the inaugural Nurses: Heart of Health Care gala at the Court Above Main in La Crosse, an event organized by the La Crosse Tribune and River Valley Media Group.

Nurses from Gundersen Health System, Mayo Clinic Health System, Winona Health and Saint Anne of Winona gathered to sip champagne, nibble hors d’oeuvres and find out who would be named the nurse of the year.

That distinction ultimately went to Alyse Betchner, an oncology and hospice nurse at Gundersen.

“I’m in absolute shock. My first thought was I better text the patient who nominated me,” said Betchner, who’s been a nurse for four years. “As a nurse, you forget about things because you’re always on to the next thing and the next thing. It’s nice to look back at all of that, at everything we’ve accomplished.”

Betchner, a native of Sauk City, was inspired to become a nurse after she got pregnant as a high school senior. She decided to put the baby up for adoption, a decision that tore her up, but the nurses who cared for her were nothing but supportive, she said.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

Shannon Hulett, manager of nursing technology for Gundersen Health System, delivers a heartfelt speech Wednesday at River Valley Media Group’s “Nurses: The Heart of Healthcare” award reception at the Court Above Main.

In that moment, Betchner resolved to spend her career helping others.

Now, she cares for patients in difficult and sometimes hopeless times — people who have cancer, people who have weeks or months to live. To her, it’s not just a job.

“I think that’s why so many of us are good nurses, because we can’t shut off the work at home,” she said. “We sit around and think about patients all the time, hope they’re having a good day. Even if we can’t be there, we’re still thinking about them.”

In February, River Valley Media Group asked readers to nominate nurses who had gone above and beyond for their patients.

More than 120 nominations poured in — heartfelt praise from patients, co-workers and others who have been inspired by the outstanding service of nurses in our area.

A four-person panel — which included Tim Kotnour of State Bank Financial, Ryan Smith of Dahl Subaru, Joanne Sandvick of the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium and Josh Trust of River Valley Media Group — whittled the list to 10 finalists before selecting the winner.

But the event was more than a contest. It was a chance to recognize people who do so much for so many, yet expect so little in return.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

A toast is made to nurses and and the excellent work they do Wednesday at River Valley Media Group’s “Nurses: The Heart of Healthcare” award reception at the Court Above Main.

“To even be nominated … is very humbling and exciting at the same time,” said Deb Augedahl, a care coordinator at Gundersen. “Being a nurse, you’re not really looking for awards. You go into nursing because you love patients and want to see them succeed.”

The 10 finalists — whose stories will appear in the La Crosse Tribune on Sunday — vary in age, experience and field.

Some work in cancer treatment. Some work in an emergency room. And some work in hospice, ensuring that patients’ final days are as comfortable and meaningful as possible.

What binds these nurses is an unwavering dedication to patients, an ability to put others’ needs above their own.

“Nursing is not about the monetary reward … it’s about the reward of helping our fellow human beings,” said Jason Fratzke, chief nursing officer at Mayo and one of the speakers at Wednesday’s gala. “Your passion and commitment really do make a difference — one nurse, one patient, one family at a time.”

The sinking of the War Eagle is the highlight of Saturday event
Jourdan Vian / Jourdan Vian La Crosse Tribune 

Bob Taunt will dress up in his 1870s gear to share the story of the steamboat War Eagle Saturday at the Riverside Museum.

The steamboat War Eagle pulled into its home port late May 14, 1870. A few hours later, just after midnight May 15, it was engulfed in flames on the Black River just north of downtown La Crosse.

Artifacts and a never-before-seen sonar photo of the famous steamboat will be on display Saturday at the Riverside Museum during the La Crosse historical Society’s War Eagle Day event.

It’s a story fit for a Hollywood blockbuster, said organizer Bob Taunt.

“There’s still stories about the whistles of the boat, there’s stories about gold on the boat, there’s stories of families who arrived on the boat and lost everything in the fire. Those are all part of our community history,” Taunt said.

It all started with a leaky barrel of Danforth’s patent nonexplosive petroleum fluid — “Doesn’t that sound good?” Taunt asked — and a kerosene lamp.

“Somehow it flared up — there’s a number of explanations that we have — and so you have these wooden kegs that caught fire,” he said.

The deckhands did what they usually do with everything from food scraps to trash: they kicked it overboard into the river.

La Crosse County Historical Society 

This photo on display at the Riverside Museum shows what the War Eagle looked like before it caught fire in 1870.

“Except that there was a barge along the side, and the barrel stuck between the two,” Taunt said.

The burning barrel was wedged alongside the middle of the War Eagle and they couldn’t get it into the water. The flames spread while black clouds of petroleum smoke billowed into the air, and it went fast.

“It might have burned up the city of La Crosse if the city had been a little closer,” Taunt said.

Five people died out of the 50 registered passenges, many workers and unknown number of immigrants packed into the first deck. The most well-known are Mary Ulrich and Felix Spiller.

Ulrich was an 18-year-old socialite staying in La Crosse with her aunt and uncle for her education. She was headed upriver for her sister’s wedding.

“When she got on the boat, her Uncle John asked the barber of the boat to make sure she got off at the right stop,” Taunt said.

That barber was Spiller.

“When the fire broke out, suddenly his job became a matter of life or death,” Taunt said.

Taunt described Spiller as a hero, who went out of his way to help a stranger in an emergency.

“He could have said, ‘Hey, I didn’t sign on for this. I’m saving myself and getting out of here,’ but he didn’t,” Taunt said.

Spiller helped Ulrich get from her stateroom down through the back of the boat. She tried to jump across to the next boat and fell in the river.

“He jumped in to try and save her. They were found the next day, both drowned,” Taunt said.

Deckhand Tom Greene and Kentucky banker Sanford McBrayer also died. Greene drowned and McBrayer likely died of smoke inhalation.

“He’s still in the river. They never found his body,” Taunt said.

The last victim was an elderly woman who drowned.

“It puzzles me. I’ve looked and looked for her name, but she probably was an immigrant. An elderly lady, she probably wouldn’t have been traveling by herself,” Taunt said.

However, if she didn’t speak English or her family didn’t speak enough English to report her death, her name might be lost forever.

The sinking of the War Eagle is connected to a major part of La Crosse history.

“The steamboat is the reason that La Crosse is here. Steamboats built La Crosse,” Taunt said.

At the time, the roads were extremely bad, so building materials and many of the people came to La Crosse on the steamboat.

“The War Eagle was a La Crosse boat. It was very popular, and this fire story was one of the major, major stories of La Crosse history,” Taunt said.

There’s a romantic appeal to the steamboat era, said La Crosse County Historical Society director Peggy Derrick.

“It was very short, but it lives on in our imaginations,” Derrick said.

Jourdan Vian / Jourdan Vian, La Crosse Tribune 

This cathedral bottle was one of hundreds of War Eagle artifacts brought up by Onalaska diver Dennis Brandt.

Steamboats were luxury liners in their day, filled with fine glassware and delicate dishes for the wealthy to use as they traveled up and down the Mississippi River, but they also brought immigrants to the area, took Native Americans away and transported troops during the Civil War.

“It all ought to be remembered, the good and the bad, so we can learn from it,” Derrick said.

The artifacts, most of which were recovered by diver Dennis Brandt who died in 2012, are pretty incredible, according to the historical society.

“Some of this stuff, it’s amazing it survived,” Taunt said.

There are metal fixtures, barrels and lamps, as well as the remains of stemware and silverware from the kitchen. Brandt brought up French sardine cans with brass labels, coffee cups, spittoons and pipes, as well as dozens of intact glass bottles.

“I’ve collected antiques for a long time, and I’ve never cared for bottles until I saw these, with all the different colors and interesting names on them,” Taunt said.

The collection includes everything from champagne bottles to Dr. Crook’s Wine of Tar, but the standout inclusion are the cathedral bottles, which are unique.

“I haven’t found this anywhere on the river north of Kansas City,” Taunt said.

Not only will people at the event get to see the artifacts for free, but they will also get the chance to watch a video of Brandt discussing his experience diving for War Eagle artifacts, hear Mayor Tim Kabat read a proclamation and see a sonar scan done by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

“People will be able to see the whole wreck, and frankly, it’s the first time in 149 years that anyone has seen the whole thing. We’ve seen pictures, we’ve seen pieces, but we’ll be able to see the underwater image of what’s left of it,” Taunt said.

From Tribune files: Things That Matter in La Crosse County history
From Tribune files: Things That Matter in La Crosse County history

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune 

The Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall, a traveling, half size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., displays the names of over 58,000 people who died or went missing serving in the Vietnam War.