Summerfest Stories: How Milwaukee uses music to build bridges for bringing people together
Summerfest opened late this year, after a 2020 hiatus. COVID was the culprit. Despite the delay, the Big Gig has managed to bring out the best, in what some people might call, “the worst of times.”
In the past year the COVID-19 virus has taken lives, shut down businesses, instilled fear, and precipitated severe loneliness, among a long list of other devastating outcomes. At the same time that the pandemic was demoralizing our way of life, violence exploded in our streets over race relations. Our political system split further apart with no common middle ground, and from the division emerged a culture called Cancel. However, as our nation’s history has shown us during our darkest hours, there are flashes of light both during the tempest and after it has lifted. That brightness usually appears to us when we least expect it. From the simple things in life. The humble, generous, and kind humanity that still has a beating heart in our heartland. Summerfest is one such place for this humanity to gather. It is a melting pot where a crucible of people come together and divisiveness is drowned out by music, memories, intoxicating energy, and hope.
His smile draws you in, radiating a bright spark of determination and humility at the same time. “Speech” earned his name as a Grammy Award winning rapper, but he has not forgotten his family roots.
Robby’s Roasted Corn has been a main stay at Summerfest for decades. It was started 40 years ago by Speech’s father, Robby. “My dad taught me personally a hard work ethic,” said Speech, who remembers being a ten-year old kid trying to avoid doing that hard work at his dad’s fresh corn booth at Summerfest. “I thought my dad was picking on me at first when I’d avoid work, and over time, I learned that he was just making sure I was working hard.” Speech laughed as he recalled that his dad actually left him alone once he surrendered to the concept of not avoiding hard work. Speech was taking a break from his musical artistry during Summerfest this year to run the family business, which he and his wife have taken over for his father. Speech said he thinks it is important for people to get outside to places like Summerfest, enjoy life and music and start having real conversations again. He believes that people are often afraid to ask questions regarding topics such as race or politics in fear of being judged, and he encourages them to have more talks to learn about each other. “I think it will be extremely dangerous if we don’t have these conversations. I think learning about each other’s experiences really helps change the narrative of division… because we are still in the same space, and we can pretend that we live in two realities, but the more we pretend, the more, when certain events happen, it all sparks up again and we keep going back to point zero.” Speech believes that those hard conversations are just as important as the hard work his father taught him when he was young.
“The biggest things I needed to learn to be successful in business, and in life, were to never avoid doing the hard work and to be honest. My dad taught me those things early on.” – Speech
Until Paul Kasprzak’s visit to Summerfest this year, he had not done anything but work and care for his wife, Karla, for the past seven years. Karla has Alzheimer’s.
He said he felt awkward, but hopeful that he would enjoy himself, after driving two and a half hours by himself to spend the day at Summerfest. “I hope to get lost in the music and then I’ll have to go back to reality, but tonight is my escape,” said Kasprzak. He took care of Karla at home when she was first diagnosed, but later had to put her into an assisted living facility. Kasprzak said his wife no longer recognizes him, but he believes somewhere inside she still feels a glimmer, but just can’t vocalize it. “I only go to work, the gas station, the grocery store, and to visit Karla. That’s my life now. It’s like, I have a life, but I don’t have a life right now. It’s like I have a wife, but I don’t have a wife right now. So, Summerfest and the music here is a way for me to escape for just a little while.” Kasprzak said at times he feels like a “mindless soldier in an army of one.” He described Karla, who he married 30 years ago, as his soulmate who he deeply loves and is unwaveringly devoted to. He believes love means loyalty.
“If I had one wish for my day here today at Summerfest, it would be that I could smile or laugh for real again, instead of pretending.” – Paul Kasprzak
Anna Lane is 21-years-old and her dream is to work in the medical field, even more so now because of the pandemic.
Despite Lane running late for a concert she was excited to see at Summerfest, she still took the time to share her passion and hope for the future. That is an important point to make about the University of Wisconsin student who is studying biomedical sciences, showing that she is already displaying her dedication to be nimble, thoughtful, and informative with her passion. It is a trait that will deeply comfort her patients and their families someday, over the course of her medical career. “I see good health as something everybody needs and wants, so I would like to be one of those people who is able to give it to everybody, along with some hope.” Lane described herself as a “personable person who loves to talk and interact with people.” She attributes this characteristic to the example her parents set for her, who are both teachers. Lane said that even as a young child, she always wanted to study medicine and work at a hospital.
“I have really come to appreciate the great work healthcare workers do, especially from what I saw them do to combat COVID.” – Anna Lane
Music has always been Heather Van Hefty’s witness to everything that really matters in her life.
As a child, she said music was always part of her family’s household. Heather’s parents would drive to Summerfest from Appleton, where she grew up, especially for the live music. She said they saw iconic musical artists such as Chubby Checker and The Everly Brothers. She almost became giddy when talking about seeing The BoDeans live at Summerfest when she was 13 years old. Now, fast forwarding to her adult life, she still has that same childlike amazement in her eyes when she talks about the importance of music, which she now shares with her husband, Pat, and their three children. The couple lives in Minocqua, Wisconsin, and drove over 4 hours to attend Summerfest this year to soak up the live entertainment. They both agreed that songs mark a collection of milestones in their lives, and hearing certain tunes always brings them back to those important moments of their personal history. “I told my husband, it’s going to be a long winter and if artists shut down again or aren’t comfortable going to indoor venues – due to COVID – we are going to take in as much music as we can at Summerfest.” This trip was a treat for the Van Hefty’s and not taken for granted. “We have a special needs daughter who is 12 years old, so we don’t have the normal flexibility to pick up and leave without a lot of planning,” Heather said. When the couple is not able to make arrangements to attend live concerts, they make it a priority to have music constantly playing in their home because it brings balance and happiness to their life. Heather said when her daughter is having a challenging moment, music gives the 12-year-old comfort and a sense of calm. She and her husband are very grateful for that.
“Music allows you to just forget about everything else and just be in the moment and there’s not many other things in life that can do that, in my opinion.” – Heather Van Hefty
It was love at first sight for Claude and Kerri Massey.
It was like that famous scene in the movie “Jerry Maquire,” he had her at hello. “He was so smooth and suave and handsome and he dressed well and smelled good and just treated me like a lady,” said Kerri Massey who met her husband Claude Massey in 1977 at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. She had him at hello too. “It was her personality and her smile. She was warm, easy going and funny,” recalled Claude when he described his first impression of her. The couple did not marry until 1983. Kerri said she was not worried about the long engagement because she knew he was the one. Claude said he knew it was going to happen too, “it was a matter of me being able to support her and the family we wanted to build.” And build they did. They are retired now with three successful grown children, and the Masseys still sit together as if they were awestruck newlyweds. Claude and Kerri have many fond memories of Summerfest when they were raising their kids. “When our children were little, we would bring them here for the special kid activities, and they used to have rides, so we had fun with that too with the kids,” said Kerri. The Masseys also loved bringing their kids to see the fireworks every year at Summerfest. They both admitted that the world had changed a lot since they raised their family, and they recently experienced great loss from the pandemic. Kerri’s brother and Claude’s cousin both died due to COVID, as well as some of their friends. “We felt safe coming to Summerfest because it was required that people showed proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, so we felt safer leaving the house.” They both said it was nice not having to wear a mask. “Summerfest seems to be a melting pot for all types of people to enjoy, we like being in a place where people are so nice and polite,” said Kerri. Claude added that Summerfest gave him the the chance to people watch again.
“Our favorite memory from Summerfest was seeing The Jackson 5 together in the late 1970s.” – Claude and Kerri Massey
Randy Bash plans to be the best version of himself after a brush with death that helped him choose a new way of living.
Two decades ago Randy Bash was a security guard at Summerfest. “I still end up walking the rounds that I used to when I worked here twenty years ago when I visit,” chuckled Bash. “Summerfest is for everyone, not just one kind of person. You can come here and enjoy the music and the food and just be yourself.” Bash was happy to be out in the open air, and said he was looking forward to the future. He is now a self-employed designer and builder, and is in the midst of recovering from an unexpected emergency surgery a few months ago. During the COVID lockdown, Bash’s life took some abrupt turns for the worse. “My girlfriend broke up with me, my son moved out because he turned 18, there were no family functions to go to or places open to socialize. So I just threw myself into my work.” Bash said he was dealing with his heartache and frustration by working 7 days a week nonstop rehabbing his home. Then, without warning, Bash collapsed. “I was terrified. Four medics had to come to pick me up off the floor. When I got to the emergency room I felt like it was the end of my life.” Bash’s collapse was the result of an undiagnosed slipped disc in his back. It was the third surgery in his lifetime. The others were not related to his back issue, but Bash said he was convinced “this is it, three strikes and I’m out.” He explained that when he had his other two experiences on the operating table, he just went to sleep and woke up with no memory of the procedure, but this was different. “I just had this feeling when I opened my eyes after the surgery that I had seen the other side. I even asked the nurse if I had died.” Bash did not flatline during surgery, but he felt the presence of relatives who had passed away. He woke up with a powerful feeling that there is something else after this life. “I changed things immediately.” Bash said he decided to focus only on the positive by dedicating himself to finding a healthy relationship, doing right by his son, and focusing on keeping himself in good shape. He also purchased a house in Hawaii so he could create his own personal heaven here on earth.
“The surgery made me choose to live my life right. This experience told me life is short, so get what you want while you can.” – Randy Bash
Beverly Gehring grew up on a dairy farm that has been in her family for 157 years, and is still going strong.
Gehring believes that a strong foundation would serve as a solid platform for longevity and growth. She has seen how Summerfest built its legacy for Milwaukee from the ground up. Gehring attended this year specifically to see a tribute to the Eagles. She recalled the early days when Summerfest was starting out with just a few stages and dirt, instead of cement, on the ground. “Everybody comes from all over to experience Summerfest now.” Gehring feels proud to live in the community where the Big Gig became a big deal to more than just the folks who live in the Milwaukee area. Gerhing has had an appreciation for long standing legacies over her entire life. She grew up on a dairy farm that has been in her family since 1864. Located in southwestern Kenosha County in the town of Randall, it is still doing good business. “I think I took growing up on a farm for granted. My mother had two gardens, we had fruit trees, fresh mushrooms, rhubarb, asparagus, you name it – anything you could think of, my mother grew.” Gehring talked about the hard work and dedication it takes to run a farm. She said her father did not have a day off for 20 years, because he had to milk the cows, but her family was very happy. “We all stuck together. I was instilled with good values and work ethics, and I really learned to appreciate the land and nature.” Gehring said she cherished simple moments like playing the guitar in the woods and running through fields of wild flowers. “We found joy in the simple things,” said Gehring as she smiled with great pride.
“My favorite memory at Summerfest was going to see The Pointer Sisters. I was standing right up there in front by the stage and I was really grooving. It was so much fun!” – Beverly Gehring
Michael Durst (aka The Viking) said that giving joy to others has been a healing experience.
“I have Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and this is part of my treatment,” said Durst, right out of the gate. “The music here at Summerfest, the smiles and the pictures that people want to take with me has helped keep my Leukemia down to stage zero for about 6 years.” Durst, who is retired, also attends other major Milwaukee events to keep the positive energy rolling. He lives in a senior apartment complex and, when not in Viking mode, Durst tries to assist other residents if they need a helping hand. All in all, Durst believes that giving to others and bringing them happiness is his best medicine for keeping his illness in check.
“It’s joy that brings healing. I love to give joy to people, it’s something that makes me very happy.” – Michael Durst (aka The Viking)