Monthly Archives: February 2018

Schoolcraft Kids Select Star Spud for Walther Farms

By Sue Moore

Putting a million-dollar solution for what kind of potatoes to grow in 2018 in the hands of elementary school students might seem like a crazy idea to most farmers. But that’s exactly what Walther Farms did when they asked 400-plus students at Schoolcraft Elementary School to recommend the best variety the farm should plant this spring.

It all started as the school’s Strategic Partnership for Learning when Jason Walther, president of the Three Rivers-based company and a Schoolcraft school board member, turned the decision over to the classroom. He envisioned it as an exercise in math and science for the students.

Their charge was to taste test three varieties of potatoes that the 15,000-acre farm could grow to take the place of two varieties management meant to discontinue. After the taste test findings, each grade was tasked to carry out a particular evaluation.

Kindergarten counted the number of months that the potatoes were able to stay in storage before they would rot.

First grade plotted where the fields were and what type of potato each field grew last year.

Second grade created a graph to plot yield per acre from each field and then listed data in order from least to greatest.

Third grade calculated how much fertilizer was used in each field and with each type of potato.

Fourth grade designed and organized the taste test and also calculated the marketable yield and fertilizer efficiency data for the project.

For the taste test, students from kindergarten through third grade gave their opinions. The fourth graders eliminated variables by:

• Cooking all the potatoes at the same temperature.
• Potatoes were boiled and served warm.
• Potatoes were all cut the same size approximately.
• Every taste-tester was given a cup of water.
• All potatoes were served with the skin on.
• Names of potatoes were withheld to the tasters.

The three sections of fourth graders, led by teachers Kristin Caroselli, Sheryl Stephen and Taelor Wedel, had the younger students enter their taste test favorites into an iPad so it could easily be calculated. The three kinds chosen for the experiment were Caribou, Dakota, and Reveille. These are not exactly common names to the shopper when choosing what to buy in the store but they are in the russet family. In fact, Walther Farms is a potato supplier to the local Wal Mart and Meijer stores and different potato chips manufacturers.

The decision was as closely guarded a secret as an Oscar winner. It wasn’t known to Jason Walther or any of his hundreds of employees until they gathered for the company’s annual meeting at the Radisson in Kalamazoo in January. Fifteen of the fourth-grade students who had shown outstanding leadership during the project were chosen to make the presentation in front of a ballroom full of Walther Farm employees. Gabby Peterson, a fourth-grade student from Wedel’s classroom, was chosen to prepare a PowerPoint presentation that appeared on the big screen in the room, while 15 students had speaking parts to describe the process they went through to declare the winner.

Drum roll: Reveille won and when it was announced, Walther took the microphone to proclaim that they would order 1,000 pounds of seed that very day. “This variety has a desirable and unique flavor and texture for baking, boiling and salads,” he said. “I was impressed with how well the students performed the parameters in the study. It confirmed my beliefs. Long-term, we will replace our mixture of different varieties, replacing Norkotah first and increase the Reveille by at least five times the acreage.”

This classroom exercise was just one of several envisioned for Schoolcraft Schools that bring real-life business problems for the students to try and solve. Another one is in the planning stage with the Schoolcraft Historical Society. They hope to involve the middle school students in history of the village, according to Harriett Swartz, the president of the community-based nonprofit.

Walther Farms has been in the potato growing business since the 1940s, beginning in the thumb area of Michigan. It is now a third-generation business headed by family members who moved to the Schoolcraft area to locate the best land for growing potatoes. They now farm some 15,000 acres in Michigan, Indiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado and Nebraska. “Potatoes have every nutrient a person needs to eat in order to survive,” Walther said. They take three months to grow, four to five weeks to harvest and can be stored up to six months without rotting in climate-controlled barns.

The Tobey Way Wins the Award for Principal of the Year

By Sue Moore

Students at Vicksburg’s Tobey Elementary School learn the “Tobey Way” – respect for their classmates, their teachers and others – when they walk in the door their first days at school. For this and many other attributes, their principal, Mike Barwegen, was selected as Principal of the Year in January by Southwest Michigan First.

He was recognized during Catalyst University, a daylong leadership training event hosted by the regional economic development organization at Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo. Parents of children at Tobey wrote support letters, headed by Renee Hawkins, the PTO president, but didn’t tell Barwegen what they were doing. “It came as a complete surprise to me,” he said.

Parent Brett Grossman described the Tobey Way in his letter of support as: “Treat others with respect; Offer a helping hand; Be responsible; Expect excellence; Yearn to learn. These simple but important tenets – so often missing from schools and society – should be required practice of students of all ages and, at Tobey Elementary, they define a culture. Mr. B intentionally and specifically fosters this message through weekly “Tobey Community” assemblies. He has created an environment at the school in which every student seemingly has school pride and stakeholder interest.”

Another parent Kelly Daniels said: “He is incredibly involved and present within the school, you will often find him on playground during recess, taking a pie to the face or kissing a pig to support PTO fundraising, or working sun-up to sundown to ensure our students have the best possible education at Tobey. Relationships are clearly important to him and he has a talent for building those making the children feel important and respected. He instills in the children their abilities to make a difference and that no matter how young they are; they have gifts to make the world a better place.”

“He embodies what his expectations are for the children, consistently influencing them through his actions and attitude. School culture and influence don’t end with the students; the teaching staff at Tobey is the most remarkable group of educators that I have had the pleasure of working with. These teachers work collectively to ensure that every student at Tobey is meeting the fullest potential, all of which is led and supported by Mr. B,” Daniels continued.

Nicole Androsky said: “What impresses me most about Mr. B is his emphasis on raising our children to be good people. Plain and simple. Mr. B is consistently talking with the kids about ways that they can reach out to those in need of help. It could involve reaching out to a student who is alone on the playground or building awareness in the community about a particular struggle. He gives the children the support they need to believe in themselves and to make a difference. They can drive positive changes in our school and in our community.”

Prize money of $2,500 accompanied the award and the recognition. Barwegen and Hawkins put the money toward remodeling the teachers’ lounge. “The teachers are responsible for the whole thing. It’s their reward so this was just a small way we could give back to them,” he said.

The Catalyst Education Awards received applications from teachers, principals and entire schools from across southwest Michigan, competing in each of the three categories—school, principal and teacher— to be recognized for innovations and achievements in K-12 education. The 2018 winning educators recognized besides Barwegen were: Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, Amy Cummings, Dowagiac Middle School, Dowagiac.

Regional economic development organization Southwest Michigan First founded the Catalyst Education Awards with the mission of making Southwest Michigan recognized globally for its success in preparing young people to thrive in education and employment. According to Ron Kitchens, the organization’s chief executive officer, “Everyone can point to a single life-changing moment in their past that set them on their current path. And for many, this occurred in a classroom. We would like to celebrate the fact that across the region, these moments happen in our schools every day,” said CEO Ron Kitchens.

Battle of the Books Sharpens Students Reading Skills

By Sue Moore

In its 23rd year, the Battle of the Books will take place at the Schoolcraft High School Performing Arts Center on Saturday, February 17. Parents and grandparents will be on hand to cheer their fourth, fifth and sixth grade students in their quest for advancing to the Grand Battle stage on Thursday, February 22.

Over 31 teams of five to seven students from Parchment, Schoolcraft and Vicksburg school districts will match wits with each other when asked questions directed to them from Schoolcraft Librarian Faye VanRavenswaay. She will be assisted by Jenny Taylor, a teacher at Vicksburg’s Sunset Elementary school.

Taylor and VanRavenswaay sit at the judges table together. Faye does the introductions and rules (as the program coordinator) and Jenny asks the questions (as moderator). They selected the books together again this year and always confer on answers and/or challenges. “Jenny is so great to work with each year- we make a great team,” VanRavenswaay said.

One of the coaches, Karin Lynch, a middle school teacher in Schoolcraft, was hand-picked by her students to be their coach. She had coached seven years ago when her children were participating, but decided it was time to get back into the game with the Insane Battlers. This all-boy team chose the name and then were brave enough to choose Lynch as their coach. She couldn’t say no.

“The kids do most of the work onstage, under a good deal of pressure,” Lynch said. “It’s a lot like test taking and teaches the youngsters some of life’s lessons. They must consider if they don’t know the answer, is it better to give it a try anyway and hope to score some sort of points or just not say anything?”

Since being away from the fray for seven years and coming back, Lynch has noticed more teamwork among the coaches. She said they now get together to share questions, have mock battles, review books and cooperate amongst themselves. Some of the students who have aged out like to come back and help with questions that improve the reading comprehension of the team as they review the books while practicing. They must read and comprehend 12 books of various genres and do not know what questions will be asked of them on the day of the Battle.

Tara Allgor Storteboom, a Schoolcraft native now teaching second grade in Comstock is coaching the Novel Ninjas with co-coach Havilah Macinnes. “There are some books that kids might not pick up on their own to read from the set list. It can start their love of reading books they never had before. It gives them a deeper understanding by reading the books two or three times through and then having to answer questions about the contents,” she said.

The teams have been preparing for the Battle since October, when the book list was published. The books were available in school and public libraries.

Showboat Kicks Off with Some New People at the Helm

showboat 3
The Showboat cast and crew love to sing for the enjoyment of the audience every year.

By Sue Moore

The 65-year old Vicksburg Rotary Showboat has a couple of young bloods working on the show this year: Adam Wallace as music director and Jake Munson, assistant director. They will be working closely with seasoned veterans, Director Ken Franklin and General Chairman Mike Tichvon.

With new people come new ideas according to Franklin, who welcomes the changes. “I am proud of the new generation of singers participating in the Showboat. This is a huge group effort to celebrate our talent and make money for the community is unmatched in the country. I’m confident it will continue for decades to come.”

Wallace will have the weight of those who have gone before him on his shoulders as he follows in the footsteps of Chris Garrett, who took the chorus to new levels of professionalism in his 14 years as music director. Wallace at age 22 may have an even bigger challenge but everyone around him knows he has the capability. He has studied piano since the age of five and been a protégé of Dusty Morris, Vicksburg’s vocal music instructor, throughout his seven years in middle school and high school. He played percussion for Ben Rosier in band. He has sung with Simply Men, the Chamber Singers and even the Showboat chorus for the last four years. He is in his junior/senior year at Western Michigan University with a double major in communication studies and behavioral psychology. In the meantime, he works with the choirs and plays acoustic piano at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Kalamazoo and gives private piano lessons.

“I may have been a little too ambitious in selecting music for this year’s Showboat that will challenge the chorus of all-male voices, but they are sounding great as each rehearsal progresses,” he said. “I like to bring a high energy effort to directing and these men are amazing in their response to that. My conducting experience is with Centre Stage Theatre in Comstock and last year the Mendon Showboat. This is an amazing group of guys in little ol’ Vicksburg who have had such a great impact on the community for 65 years. I’m just so honored to be a part of it.”

Munson is tasked with being Ken Franklin’s understudy as part of the staging of the show. He’s a natural for the part; his stage presence in past shows attests to how good an actor he is, Franklin noted. Jake has accepted big roles in the Showboat over the five years he has participated. Besides being a percussionist in Vicksburg High School’s Big Red Machine, he said he learned leadership skills from Director Rosier. Munson has had parts in many of the plays directed by Melissa Sparks as part of the theater department. He also assisted her backstage, has acted in two low-budget films and sang in the lead section for the Showboat chorus. He is still completing classes at WMU and substitute teaching in Vicksburg’s middle school and high school.

“The Showboat is a vital part of the Vicksburg community,” Munson said. “It’s not about me being on stage, it’s the chorus carrying on a tradition that has been so long lasting. The audience can expect the same quality show. We are not making drastic changes as we stick with the tradition of 65 great years of Showboat.”

It’s Never Too Late for an Extreme Makeover of the Showboat

The Showboat crew has a new skipper, and an old problem – they’re broke! After getting the bad news from their accountant, they decide the best solution is to enter every TV reality show – and win the prize money from all of them! Why? Because that’s the best way to do it during a two-hour show!

This year’s show features the excellent talents of local actors and singers, men and women, young and old. Skits will include parodies of TV programs such as The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, Duck Dynasty and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

The fun and songs take place at the Vicksburg High School Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m. Friday, March 2 and Saturday, March 3, and 2 p.m., Sunday, March 4. Tickets are $10, general admission only, available at the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center at 101 E. Prairie Street from noon-6 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, noon-8 p.m. Wednesdays and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays. Call 269-501-1347. They will also be available at the PAC box office before each performance.

Tournament of Writers to Kick-off in February

By Sue Moore

When Debra Christiansen pronounces “swords down, pens up, get clacking, go!” the writers in this area know exactly what it means. It’s her way of announcing the fourth annual Tournament of Writers, sponsored by the Schoolcraft Library’s Friends of the Library. Entries may be submitted from Monday, Feb. 26 through Friday, March 30.

“Last tournament we had three published authors, two in the Super Senior category, Marilyn Jones of Schoolcraft and Barbara Vortman of Portage, and one in the Senior category, Lon H. Grover of Kalamazoo,” Christiansen pointed out. “Published authors are allowed to enter this tournament. Our Grand Prize winner last season was Kathleen Forsythe of Vicksburg. We hope to have more entrants from Vicksburg this season.”

“When we started this tournament in 2014, and we were discussing divisions, I said I wanted a Senior division just because someone over 50 doesn’t have anything in common with an 18-year old. It seemed right to have a division that celebrated that. After the tournament in 2015, Marilyn Jones, who passed 90 a few years ago, said ‘I don’t have anything in common with a 50-year-old!’ That’s why in 2016 we created a Super Senior Division,” Christiansen explained.

“The Super Senior division is quite competitive as we do get entries for it. Many entrants write their age on their entries. I guess after 70, they have a right to be proud. It was a special moment at the Presentation of Awards ceremony to see 92-year old, Betty J. Braymer of Vicksburg come up and accept her award. It took a little longer than some of the younger authors, but to see the pride in her face made it worth the wait,” she said.

In the beginning, in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the web site, we had stated that all the entries become property of the Schoolcraft Community Library. This was for our protection and because other contests have similar rules. It was changed to First Publication Rights. We want and encourage our authors to publish. This tournament is just the first step. All authors (or their guardians) sign a release before they are published. It states that they give permission to have their written works and pictures published. They also have the opportunity to submit with a pen name if they so choose.

The winning entries are published in Small Town Anthology, which will see its fourth edition this year. The book is designed with author pages for signing. When the books arrive, there is a book signing at the Schoolcraft Community Library. Family and friends of the authors have their books signed, and the authors sign each other’s books. Rachel Hostetler brings pens in every color and chocolate kisses. (She’s a very popular author.) “All of the editions of Small Town Anthology will soon be available on Kindle. We’ve had many requests for Kindle versions, and we are in total agreement with that. We hope to make the announcement of the release of Small Town Anthology III for Kindle soon but getting the material ready for Kindle is a task in itself,” she said.

Swords down, pens up, get clacking, Go!

Bridge Organics Celebrates 20 Years in Vicksburg

By Sue Moore

Five guys were at the top of their game in chemistry when they were with the Upjohn Company in the 1980s and 90s. They were contemplating what life would be like as Upjohn was being acquired by Pharmacia. They decided to take a leap and go into business together.

They landed in Vicksburg as a start-up in December 1997. Bridge Organics has thrived in its location on 311 W. Washington Street in a building erected in 1962 as the research and development building for Simpson Lee Paper Company.

At the 20-year mark, two of the five owners are still active in everyday operations, while the other three are peripherally involved. They have created a company that does testing of compounds in small batches for big pharmaceutical companies, with 31 employees at today’s count.

“We are pleased that Bridge Organics has been able to grow, provide good-paying jobs that are meaningful and in a way, help to make the world a better place,” said Harold Karnes, one of the two owners still involved. They do that by working on small batch compounds for other companies which don’t have the expertise or perhaps have an already overburdened research and development department.

Bridge Organics can create and test chemical compounds and then scale them up to the point where the larger companies can put them into production. They work with biotech companies and even the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In one instance, they were able to produce a pheromone that can attract female sea lamprey at mating time, allowing the DNR to capture the females before they can lay their eggs. It is still in the testing stage but offers an alternative to putting toxic chemicals in lakes and streams, a system that is currently being utilized by the DNR. Bill Rhodes, the company controller, describes the compound as Chanel #5 for the female lamprey.

Ed Hessler, president of the company and the lead chemist with a national reputation, age 79, often bikes to work in the summer months from his home in Kalamazoo. “Retiring early is not any good without anything useful to do,” he said. Their early idea was to give other middle age chemists a place to experiment and develop their own products. “We found that wasn’t such a good plan because unlike us, they really did want to go out and play golf every day,” said Karnes, who is 80 and still going strong.

Rhodes said these two guys have built a company where the employees can laugh and have fun everyday while still doing serious work. “They have built the loyalty of their work force that would be hard to beat anywhere else.” Who knew that PhD’s could be like that with eight currently on the job at Bridge, several with Masters degrees and all the others top-flight chemists and process operators? They even have their own plumber on staff because of the miles of tubing needed to conduct experiments.

The fun even continues on to the bridge table where Karnes is a Life Master and plays serious duplicate bridge. Hessler and he would spend their lunch hour at Upjohn playing bridge. They don’t get as much time for that anymore, but the name Bridge Organics was derived from the love of the game; Hessler’s wife suggested it might be an appropriate company name, as in “bridge the gap”.

They found the building in Vicksburg in a serendipitous way as well. David Buss, another one of the founders, was tipped off about an empty building in Vicksburg by someone in his Kalamazoo church congregation. They called on Don Flanders, village manager at the time who said he had just the place for their new company and offered the 10,000 square-foot building for lease at $40,000 a year. They had inquired about the Western Michigan Innovation Center space at $250,000 for the same square footage and after that it was a no brainer, Hessler said. They have since purchased the building, expanded two times, paid half million dollars in local taxes and paid $22 million in salaries.

Rhodes described the business of making compounds as Bridge does with an analogy. “It’s like a fine dining restaurant where you have the top chefs – at Bridge Organics it’s the owners and top chemists – and the sous chefs are the makers of the food that goes out to the customer. At Bridge, they’re the operators of the equipment and product producers.”

Rare Finds at Denny Olson’s Antique and Book Store

By Sue Moore

Denny Olson is a guy with an insatiable thirst for information that old books contain. He used to read four newspapers a day before 9/11, which he says changed him forever. “I like to know what’s going on. It’s important to be informed locally and nationally to have a say-so in your own community,” Olson said.

This need to treasure old books for their wisdom and knowledge has led him to open a business in Vicksburg on 108 West Highway street to sell part of his collection. That means downsizing from three storage units, a basement full of books in his home in Vicksburg to his big van full of treasures. He uses the van to transport his considerable library to antique shows throughout southwest Michigan.

The new store features a little bit of everything, Olson says. “I go to estate sales and grab whatever catches my fancy and have it for sale in my store now. You never know what you will find hidden away.” His specialties are vintage paperbacks and hard cover books, priced about 17 percent lower than Amazon or other online offerings.

“I enjoy researching the rare books. I want to know why the author wrote a certain book. This is the fun part by learning all the facts I can and become the keeper and dispenser of knowledge. Some people call me a hoarder but it’s not hoarding when it’s my stock. I love my books and am intrigued with the smidgen of dust on the top. It’s like cocaine. It’s addictive. I’ve just got to go find even more books,” he explains.

His wife, Karen Nay, also sells old books online, with Denny doing much of the research in his spare time. She specializes in history and religion books. “There’s a story behind every book and that’s what sells,” he believes. “Together we have enough books to fill the whole high school building in Vicksburg. What you see here in the store is only 10 percent of my collection.”

“It is interesting and fun going to estate sales where you can touch peoples’ lives,” he says. “Just recently I found a box of old photos and postcards belonging to a 92-year-old woman. They were her mom’s photos of the Haas family that is well known in this area. There was a picture of a man in a uniform with a sword by his side from the Spanish-American War. That picture by itself was probably worth $200, I told her.”

Olson and his five brothers and sisters graduated from Vicksburg High School, having moved here from Parchment when they were little. Owning a business runs in his family, he said. He met Karen in Battle Creek, where she had a small book business; she had asked him for help to further it along. They have since become vendors at antique fairs in Allegan, Centreville and in St. Joseph at its Antiques on the Bluff show. He has about 5,000 books at Treasure Hunters for sale in Three Rivers too. He opened the store in Vicksburg in November because he just got the bug to be a storekeeper, he said. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The business attracts shoppers from as far away as South Bend, Ft. Wayne, Grand Rapids and Doerr as well as Portage, Kalamazoo and Vicksburg. He can be reached at 269-267-6131 or