Retired stone-engraver Billy Krause’s past reads like the wayfaring musician he is. He bought his first guitar the summer of 1962 — heading into seventh grade — with $15 in lawn mowing earnings. At 16, one Friday night a month for a year he performed with Regis High School friends in their group “8 Penny Opera” at Fournier’s Ballroom, pinnacle of venues long before there was an “Eau Claire music scene.” Louis Armstrong, Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Buddy Holly, Bobby Darin and other legends ghosted that same stage on nights Billy played. Weekends he watched bands at downtown taverns from the front window of the Wagon Wheel on Wisconsin Street or through the backdoor of the Diamond Lounge (now The Fire House). After high school Billy hitchhiked the East Coast with only a guitar and a duffle. He played for tips on the street, partied with other hippies, and sometimes slept in Goodwill collection bins filled with soft clothes.
Billy returned home in 1971, the same year Fournier’s closed, and landed a job at Johnson Monument. He studied under owners Don and Keith Johnson. He still calls Don “an incredible graniteer who knew the old school techniques.” Billy learned the trade — manual work with the finesse of an artist — and spent the next four decades working stone with a sand blaster and chisel. He retired in 2016 from Lifetime Memorials, a subsidiary of Johnson, though Billy says, “Death was my employer.”
Seven years ago my nephew, Mitch See, answered an ad in the Leader-Telegram and went to work for Billy. For each man, a life unfolded as a “final date engraver” who cuts into stone the deceased’s last day on earth, handiwork that may be seen in these same area cemeteries hundreds of years from now. Billy recalls one of the strangest epitaphs he carved: “I told you I was sick.”
A recent PBS documentary, “Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death,” explores how death is the central mystery: some believe a portal to the afterlife, others a final stop for this life. As a young man, Billy considered cutting names and dates just a job. He says, “I cut the first stone of a person I knew, and that changed everything. And the first time I cut an infant marker after I had children of my own, I never saw a marker for a young person the same again.”
He met his wife in 1976 at Adler’s, the bar he managed. He remembers Margie was wearing a brown corduroy jumpsuit. Just after spotting her, Billy told his buddy he was going to marry that woman, no matter Billy and Margie were both seeing other people. Their first date, he stood her up; she didn’t care since she had a back-up man that night. Now he calls her “Spark,” short for sparkplug; he is her “Billy Boy.” They’ve been together 43 years.
A year ago at our place, Billy pointed across the lake at a house. I told him, “Helen Sabaska lives there.”
“Related to Clark Hughes?” he asked.
“His daughter. How did you know Clark?”
“I cut his wife’s date,” he said. “We got to be friends.” This could only happen with Billy. Frequenting bars and cemeteries most of his life, he knows everyone. I told him Helen’s husband just died. Like many people, Helen and Jerry invested in their stones long before they needed them; names and birthdays there just waiting for the final dates. The first time Helen visited their graves, Jerry’s death date was carved onto her headstone.
“Someone wasn’t looking at his paperwork,” Billy chuckled.
Billy’s first year of retirement he recorded his fourth solo album, what he deemed his final one, appropriately named “Last Call.” His songs are like his stories: easy to listen to and woven into everyday life. One interviewer called him the Woody Guthrie of western Wisconsin. In “Ballad of Farewell” he croons, “When I’m gone I’ll be resting in a cool dry place.” He sings a Holly Williams tune: “Why you drinkin’ like the night is young?” a line he might have overheard from a corner table at the Diamond Lounge.
This summer, my husband and I gather with a small crowd on the patio of Lake Hallie Golf to enjoy Billy’s trio, The Porter Brothers, play music on a late Sunday afternoon. Between songs he asks, “What do you get when you cross lefse and LSD?” Billy deadpans, “A trip to Eleva.”
The crowd laughs. Before the set is over Margie starts to feel off, including tingles down one arm. A nurse friend in the audience does a quick assessment. Margie is having stroke. Billy cuts it short to rush his Spark to the hospital in seven minutes, half the usual drive time.
Two weeks later they come over for a pontoon ride on Lake Hallie with Bruce and me. Mitch and his wife join us, the first time the six of us have been together since Mitch and Abby’s 2017 wedding when Billy played at their reception.
I ask Margie how she’s doing. “Oh, I’m fine,” she says over a glass of wine. “I just gotta take a baby aspirin.”
Billy is managing his blood cancer, but Margie’s sudden stroke rattled them both. In his song “Ghost” he laments: “Wait up by the bend I’ll be coming right behind you.”
Billy tells me, “No matter who goes first, we’re gonna have one hell of a party.” Ironically the master headstone carver and his wife do not plan to have their own markers. “We’re not cemetery visitors,” Margie says.
I pontoon us three couples down Lake Hallie to see Clark Hughes’ old farmstead, still in the Sabaska family, playing tour guide on this lake I adore. Mitch, Billy, and Bruce sit in front; Abby, Margie, and I gather in back, segregated by gender like most family parties I throw. I can’t hear the men, but I watch Mitch rub the back of his hand across his beard, the way he does when he’s thinking.
Like Billy, Mitch respects the work he does and his old mentor. I gave Mitch a pocket notebook to write what he sees on the job and record the sort of stories Billy used to relay: being all by yourself in a cemetery cutting the final date of a person’s life in stone, how humbling it is to be what Billy calls “the last audience to that last act of that life.”
Months after Billy retired, Bruce and I took Mitch and Abby to dinner following a Volume One event. Old friends joined us at the table. “How do you all know each other?” someone asked.
“I changed this one’s diapers,” I said. I pointed at 30-something Mitch. “Now he’s the new Billy Krause.”
“No,” Mitch protested. “I can’t sing. I just cut dates.”