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Mission accomplished: Military obligations don't stop UW-EC student from graduating early

Like 669 other students, Tyler Bee will receive his undergraduate degree Saturday at UW-Eau Claire.

But the 22-year-old Eau Claire North graduate’s journey to his college’s winter commencement ceremony was anything but traditional.

Not only did Bee graduate in 3½ years, but only two of those years were at UW-Eau Claire. He spent his three semesters after high school attending and playing golf at Carroll University in Waukesha before transferring to his hometown university.

Bee also spent most of his college career serving his country in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, meaning he squeezed a summer of basic training and one weekend a month and at least two weeks a year of additional training into an already jam-packed college schedule.

To test his time management skills even further, he spent 1½ months of his final spring semester in Thailand, where he mobilized for joint training with the Royal Thai Air Force at the same time he was enrolled in 15 credits at UW-Eau Claire.

Bee held a variety of civilian part-time jobs all through college and, just for fun, even hosted radio talk shows about rock music and sports on Blugold Radio Sunday.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, Bee endured a personal struggle before finally coming out as gay to his family, friends and fellow service members.

So it’s no wonder that Bee, a business administration major and actuarial science minor, used the term “wild roller-coaster ride” before summing up his college experience with his usual positive attitude: “It was great.”

Family tradition

Bee didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for pursuing a military career.

His search started and ended in his own family.

“My great-grandfather served in World War II, my grandfather is a combat vet from Vietnam, my father and uncle both served in the Air Force, and my sister enlists next month in the Army,” Bee said, adding that his other great-grandpa, who died before Bee was born, also served in World War II.

The surviving family veterans maintain a family tradition of getting all four generations together around Memorial Day for photos in uniform. “I savor those chances,” Bee said.

Despite attending college and playing on a Carroll team that qualified for the NCAA Division III national golf championship tournament as a freshman, Bee said he somehow felt like he should be doing more with his life. He enlisted in the Air Force Reserve between his first two semesters and left for basic training two days after arriving home following his freshman year.

“I like the structure of the military and also the pride that goes with it,” said Bee, who serves in the 934th Airlift Wing, 96th Airlift Squadron at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station. “I guess it’s true that it runs in our blood, as they say.”

Bee likes the service enough that he volunteered for part-time Honor Guard duty during college and plans to perform that role at military funerals full time for a while after graduation.

He was introduced to the Honor Guard by serving alongside his grandpa, who carries out the duty to pay respects to his brothers in arms who were killed in Vietnam. “For me, it’s a chance to give back to those who served before me,” Bee said.

Looking ahead, he has applied to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where, if accepted, he would pursue another undergraduate degree and seek to become an officer. If Bee doesn’t get into the academy, he is scheduled to be deployed overseas next fall, likely somewhere in the Middle East.

Ultimately, he wants to be an officer and fly C-130 military transport airplanes.

“I love the reserves,” said Bee, who works in aviation management. “I do want to be a lifer and make it a career.”

Supportive faculty

Still, he acknowledged that finishing college in 3½ years and fulfilling all his military obligations was stressful at times, especially knowing there was always the possibility of having to drop everything and be deployed overseas on short notice. That almost happened twice during his college career, including two-thirds of the way through his fall 2017 semester when he scrambled to finish all kinds of school work early only to have an activation canceled at the last minute.

UW-Eau Claire’s policy is to leave accommodations for military students up to the discretion of professors, and Bee said teachers were extremely helpful when he was sent to Thailand after attending only the first day of spring semester classes this year.

Emily Elsner Twesme, his business communication instructor, said she is happy to work with students in the military.

“I recognize that it’s even more challenging for a student to have to leave their responsibilities and put themselves in harm’s way than it is for me to accommodate the absence,” Elsner Twesme said. “At the time Tyler was deployed, I was balancing teaching full time, being a full-time graduate student, along with my responsibilities at home of being a partner and a mom to two young kids. I completely understand the need for some special accommodations to make a pressing situation work with everything else going on in life.”

As the sister-in-law of a 20-year Air Force veteran who was deployed multiple times, Elsner Twesme said she can empathize with the many layers of complexity that military students face beyond the normal challenges of being a college student.

“I am grateful to the women and men who are actively protecting our country, and working with them to achieve their academic goals while they are serving is the least I can do,” said Elsner Twesme, who called Bee “an incredible human being” and added that she was impressed that he never lost his sense of humor or positive attitude even during the most stressful times of his college and military careers.

For his part, Bee’s official role during his mobilization involved authorizing flight plans and monitoring the credentials and flight hours of pilots, and he devoted a fair amount of his free time to completing all the reading and assignments he could for his UW-Eau Claire classes.

Opening up

On the way back from Thailand, Bee decided to open up to the world about his sexual orientation — something he had only revealed to a few close friends and family members in the months before the mobilization. In the midst of his Air Force comrades — and just seven years after it became official U.S. government policy to allow openly gay individuals to serve in the military — Bee revised a Facebook post about the revelation over and over on his cellphone before finally mustering the courage to post it, culminating a yearslong period of anxiety about how he would be accepted.

“I felt like it was me against the world,” said Bee, who now tries to reach out to others who might be going through the same ordeal. “You don’t want anybody else to have to go through anything like that if you can help.”

The good news for Bee personally is that his announcement was met with a wave of support that was both a relief and incredibly heartwarming.

Elsner Twesme recalled Bee telling her about doing schoolwork on a 14-hour leg of that same return trip from Thailand as the other troops filling the C-130 slept all around him.

“This story says so much about Tyler,” she said, “and I have no doubt that work ethic and tenacity is going to take Tyler places in the future.”

Secret Santa's $100 bills: A tradition that never gets old

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s not about the money. It never has been.

The crisp $100 bills, stamped in red ink with the words “Secret Santa,” that fly from his pocket in profusion are just the means to an end.

The “sleigh rides” that Secret Santa takes every year around Kansas City are about the smiles, the tears and the hugs. They are about feeling good and making somebody else feel good.

They are about the ripple effect that one small act of kindness toward a stranger can have on the community and the world.

On Tuesday, as he does each year, Secret Santa took a band of elves, ranging in age from 13 to 68, to spread their cheer. This time the group made its way to south Kansas City and Grandview, Mo.

Among them were Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte and County Executive Frank White, the Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer.

This is the 12th year the current Secret Santa has been spreading Christmas cheer since Larry Stewart, the original, asked him to be his successor. Or as Secret Santa says, “hornswoggled” him into it.

Stewart started the tradition because of a time in his life when he was down and hopeless but was touched by the kind act of a stranger.

Stewart decided he would do the same for others if he could. Financial fortune allowed him to do just that.

Stewart was dying of cancer when he asked the current Santa to carry on. “I wish I could have helped more people,” Stewart told him on his deathbed.

Like Stewart, the current Secret Santa works to maintain his anonymity.

“It’s not about the person,” he has said many times. “It’s about the deed.”

But while Secret Santa may have gone unrecognized as he made his rounds Tuesday, his helper Frank White did not. White was noticed at each stop.

“Hey, I remember the home run you hit in the World Series, 1985, the hardest home run you ever hit,” one man said to White, who quickly corrected him.

“It was the longest one I ever hit,” he said.

White, like all of Santa’s elves, was handed $100 bills and instructed to find someone to give them to.

“It’s a great feeling to be part of what for some people may be the best day of the year,” he said.

Besides the usual stops at secondhand and discount stores in depressed parts of town, Santa and his elves paid a visit to the men and women living in tiny homes for veterans at 89th Street and Troost Avenue.

“We love you and we are proud of you,” Santa told them.

One resident, Marine veteran Jason Fisk, was overcome with emotion. Not too long ago he was living in a patch of woods.

Now, he was proud to show Santa and others the inside of his cozy and comfortable home.

“I can’t believe somebody is doing this,” Fisk said. “A lot of us out there don’t think that anybody cares.”

When Santa enters a store he moves quickly, looking into the faces of shoppers until he finds his target. He has an uncanny ability to find people who really need the help.

But often, after they are handed a bill or two or three, they say they are thinking about someone else who needs it more than they do.

They are people like Jen Mills, a stay-at-home mother of five, who was given $100 for each of her children.

She bawled, then composed herself.

“We will pray about who needs this more than we do,” she said.

That’s the kind of ripple effect that makes Santa smile.

“It never gets old,” he said.

Tribune News Service

Memorial educators start fund to continue charitable effort

An effort started 10 years ago to provide Memorial High School students and their families experiencing tough times with much-needed assistance will continue, thanks to a donation by a current and a retired teacher at that school.

For the past decade the Memorial Giving Tree has helped the school’s students and families in many ways, from paying for funeral expenses to buying backpacks and clothing to purchasing bus passes for students without access to transportation.

Now current Memorial English teacher Claudia Niemuth and her husband, retired English teacher Greg Niemuth, have created an endowment, the Niemuth Family Giving Tree Fund, for that philanthropic effort to ensure it can continue to assist students and their families.

During their time as educators, the Niemuths said they have encountered many students struggling amid financial difficulties. As they pondered how to best help meet the needs of those students in upcoming years, they decided to ensure the future viability of the Giving Tree.

“A large part of our deciding to start this fund to support students (at Memorial) was a heartfelt need to help the strugglers and the forgotten,” Greg Niemuth said.

They couple will donate to an endowment overseen by the Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation, which will invest that money to ensure grants to students are available in future years. The Niemuths said they plan to grow the fund to more than $10,000, providing the district with at least $400 to $500 annually and more as the endowment grows.

Currently the Giving Tree is funded by public donations, and disbursements typically total $6,000 to $8,000 annually. Money raised via the endowment will add to that total and ensure the effort continues to receive funding.

Memorial counselor Jane Adler- Corning, who helped come up with the Giving Tree concept, will continue to oversee the effort at Memorial.

“It is so heartwarming to see our educators start their own fund with us to support a cause that helps students in need, especially during the holiday season,” said Sarah French, executive director of the foundation. “What a beautiful way to leave a legacy.”

Adler-Corning recalled how she and other Memorial staff members started the Giving Tree after learning of a growing number of students in need of financial assistance to meet daily or immediate needs.

“We saw the needs these kids had, but we didn’t have a financial way to help them,” Adler-Corning said.

Since the Giving Tree began, thousands of students have received assistance via the fund in the form of groceries, gas money, help paying utility bills and other needs. Memorial staff members who learn of student financial issues ask Adler-Corning about receiving Giving Tree funding.

“I think it would surprise people to know how many students and their families really struggle financially,” Adler-Corning said. “There are kids who face some real hardships. It feels really good to be able to help them.”

Giving Tree collections and disbursements occur most often during the holiday season, but assistance to students happens throughout the year. Memorial staff and others in the community fund the effort and have boosted donations as the need has grown in recent years, Adler-Corning said.

“The need for assistance from this program continues to grow,” she said.

Adler-Corning praised the Niemuths for ensuring future Giving Tree funding and all others who have donated to the project. She recently used money from that endeavor to purchase $50 gift cards for 107 students in need so they can buy Christmas presents for loved ones this year.

“It is extremely rewarding to be a part of this,” she said. “It is a special thing we have here. We are able to touch a lot of lives through this.”

Claudia Niemuth said she is heartened to know the endowment will make sure students in need receive future assistance.

“We’re not always going to be here, but this is a way to make sure that this program is,” she said.