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Dreaming of flight: Veterans, seniors take to the sky for plane ride nonprofit

When 90-year-old Vonnie Bearson of Eau Claire looked over the edge of the biplane she was in Friday afternoon, she could see the blue waters of Lake Wissota.

“We were so close,” Bearson said, grinning ear-to-ear after the 1943 Boeing-Stearman open-cockpit biplane landed back at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport. “It was just beautiful.”

Bearson was one of eight Chippewa Valley veterans and seniors who took a 20-minute spin through the clouds on the plane, which is newly dubbed “The Spirit of Wisconsin.”

A Nevada-based nonprofit, Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, is taking the new plane on a dedication tour through Wisconsin this summer, said pilot and founder Darryl Fisher of Carson City, Nev.

“We barnstorm the country in four airplanes,” Fisher said. “It’s universal joy. Think about being 90, 95. You’re not thinking about flying in an open-cockpit biplane. It puts a spring in your step.”

The volunteer-run foundation made a stop Friday in Eau Claire, giving rides to several local military veterans and seniors.

Ageless Aviation partnered with the airport and HeatherWood Assisted Living and Memory Care to bring veterans and their families to the airport for an afternoon.

“Our residents have accomplished so much, but they’ve never done this,” said HeatherWood administrator Gina Hudecek. “We’re honored to be chosen (as) part of this eight-city tour.”

HeatherWood gathered about 20 seniors and family members at the airport, watching and cheering as the seniors took flight.

Friday was the first open-cockpit plane ride for Bearson, who lives at HeatherWood. The flight brought back memories of Bearson’s husbands, one of whom spent a lot of time flying, she said: One served in World War II, the other in the Korean War.

“I can’t even say how special (it was),” Bearson said. “I didn’t expect all this.”

After its stop in Eau Claire, Ageless Aviation will fly the plane to La Crosse, Madison and Waukesha, ending at the EAA AirVenture celebration in Oshkosh in late July.

The foundation will then take The Spirit of Wisconsin throughout the Midwest, giving rides to veterans and seniors alike. But Fisher knew an eight-city run in Wisconsin would be the plane’s first dedication tour.

During World War II, The Spirit of Wisconsin was stationed at the Minneapolis Saint Paul Joint Air Reserve Station, then in Corpus Christi, Texas to train military pilots, Fisher said.

Fisher and other volunteers restored the plane — a $125,000 effort — last year near Carson City, he said. The plane took a veteran on its first “dream flight” on June 19 in Stevens Point, and continued to Waupaca, Green Bay and then Eau Claire.

Several Wisconsin companies donated at least $5,000 or more to the project, and volunteers in Stevens Point and Waupaca were instrumental — so Fisher decided Wisconsin would be its first tour. “They helped us put it over the top,” he said.

The Spirit of Wisconsin will be the fourth plane for the foundation, which has given 3,600 dream flights to seniors in the last nine years.

Local volunteers are also pitching in.

Wisconsin ground crews have helped Fisher at each stop on the state tour, said Guy Stewart of Stevens Point, a ground crew volunteer who assisted with the Eau Claire rides.

“We’re giving back to those who have given, that’s the motto,” Stewart said.


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Stop and smell the succulents

I have come to Caryville’s Fryszki’s Country Gardens to fulfill a simple mission: find a plant durable enough, and resilient enough — and perhaps foolhardy enough — to put down roots with me.

“Is there anything here I won’t kill?” I ask Fryszki’s owner, Faye Ryszkiewicz, during a Sunday afternoon stroll through her greenhouse.

“I’m thinking you’re a succulent kind of guy,” Faye says with a smile. “Those are all back here.”

Dressed in jeans and her light blue Fryszki’s fleece, Faye leads me toward a potted grove near the back of the main greenhouse. There, I find myself face-to-face with an array of succulent varieties, all of whose waxy exteriors give the appearance of thick, girded armor.

“The biggest killer of succulents is kindness,” Faye explains. “They don’t have high watering requirements and they like bright light. Basically, they love to be ignored.”

Finally, I think, a plant that gets me.

Given my own trouble tending to even a single plant, I can’t imagine what it takes for Faye to tend to thousands. The key, she explains, is to know the needs of each specific plant species.

Once the greenhouse grower learns each plant’s preferences, the grower still needs to create the conditions for those preferences within the greenhouse. As such, on a cold January morning, Faye might rise as early as 3 a.m. to stoke the wood stove to heat her greenhouse. Likewise, in sweltering July, she might add a rotation of watering to the chore list. But Faye’s found that the best way to keep her plants healthy amid their occasionally contradictory needs is to divide her greenhouses into individual climates. Provide sun to the sun-loving plants, and shade to those who love shade. This way everyone’s happy, explains Faye, including herself.

“If you would have told me 15 years ago that I’d be doing this, I’d have said, ‘You’re kidding,’” Faye says. Her previous work involved various positions within the computer field, though she was never truly satisfied in any of them. During the spring of 2003, Faye found herself more drawn to her weekend work as a cashier for a nearby greenhouse, which soon became a full-time job. Noticing her growing interest, the greenhouse owner suggested she start her own.

“I made all the excuses why I couldn’t do it,” Faye says. “I had no money, I didn’t know enough, I had nowhere to put it. I had every excuse under the sun why not to do it. Until I came home and told my husband, Ken, and he looked and me and said, ‘Well what makes you think that?’”

A little over a year later, Faye used her car as collateral, purchased a used greenhouse, and never looked back.

It’s the kind of courage we can’t help but admire: one’s willingness to take a chance, make a change, and put oneself at the mercy of uncertainty. (Probably, too, it’s a courage quite similar to what plants must display every time they encounter me.)

Thankfully, sometimes the world rewards such endeavors.

“There is no job that is confined to any cubicle that equals this,” she says as her eyes scan this season’s crop. “It’s a totally different thing.”

These days, she pushes more soil than paperwork. And a web address is where the spider lives.

Gone is the computer support work from her past. Now, Faye tends to business and people by other means.

“Once in a while you’ll get a customer who comes in, and you can just tell they’re having a bad day,” Faye says. “But after a while you’ll notice they don’t look as upset anymore. They’ll get a little light in their eyes when they’re looking at a flower, and it just changes them.”

Faye credits this transformation to what she calls “plant therapy.”

“There’s something about handling the soil,” she says, “and of planting something alive.”

Yet for those of us whose ineptitudes have prevented such joys, it’s hard to know what we’re missing.

Which brings us back to the succulents — flora’s answer to my black thumb.

“Which one do you think I should choose?” I ask.

“Well, it’s more of a preference on your part,” Faye explains. “Pick the one that speaks to you.”

Earlier that afternoon, I mightn’t have considered that a plant might “speak” at all, let alone to me. But now, thanks to Faye, I view succulents differently: as living, growing proof of a part of the world I’ve never been privy to.

Placing my fingers to the leaves, I note the plants’ unique textures. Lowering my nose, I note their multitude of scents. At last I realize that a plant is not merely a plant, but a palm, or a fern, or an ivy. They have individual names and individual needs, though for the past 35 years, I’ve barely noticed. As I wander the greenhouse—ballooning my lungs with that springtime freshness—I promise myself to do better. To recognize their aliveness in all its glory, and to do my part to keep their aliveness intact.

I leave Fryszki’s that day with the two sturdiest succulents I can find. Though the last thing I want to do is ignore them, for their own safety, I oblige.

In the coming days, I’ll anxiously await their blossom. Already, they’ve had the chance to watch me grow.

Next Saturday: Patti See monitors an egg-laying snapping turtle in her yard.


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EC native winning money on the Pokemon tournament circuit

When Evan Pavelski got his first Pokemon starter set two years ago, he thought they were cool collecting cards, but he didn’t know how to play the game.

His mom, Dawn Pavelski, brought Evan and his younger brother, Spencer, to Eau Claire Games and Arcade in downtown, where employees there showed them how to play and compete against others.

Evan, 10, picked up the game at a stunningly quick rate.

“They taught him how to play,” Dawn Pavelski said. “They said he’s smart and understands how to strategize, and play three or four hands ahead.”

Evan was soon defeating all the area competition.

“After a few weeks, a few guys (at the store) pulled me aside and said he is really good at this, and they wanted to sponsor him,” Dawn Pavelski said.

Now, just two years after he began, Evan has become an elite player, and is now winning prize money at tournaments. Evan competed at the 2019 Pokemon North America International Championships June 21-23 in Columbus, Ohio, where he finished in second place in the junior division.

With his high finish, he won $2,500 in cash, along with a $2,500 travel stipend to travel to the world championship this August in Washington, D.C. He also won a free trip for two (including himself) to attend a tournament in Brazil this fall.

Last summer, Evan won a regional tournament in Memphis. He also has competed in tournaments in Madison, Collinsville, Ill., (near St. Louis) and Denver, Colo.

Dawn said they don’t hesitate to hit the road as a family and head to these tournaments.

“We just knew he was really good, and really passionate about it,” Dawn said. “We were encouraged by other Pokemon parents (to go to tournaments). We saw the joy he had from playing, so as a parent, we would go along with his dreams.”

Evan said he enjoys the competition and the sportsmanship of facing other players. However, he admits the opponents at regional tournaments made for daunting competition.

“I was pretty nervous at first,” Evan said. “But you feel you can beat them the more you play them. It’s really nerve-wracking when you are on a stage.”

Evan downplays what makes him excel at the card game. He doesn’t use a coach, but he routinely is playing games online or live against others through Skype.

“Math is my strong suit; it is my favorite subject,” Evan said. “But I go to so many tournaments, and play so many games, I’ve gotten good at playing.”

Dawn said Evan has the right skills to be good at the game.

“He is very intellectual, he is very logical,” she said. “He has the patience of a saint. He does research online.”

The world championship is next, where Evan will compete against players from 35 different countries, according to Pokemon Company International. It is an invite-only tournament where players had to qualify based on earning points at other events. About 950,000 Pokemon players participate in local leagues and tournaments worldwide each year, the company reported.

Evan’s grandmother, Jackie Pavelski of Eau Claire, said Evan’s math skills are definitely a reason he does so well.

“He also likes puzzles,” Jackie Pavelski said. “It is such a strategic game, and you really have got to know those cards well, and what they do. The concentration is so heavy. I just watch it and am amazed by it all.”

While the Pavelskis lived in Eau Claire when Evan started playing, the family has since moved to River Falls, as both Dawn and her husband, Mike, have jobs in the Twin Cities. Evan will enter fifth grade at the River Falls Public Montessori Academy this fall.