Editor’s note: This is a compilation of information from a memoir written by Don Laabs and an article written by Terry and Kay Appenfeldt (Don Laabs: An American Patriot and Community Leader), with special thanks to Bryan Gentz at BMO Harris Bank.
Don’s Complete Memoir can be read here:
It all began when Don met Jan at the Cinderella Ballroom in Appleton in 1957. The relationship developed slowly, but it all came together on June 6, 1959. Married now for over 55 years, they have a wonderful family with two children and a grandson: Daniel and his spouse Kathy; Dawn and her husband Joe and their son Joshua. Don says that Jan has rarely complained about anything, and if they had disagreements, they tried to resolve the concerns quickly.
Many people have done much for their communities, and this couple is more than an exception – their contributions to the community of Beaver Dam are exceptional. The list of their involvement is long and varied. From being active members of First Lutheran Church since 1963 to taking folks with special needs on pontoon boat rides on Beaver Dam Lake, theirs is truly a legacy of love, family, and community service.
They arrived in Beaver Dam with their mobile home in 1963; Don was hired by the Beaver Dam Unified School District to teach Social Studies to 8th graders. He was a teacher for 30 years and loved almost every minute! Nearly every teacher worked additional jobs in summer and had other part-time work. Don sold mobile homes and travel trailers for a couple years part-time. Then he worked for two years on road construction. He received his real estate brokers license and sold real estate from 1969 to 1991.
Don and Jan joined the Jaycees and Jaycettes in 1964 and were very involved until 1973 when their ages deemed them too old for these organizations. They served on the committee hoping to build an indoor ice arena for the community in the 1970s, and with nine other couples, they signed bank documents that guaranteed that the Family Center would be built and used by numerous high school hockey teams and thousands of figure skaters. In the late 1970s they also served for three years on the first board of directors to determine how to help victims of abuse, eventually establishing PAVE (People Against a Violent Environment). Through his part-time profession in real estate, Don was fortunate to help find and secure the property that provides a safe haven for those seeking shelter from abuse that opened in 1990.
With the help of several members of the community in 1968, the Dodge County Sheltered Workshop started to provide work for those with special needs. The Laabs helped to build this organization that is now known as Green Valley Enterprises, an agency that has helped thousands of children and adults with special needs over the past 46 years. Don gained his first real interest in helping folks with special needs when he took on the challenge of transporting 12 to 14 children every day from their homes in Appleton to the Oshkosh Deaf School. Don was contacted by the state in 1961, because he was driving daily from Appleton to Oshkosh to attend college. The children were nine to sixteen years old and could not speak. Can you imagine loading more than a dozen kids in a ‘56 Chevy two-door hardtop? Don would put one older child with three or four younger kids in the front seat. No thoughts of seat belts then! Another eight or nine kids piled in the backseat and off to Oshkosh! It was fun and a real learning experience for Don!
It is no surprise that Don helped charter the Exchange Club of Beaver Dam in 1976. Exchange Clubs form the largest strictly American service organization to promote Americanism, Patriotism, and everything American, including flying the flag. Jim Mack and Don are the only remaining charter members, but the club is strong, doing a lot of good for Beaver Dam, youth projects, and child abuse prevention. With the help of the Exchange Club, Don created The American Hero Festival in 2009 to honor all our American heroes (firefighters, police, EMS, active military, veterans, Gold Star families and POW/MIAs). Terry and Kay Appenfeldt shared that Don served as the Promotions Chair securing all the talent for the event in 2014 and served as the co-Chair of the parade for three years. They wrote, “It has been our honor to work with Don on the American Hero parade and with the Exchange Club. We admire his ability to interest people in any event in which he participates, displaying his appreciation for the help by shaking your hand and always saying thank you…he is quite a role model – ‘a person who truly cares and enjoys meeting and helping others.’”
The placement of an “Historic Wall” at the Beaver Dam Middle School, the Beaver Dam High School, and at the Horicon High School was instituted by Don. Thirty American documents are displayed, such as the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, to help students and teachers with history lessons.
Don also served on the committee that formed AMVETS (American Veterans) Post 33 in Beaver Dam in 2006, and as a proud and active member, he has served as Chaplain and Historian of the group from its inception. Don has a passion for the military. The garden at his home is artfully crafted and contains multiple memorials to military service. Recently, he donated a “Statue of the Fallen Hero” to the Beaver Dam Senior Center. Don and Jan also donated a memorial wall for the military in the Watermark facility. He served in the Army and the Army Reserves. He spent over 16 months in Korea, the highlight of which was his appointment by the United Nations to be an observer to sit in on the Pan Mun Jong peace talks in the spring of 1958. He shook hands with Chinese and North Korean communists and several South Korean, United Nations and American delegates. He recalls it as an exciting full day on the 38-degree parallel line in the Demilitarized Zone.
Flowers are one of Don’s greatest joys. So when the Beaver Dam Area Arts Association asked him to be on the Secret Garden Tour committee to help select about ten gardens to be viewed each summer, he agreed. Jan and Don have had their secret gardens in the tour two years, and Don has been on the tour committee for seven years. He greatly enjoyed searching many homes for the right secret gardens for public viewing.
Don’s children and others have urged him to write down the community service efforts he and Jan were involved with, and in humility, he has documented the facts of their 50 plus years in Beaver Dam that are shared in part here. Don also shared Jan’s concern that his report is bragging; however, with their reputation of service to our community, they deserve to have bragging rights. Thank you Don and Jan for your service.
The following is quoted directly from Don Laabs’ memoir Jan and Don’s Legacy of Love, Family, and Community Service in Beaver Dam from 1963 through 2014:
When we purchased the marina in 1991, we joined the Beaver Dam Lake Property Owners. It was kind of a private club with a small membership. In 1995-96, we talked to numerous folks and soon we had a large group meeting at our marina, and we formed the Beaver Dam Lake Improvement Association (BDLIA). This group is open to all citizens, regardless of where they live! … Beaver Dam did not have a community festival for years. After meeting with several persons, we selected Diane Rosenmeier to be the first chairperson of Beaver Dam Lake Days. Now a four-day festival, Lake Days has been running successfully at Tahoe Park on Beaver Dam Lake since 1994. Dozens of fine people have been on our committee leading the way with numerous activities celebrating our lake in a family-friendly festival. I am very proud to have helped begin Lake Days and it is also one of my proudest moments to be part of a great festival! … Another outstanding accomplishment of our family marina business was helping to start the Beaverland Must-Skis Water Ski Show Team. Our mechanics and our family named the team and got it started the first year with our marina and several skier friends and their private boats. Now the Must-Skis are an outstanding state and national team! Many dozens of youth and families have contributed to their wonderful success… As we conclude this report, we want everyone to know there are hundreds of citizens who have worked as hard as we did. We loved nearly every minute of it… Efforts by volunteers everywhere are much appreciated when we can help out Beaver Dam, Dodge County and beyond! Stand up, take a bow and receive our applause!! Thank you to everyone… We greatly appreciate all the support. Don & Jan