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Moments in Time: Kenny Gratz
Kenny Gratz. To order this photo, click here. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - As soon as Kenny Gratz found out that getting what you need is sometimes as simple as asking for it, he became well known as the guy who wasn't afraid to do just that. He has spent almost three decades leading and helping the Monroe Booster Club raise money for Monroe athletics as the group's long-time president. And he helped raise enough money for several school projects and updates that were previously out of reach.

Gratz was born in Shullsburg but grew up in Darlington on his parents' dairy farm. The family was expected to help out: The 40 to 50 cows had to be milked and the barn cleaned before the children started their day. They had about 250 acres and a couple hundred hogs as well. He was one of six children who went to a country school in a single room for eight years before attending high school in Darlington.

He was a good student and enjoyed school. He also loved being involved in sports.

"Sports have been big in my life, all my life," he said with a laugh. "Back in high school if you were playing sports you didn't have to go home and work."

He graduated from Darlington High School in 1963 and attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with hopes of becoming a teacher. However, those plans changed after about 18 months when he enlisted in the Army.

"I knew it was coming. I volunteered - I knew I was going to get drafted," he said.

He recalls the day he enlisted: He was standing in a room with 30 others, and they were told that one third of them would be selected to go to the Marines instead of the Army.

"That scared the crap out of everybody," he said. "We knew the Marines got killed."

But luck was on his side that day, and Gratz wasn't chosen. Instead he headed to Fort Leonard Wood before going to Fort Hood, Texas. He was part of the first class of trainees there since the war had just begun and the Army was expanding its facilities. He would then spend 30 days at home before getting his orders to Vietnam.

Although he didn't know anyone in the service when he enlisted, he said he made friends quickly.

"You have to in the Army," he said.

The group spent two days in Saigon and then went on to Cam Ranh Bay. He was part of the 520th Transportation Company and worked seven days a week, 12 hours each day, loading and unloading supplies. He was there for 13 months.

He would often write to his mother back at home, and as soon as he was able, Gratz left the Army and took an early out after 21 months. He still keeps in touch with friends from his time serving, most of them from the East Coast, and once every few years the group tries to get together, but it's gotten harder over the years.

When Gratz came back from the Army, he decided to help out his father on the farm. That lasted a year before Gratz decided to go back to a previous employer, Kelly Springfield Tire Company in Freeport, working second shift and carpooling with a group from Darlington.

In 1970, Gratz and his wife, Patricia, moved to Monroe where he would be closer to work and his three children could attend a bigger school. He retired from the tire company after working more than 30 years.

Booster Club

When his oldest son was in football, Gratz said, Monroe had a small booster club that wasn't really active. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, both of his sons were playing football, and the team was doing well. It was a coach from his son's team who reached out to Gratz, asking him if he would step up and help promote Monroe sports.

Gratz agreed, starting with about five people who met at someone's home. Soon, the group doubled in size, and ideas flowed in.

"We tried to do projects that would help coaches and school facilities that taxpayers didn't want to pay for," he said. "We made it into a huge fundraiser."

The group started by raising about $5,000 a year, but the teams' needs were growing. Once it expanded, the group brought in about $20,000 a year. Its biggest project was putting out a booklet with schedules and maps to the schools and selling ads.

The group also began taking over the concession stands at games, events at the basketball games, and it became the Monroe Booster Club - in support of all sports. After a few years, Gratz took over as president and served in that capacity for a decade.

"I had a great treasurer at the time," he said.

One of the club's biggest accomplishments was building the press box and providing seating on the visitors' side for football games. With lots of volunteer help, that project was about $175,000. The club also put lights at the football field and track field, which cost around $10,000 with volunteer help.

"So many businesses volunteered their time," he said.

Other major projects included building a ticket booth at the Monroe football field and a storage area for the tennis team. The Boosters remodeled the concession stand and bought hurdles for the track team. They helped put in the watering system at the high school for the baseball field and also built the baseball field concession stand.

Much of the money, Gratz said, was simply used for supplies. There were several people and businesses volunteering their time and expertise for the projects. He said his brother was in the concrete business and he brought him in several times to help out.

"It used to be a standing joke when people would see me coming, they knew I would be asking for something," Gratz said. "But if you don't ask, you don't know. I learned that really fast."

Last year, Gratz retired from the Booster Club after 25 years, deciding it was getting to be too much for him, and his wife wanted him around more. He's happy that there are new ideas filtering in and he walked away from such a strong program.

But he hasn't retired from everything.

Back in 2001, when he retired from Kelly Springfield at age 55, Gratz was looking to stay busy. Monroe had hired a new varsity boys basketball coach, and the team initially wasn't doing well. In 2002, Gratz offered to help out and has now been assisting for the past 14 years.

Coaching has seemingly been a calling for Gratz - it's something he has always loved to do.

"I love it. You're around kids, trying to teach them, give them some life experiences you've learned so they don't make the same mistakes you did," he said. He is proud that the team won the state title in 2007 and it's been to the Final Four in Madison four times, winning once and finishing second once.

He's extremely proud that the team has also netted five straight conference championships as well. Monroe is small in its conference and faces tough competition, he said.

During basketball season, you can find Gratz watching film for several hours during the week; he enjoys breaking down how other teams play and seeing how to win games.

"I really enjoy it - we've seen great success. It runs in cycles," he said. "Players make coaches - coaches don't make players."

He coached his son Kenny from Little League to Legion Ball and also coached at the high school with the baseball team in the early 1990s for a few years.

He feels lucky to have coached his sons who have also been a part of state championships along with him - and all of their pictures are on display for the honors, making him very proud.

"Sports keep you out of trouble," he said. "You're part of a team and not doing stuff you shouldn't be doing."

Today, Gratz enjoys spending time with his wife, his three children and five grandchildren, and he's looking forward to watching his grandchildren play high school sports. He and his wife also enjoy traveling and used to love to go to Badger games.

At nearly 71, Gratz said one of the biggest influences in his life has been Monsignor Thomas Campion, a dear friend of his. Campion was also a big sports fan for Monroe, and it was his team meeting speeches that have stuck with Gratz throughout his life. It was a time when winning was very important, and Gratz loved one of Campion's favorite Vince Lombardi quotes: "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."

"He was really one of my better inspirations in life," he said of Campion. "It was a big loss for the city of Monroe when he passed away."

Gratz is a Knights of Columbus lifetime member and sets up for the Christmas parties for the Apostolate to the Handicapped, which Campion began. He offers a scholarship to a high school student who volunteers time. Gratz is also an active member of the VFW and the American Legion and belongs to St. Victor church.