On December 1st, hundreds of Moose members from Wisconsin traveled down to the Mooseheart campus to help kick off the Christmas holiday season with the Wisconsin Tree Lighting program, the longest running annual program at Mooseheart. This is a very special event that the Wisconsin Moose Association has sponsored for the past 55 years, and something that we should all be proud of for the happiness that it brings to the children. For those of us that made the trip, it was a truly wonderful time. For those of you that are not able to make the trip, we hope to see you there next year.

It doesn’t seem possible but this year’s event was my 50th Tree Lighting, going all the way back to 1969 when I was a toddler at Mooseheart. The date of this year’s Tree Lighting also marked the 50th anniversary of the tragic event that led to my family coming to Mooseheart. Although many long-time members of the Wisconsin Moose Association have heard my story before, I thought this would be a good occasion to share it with newer members. Although this is my story, it was written by the wonderful members of the Moose.

My family lived near Rice Lake, Wisconsin and I was the youngest of Kenneth and Annabelle Penzkover’s ten children. I was two years old on December 1, 1968, the night that my parents did not come home. Being so young at the time, to this day I have no memory of my parents or of the car accident that claimed their lives that cold Wisconsin night. Perhaps, I’m lucky in that regard because I know that this tragic loss has significantly affected my nine older brothers and sisters over the past 50 years.

After graduating from college almost 30 years ago, I returned to the Rice Lake area to try to find out more about my parents. The police report for the car accident that claimed my parents’ lives indicated that my father died almost instantly, but that my mother wasn’t so lucky. I am saddened to think of the physical pain she had to endure laying in that field on a cold December night before the Lord took her away. However, I think what was more painful for her was her probable last worried thoughts about who was going to care for her children.

My 1990 research also included a review of other local newspaper articles, as well as correspondence between Mooseheart and the Rice Lake Moose Lodge. After the death of my parents, the eight minor children stayed with relatives in the Rice Lake area as a temporary solution. In the late 1960’s, admission to Mooseheart was restricted to the children of Moose members only. Unfortunately, my father was not a member of the Loyal Order of Moose and my family’s admission to Mooseheart was initially rejected. However, due to the persistence of the officers of the Rice Lake Moose Lodge 402 and the kindness and understanding of the Mooseheart administration, on July 27, 1969 (the 56th anniversary of the founding of Mooseheart) my family became one of the first families admitted to Mooseheart without a direct Moose affiliation.

As with thousands of children before me, coming to Mooseheart saved me and my family, but it did not immediately heal all of our wounds. The look on my three-year-old face in the first picture taken of my family after arriving at Mooseheart conveys my utter confusion. Some of my earliest memories were of anger and sadness. Angry that my parents were taken from me and sad that I would never know a father’s pride or a mother’s love.

Over time, with the help of my family, the Mooseheart staff, my fellow students and loving Moose members, I came to realize just how lucky my family was to get a second chance at life. I remember so well the periodic visits from Moose members from all over the country. The feelings of love and caring, knowing that I was important to someone, that I was safe. Thanks in large part to the love and caring from the wonderful men and women of the Moose, I was able to get through the tragedy of losing my parents, my anger and self-pity disappeared almost completely, and the sadness was diminished significantly. I eventually realized how truly blessed I was to be able to grow up in a wonderful home like Mooseheart.

The fifteen years I lived at Mooseheart were filled with both happy and sad moments, and there were many trials and tribulations mixed in with occasional successes and accomplishments. However, I was able to get an excellent education and participate in many extracurricular activities, and I eventually grew into a mature and confident young man, a leader on campus, and became a mentor to my younger Mooseheart brothers and sisters. I think one of the greatest gifts that Mooseheart bestowed on me was becoming part of a much larger family.

One of the traditions that meant the most to me while growing up at Mooseheart was the annual Wisconsin Tree Lighting program. Perhaps that is why I have attended the event every year over the past half century. It warms my heart that this tradition has provided such happiness to so many Mooseheart children throughout the years, and will continue to in the years to come.

My last day as a Mooseheart student was my graduation. It was a very emotional day – I was leaving the only home I ever knew. I thought of my parents, I thought of my Mooseheart family that I would be leaving, and I thought of how far I had come thanks entirely to devotion and dedication the men and women of the Moose to those in need.
As is the case today, the generosity of the Moose did not end with my high school graduation. I am also heavily indebted to the Moose for the scholarship which allowed me to attend Purdue University, earn my college degree, and set the foundation for my professional career that enables me to support my family.
My first year or two of college was a struggle as I tried to adjust going from the sheltered environment of Mooseheart with 400 kids to a Big Ten campus of 35,000 students. I somehow found the strength to persevere and earn my engineering degree, but I know that I would not have made it without the wonderful members of Lafayette Moose Lodge 1529, who welcomed me into their lodge and became a support network and part of my family. Even before turning 21, I was volunteering at the Lodge as needed – cleaning, cooking, bussing tables, and helping out with Bingo. I officially joined the Moose on my 21st birthday and have been an active member since.

I’m not going to detail my life after college except to say that I took full advantage of the second chance at life provided by the Moose. I was lucky enough to have married a wonderful woman, and together we have raised four wonderful children. I’ve spent my 29-year professional career as a civil/environmental engineer here in Wisconsin. For the past ten years, I have owned an engineering company that my partners and I built from the ground up through hard work, dedication, and integrity – values taught to me at Mooseheart. I am also heavily involved in my community, serving the past ten years in various capacities, such as Village Trustee, Plan Commission, and Library Board. I have taken to heart the words inscribed on the gates of Mooseheart: Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.

My Moose membership has also proven to be a blessing for me, and for the past 31 years has allowed me the opportunity to give back a tiny fraction of what was given to me. There have been so many wonderful moments during my years as a Moose member, including serving on the Mooseheart Board of Directors for nine years, serving as Chairman of the Mooseheart Centennial Committee, serving as the Wisconsin Tree Lighting Chairman for 15 years, and currently serving on the Supreme Council. I have also had the privilege to travel throughout our fraternity and meet so many wonderful Moose members all across the country. However, the best part of being a Moose member is sharing fellowship with all of you from the Wisconsin Moose Association. I honestly don’t know what I did to deserve such happiness in life.

Although my story is still being written, I think it’s important to look back to appreciate all that has been given to me by the wonderful men and women of the Moose. I referenced earlier my mother’s likely last worried thoughts about who would care for her children. I want to thank all Moose members for not only taking care of me and my family in our hour of need, but also for allowing my mother to rest in peace. You were there to take care of me and my family, and I shall always be grateful.
I also referenced my initial sadness at being deprived of a mother’s love or a father’s pride. Well, I may not have known my own mother and father, but the men and women of the Moose gave me a most precious gift – that of experiencing a father’s pride and mother’s love, many times over. Words are not enough to express my deepest gratitude for all that you have done for me and my Mooseheart brothers and sisters over the years. You mean the world to me, so please accept my humble and sincere thanks for all that you do.

I ask you to not ever wonder whether your efforts are important or doubt whether you make a difference. You wonderful men and women of the Wisconsin Moose have impacted my life immeasurably, and you continue to have a tremendous impact on the lives of those students currently at Mooseheart. For those reading my story for the first time, please recognize that my story, and 105 years of Mooseheart and 12,000 stories just like mine, are only possible because of you. You do make a difference and your efforts, love, and caring have a larger impact on this world than you can ever imagine.

We have an obligation to continue our great work at Mooseheart and Moosehaven. When squabbles arise in the lodge or chapter, we need to remember what we are truly about. On behalf of a grateful fraternity, the children at Mooseheart and the seniors at Moosehaven, thank you for all that you do. Thank you also for allowing me to share my story that you made possible. May God bless each of you.