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Jun 2013: 1,750 blooms over the years

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

The roses growing beside the thorns next to the statue of Tom Buntrock are brighter than blood red.

The statue itself is covered with the green patina of age, and there are fine, little cobwebs on both his body and that of the little girl he crouches around. But they dissipate quickly with the brush of a hand.

Dan Buntrock, a captain in the same Mequon Police Department his father once led, saw me walking around the statue that sits outside the station the other morning.

He is 49 years old now, six years older than his dad was when in the middle of a hostage situation in 1979 he traded himself for the freedom of a little girl by the name of Becky Bartley — and paid with his life.

He was “a great man,” said Dan. “I think of him every day.”

I asked Dan if he gets some satisfaction out of carrying on with the duties his dad didn’t get to finish.

“He told me never to be a cop,” Dan laughed. “I didn’t listen.”

I figure I’ve written around 1,750 columns over the past 15 years, and it’s been the perfect excuse to talk to people about themselves and their lives and their families, how they got where they are, why Wisconsin is the way it is.

The story of Tom Buntrock and how he sacrificed his life to save Becky Bartley is one of the ones I, too, think about all the time.

Maybe it’s proximity. When our kids were little, we brought them to a baby sitter not far from Buntrock Ave., the same street the police station sits on. But I don’t think so. I’m drawn to the story because it shows what sacrifice begets.

Partly ineffable pain and sorrow, to be sure. Dan was 15 years old the night his dad walked out to respond to a call about a gas station robbery and ended up confronting a suspect who’d stolen Becky from her mother’s arms.

Tom Buntrock, older Wisconsinites will remember, convinced the guy to give up the baby and take him instead. The police chief lived gallantly, a minister who knew him once told me, and he died that way, too. There’s no balancing out that kind of loss.

But there is also Becky, who is now married and has the last name of Smith. When I first wrote about her 10 years ago, she was 23 and in med school. Her mom, Regina Schuller, says she is now a doctor. She lives in Chicago and is an infectious disease specialist. She limits contagion, keeps people safe in her own way.

I remember her being embarrassed at my suggestion 10 years ago that she was doing something special with the life she has, and I am not surprised that she didn’t call me back last week because she is too modest.

“It would have been very disappointing to find out if she’d gone on and had a troubled life,” said Dan, standing inside the station not far from a portrait of his dad.

“But to see her be successful, for myself and my family, that makes a big difference.”

Regina will say what Becky won’t.

“Becky is my daughter, but she is an honest-to-goodness good person, and I have had so many people tell me that,” said Regina.

I have no doubt.

I’ve loved telling stories over the years, finding out how one person and good thing can lead to so many others.

I only wish I could revisit all of them today, clear away all the cobwebs atop the green patina beside the roses that, if you look, still brightly bloom.