It’s a small world: A chance encounter 68 years in the making
By Marv Kohlbeck
If you ever followed Ripley’s Believe it or Not in newspapers, you know that it has dealt with bizarre events or unusual happenings. Let me share a personal experience of this past summer, and I am sure you will agree it does come close to the unusual.
We first need to go back more than 50 years when a young Wisconsin Rapids Tribune reporter, Robert D. McFadden, and I were both looking for rental housing in Wisconsin Rapids. Originally from Cumberland, McFadden had attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for two years and majored in journalism.
His father died at age 33 when McFadden was 8 years old. A few years later, his mother, seeking companionship, married a 37-year-old retired Navy veteran, Arthur Drachenberg.
As McFadden told it, “My mom and her new husband lived a life of alcoholism and could not afford to support my education, and I was left pretty much to support myself. I decided to quit school, get a job so I could save enough to eventually go back to school. We were living in Marshfield at the time, and I got a job at Marshfield Homes for that summer and that fall landed a job as a rookie reporter for the Rapids Tribune in Wisconsin Rapids.”
My circumstance was a bit different. After teaching one year of agriculture at Pittsville (1956-1957), I was hired as assistant county agriculture agent and worked out of the courthouse extension office with Louie Rosandick, Keith Nelson, and Loretta Zastrow. I had lived briefly with an elderly couple but was asked to seek different housing after I ruined a varnish-coated table while pressing a pair of slacks with a steam iron.
While covering his reporter’s beat through the courthouse, McFadden and I had the occasion to meet, and our conversation drifted into our mutual need for housing. That was the break that sealed our friendship. We found a downstairs apartment with cooking facilities and two bedrooms for $70 per month. We got along just great.
Then in the fall of 1958 we decided to return to university, he to seek graduation while I worked toward my master’s degree. After graduation McFadden joined the Cincinnati Enquirer, got drafted, and upon discharge took a job with the New York Times in 1961. He still works there today.
In 1969 both of us were single, so he invited me to spend a week with him in New York City with a promise to show me the town. Traveling around the Big Apple with a news reporter who knew his way around was priceless.
In 1971 we sent wedding invitations to each other, but we could not attend each other’s weddings as Sherry and I got married June 19, 1971, and he and Judy got married June 20, 1971.
In the mid-1980s, Sherry and I visited the McFaddens in New York. We had received four free tickets to the Ken Norton-Duane Bobick boxing match in Madison Square Garden and took the McFaddens as our guests. Bobick used to date my wife’s sister, and he sent us the complimentary tickets.
Over the years McFadden really delved into his journalism job at the New York Times. He has written thousands of articles about many major news happenings and has authored two books that have been published.
Now at age 78, he has 54 years of journalism experience and tirelessly continues to work for the major newspaper. He has received numerous awards and honors. His most prestigious award, a Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting, was received in 1996.
McFadden returned to Wisconsin this past summer to attend his 60th class reunion at Cumberland. He also wanted to sandwich in a few days of visitation with us in Pittsville as we promised him a good, old-fashioned Wisconsin cookout of brats and beer plus ice cream topped off with freshly picked raspberries from our garden. He also wanted to visit some of our old stomping grounds in Wisconsin Rapids and Marshfield.
Not having seen my daughter Jennifer in over 30 years, he was interested in surprising her at Three Oaks Golden Living Center in Marshfield, where she works as an occupational therapist. We found her working in the therapy room with a patient. While visiting with her, a male nurse was moving a patient in a wheel chair. Right at that moment my daughter said, “Dad, I want you to meet this gentleman in the wheel chair so you guys can reminisce about your trip to Washington as part of the Never Forgotten Honor Flight.”
She introduced him as Jerome Drachenberg from Stratford. McFadden immediately perked up by stating, “Did you say your name was Drachenberg? My stepdad’s name was Art Drachenberg.”
After a flourish of conversation, the two resolved that McFadden’s stepfather was an uncle to Jerome, and they used to visit as family when they lived in Chicago in the late ‘40s. Jerome indicated he had pictures of the young McFadden that were taken on one of their infrequent visits.
After 68 years of separation, the shocking reunion ended with hugs, handshakes, and a resounding comment, “Small world.”