A southwest Wisconsin town goes above and beyond to honor its veterans

HIGHLAND, Wis. — A special unveiling in southwest Wisconsin is honoring veterans decades — and in some cases, centuries — after their service.

Highland, Wis. is a town of no more than 850 people, but you might argue its support for its own goes beyond the small-town stereotype — especially when it comes to veterans. All around town you can find examples of this town’s commitment to its vets.

Outside the high school, you’ll find benches erected in honor of Highland military members, and nearly all homes and businesses sport an American flag outside their doors. The newest sign of support is in the heart of town in the form of a brand-new memorial wall, listing the names of hundreds of area veterans. What’s particularly special about all these memorials is they were spearheaded by students — like Isabel Tucker.

“I had no idea it would get as much support as it did that fast,” Tucker said.

Now a graduate of Highland High, Tucker chose her senior project based on the military service of her father. She reached out to another veteran in town — Ron Richgels, a Vietnam War veteran — to help her launch a fundraising campaign for a memorial wall in downtown Highland.

“There was only like an American flag and some small little tombstone with a cutout of a soldier [there],” she said of the spot that now houses a custom-made seating area with three panels filled with names of veterans.

Richels was also surprised by the outpouring of support.

“We were anticipating somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 names on this wall,” he said. “But we kept adding and adding and adding, and at this point, we’re at 800 names. This wall is about three times as large as we anticipated. We had a name come in the other day, an envelope from Las Vegas. They had a relative from years ago that was from the Highland area, and he served in the army in the 1800s.”

You can find more than a few familiar names on the wall if you’re from Highland, and they date back to the Civil War and even the Spanish American War. What’s more, it’s not the only memorial wall in town, nor is it even the latest. This past weekend, yet another student-led effort was unveiled at the high school in town. Grant Hying, a Highland graduate and current UW-Platteville student, spearheaded that wall for his own senior project.

“The kids can see it every day when they walk by and know that all the people there served from their community,” he said of the project.

We asked other Highland veterans about their thoughts on both walls. Dennis Stepanek also served in Vietnam.

“For the most part when I came home kind of stayed secluded for a while,” he said of his time after the war, commenting on the anti-war sentiments often seen across the country during that time. “I think to me, the walls say ‘Thank you for your service,’ but more importantly, as a Vietnam vet, it says ‘Welcome home.'”