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The Dirty 30

These Parts: A battle for control of a small-town historical society gets ugly. Really ugly.

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It was the strangest bequest anyone in town had ever seen. On March 9, 2004, 89-year-old Raymond Brown, a native and part-time resident of Lodi, Wisconsin, died and left his entire estate, worth half a million dollars, to the Lodi Valley Historical Society. There was one major stipulation: everyone serving on the society's board of directors had to resign within a year and could never again hold office in the organization. If they didn't resign, the estate would go to probate court and ultimately Brown's family.

The will pretty much took the board's collective breath away. The nine members and the small circle of other active LVHS members had considered Brown a friend. A few considered him a close friend. One board member had handled Brown's Lodi business affairs for him without pay during Brown's frequent sojourns in Europe. None of them could remember Brown, who'd been a longtime LVHS member, saying anything about being dissatisfied. In 1988 he'd been their benefactor, handing the society some $50,000 in cash to buy a neglected historic property on Main Street, which they rehabbed and turned into a meeting place and small public museum. He named it the Jolivette House as a memorial to his recently deceased wife.

Brown's closest friends on the board knew he had a will. But they didn't know about this will, written while he was in Lodi in December 2003, just a few months before he died. Now it lay in front of them, ticking like a time bomb.

Central to the board's discussions of its finances was Frances Clark, the society's 89-year-old secretary-treasurer. A descendant of the first European settler to arrive in Lodi back in 1845, she'd helped found LVHS in 1973 and had served on the board for 27 years. She and the other board members had been elected democratically, and they decided they didn't want any amount of money if it meant letting one person vote them out of office. So what if the society's income continued to come just from the $5 annual dues, the monthly $300 rental income from a small second-floor apartment in the Jolivette House, and the occasional bake sale? They'd always operated on a shoestring.

The board members thought the will unjustly implied that they'd done something wrong, and it was not on the agenda of the LVHS annual meeting, held that April, shortly after the will was opened. "They wanted to keep a low profile," says one LVHS insider. "They wanted the bequest to go away."

But word had got out, and around 30 members of a group called the Old House Lovers showed up at the meeting. "We announced we were there because of the will," says Don Thistle, who acted as their spokesman and says Brown was his good friend. "We didn't think the board had told their members about the will, and we wanted them to know."

The Old House Lovers and the historical society had clashed before. The Old House Lovers, mostly younger people in their 30s and 40s, are relative newcomers to the town of 2,900, not descended from the area's founding families like many of their LVHS counterparts. They moved to Lodi because of the scenery, because Madison was only 25 miles south, because they could buy beautiful old houses at affordable prices. Their interest in local history is focused on the historical preservation of their homes.

The two groups had worked together in the 90s. The Old House Lovers joined LVHS as a group and used its nonprofit educational status to write grants for their historical-preservation projects. But about five years ago they had a falling-out. "There was a difference of opinion," says Thistle. An LVHS insider says, "They didn't report back to us." The upshot was that the Old House Lovers could no longer use the historical society's nonprofit status when soliciting grants.

This sort of clash isn't unusual in organizations with an old guard and a new, says Patti Gottschall Schuknecht, another LVHS charter member and its genealogist. "The former group feels it's being run over by a steamroller, and the latter group thinks it's dragging an anchor," she says. "It is often better if they go their separate ways before things get rancorous."

The Old House Lovers found out about the will around the same time the board did. One member of the Old House Lovers, Jennie Fanney-Larsen, was named in the will as Brown's new personal representative. Larsen will say only that she's "not at liberty" to discuss the will. According to one LVHS source, Brown knew Larsen because she was a local travel agent who helped arrange his trips to Europe.

In any event, Larsen was among the 30 Old House Lovers who descended on the 2004 LVHS annual meeting. They declared that they wanted to join the society then and there, and that they wanted to nominate some of their members for the board, three of whose seats were up for election. "We wanted some fresh blood in the organization," says Jim Korlesky, a member of the Old House Lovers who was at the meeting. "We called ourselves the Dirty 30. I don't know where the name came from, but it stuck."

"It was like a riot," says Schuknecht. "We always have taken membership money after the meeting. If you weren't a paid member before the annual meeting you couldn't vote. People slammed their money down in front of Frances Clark and insisted they should be able to vote. She was very confused. She didn't know what to do. Something like this can be very traumatic for an older person."

Only 23 current LVHS members were present, and in the heat of the moment the board refused to allow nominations from the floor. If it had, the Old House Lovers might have taken the three seats.

For months afterward the conflict simmered privately. Then in early February 2005 a front-page story about the bequest appeared in the Lodi Enterprise. It said that if the board would step down, the community would get money it could use for historic preservation, which would benefit Lodi for generations to come.

The article sparked a heated public debate, which raged for weeks as the deadline for the board to resign approached. There were public meetings, more front-page stories, two editorials calling for the board's resignation, and page after page of letters to the editor on both sides of the issue. The story spread to the media in Madison, Milwaukee, and Green Bay.

Many saw the money as a pot of gold that had landed in a town constrained by lean economic times. Many were angry at the board for not "swallowing their pride" and doing the "gracious thing." There wasn't much talk about what exactly ought to be done with the money if the historical society wound up with it, though some people mentioned new decorative street lamps and others suggested the money be invested.

Most of the Old House Lovers members clamoring for the board's resignation insisted they weren't targeting anyone personally, though they kept repeating concerns they said Brown had had. They said he thought the board "lacked energy and direction," that he wanted "to shake things up a bit." They said he'd paid for the Jolivette House without seeing it and later was disappointed that it was small and never open to the public.

Old-guard LVHS members responded that Brown did see the house before they bought it and that he was pleased. They said the house was open to the public, though in recent years the posted hours had been replaced with a by appointment sign. In an April letter to the Enterprise Frances Clark's 14-year-old great-grandson, Chris Sokol, recalled that Clark had kept regular hours at the Jolivette House and that he often went with her to help open and close up. "Most days not one person would come," he wrote. "It would be just me and my grandma talking about the history of our cozy little town called Lodi."

"The board didn't do anything," complains Don Thistle. "It was like a little social club. They would have a rinky-dink speaker about witches or something. They called it a 'program.' Then they served sandwiches and coffee."

All the attacks and counterattacks were taking a toll on the board members. "It was a very stressful and hurtful time for all of them," says Beth Sokol, a third-grade teacher at Lodi elementary and Clark's granddaughter. "One person had high blood pressure that got out of control. Another became ill and lost a lot of weight."

Things only got worse on February 28, when 29 LVHS members filed a lawsuit against the board. Nearly all of the plaintiffs had joined the society after news of the will came out, and about two-thirds of them were among the 30 Old House Lovers who'd descended on the annual meeting. Don Thistle was the lead plaintiff.

The lawsuit called on the board to resign and to make its financial records available. It demanded that the 2004 election be overturned, alleging that illegal procedures had been used. And it called for the board to release its membership list, so that the plaintiffs could determine who'd been members at the time of the election.

"Frances Clark kept meticulous books," says Betty Barbian, a retired newspaper columnist who joined the historical society five years ago. "But she became an object of scorn. People phoned her and called her down and threw things on her lawn. Finally she would turn her lights out at night and sit in the dark so people didn't think she was home."

"She stopped answering her phone and wouldn't come to the door," says Beth Sokol, recalling the night she stopped by her grandmother's apartment to show her a new puppy and got no response. "Dealing with attorneys and legal fees is unnerving. It's shocking for people of her generation. They don't sue each other. [The plaintiffs] should have found a way to solve this problem without a lawsuit. They could have brought in a mediator. A lot of people don't realize all that's gone on."

Clark delivered the financial and membership records, and the plaintiffs and their attorney found them satisfactory. On March 3, on the eve of a circuit court hearing on the lawsuit, Clark and seven other members of the board resigned. (The ninth member didn't resign because he'd been elected after the date of the will.) Board members said they were responding to community pressure and said they were exhausted. Then, using a privilege granted them in their bylaws, they each appointed a successor--all members of the old guard.

On the advice of their attorney, the departed board members kept a low public profile. Now that the half-million dollars would go to the historical society, the plaintiffs began speaking to the press about healing wounds and getting on with life in the community. Yet they pressed forward with the lawsuit, still hoping to overturn the 2004 election.

On March 14, two months before her 90th birthday, Frances Clark died. "She slipped on the ice this winter while delivering a meal to a friend and cracked her knee," says Beth Sokol, "but that wasn't why she died." Sokol says the doctors said her grandmother died from pneumonia caused by dehydration and the failure to feed herself. "I know she was old, but I really don't believe this was her time. She had a sister who was still active at 95 and another sister, 97. She had never been sick. She lived for the historical society. When I went through her bathroom after she died the only medicine I found was a bottle of cough syrup from years ago." She says she also found "nasty letters" from new members of the historical society in her grandmother's desk drawer.

"It's very sad to get sick and die and have this on your mind," Roger Klopp, the Lodi attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said not long after Clark died. "Who wants anyone to die? No one wishes ill will on anyone. The plaintiffs just want to get on with it. If the 2004 election is overturned they will be satisfied."

This year the annual meeting of the Lodi Valley Historical Society was held at the Lodi middle school cafeteria, a space large enough to accommodate the 120 voting members and assorted spectators who turned out. An attorney for each side was there to nip in the bud any disputes about Robert's Rules of Order.

But there were no open arguments. Everything ran smoothly. The minutes were read, the society's attorney gave an update on the will, and an election for three board seats was held. Only those who'd paid their dues in advance of the meeting were permitted to vote.

The three winners were all new LVHS members, but none of them were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, even though two plaintiffs had been nominated from the floor. The three board members who'd been appointed to the seats by the old board chose not to run.

The six remaining board members were still from the old guard. Even if the lawsuit overturned the 2004 election the plaintiffs couldn't win a majority of seats on the board, which some of the old guard suspected had been the goal of the suit all along. On April 20, a week after the annual meeting, the plaintiffs dropped the suit.

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