Shawna Yates was supposed to reconnect with her childhood friend – her best friend – just a few weeks ago.
She and Jordan Chowning grew up together in Jacksonville, Florida where they intended to meet up in late May when Jordan made a visit back home. But one thing led to another, plans got changed and they never managed to get together.
Yates will regret that missed meeting forever. The next she heard of her best friend was Monday when news reached her that Jordan died in a house fire on Ashland's Sixth Street.
"We did everything together growing up," said Yates, 35, who owns and operates a pool-cleaning business in Jacksonville.
"We went to waterparks here, took quite a few classes together, we were all part of the same chorus group. Jordan loved to sing — she could be a soprano or an alto — and she liked country, more mellow music. Us and our friend Crystal Marsh, where you would see one you would see all three of us – we were all in chorus together, took trips together, went to the movies a lot, hung out and went dancing a lot. Pretty much 24-7 we were together."
State and local officials as of Thursday still were investigating the cause of the fire that took the lives of Jordan Chowning, 36, and her daughters Alyssa Chowning, 14, and Michelle Hathaway, 17. Their bodies were found on the second floor of a home they shared with another couple and their two children; Jordan's husband Duane left the home early Monday morning to shop for an air conditioner and returned to find his house in flames, police said.
Ashland Police Lt. Scott Morland said interviews with those who escaped the fire suggest that it was accidental — though he stressed that he was awaiting final autopsy and fire marshal reports before coming to any conclusions.
"Everything that we've learned matches up with what we've gotten from interviews," he said. "Basically a 7-year-old child woke his brother up, an 8or 9-year-old brother, because a chair was on fire. They ran downstairs to wake up their father and then they were able to escape. The father suffered some burns on his hands trying to put it out. I'm hesitant to say more than that until we have all our final reports."
Duane Chowning contacted the Daily Press Tuesday seeking help finding pets that have been missing since the fire. He didn't return calls, but messaged a reporter to say the two dogs and three cats are the only family he has left and he's desperate for their return. He circulated photos of the dogs on social media, and his brother started a gofundme to raise money for funeral expenses. That page had generated $13,000 in pledges Thursday.
Yates, meanwhile, is helping Jordan Chowning's mother started a separate fundraiser to help Jordan's surviving daughter, Morgan Paris, move back with family in Florida.
Yates said Jordan moved from Florida to Ashland about six years ago to connect with her father, who she didn't know while growing up.
"She kind of wanted to start over and get to know the other side of her family," Yates said.
"She didn't know her father and lived with her grandmother and her mom for most of her life. When she moved out, she was having some issues and had no steady job. I was kind of excited when she decided to move away and start a new life – I was hoping for the best."
Yates said life seemed to be going pretty well for her friend. Jordan just had graduated from Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College and was going into health care.
"I know she was working somewhere she had to wear scrubs – in the medical field area — but I don't know exactly where," Yates said. "She was such a genuine person. She just wanted to help people."
Yates now wants to ensure that her friend's daughter, Paris, is taken care of as she adapts to a life without Jordan.
"Jordan always had hardship in her life but tried to help others as much as she could," she said. "She was just very sweet."
Ashland homeless advocate Parker Sterling recalls a cold snap last winter when windchills fell to 20-below zero.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, no one living in a car or at any risk of being outside will survive this,'" she said.
That period of brutal Arctic cold helped kick-start a conversation about how badly Ashland needs a homeless shelter.
"It became clear that we just weren't ready for it," Sterling said of the unusual weather.
That realization and the availability of new federal funds that could pay for a shelter with no local tax money being spent led the city to seek a $700,000 grant. Council members who unanimously approved the application were told the city is acting only as a conduit for the funds and would have no part of the shelter's operation, which would be conducted by the Northwest Wisconsin Community Services Agency. The project is contingent upon obtaining a conditional use permit that would require a public hearing. The shelter also would require an inspection by a building inspector and likely site plan approval, City Planning and Development Director Megan McBride said.
Millie Rounsville, executive director of NWCSA, said the funds are part of the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed in 2020 known as the CARES Act.
"Traditionally, this is not money that would be available, but because of the pandemic, the dollars are there," she said.
The money could pay for a first-ever facility for the organization that has been working with the homeless in Ashland since the 1960s, she said.
As of now, neither the city nor NWCSA has a long-term plan to care for local homeless residents. In bitter cold, they can provide vouchers for hotel stays, but that isn't a sustainable solution.
"It has pretty much exhausted our resources, in terms of what we have available," Rounsville said. "Going into the future, we know we can't continue to provide the same level of emergency shelter services as we have in the past year. For a permanent solution for the community, we need to provide a shelter. Vouchers are not cost effective, they are not always available, and they don't provide the length of stay that a shelter would."
Rounsville said NWCSA is working with the city to apply for the federal funds and she hopes something could be in place before winter.
Liz Seefeldt, executive director of Ashland's BRICK Ministries that serves low-income residents of Ashland and Bayfield counties, said "There is a huge need for a shelter."
BRICK records show that 35 homeless people sought assistance from the organization in the month of June alone.
"From January through June, we had 126 homeless individuals reach out to The BRICK, and we want to emphasize those are unduplicated numbers. And that's not really unusual," she said. "Some of those people are holding down steady jobs, they may have kids. For whatever reason, they may have been evicted, medical bills got out of control, and things snowballed as they do when you are teetering on the edge economically."
Seefeldt said a permanent shelter would solve several problems, both for homeless people and those who try to care for them.
"You need a place where you can feel safe, but economically it doesn't make sense to continue to put up large numbers of people in motels," she said, noting that especially during the peak tourism season, motel managers are sometimes reluctant to accept homeless vouchers when more lucrative visitor dollars were available.
"They are business owners for the most part. They are not social service workers, and we can't expect them to be," she said.
One indication of how close many people are to that economic edge is the amount of Wisconsin Emergency Rental Assistance paid out during the COVID emergency, Rounsville said. This year, some $74,556 has been paid for rental assistance in Ashland County, part of the $38 million spent statewide to help people keep their homes.
Sterling warned that the existing eviction moratorium could end July 31, throwing even more people out on the streets.
"People are going to be without homes, there is no doubt about it," she said. Studies predict that 3.4 million people nationwide face possible eviction when the moratorium is lifted.
"We have to get past the shame of being homeless, that it will attract the wrong kind of people, coming here to use the shelter," she said. "It means acknowledging that there is an issue, and that shelters give some people — not everyone, but some people — a landing spot to stabilize."
Charlie Berens was lurching along through a journalism-slash-comedy-slash-producing career when he stumbled upon something – or someone — magical.
He was doing red-carpet reporting in Los Angeles but wasn't really feeling it. So the Milwaukee native was trying standup at night when he created a character who sent him in a new direction.
"He was a Midwest guy who was a news anchor, and instead of taking advice to heart about all the things he was doing wrong, he kind of doubled down on them," Berens said. "Even if I was bombing, that character would always rescue me. And at one show, I had a good back-and-forth with a guy in the crowd who ended up being from Manitowoc. I wanted to then take that character and turn it into video content because that's the only way you can make it in standup these days."
Thus was born the first Manitowoc Minute, the video program that stars Berens as a caricature Wisconsinite, with an exaggerated accent, a deep love of fishin' and huntin' and a wardrobe comprising a lot of camo, plaid and Packers jerseys.
The Minute's success was spurred in part by such things as the Berens Midwest Voice Translator and bottle opener, a gizmo that turns Wisconsin phrases like "Geet?" into "Did you eat?" so the rest of America can understand us. "Ope, let me squeeze right past ya," can mean either "Drive your sorry ass back to Illinois" or "Excuse me, mind if I pass," depending upon how it is delivered, according to the translator.
He likewise created his Midwest Siri, also known as Sheryl Lizinski, a cellphone assistant that responds to voice commands with Wisconsin friendliness: "Oh hi, hun, how's your folks doin'? Tell 'em I say hi, huh?"
Berens is bringing those characters and more to the Big Top Chautauqua for three shows this weekend.
Before the shows, he explained to the Daily Press the source of his humor — and his discovery of the mathematical formula Catholics+beer=more Catholics.
Question: What's funny about Wisconsinites?
Answer: I think we've always had a self-deprecating sense of humor. We're a group of people who have historically never taken themselves too seriously. We can all laugh at ourselves. But oh, 100%, you can't do this without a deep love for your home state. I grew up in Wisconsin, obviously, and I left for a few years to do comedy around the country, and I've lived in a bunch of different states and there's just so much about Wisconsin to love. You just can't beat it.
Q: Where do you draw the line between the rest of Wisconsin and Up North?
A: Oh jeez, you know, Up North is more of a state of mind than anything else. Sometimes Up North is even south of where you are if you're mind's in the right place.
Q: How did the Manitowoc Minute get its start?
A: I started off in the news biz. I was a reporter and anchor and that sort of thing, but that wasn't really my passion so I switched to comedy and used my experience as a news broadcaster to influence my comedy.
A lot of times what you're trying to do (in TV news) is convey in simple terms what is happening to a large group of people, and comedy has a lot of the same premise. I did a lot of comedy news shows, where the news was the setup for your punchline. So it was really good framing for doing what I'm doing now.
Q: You were invited on TV news again to give the Wisconsin take on the Packers when they made a run in the playoffs this year. What do you think of the Aaron Rodgers situation?
A: I always get asked that and, you know, I'm just gonna basically say, obviously I'm an expert and I've done my research, and 100% for certain I have no idea what's gonna happen. He's doing his thing, and I think it will be fine. Now he's got a man bun going. If he's ever looking to get rid of any hair, that thing could make a good musky lure. He could cut that thing off and send it to Mepps and they could make a dandy lure out of it. Catch a lot of muskies.
Q: You're asked to explain Wisconsin to other folks all the time. What's the weirdest question you've been asked about us?
A: Some people mistake us with like Wyoming, the other W state. A friend said something to me: "Like you're right by Montana, right?" And I'm like, "No, no, no." So geographically where is it? And, "Is it all just farms?" You basically have to invite them to Wisconsin, offer them an unlimited supply of brandy old fashioneds, venison from the back of the garage freezer and some rhubarb. If you do that they likely never will visit. But if they do come, they'll love the place.
Q: Ok, now we're going to ask about some quintessential Wisconsin things for your quick take. First up, sheepshead.
A: Yes! In my backpack right now I have the bottom of a 30-rack of Miller Lite, that piece of cardboard that goes between the beers, and it has sheepshead scores from a fishing trip I just got back from on the Chippewa flowage. Great game. I'm a scooper. Q: Walleye? A: You gotta have em. It's the sirloin of the stream.
Q: Curds? A: Sure, you bet, squeaking fresh. Q: Wildcat? A: Down in Milwaukee we call it cannibal sandwich. My grandpa used to make those every Christmas. They're good for you. If you don't catch worms, they're good for you Q: Old Fashioneds? A: Four fingers tall on the brandy, don't muddle the rind. If you got the orange, you want to muddle just the fruit part, not the rind or it gets a little tart. Q: Bratwurst? A: Oh, brats are great. Just remember that, they can be boiled in beer before you throw 'em on the grill. Some purists won't do that, but I like 'em that way. Don't leave them unattended to go play cards. You'll burn 'em and your dad will get mad at you. Q: Ope? A: It's the perfect Midwest expression. When in doubt, ope it out. It's a great word, it really is.
Q: So for people who know you, or even don't know you, from the Minute, what should we expect from your shows at the Big Top?
A: We're going to have a great show. Adam Greuel from (the band) Horseshoes and Hand Grenades will be playing, and then there will be a lot of standup comedy and it will be a fun, fun time. Just come expecting a good time and if you bring brandy, that will make it all the better.
If You Go
• Comic Charlie Berens is doing shows Saturday, Sunday and Monday at 7:30 p.m. under the tent at the Big Top Chautauqua. Limited tickets are available for some shows at bigtop.org.