WISCONSIN DELLS -- Many of those returning to Wisconsin Dells for the annual summer program hosted by the Apostolate to the Handicapped were curious about what was to come.
They had heard news reports in June about widespread flooding caused by 12 inches of rain in the state.
Four aspects of event
Traditionally, there are four main segments for participants to look forward to at the summer Apostolate event:
1) The coming together, personal contact, interchange of greetings, and renewal of friendships among over 1,000 disabled persons, with their drivers, caregivers, volunteers, and providers of services to carry out an event on this scale. For some disabled persons, an outing of this type may be a rare and cherished event in and of itself.
2) A Mass celebrated by Msgr. Thomas Campion, founder of the Apostolate 41 years ago, with his personal message to them during the homily, with concelebrating priests from many communities in the Madison Diocese. Their number has varied depending on their individual schedules, with as many as 20 being able to attend. (This day there would be 14.)
3) A tasty "bag lunch" and beverages served by cheerful volunteers.
4) Wonderful entertainment in the form of a 90-minute water ski show by the world famous Tommy Bartlett group.
The first three could and would take place just fine, but what about the fourth?
Many are familiar with the Tommy Bartlett permanent site: covered grandstand for "rain-or-shine" shows, extended seating, concessions, restrooms, and a permanent stage at water's edge, overlooking Lake Delton.
But on June 11, most heard that the unthinkable happened: In a space of a few hours, Lake Delton disappeared! A water ski show without a lake? How can that be? That's a magic show! More on that later.
In the first reading Jesus said: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you will find rest for yourself, for my yoke is easy and my burden light."
At the Mass at Lake Delton, Monsignor Campion asked that we remember for a moment those words from the Gospel of St. Matthew, which tell us not to despair in our labors and weaknesses but to persevere and heed this invitation of Jesus to "Come to him" with our burdens.
He then recalled a book written in 2002 by Sean Swarner, who as a boy of 13 contracted a virulent form of cancer. Monsignor Campion said, "By undergoing treatments and with medical technology and the support of family and friends and prayer, he survived. But five years later, he developed a rare form of cancer called Askins sarcoma. Again, he followed a medical treatment regimen, and once again with the help of family, friends, and prayers to God, he made it through."
Medical literature doesn't record anyone who has contracted both of these forms of cancer, much less survived them. In an interview on ESPN, Swarner said the odds of his survival were "like winning the lottery more than once."
Monsignor Campion went on to say that out of gratitude for his survival, Swarner chose to do something special with his life and climb mountains to raise money for cancer research and, equally important, to serve as an inspiration to those with weaknesses and handicaps.
Although he was left with only one fully-functioning lung, he climbed the seven major peaks in the world, including Mt. Everest, an often-sought milestone of serious climbers. He then wrote the book, Keep Climbing.
Alluding to the Gospel reading, Monsignor Campion drew a parallel with the book, saying: "'Come to me' and 'keep climbing' are two phrases with the same message: To persevere in the face of ever-present adversity."
It's an apt comparison: Although as climbers often contend with the dangers of high altitude, low temperature, wind, ice, and snow, they also face the unrelenting force of gravity to threaten their security and impede their progress. Constant also are the physical and mental challenges to the handicapped in their everyday lives. Both groups look for relief and respond to the call, however difficult, to "keep climbing".
The show must go on
In acknowledging those who made the day possible, Monsignor Campion thanked the priests for their participation in the Mass and their ongoing support of the handicapped. He thanked equally all the volunteers: the numerous caregivers, drivers, food preparers, and medical personnel on hand who attended to those present with special needs.
Monsignor Campion gave special thanks to Tom Diehl, president of the Bartlett Organization, his staff, and the numerous young men and women who work on the show who volunteer their time to serve the handicapped on this day. The organization has graciously put on their show for the Apostolate every summer for over 40 years and as Monsignor Campion has said many times, "They've never sent us a bill."
The Tommy Bartlett Water Show began in 1949 as a traveling show with four or more "arms" traveling the U.S. in different areas. After a performance of one of them in Wisconsin Dells in 1953, the Chamber of Commerce invited Tommy Bartlett to have one group stay permanently at Lake Delton for the summer months. Bartlett agreed and thus the show became one of the earliest popular and permanent fixtures on the scene, along with the Dells Boat Tours, "Riding the Ducks," and Indian Ceremonials, to name a few.
With that background, one couldn't overestimate the impact on the Bartlett Show on June 11 of this year, when 12 inches of rain in the area swelled Lake Delton and the nearby Wisconsin River, breaching the isthmus separating them, draining the lake into the river in just a few hours, leaving the large grandstand and seating overlooking a mud flat instead of a lake, and leaving no opportunity for a water ski show, at least for now.
Lessons in action
Monsignor Campion again cited an instance of "keep climbing," when the Bartlett group immediately added additions to the existing stage portion of the water show. Some past performers actually came out of retirement to help out and perform.
Unbelievably, the Bartlett show was "back in business" in about a week, and the apostolate again was treated to an entertaining 90-minute show as in previous years. (Plans are also under study to repair the flood damage and prevent a reoccurrence. Lake Delton will be restored for next season.)
Monsignor Campion said, "We owe our hosts a debt of gratitude, not only for what they're doing for us today, but how they're teaching us to come to him when we're burdened, and to keep climbing, to keep going. To Tom Diehl and all of his staff, we say 'thank you and we love you.'
"Today is one of the most significant days in the history of the Apostolate to the Handicapped, because it's clearly a day demonstrating the give and take of life. The Bartlett group has demonstrated the conquering of enormous difficulties here in the Dells to give us this fine day and program.
"They've taught us about overcoming difficulties in our own lives, assisted by people like you who keep coming to these events for the handicapped, demonstrating how to trust God, to share our burdens with him and others, and give us the courage to keep climbing, to keep going."
In the closing blessing, Monsignor Campion cast a wide net in asking for courage for all persons with disabilities to continue their struggle, whether their handicaps are physical, mental, spiritual, or brought about by old age.