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La Crosse man creates model of long-gone school

Posted April 15

— Media accounts from December 2015 chronicled the fact that St. Thomas More School in La Crosse fell to the wrecking ball because it was outdated and deteriorating, but evidence has surfaced that it may have been "fake news."

Further investigation reveals that the school has been miniaturized and is resting on a card table in Wally and Betty Stoll's home in La Crosse, the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/2o1M6gU ) reported. Wally and Betty contend that the mini-More is a model that Wally fashioned with scrap lumber from old pallets, his craft material of choice.

Closer inspection lends credence to their assertion, because the model is the spitting image of the late 68-year-old school.

It even appears to be to scale, although Wally said he merely eyeballed it from pictures and memory. He had no other option, because the school had long since disappeared, except for bricks sold for souvenirs and blackboards he sawed into designs for memorabilia.

Wally downplays his talent, saying modestly, "I'm more of a cobbler."

Betty begs to differ, insisting, "Oh, you are not. I never need to call a plumber" because he is a handyman adept at all sorts of household fixes.

The two-story model, with a basement and an addition just like the original, features details including a cornerstone on the main section dated 1947 and another on the addition, dated 1956.

It will be unveiled Sunday at Mary, Mother of the Church, just in time for Palm Sunday and the run-up to Easter Sunday, heralding a rebirth of sorts for the school.

Wally credits the inspiration for the model to the Rev. Brian Konopa, Mary, Mother pastor, who was admiring Wally and Betty's rendition of a mini farm they took on as a winter project one year.

"Father had seen those buildings, and I said I could build a model of the school, and he thought that was a good idea," Wally said.

The endeavor became an extended family project after Wally had constructed the shell, with entryways, plexiglass windows and doors that are very similar to the originals.

"The hardest part was the finishing touches, and I didn't know how to do the bricks," Wally said as a puzzled expression migrated across his face. "Then my granddaughter said, 'Grandpa, I can do that for you.'"

It just so happens that granddaughter Michelle Hansen runs Michelle's Lettering & Design, and she was able to produce stick-on sheets — kind of like contact paper, but of better quality — of teensy tiny bricks to cement the deal.

The Stolls manufactured what they now call "Wally's Mini Farm" in part as a homage to their farm upbringings — Wally, on a spread near Menomonie and Betty, near Colfax.

The scene includes a bright red barn that has 1,700 hand-made shake shingles, with matching shed, grain-drying bin and silo; a towering white windmill; an attractive, two-story white house with a gazebo that includes two swings out front, and a two-hole outhouse out back.

The tops can be lifted off of each building, revealing realistic trusses that Wally also made meticulously.

"He builds, I paint," Betty said, laughing as she noted that the kabob sticks that are pickets on the fence were particularly hard to paint white. "And that outhouse has a hardwood floor. You could really go in class in there.

"We didn't have a gazebo growing up, but we put it there anyway," she said.

Betty and Wally met one night as teenagers when she and a friend were leaving a movie theater, and he and a friend drove by and invited them to go out for hamburgers. Betty balked, until her friend assured her that she knew the pair and they could be trusted.

"I was a pickup," she said jovially, then added with an even bigger laugh, "Don't write that in the paper."

The Stolls' shared laughter, their five children, 14 grandchildren and six great-grandkids appear to major elements of the glue that has held their marriage fast for 64 years this summer.

Betty, 82, was a teacher, handling as many as 50 students and teaching all eight grades at one point. Wally, who caught up to her age-wise on his birthday Tuesday, was a long-haul trucker until retiring at age 70 and coming out of retirement shortly thereafter.

"I wasn't ready to retire yet," so he became a local trucker until finally retiring three years ago.

Pastor Konopa hails the couple as "pillars of the parish," with a willingness to volunteer for any and all events and a keen sense of its history to the extent that Betty chronicled it in a book.

"Wally nearly lost a couple of fingers when he was cutting up the big, heavy blackboards from the school into designs people could keep in their homes as mementos," he said.

Ah, that explains why, when asked whether he has any tips for anyone undertaking a project like the school or farm models, he said, "Well, with all this small stuff, keep your fingers out of the saw."

Betty also pointed out the newer saw he has in his garage workshop — a device with an immediate stop-and-drop feature if the blade touches him — bought "after two trips to emergency," she said.

The school model will be a source of pride when the parish breaks ground soon on an addition of a parish hall and religious education center estimated to cost between $3.7 million and $4 million to the church this summer.

The title of the venture, "Building our Future Together," reflects the culmination of Mary, Mother's creation from the merger of St. Thomas More and St. Pius X in 2000, Konopa said.

Combining parishes isn't always the smoothest process, he said, observing, "The transition is kind of like two families blending together.

"A lot of people, when they go to church, they have their favorite pew, and the people coming over from St. Pius didn't know" who sat where or where they might be trespassing, he said.

Easing the blending was the fact that the late Rev. Joseph Rafacz had been serving both parishes for three years, Konopa said.

"That brought a level of familiarity," he said.

Both parishes developed during the baby-boom era of big families, with the school enrollment thus approaching 800 elementary students dispersed among 16 classrooms. In 2012, it became clear that the school building needed either major renovation and repair to meet basic standards as a school or be replaced.

The passage of time also changed the parish's demographics, with a fraction of young children than previously and more older families than young, according to a brochure tracing the steps toward the upcoming building program.

Konopa, who became pastor of the debt-free parish of more than 2,400 souls in 2014, said the parish convened 19 sessions where members brainstormed about the future and considered three options.

"Some people hated to see the school deconstructed, and we understood that," Konopa said.

Asked what prompted solidarity, the pastor replied, quickly and simply, "Jesus."

The decision emerged to construct a new parish hall and religious education adjacent to the church, which technically still is named St. Thomas More Church, under Catholic Church law in which church buildings can't be changed. But the parish is Mary, Mother of the Church, as its sign in front proclaims.

A pledge drive has secured cash and pledges of $3.65 million, and projections including pledges and fundraising are that the parish will have $3.8 million to cover all or most of the addition by the end of 2018, according to parish figures.

"As the campaign rings true, this is the final piece" in merging the two parishes, the pastor said. "But we still call it Jesus."

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