“My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” —Forrest Gump



During my 72 years on Earth, I have opened many boxes of chocolate, most of the time getting a delicious piece of candy, while sometimes a bitter chunk of the confection.

Many tasty pieces of chocolate involved things I do in the great outdoors of north Wisconsin. Shooting my first ruffed grouse on my first-ever hunt was a great piece of chocolate. So was the morning I put a tag on my first buck on a snowy Thanksgiving morning. Good chocolate was finishing 20 American Birkebeiner races, walks in the woods with my wife, children and dogs — and by the way, a perfect wife and having two children were three of my best chocolates — along with camping trips and too many other things to list.

One of the best chocolates was my dropping out of Wisconsin State University-Stevens Point after one semester to enroll at Wisconsin State University-Eau Claire a year later.

There, with a lucky grab in the candy box, I found myself in that 1969-’70 school year assigned to Bridgman Hall. In that building I fell into the clutches of some of the craziest, wildest dorm floor mates one could ever envision.

We were, without doubt, the inspiration for the movie “Animal House.” We were the Delta House of Eau Claire. We started the famed Crest Commons food fight; we started a massive spring mud fight on the upper campus which, according to university officials grew to involve somewhere around 2,000 students; and three 3rd Easters — I wasn’t one of them — engineered the first known escape from a pennyed-in third-floor room via an open window and a rope made by tying bedsheets together, the latter of which came apart, dropping a certain “unconscious” John 15 feet to what was a somewhat soft landing in snow below.

Other pieces of chocolate from that crazy year on 3rd East included some things for which I dare not use names, not knowing whether the statute of limitations has run out on things like starting a small brush fire behind Oak Ridge Hall with illegal cherry bombs and the cutting of a beautiful 4-foot spruce tree down from an undisclosed location on the upper campus by a fully white-clad perpetrator who crawled back to Bridgman with it through deep snow.

One of the best pieces of chocolate from that 3rd East box was a young, shy, studious guy from Madison — a voice of reason, a voice almost always ignored, was Mike McKenna.

Never was a nicer guy treated so cruelly by fate as to be placed with a gang such as the rest of us on 3rd East. He studied. He went to class. He was a mainstay of the Blu-Golds golf team. He was a fresh-faced, innocent babe who deserved better than the lot of us.

Among the best of the chocolates was the one which allowed us to call him a 3rd Easter. He allowed us to teach him to play sheepshead. He allowed us to take him down a path of goofiness. He and I were adopted that year by those who had lived on 3rd East the previous year.

After college we 3rd Easters made it a point to meet somewhere in the country almost every summer, a tradition that has lasted now for over 50 years. We’ve enjoyed the beauty and backcountry of my north Wisconsin country, taken over B&Bs in Door County and as far away as Colorado Springs where we ascended Pike’s Peak and hiked the trails of Garden of the Gods.

One summer I had Mike and his lovely wife, Cynthia, and their then 3-year-old daughter, Courtney, to myself while they camped at Crystal Lake 3 miles from my house. Among my memories from that week was the day Cynthia and I fished a lake where I guaranteed a boatload full of northern pike. We caught nary a fish that day.

Last week, the 3rd Easters were to meet for four days in Minneapolis and St. Paul where three of our members now reside. Mike was planning to be there.

God decided he needed him more than we did. Unexpectedly, Mike passed away just days before our reunion. A decision was made to forge ahead with a modified visit. The guys played sheepshead, with whomever was the dealer playing as Mike. Just as in our college days, we conspired to have “Mike” lose quite a few hands. There were toasts made, not with drinks but with Cheetos, Mike’s all-time favorite snack.

After two days it was off to Madison, first for Mike’s visitation, then the next day his funeral. Memories galore were shared of our college days, our reunions and all that we have done on our outdoor adventures and our indoor shenanigans.

No group of men — and their wives and children — have ever known a finer man than Mike McKenna. We’ll now be cheering his every golf shot from afar, just as his family cheered him as a member of a state tournament high school team, as a letterman right of the bat as a freshman at Eau Claire, and as a club champion.

Most of all, we’ll be remembering him as a wonderful friend who was and forever will be a true 3rd Easter.