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Remembering Fred
Basement Bijou legend Fred Hermes dies


CALEDONIA — The man behind Basement Bijou, the theatrical wonderland nestled in the basement of a seemingly ordinary Caledonia basement, has died.

Fred P. Hermes died Monday at Ascension All Saints Hospital in Racine. He was 92 years old.

Hermes’ wife of 47 years, Veryl Hermes, said she will miss her husband’s humor and intelligence most.

“Fred just had such a good sense of humor, she said. “He loved to joke around.”

Basement Bijou

Fred took great pride in his Basement Bijou, which transported visitors to another time. The display received national attention and was featured on television shows, such as CBS’ “On the Road” and “CBS Sunday Morning.”

The ornate display, which contains elements taken from Racine’s former Venetian Theater, features a sprawling 1926 Wurlitzer organ, the biggest ever built by the company, as its centerpiece.

Fred was an expert in all things organs. Veryl said her husband had an uncanny knack for remembering organ facts.

“People would call up and ask questions about organs, and Fred just knew where this or that organ had been moved to,” Veryl said. “He remembered all those things.”

Not only did Fred know a lot about organs, he was also a talented organist, often improvising or playing from memory without any sheet music.

Sharing the spectacle

Fred did not keep his unique creation to himself. For nearly 50 years, he held public group tours of his basement theater.

For a time, Fred worked with Real Racine, the Racine County convention and visitors bureau. Dave Blank, the bureau’s president and CEO, said Hermes’ attraction was one of the county’s largest, if not the largest, tourist attraction for many years.

Basement Bijou was a popular destination in the bureau’s Mystery Tour, in which guests don’t know where they will end up. Blank said guests would start walking down the trail, leery of what they were about to be shown, then take the tour and not want to leave.

“The venue is just so unusual,” Blank said. “Guests would just keep asking him questions, and (Hermes) would keep playing the organ. He sure loved playing that organ and showing it off to people.”

Eileen Arnold, the bureau’s meeting/group tour sales director, knew Hermes for the past 13 years.

“When people walked into the theater, their mouths would drop,” Arnold said. “He brought joy to a lot of people.”

“He was just a unique human being.”

Last year, Hermes’ tours were officially shut down after a tip from a retired fire chief from outside the area to the Caledonia Fire Department, questioning the safety of Fred’s tours.

Fred was determined to continue showing off his basement, regardless of what fire officials told him. Veryl said her husband was still leading small groups of three or four people into the basement until mid-April, when he fell and broke a hip, landing him in the hospital.

“He loved having the tours,” Veryl said. “He absolutely loved having people come.”

Veryl said she currently has no plans for the basement.

‘One-of-a-kind’ personality

While in the hospital at the end of his life, Veryl said Fred received cards from people all over the country. “He had so many friends in different places,” she said. “He was very well-known and talked to people all over.”

Fred’s dedication and passion to the Basement Bijou created memories for the many people who crossed paths with him over the years.

“He was always fun to work with,” Blank said. “He will be missed. A truly one-of-a kind attraction and personality for Racine County.”

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday at Living Faith Lutheran Church, 2915 Wright Ave. Relatives and friends may meet with the family Sunday at Maresh-Meredith & Acklam Funeral Home, 803 Main St., from 2 to 4 p.m. and Monday at the church from 10 a.m. until the service.

“Guests would just keep asking him questions and he would keep playing the organ. He sure loved playing that organ and showing it off to people.” Dave Blank, Real Racine president and CEO

Racine police morale
Survey: Racine police morale 'absolutely horrible'

RACINE — Poor morale and lack of leadership came up as two of the biggest issues facing the Racine Police Department, according to a survey completed earlier this year that was recently released to The Journal Times.

The survey was conducted in mid-March, about two months after the fatal police-involved shooting of Donte Shannon. It was completed at the request of the city’s police unions: the Racine Police Association, representing officers; and the Staff Officers Association, representing supervisors. The results show that “absolutely horrible” morale was a frequently identified issue.

Union officials declined to talk to The Journal Times directly but answered questions about the survey through the state’s police association.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the police unions wanted to gain insight about the struggles the department faces in attracting and retaining officers.

“The two associations intend to use the survey results, which they have only begun to process, as a collaborative tool to help develop long-term competitive strategies to attract and retain officers and otherwise enhance the city’s overall capacity to keep the community safe,” Palmer stated.

He said the police associations funded the approximately $6,000 survey.

It was conducted by Chicago-based Stanard & Associates. The survey consisted of 103 questions spanning 18 categories. Although officers shared some positive feedback, they also complained about management, working conditions and overall department morale.

The Journal Times reviewed only an overview about the survey results. The full report was not given to The Journal Times.

Howell responds

In response to the survey results, Racine Police Chief Art Howell said in an email that his management team was continuing to review and process the information in the report.

He also said, “While I do not wish to question or otherwise challenge the integrity of the survey process at this early stage, a number of process-related questions should be reviewed and addressed in advance of drawing conclusions associated with the data contained within this report.”

Howell went on to say that “in the spirit of reflection” he has taken the first steps toward having an external management study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The City Council would need to approve funding for the study, which Howell said he feels would help the department. No cost estimate was provided.

Survey comments

Officers provided mostly positive responses to questions about community policing, labor relations and working with their fellow employees. According to the results, 73 percent of respondents provided favorable feedback about community policing. About 85 percent agreed they could count on their co-workers and feel free to communicate with their union representative.

“A number of participants affirm that they are ‘honored’ and ‘enjoy working with (their) fellow employees,’” the overview states.

On other topics, however, officers’ feedback was more negative.

About 67 percent of responses regarding working conditions were negative, and 73 percent of feedback about compensation was unfavorable — something Howell said he worked with officials on in advocating for recent raises officers received.

About working conditions, Howell stated, “Serving as a law enforcement officer in the current anti-police climate (nationally) is challenging. The adverse national climate can have an adverse impact on one’s perspective.”

Howell also said the condition of the Safety Building, where the police department is located and which was brought up as a concern among officers, has been an issue for some time, and planning is underway to construct a new building.

Judging management

More than 80 percent of responses regarding management effectiveness were also unfavorable. A majority of officers who commented on the topic described management as out of touch with the “rank and file,” according to the overview.

Pertaining to that criticism, Howell said, “It is not uncommon for visionary leadership to be misunderstood.”

Stanard also stated that “many” officers provided negative feedback about Howell’s availability and about his handling of the January shooting.

Howell stated that he was concerned about communication when he took over as chief in 2012.

“One of the first steps I took upon my appointment was the unprecedented decision to bring the union leadership to the table during the senior command briefings (weekly interaction),” he said. “One clear area where this shared management partnership and communication has paid off is in the area of grievance avoidance.”

He also said: “As is well known, I have an open-door policy, and I spend a great deal of time at the Safety Building. My work day is extended on a daily basis as I often allow members to make unscheduled visits to my office. This is not only allowed, it is encouraged.”

Overall, about 44 percent of the responses were favorable, including comments from people who said they enjoy the job and that it has a lot to offer.

Fifty-one percent of the responses were unfavorable, and 5 percent were “not applicable.”

The overview identifies only a breakdown by percentage of favorable versus unfavorable responses in each category. It does not show the specific questions included in each category, nor how many responses were submitted on a per-question or category basis.

Leaders question results

Keith Rogers, chairman of Racine’s Police and Fire Commission, declined to be interviewed about the survey but said in a statement that the commission “endorsed the survey process conducted by the City of Racine Police Department.”

“As with any anonymous survey of this magnitude, it is expected that not all comments will be positive,” Rogers stated. “It can take considerable effort to separate negativity based on fact and that which is heavily based on perception. We trust that Police Department and city leadership will work together to use the survey experience to move the department in a favorable direction.”

Howell said by email that he is committed to addressing “legitimate areas of concern,” and that “it is equally important that we work to identify any respondent content or comments that are uninformed, malicious or not based in fact.”

Mayor Cory Mason declined multiple requests for an interview about the morale study. He said in an email Wednesday, “I will be meeting with the police unions and other RPD personnel to discuss the survey. It is my hope that we can all learn from the information that it provides”

Previous survey

Some of the survey results mirror feedback provided in a union survey on department morale in 2000. At that time, according to an archived Journal Times article, department staff also indicated a morale problem, along with complaints about department leadership.

The recently retired police chief at that time, Richard Polzin, questioned the validity of the survey, saying it may have been created by disgruntled employees and completed by people who had complaints.

“When there are 205 people working in an organization, you can’t satisfy the needs of them all,” Polzin reportedly said. “Sometimes people are upset. Sometimes people are disciplined.”

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Stanard & Associates' name.

“As is well known, I have an open-door policy, and I spend a great deal of time at the Safety Building. My work day is extended on a daily basis as I often allow members to make unscheduled visits to my office. This is not only allowed, it is encouraged.” Art Howell, Racine Police Chief

Union Grove Elementary School
UGES mulls facility improvements; referendum a possibility

UNION GROVE — After completing a facility study last year, Union Grove Elementary School has hired a new company to take a closer look at the numbers to help it determine what to do about its aging school and infrastructure.

The original portion of the elementary building, at 1745 Milldrum St., was constructed in 1968, with another section added in 1973 and a major addition in 2003.

One of the district’s most immediate needs is roof repairs, as the roof on its small gym, for example, was starting to fall last year.

Other issues of some urgency include a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning upgrade, water heater replacements and exterior brick repairs.

The original facility study was completed by Wisconsin’s Cooperative Educational Service Agency 10 and presented last August. The district has since decided the $7,000 study was not comprehensive enough for Union Grove to base any construction or funding decisions on it alone.

“We needed more-detailed information,” said Superintendent Brenda Stevenson.

To that end, Union Grove Elementary hired Scherrer Construction this spring to take the information from last year’s study and determine what Stevenson called “more meaningful” numbers to go with it. Stevenson said she’d like to see Scherrer’s initial work completed by the end of June at the latest.

The district is set to pay Scherrer about $3,000 for this work, but the exact amount will depend on whether or not Union Grove goes forward with any construction by the company.

The decision to hire Scherrer came after the district conducted a survey of its residents this winter, to gauge support for a possible school referendum.

The survey

One of the 13 questions in the survey read: “Although the school has been well maintained, some of the building structure and infrastructure is more than 40 years old and has reached the end of its useful life. Would you support the district exploring a facilities referendum at this time?”

Forty-one percent of respondents said they would be very likely to support exploring a school referendum, 35 percent said they would be somewhat likely, 18 percent answered not likely and 6 percent were undecided.

After receiving the responses from the 288 people who responded, the district formed an advisory committee to help it decide how to move forward. The committee is made up of eight people, including community and staff members.

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” Stevenson said.

In addition to the previously mentioned immediate needs at the school, other necessary improvements cited in the facility study include hot water and chiller pump replacements and electrical panel, lighting, small-gym and playground equipment upgrades.

During the last advisory committee meeting, members toured the school to view the issues. Stevenson encourages those interested to attend the committee meetings and share their input.

The next meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. May 21 in the K-4 cafeteria.

Although a possible referendum is mentioned in the survey, and the request for proposals that ultimately led to Scherrer’s hire, Stevenson said the district isn’t sure where the updated facility study will lead.

She said she doesn’t want to end up in a situation where students are displaced or in danger because of maintenance issues.

“Our top priority is safety,” Stevenson said.

“Our top priority is safety.” Brenda Stevenson, Union Grove Elementary School superintendent

Pete Wicklund / EVAN CASEY For The Journal Times