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Travis is driving down the big court now, on national television, playing against his cousin and playing that same way he always has, fighting almost recklessly on a bad ankle while his team is coming apart around him. Eighty-two-year-old June Diener sits back down, and she thinks about how much the Optimist would have loved all this. He missed it all, and so she misses him, the way she always will, because the Optimist died too soon. Pictures of the entire clan hang in her dining room back home. Shadows fill the spaces in between.
he pastures roll in great, spreading swells, and the county roads run through them like bent wire. There's ice on the fence posts, and hawks stand silent sentinel atop the barren trees. Up toward Lake Winnebago, where Fond du Lac is, winter can look vast and permanent, as though nothing ever changes, as though the hawks have stood there in the crooked branches, unblinking in the wind and as still as cold iron, since the 1840s, when the revolution collapsed in Germany and its unruly sons and daughters fled to places like this to build new lives on the farms and in the mills and Fond du Lac found itself suddenly a city.
The Germans prospered, and their revolutionary ardor faded through the years. They became more American than a lot of Americans seemed to be. "It's a very conservative place," says Wisconsin attorney general Peggy Lautenschlager, a Democrat and a Fond du Lac native. "It's very Republican, very German and very Catholic."
June Kramer grew up on a farm eight miles outside town. In 1940 she finished high school and, some time during the following summer, a man came out to the farm and offered her a chance to go to beauticians' school down in Milwaukee, 55 miles away.
"I'd never been out of the county," she recalls. "I'd never been on a bus before, and I'd certainly never been to a big city."
So she rode the bus, pop-eyed, as the county roads gave way to the boulevards and avenues of the city. She lodged with some people who worked her to the bone for her room and board. "That was a disaster," she says. But she stuck it out and got her license. Then she went home.
There she met Lyle Diener, a bluff, spirited man who ran a milk distributorship. He was a former B-17 pilot who'd flown 62 missions over Europe during the war, very few of which were, well, milk runs. He'd come back to Fond du Lac, started his business with two other fellows and cofounded the local branch of the Optimists Club, one of those national fraternal outfits dedicated to good works in the communities in which they'd established themselves. Optimists agreed, among other things, "to wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile," which, to Lyle, had been an instinct long before it was a creed. He would have been an Optimist even without a club.
(How optimistic the Optimists are can best be measured by the fact that the organization is still thriving after almost a century; Peg Lautenschlager specifically mentions her membership in the Fond du Lac Optimists on her political CV. That their optimism remains unflagging can best be measured by the fact that last year the national organization opened a chapter in Baghdad.)
There were almost 1,000 branches nationwide by the time Lyle Diener started his in Fond du Lac, all of them dedicated to promoting activities aimed at what was then called "the youth of the community." Lyle threw himself into these, and he threw the youth of his family into them as well.
"We did everything," recalls Bob Diener. " Boy Scouts, Indian Guides, you name it." The two oldest boys, Bob and Dick, also got dragooned into the local drum-and-bugle corps, which neither one of them remembers fondly. They were indifferent buglers. "Music," says Bob, "wasn't our bag."