Special to the EagleHerald
Emily and Horace “Twig” Hartwig are pictured in this photo taken in 1945 in California.
Special to the EagleHerald

Emily and Horace “Twig” Hartwig are pictured in this photo taken in 1945 in California.

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Gary Hartwig does not seem like the kind of person who dwells in the past. He has traveled, met and had the respect of many and had a successful career in the aviation and business field. He is married and has children and grandchildren, and he has wonderful friends and a sister he loves dearly.

While Gary did not dwell in his past, it did haunt him. He has had more than his share of tragedy and loss, starting with his mother’s stroke when he was just a young boy and the death of his older brother when he was 12.

The biggest blow, however, came when his father, Horace “Twig” Hartwig, was murdered in Florida in 1971. The circumstances surrounding Twig’s death included a land development deal in Florida, involvement with some dark characters, drug smuggling and federal indictments. The truth about what really happened was clouded by the times, the distance and the undercurrent of illegal activity.

All of this had life-alternating impact on the family from Porterfield, which included Gary, his two brothers and sister, and their mother, Emily, and father, Twig, a local businessman and a decorated World War II pilot. What led up to that horrific event in the early 1970s forever altered the lives of those who survived..

Almost 50 years later, Gary took the advice of a childhood friend, Tom Wilke, and began writing the story of his early years with the hopes it would answer some of the questions he and others had about his father’s death, but also to tell the personal story of the two strong people who influenced his past, present and future — his mother and father.

It ended up telling Gary’s story, as well.

“Twig’s Legacy of Resilience” came out in January, self-published by Gary Hartwig and Tom Wilke, and written in a unique style that tells the story of Twig and Emily’s lives in two different voices — Gary’s and Tom’s.

Gary said he wrote the book for his sister, Holly Hartwig Kegel, who was so young when everything happened in their family. “It’s really helped out my sister. She’s at peace for the first time in her life, I think.”

His sister is a counselor and helps others deal with their mental health issues, but struggled to overcome the shadow that hung over her family’s past.. Gary is very open in his book about his own need for counseling as well as his sister’s.

Helping Holly was his No. 1 priority, as well as “getting closure for my dad. When I entered this project, I didn’t know for sure. I always felt in my heart, he didn’t do this on purpose, or didn’t do it knowingly. But, I knew there was some risk that I would find out that he did, because he was desperate.”

The book Gary wrote with his friend Tom shares his family’s history, and paints a portrait of his hard-working parents, who were the product of their own upbringing and who passed along their strong work ethic to their children.

Wilke, who grew up in Porterfield with Gary, vividly remembered those years as well as the ones that came when they were older.

“That was the good part about doing it with Tom, because he was very objective and he’s an engineer — everything’s got to make sense,” Gary said of doing the research and piecing together the story.

Wilke, who worked as an engineer for many years in the private sector, recently retired and is spending time as an adjutant professor in Colorado.

While he had written one book, “Climbing is Ageless: Life Lessons on Colorado’s Fourteeners,” on his personal experience climbing 58 Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet high after turning 50, he said he doesn’t think of himself as an author.

“This whole writing thing is something that I never imagined I would do,” Wilke said. “My training is in engineering, and engineers are taught to be more specific and more directed. The only writing I did prior to this some creative writing, but most of my writing was technical writing.

“I never imagined I would ever publish a book, but I enjoyed the writing.”

In their early years, Wilke and Gary spent countless hours together until Wilke’s family moved away when he was 11.

Their paths would occasionally cross later in life, but both said it was their work on this book that really cemented their friendship.

Gary said Wilke did a lot of the research into court and newspaper archives, which documented dates, names and actions from the time when Twig Hartwig was murdered in Florida and his murderers were brought to justice.

Wilke said he didn’t know how much work would be involved in gathering the historic records of court cases, hearings and trials.

“Learning what really happened to Gary’s father, Twig, in Florida was the result of many hours of research. Working with clerks of court from five different Florida counties, getting research done by Florida librarians, and finding newspaper articles from the early 1970s about Twig’s dangerous and ultimately fatal experience with dubious characters in Florida made me appreciate how difficult decisions can be made by reasonable people,” Wilke said.

The book, which contains numerous photos of the Hartwig family throughout the years, also contains a timeline, since Gary’s and Wilke’s voices often tell the stories from both their memories as children and their perspectives as adults.

With Wilke’s help, Gary was able to find out more about his father’s involvement with some pretty scary individuals — an involvement that ultimately led to his death.

“Everything that we found out proved that he went into this totally unwilling,” Gary said of his dad. “He was just very naive in many ways.”

Gary said his dad would have known little to nothing about drug smuggling at that point in his life, because marijuana was not as pervasive as it is today.

“One thing that would have been different (today) is that he would have been much more cognizant of drug smuggling. At the time, our family would not have thought about any of that stuff. I knew there were kids smoking pot at school, but I wasn’t doing that. The majority weren’t at all; it was just a small group. So he was very, very naive about that.”

It isn’t just a story about Emily’s stroke, Gary’s brother Kent’s accidental death at age 19, or his father’s murder. It is a story about picking up the pieces and moving forward. About taking what you were taught as a child to make it through each day, at first, and then to learn to let go of the sadness in your past and live your life.

Wilke said his interaction with Gary, Holly and their mother was sporadic in the years after Twig’s death, which happened when he and Gary were about 14.

“I saw him from a distance and only in snippets, but what I saw in the snippets was very healthy, very positive,” Wilke said of his friend Gary. “He seemed like he was able to weather the rough seas that he dealt with in his life and go on with a very positive perspective about things, and a very healthy attitude about things. And that’s been something I greatly admired of him.”

Both Gary and Wilke speak to their continuing friendship, which endured separation and tragedies, but still remains intact all these years later.

“Co-authoring this book with my lifelong best friend, Gary Hartwig, was a rewarding experience for me,” Wilke said. “By revealing the inner doubts Gary harbored despite his outward stoicism and friendly demeanor, Gary gave me a new appreciation for his character and integrity. Despite never living within 1,000 miles of each other as adults, the solid friendship we established in early grade school in Porterfield, Wisconsin, survived and grew deeper. Writing this book together, an adventure that could have revealed our differences, instead strengthened our mutual respect and admiration,” Wilke said.

“I hope that anyone who reads this book will take note of the courageous and positive way Gary dealt with the extreme tragedies his family experienced, and be confident that their own human spirit can conquer any challenges,” he said.

In the book, Gary writes: “When we wake up in the morning, we choose our attitude, our level of energy and level of willingness to make a positive difference. … I hope my family story will help others look beyond their current or past troubles and realize that there will always be those who have experienced much worse.”

The soft-cover book is available through Amazon as well as locally, at Tom’s cousin Steve Wilke’s business, ValuCare HealthMart on Main Street in Marinette. People also can order the Kindle version on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=twigs+legacy+of+resilience&crid=15TDJKMBKX8SR&sprefix=%22The+Legacy+of+Twig%27s+R%2Caps%2C169&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_22