By Bob Zientara
At the time when appearances for Barron native Chris Kroeze were organized at two local schools last Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018, it was long before the community was shaken by a pair of murders and the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl.
Kroeze, a member of Blake Shelton’s team of performers on the NBC network show “The Voice,” appeared last Thursday at Riverview Middle School and Barron High School. There were video recordings of both sessions, and some of the footage could show up later as Kroeze – who was Shelton’s choice after the “knockout round” in the show’s Oct. 15 broadcast – moves forward to the next level of competition.
Nobody dreamed that Kroeze would appear at the same place where missing Barron teen Jayme Closs attended school before she was abducted Oct. 15, following the shooting deaths of her parents, Jim and Denise Closs.
The performances took on an entirely different meaning for Barron students and for Kroeze, who’d already appeared earlier that week in an Oct. 22 “Gathering of Hope” held at the Barron High School football field.
As the Riverview Middle School gym slowly filled with students and teachers Oct. 25, the conversations among the bystanders centered on the tragedy and its effects on the community.
Barron County Sheriff’s detective David Kuffel, who serves as Barron’s “school resource officer,” chatted with Kroeze’s manager, Barron area native Zach Schauf. He said he knew Jayme before she transferred from Cameron schools to Barron about a year and one-half ago, and had coached her on sports teams.
The crimes had shocked the area, but had also given law enforcement departments a chance to reflect and learn from the situation, he added.
“It has helped us talk about how you make the plans for things you never want to happen, but that you have to (prepare for),” Kuffel said.
For example, Kuffel said that when the Wausau police visited Riverview Middle School with a therapy dog, he was present and watched what happened.
“We would love to have a dog like that (in Barron County),” he said.
Moments later, the crowd cheered as Kroeze walked to the microphone and asked if they’d like to hear a few songs.
“I feel a lot of energy here,” Kroeze said as he thanked the staff and the kids for their support.
“I went to Riverview Middle School, and a lot of the same teachers I had are still here. Mister B (teacher Aaron Beckendorf) can tell you a lot of cool stories (about me) later on,” he said.
For both Kroeze and his audience, the concert seemed to provide a chance to look at life from a different perspective than the enormous news events overshadowing the Barron area.
“I wanted to talk to you about dreams,” Kroeze said. “They’re really important. But you need to go beyond dreams and actually do (something).
“I sat in my bedroom playing guitar for years,” he continued. “But I finally decided to (do something) about it. So, find out what you want, figure out how to do it and then go and do it.”
Kroeze started out his set with the same song that earned him a spot on “The Voice,” the bluesy Stevie Ray Vaughn hit, “Pride & Joy.” His next selection was “Four Letter Words,” which he recorded several years ago in Nashville, Tenn. Finally, he sang Chris Stapleton’s 2017 country hit, “Midnight Train to Memphis.”
Principal Scott Stralka brought the session to a close, asking that the assembly dismiss by grades. As a way of keeping order and encouraging the kids to be patient while they waited to leave the gym, Stralka added that Kroeze would high-five each student as they left.
After slapping hundreds of hands, Kroeze returned to a corner of the gym where TV cameras, bright lights and a cluster of reporters were waiting for him.
Asked how he and his community were dealing with the tragic events of the previous week, Kroeze refused to comment.
“You do something (good) when people need it,” he said. “I am part of the community.”
His music was something empowering that he could share that day, Kroeze added. “It’s just hard to put into words,” he said.
He said it was a moment of nostalgia to come back to the middle school he had attended 13 years ago.
His goal was “to help the kids have a good time,” Kroeze added.
“This is a small town, and everybody knows everybody else,” he said. “We’ve got each other’s back.”
Kroeze said he appreciated the attention and enthusiasm of his audience that day.
He said he had played gigs in the past “where the adults look at their phones.” That wasn’t the case this time, he said.