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Crandon Son Remembered, Celebrated In ‘Brotherhood Apple Orchard’

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Forty apple trees stand in an orchard behind the Crandon school complex.

They’re young and didn’t produce much fruit this fall.

But their purpose is for something much more powerful.

They stand in memory of a son beloved by his community.

While standing by that orchard, Erica Neilitz was asked to describe Steve Sekel, for whom the orchard is named.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Erica Neilitz reads a poem at the dedication of the Brotherhood Garden.

Neilitz had to take a deep breath and compose herself.

“I would describe Steve as bigger than life,” Neilitz said after a long pause.  “Steve had this canny knack and ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in the room.”

In May, an accident killed Sekel, who was 29, near Crandon.

Neilitz knew him.  She’s Crandon’s school nurse.

“We live in a divided world today.  There’s a lot of negativity.  You can overcome that with brotherhood.  Steve embodied that.  He had friends from all walks of life,” she said.

Steve Sekel.

Steve Sekel and Crandon schools were intertwined, even before the orchard.  He went to school there, and his mother, Lori, teaches kindergarten in the school.

But last Friday, that connection became even stronger.

“We talked a little bit about buying an apple tree [in his memory].  That turned into, let’s buy a lot of apple trees,” said Crandon Elementary School Principal Jamee Belland.

Belland and Neilitz helped create the Brotherhood Orchard in memory of Sekel.

Each tree has a brick at its base with messages like “compassion” and “embracing others” painted in red, white, and blue.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
One of the red, white, and blue painted bricks at the base of apple trees in the orchard. Steve Sekel loved Independence Day.

“Steve was a lover of Fourth of July,” Belland explained.  “He liked to celebrate that time of year.  So we thought it was fitting all of the bricks around here have those same colors.”

School staff pitched in to buy the trees.

Neilitz, Belland, and the community planted them over the summer.

“I wasn’t surprised.  I grew up in Crandon,” Neilitz said.  “We’re a community that, when someone needs something, we come together.”

An Eagle Scout candidate and his troop built wooden benches for the orchard.  A high school junior created an ornate metal frame for a plaque.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Family and friends help wrap the apple trees for the winter in the Brotherhood Apple Orchard.

“He was the greatest big brother you could ever think of,” said Willie Sekel, Steve’s brother.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Steve Sekel's immediate family. From left, Willie (brother), Tyler (brother), Chuck (father), Lori (mother), and Danielle (widow).

“There’s a huge roller coaster of emotions through this whole entire thing,” he said.  “Every single day is a struggle.  That’s just the way it is.  I think today is heartwarming, for me, to be honest with you.  I think it’s pretty dang cool.”

Willie regrets Steve’s life was so short.

But at least the community, the support, and the orchard, will endure long into the future.

“It just makes you know that he did so much in the short time he had on this earth,” Willie said.  “It’s pretty cool.”

The Brotherhood Orchard is open to visit behind the Crandon school complex.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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