Brilliant. Inspiring. Authentic. Renaissance man. Those are just a few of the phrases acquaintances have used in describing longtime Watertown resident Bill Jannke, a devoted fan of the community where he lived.
Jannke, 58, a prominent citizen, historian, and playwright, died Jan. 2 at his home.
Funeral services are scheduled for Feb. 8.
Ken Riedl found Jannke genuinely interested in capitalizing on the body of information before him.
“He had boxes and boxes of reference materials and subject matter in his room for the books he would publish,” Riedl said. “He was a true professional researcher.”
Riedl said Jannke was a well-known lecturer on Watertown history. Jannke has even taught a course on the city’s history through MATC for more than 20 years. In addition, he is the author of seven books, with one being,”Wicked Watertown: History You Weren’t Supposed to Know.”
“He was such a gifted speaker. He could make history come alive, such as on the walking tours of Oak Hill Cemetery,” Riedl said. “He was a brilliant individual.”
The popular walking tour guides by the Watertown Tourism Board were also the brain child of Jannke’s.
“He had such a thirst for knowledge,” Riedl said. “And he had a great memory and wonderful recall of events.”
Riedl said he would often give his friend a ride to one of the local banks in Watertown and Jannke would tell him where street names were derived from or who once lived in a house they would pass in the car.
“He just knew Watertown so well,” Riedl said. “He was the go-to-source for Watertown information. He was a fountain of information that will be missed.”
What people remembered most about Jaanke was that he would not allow limitations to get in his way.
According to an obituary by Jaanke’s family, “Bill was an exceptionally kind and thoughtful person — often selfless in the face of difficult personal circumstances. Despite losing his legs to diabetes at 34 — he successfully navigated the world on two-foot high prosthetics and was prone to banging on them with his cane as the punchline to a comment.”
Jannke was born Feb. 12, 1961, in Watertown. He was the oldest child of the late William and Phyllis Jannke. His ancestry is German and his family settled in Watertown as early as 1847.
He attended Lincoln Elementary School in Watertown and graduated in 1979 from Watertown High School. Jannke went on to Madison Area Technical College and graduated from the commercial art program in 1985.
In 2011, the Main Street bridge was named in his honor.
Jannke also was the parade marshal for the 2012 Fourth of July parade.
He was one of the founding members of the Dodge-Jefferson Counties Genealogoical Society in 1981 and served as the group’s president.
Marie Hilgendorf, president of the Dodge-Jefferson Counties Genealogical Society, said if it wasn’t for Jannke’s persistent promotion to start a group in Watertown, it may have never happened in 1981.
“He would visit with other service groups in the city and help people understand the importance of knowing their family’s history and where they came from,” she said.
Hilgendorf said besides helping residents find their roots he was a collector of Watertown memorabilia, especially postcards.
“He was a huge fan of Watertown,” Hilgendorf said.
He was affiliated with the Watertown Historical Society since 1983 and served as its president for more than 12 years.
Jannke’s love for history also stretched to his love for Wizard of Oz memorabilia, which began with his interest in the book of the same name by author L. Frank Baum.
“My brother really loved the books with the characters from the Wizard of Oz in them,” said Scott Jaanke, 56. “He would also correspond with Margaret Hamilton, the wicked witch from the movie. He met her when she came to Wisconsin to perform in some of the plays here and they became friends.”
His brother said he loved collecting antiques, especially those specific to Watertown.
Annette Weirick of Watertown Players Inc. already misses her commute to work with William Jannke.
Jaanke, who was an employee of the Veterans Service Office, located at the Jefferson County Courthouse, would catch a ride with his distant cousin, Weirick, about three-four times a week. During that ride, show business always came up.
“We would talk about what would make a good show and who would direct it on our way to Jefferson,” she said. “He would ask me, ‘Did you see this movie?’ and ‘What did you think of it?’ He loved talking about the theater.”
His love and passion for the stage led Jannke in 1988 to create, Watertown Players Inc., the local community theater.
There, Jannke met Will Wiley, director and musical director of the Watertown Players Youth Theatre. Wiley is currently directing “Beauty and the Beast.”
“I received a letter from Bill when I began directing ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and he wrote in the letter, ‘If anyone can pull it off (directing the musical) it would be you.’ That letter really means a lot to me. If Bill thought highly of you, it meant something.”
The “Beauty and the Beast” director said Jannke cast him in his first show, “State Fair.”
Wiley’s daughter, Cannon Jo, even had the opportunity to work with Jannke, whom she treasured as both a director and individual.
“Cannon Jo earned the opportunity to work with Bill in some of his Octagon House shows,” Wiley said. “She simply enjoyed working with him. He made a lasting impression she will never forget.”
Jannke penned several plays and for more than a quarter of a century wrote and directed the annual Christmas play for Watertown Historical Society, which is performed in the Octagon House.
Funeral services for Jannke are scheduled at 11 a.m. Feb. 8 at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 615 Jones St., followed immediately by a celebration of his life at The Market, 210 S. Water St., Watertown.