RICE LAKE, Wis. - When Ken Gonzales enrolled in a two-year woodworking course he could never have imaged his classmates would end up building the urn where his ashes now rest.
Gonzales was a non-traditional student in his late 40s when he showed up for his first day of classes at WITC in Rice Lake two years ago. The former soldier, construction worker and truck driver was seeking a new career when he joined a group of much younger classmates.
He took to them from the start.
"He loved being the dad of the class," said his wife Sheryl. "That was the coolest thing for him."
Sheryl Gonzales says her husband was never happier than he was in the woodshop with his classmates and instructor Chris Harder.
The feeling was mutual. "He instilled so much into these students and they thought so much of him," said Harder.
Student Anthony Young said Gonzales loved to share stories of his life experiences. "We we always used to joke around about just random things," he said.
The joking continued, until life didn't seem so funny anymore.
"He came to me and he said he had some pains in his stomach and he hoped it was something he could just get over," Harder recalled.
It was near the end of the first semester that Gonzales was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
"It was a big shock," said his wife. Doctors gave Gonzales a few months - perhaps a year - to live.
Knowing his grim prognosis, Gonzales continued going to class when he felt well enough. It's where he wanted to be.
Eventually, as the cancer took its toll, he quit coming. In December his classmates learned Gonzales had passed away.
For the young people in the Wood Technics class the life lessons were only beginning. Somberly, they pushed ahead with their projects as the Gonzales family began planning Kens' funeral.
An urn would be needed. Given Gonzales' passion for woodworking, a family friend suggested it be made out of wood. "And that's when it hit me to just ask the students if they would be willing to make an urn for his ashes," said Sheryl Gonzales.
Harder drew up the plans and his students went to work.
"I spent an hour just chiseling in the hinges for it," said Chris Groeschl, who along with Anthony Strong put in the most work on the urn. For months they'd been training to be woodworkers, never thinking they'd be crafting so precious a cabinet.
"It was going to be with him for the rest of, forever, so it's definitely really important," said Strong.
Gonzales's family could not agree more. That's where Ken sits all the time," said his wife, glancing toward the stool in the living room where the urn sits. "Goodness knows we talk to him enough."
The Urn is decorated with an abstract engraving of a lion, meant to symbolize the lion-hearted nature of Gonzales. Its corners are dovetailed. The urn is constructed of birch and mahogany.
"It's good to know just how much he was loved," says Sheryl Gonzales.
Gonzales was honored posthumously with a diploma and standing ovation during his classmates' May 11th graduation ceremony. His wife and step-children picked up his diploma.
Ken Gonzales came to WITC to learn to build wood cabinets, then crafted a bond with his classmates for the ages.
"In his own way he finished the class," said his wife.
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)