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Making wishes come true… Turtleman style

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Wisconsin Make-A-Wish recipient’s No. 1 wish was to meet “The Turtleman”

Story by John Bramel
Photography by John and Joanne Bramel

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Austin Myers, an 8-year-old Make-A-Wish recipient from Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, was adamant.
“I want to meet Turtleman.”
“The Make-A-Wish people wanted a backup choice, I guess, so they asked him what would be his second choice,” said Austin’s grandfather, Dennis Galecki.
“I want to meet Turtleman,” he repeated.
After some prompting, he said his second choice was Clay Matthews, of the Green Bay Packers.
But the wheels were turning, headed to Marion County, Kentucky.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation covered the family’s travel expenses and worked with the folks from Animal Planet.
“We were glad to help set up this visit,” said Jared Albert, Animal Planet senior publicist.
And Ernie Brown Jr., the now-universally recognized focal point of Animal Planet’s “Call of the Wildman” weekly television program, took over from there.
“We thought we would just have a 15-minute or so session with him,” said Galecki. “Wow. This is awesome.”
Uh… a brief meet-and-greet session is not the Turtleman style.
You must get immersed in the entire adventure of it all.
When Austin and his family walked into the Turtleman Museum that’s part of the Marion County Heritage Center in Lebanon, they met the entire “Call of the Wildman” cast. All of them. And the banjo-picking, barn dancing, frolicking, exuberant craziness that is the “Call of the Wildman” crew was underway. Complete with Lolly Dog, who has more Google hits than the majority of the human population, barking harmony.
“This is what I do, what God wants me to do,” said Ernie, perplexed that all folks are not like him. “I make people happy.”
And when he learned that Austin was headed his way to fulfill a Make-A-Wish dream, “Hey, I’m going all-out! This boy deserves to be happy — as happy as we can make him.”
So Ernie gave Austin and his family a personal tour of the Turtleman Museum, and provided gifts (and received Wisconsin-related gifts from the family and Make-A-Wish). Austin and his family got unlimited one-on-one personal visitation time with Ernie and all the Turtleman crew. And there was much joy and fun along the way.
Then he took the whole shebang to his favorite Lebanon restaurant, Cedarwood, and treated everybody to lunch.
And then…
Off into the beautiful Marion County landscape they drove, the family in a limo arranged by Make-a-Wish.
Austin? Riding shotgun in Ernie’s truck, with Lolly Dog in back.
A farm pond was the destination, where Ernie gave Austin a front-row seat for a separate, unrelated event filmed that same day, an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. As of this writing, such events have raised $62.5 million for the ALS Association, and Ernie’s participation was prompted by a “call out” from the Bone Collector Michael Waddell. Turtleman called out a host of folks, including Dolly Parton, before doing a flip into a pond and ending his stunt with bucket after bucket of ice water… and pond water. That video has gone viral and can be easily found on the internet.
Meanwhile, Michelle Dayvault, director of individual giving for the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana chapter of Make-A-Wish, was making it clear that her organization is not affiliated with the ALS Association and has a different, distinct goal.
“Make-A-Wish grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions and we strive to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy,” she said, echoing the foundation’s motto.
And Dennis Galecki, Austin’s grandfather, said that goal was indeed met in Austin’s case.
“In fact, it’s been exceeded,” he laughed.
Galecki said Austin has suffered complications for six years. He’s endured painful steroid shots, and undergone monthly six-hour iv sessions and more, all in an attempt to build up the boy’s immune system. Austin’s seven-year-old sister has the same disease, but Austin’s is more advanced.
“The doctors at the Mayo Clinic call it the ‘Jessica and Austin Disease,’ because they are the only two who have it,” said Galecki. And the day provided by Make-A-Wish, Ernie Brown Jr. and Animal Planet was a wonderful, if brief, respite.
During the day Austin expressed another concern. He was worried that travel arrangements would not get him back home to Osh Kosh on Sunday in time to watch the upcoming “Call of the Wildman” episode.
But in that moment the real Turtleman, with pond remnants still dangling on him, his trusty knife Thunder strapped to his side, and Lolly Dog barking away, stood right in front of him.
And he said simply, “Thank you, Turtleman.”