Grannies will dance again in the parade where tragedy struck

MILWAUKEE — The high winds forecasters have warned are blasting down Wisconsin Avenue, but 15 grandmothers lining up on the street are ready to march. They are dressed for this morning’s parade in wide-brimmed hats held in place with elasticated chin straps. They’ve replaced red pompoms with white ones to keep the color from running in the rain teasing his return from a leaden November sky.

“It’s my calling,” says Kathi Schmeling, a retired HR assistant, her grin framed by the crimson lipstick that’s a trademark of the women who call themselves the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies. “This is my happy place.”

Considering where they’re from, it’s no small feat that they’re here in the first place. A year ago, an SUV driver plowed through a Christmas parade in the nearby suburb of Waukesha, killing six people and leaving many more scars. Four of the victims were from the Dancing Grannies, including their longtime leaders, who threatened to wipe out the tight-knit band of women — not old, they say, just tried — first drawn together by the aerobics craze of the 1980s.

Somehow they persevered. They drew on the resilience they had accumulated long before the tragedy as they faced cancer and divorce, the loss of jobs and loved ones. They accepted that to move on it would risk breaking new ground, doing things with new dancers who hadn’t lived their story. But soon the calendar will close. And to move forward, the group made a decision. When the parade returns to Main Street in Waukesha, they have to go back.

On this day a year ago, eight women were scheduled to march through Waukesha’s cozy downtown, where the annual Christmas parade, canceled the previous year due to the pandemic, had returned with a new theme: “Comfort and Joy.” Families crowded along the Main as the Grannies joined the procession behind a troop of Boy Scouts and a youth dance corps. At 4:38 p.m., they strolled through an intersection to a crowd favorite, Winter Wonderland, and waved pom poms in the sky.

In the din they didn’t hear the red SUV plowing down the Main until it hit them.

“It was lightning,” says Donna Kalik, who watched the parade with her boyfriend from a café window. “And as I run out, there’s a corpse to my left and a corpse to my right… It looked like a war zone.”

A few yards from the curb lay the group’s leader, Ginny Sorenson, dead. Thrown onto the sidewalk, the bodies of Leanna Owen and Tamara Durand, both killed instantly, were only identified hours later.

Nearby, another grandma’s husband, who was a regular volunteer, lay with bruises and beatings and succumbed to his injuries the next day. Down Main, an 8-year-old who was parading with his little league team, and a 52-year-old woman who was marching with colleagues from a local bank were also killed.

Wandering through the chaos, Schmeling found her fellow dancer Sharon Millard, a teacher’s assistant who was so invested in the group that she had called to sign up the night before her first grandchild was born.

“Kati!” she said dazedly. “What will happen to the Grannies?”

The days and weeks after the parade were filled with doubt. Several dancers were injured, including 64-year-old Betty Streng, who was in a coma for five days with a double skull fracture.

Others nurtured hidden scars. One granny kept repeating her decision to dance on the left side of the formation — leaving Durand a few yards to her right on Death’s path. Another collapsed at work as “Winter Wonderland” came over the school intercom.

But it seemed they owed it to the dead to keep the group going, or at least to try.

When they reunited in late January, 34 hopefuls emerged and formed a dance line that circled the tables of a fraternal hall.

Some shrugged it off in the weeks that followed, reluctant to embark on months-long drills and more than 20 parades a year. A few veterans, overwhelmed by memories, withdrew.

Early on a cold Saturday, the Original Grannies marched for the first time again in a Milwaukee St. Patrick’s Day procession, newcomers wearing sashes identifying them as trainees walked alongside.

Towards the end of spring, the Grannies – increasingly seen as the embodiment of the regional motto “Waukesha Strong” – sent out parade invitations from across the state. In city after city, spectators shouted their thanks for the group’s return, forming hearts with outstretched hands.

“Sometimes it’s bittersweet,” recalls Jeannie Knutson, one of the Original Grannies. “I mean, before the tragedy, the crowd was clapping and singing along, but now it’s very different.”

As October rolled around, the horrifying memories of Waukesha were being relived in a Milwaukee courtroom.

“I didn’t want to hear about it,” says Schmeling, recalling the anger she felt as she shared her memories of Waukesha with prosecutors before the trial. “I’m done with this chapter.”

The driver, Darrell Brooks, was convicted of all 76 counts against him and sentenced to life in prison.