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Maestro / Captain Joel Arthur Blahnik, age 85, passed away Friday afternoon, December 29, 2023 - a day prior to the one-year anniversary of the death of his loving wife, Mary Ann - at the Pete and Jelaine Horton Center Skilled Nursing Facility in Sturgeon Bay. While there he made many friends and received excellent care. For most of his 13-month stay he was also under the care of Unity Hospice. This time was a wonderful finale to a life well lived. He loved people and was engaging, vibrant, joking and singing until his last two days.
Joel was born at home in Fish Creek, Wisconsin on June 7, 1938, the eldest son of Arthur Patrick Blahnik and Viola Alma (Seeman) Blahnik. As he liked to joke - “they turned on the faucet and out came a drip!” He also liked to tell the story of how his name was chosen - by his father opening the Bible to the book of Joel, which happens to be one of the shortest.
At that time Arthur taught music at Gibraltar High School, a role that Joel would later fill as well. His father’s evolving profession led the curly-haired youngster and his family to De Pere and eventually to Green Bay. While a student at Green Bay East High School, Joel was involved in music, played basketball and excelled in track as a hurdler, setting a state record at the time. Upon graduation he was offered a track scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but instead chose to attend the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin. He ran track at Lawrence and studied under the tutelage of his first music mentor, Professor Fred Schroeder. He played many instruments, focusing on low brass.
At age 18, Joel got his Coast Guard Captain’s license that he held active for almost 60 years, during which he became a 100-ton Master. Being on the water was one of his passions. He also enjoyed diving with friends and discovered a shipwreck off of what locals call “The Rock”. During college summers, he ran sightseeing and fishing parties out of Ephraim. Occasionally, residents would complain to the Sheriff’s Department that someone was playing a trombone from a boat late in the evening, and the sound was bouncing off the bluffs into the village! Word is he liked to impress his dates.
Upon graduating from Lawrence, Joel started his career as Band Director in Niagara, Wisconsin. He soon discovered Niagara to be too remote and left for a similar job outside of Milwaukee. In the midst of this transition, he met Mary Ann Jarman on a sunset cruise, and they were married in Fish Creek in October 1963, at the Friedman Estate, now Hidden Harbor Condominiums.
After college, he purchased the steel vessel “Otumba” and started his own summer business, Blahnik Fishing Charters, from the Fish Creek Town Dock. He ran that business until his focus turned to Chambers Island in the mid-1970’s. After researching archives in Washington, D.C. for data and history of the island, focusing on the lighthouse, Joel eventually convinced the Town of Gibraltar to purchase the 40-acre lighthouse property from the Federal Government for $1. He and his family were appointed summer caretakers of the Chambers Island Lighthouse property in 1976. That role lasted over 40 years. The following summer he began 30 years of employment with the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay as Captain of the 53-foot M/V “Quo Vadis”, shuttling passengers between Fish Creek and Holy Name Retreat House on Chambers Island. Later in life, he served many years on the Town of Gibraltar Harbor Commission.
While Band Director at Nathan Hale High School in West Allis, Joel’s bands received much recognition. His concert bands were invited to the Midwest Clinic International Band and Orchestra Conference, the world's largest instrumental music education conference in Chicago, Illinois. His marching bands played a number of halftime shows at Green Bay Packers games. During this time, his focus shifted to composing music and serving as a WSMA (Wisconsin School Music Association) solo and ensemble judge, in which he was active all over the state for more than 30 years. With the encouragement and support of his second music mentor, Vaclav Nelhybel, Joel composed, arranged, and edited thousands of works, including pieces written for each of his children - Inventions No. 1, 2 and 3. He was commissioned to write a piece for the grand opening of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts in Green Bay. For many years he had more pieces on the Wisconsin Solo/Ensemble list than any other composer.
From 1979 to 1993, Joel was Band Director at Gibraltar High School in Fish Creek, from where he took early retirement in order to focus on his composing, his obsession with his Czech heritage, and the Czech Music Alliance he had formed with Sister Anita Smisek, OP. That partnership led to the formation of Alliance Publications Inc. - a publishing house for the production of ethnic music, particularly Czech and Slovak. Starting in 1989, they published over 3,000 works in all mediums of classical and folk-art music.
Joel and Anita, both third generation Czech/Americans, conducted hundreds of presentations at various universities, state and national conventions, schools, churches, and religious institutions across America. They also performed regularly in the Czech Republic as soloists, conductors, teachers, and helped co-found several music festivals. He was big in Europe! He also was a member of Wisconsin Czechs, an organization that celebrates and preserves Czech music and culture.
Joel enjoyed attending sporting, musical, and theater events in which his grandchildren participated. In his last years, he liked watching westerns and anything to do with World War II, as well as the Packers, Bucks, and Northern Michigan University women’s basketball, where his granddaughter plays.
Joel will be missed by his son, Jon (Christianna) Blahnik of Sturgeon Bay, WI; daughter, Betsy (Matt) Kuhn of Hilbert, WI; daughter, Jennifer Blahnik (Robert Hawley) of Baileys Harbor, WI; beloved grandchildren, Connor (April), Makaylee, Cadence, Jackson (Harlow), and Madeline; brother, Jim (Judi) Blahnik of Egg Harbor, WI; sister-in-law, Sue Kaeske of Fish Creek, WI; nieces, Chelsea (Nick) Mittermann, Marne Kaeske, Kendra Adelson, and Dr. Danen (Phil Whitsett) Adelson and their respective families.
He was preceded in death by his parents; wife of 59 years, Mary Ann; his parents; parents-in-law, Glen and Leora Jarman; nephew, Matthew Blahnik; brothers-in-law, Glenn “Ed” Jarman and Russell “Skip” Kaeske; and sister-in-law, Dr. Betty (Russ) Adelson.
Visitation for Joel will be held at Huehns Funeral Home in Sturgeon Bay on Sunday, January 14, 2024 from 1:30 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. If that happens to conflict with a Packer playoff game, it’ll be on as he’d like that. A private prayer service will follow for family, residents, and staff at the Horton Skilled Nursing Facility Chapel onsite.
A celebration of life for Joel and Mary Ann will be held at the Chambers Island Lighthouse over Memorial Day weekend, on Sunday, May 26, 2024 at 2:30 p.m. Transportation will be provided on the vessel “Quo Vadis” which will depart Fish Creek at 1:00 p.m. To reserve a spot on the boat, go to: https://fishcreekscenicboattours.starboardsuite.com/e/blahnik-chambers-island-4008/blt/32f337
Joel will be laid to rest in Blossomberg Cemetery in Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek, with a private graveside service.
In addition, a memorial concert for Joel will be held at a future date.
In lieu of flowers, contributions from the community will be used to support charitable activities and causes selected by the Blahnik family. Donations may be directed to: Joel Blahnik Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Door County Community Foundation, Inc., 222 N 3rd Avenue, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235. Donors may also give online via the link www.givedoorcounty.org/blahnik-fund.
"Our family wishes to thank EVERYONE at the Horton SNF and Unity Hospice for their professional and compassionate care."
Casperson Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Sister Bay is assisting the Blahnik family. Expressions of sympathy, memories, and photos of Joel may be shared with his family through his tribute page at www.caspersonfuneralhome.com.
Joel Blahnik Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Door County Community Foundation
222 N 3rd Ave, Sturgeon Bay WI 54235