John Griebel passes after 53 years of service to Walworth County
By Kellen Olshefski
Family, friends and community members are grieving the loss of Walworth County’s long-time coroner, John T. Griebel, after his passing Dec. 20.
Griebel was elected as the county’s coroner in 1960 and held the part-time position up until his death for a total of 53 years of service.
Griebel, who was always interested in law enforcement, began his career with Walworth County as a deputy with the Walworth County Sheriff’s department in 1956.
In addition, Griebel served as a past president of the Wisconsin Coroner and Medical Examiners Association, a Justice of the peace from 1957 to 1960, the City of Elkhorn Health Officer, and secretary for 24 years out of his 35 years of service with the Elkhorn Area Fire Department.
A businessman, Griebel also sat on the Board of Directors of the State Bank of Elkhorn, Wisconsin Bank of Elkhorn and the First Star Bank of Lake Geneva.
Additionally, Griebel was a member of the Elkhorn Lions Club since 1957, the Elkhorn Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Elkhorn Commercial Development Corporation.
County Administrator David Bretl said Griebel’s passing is a real loss for the county, as he was an institution in the county and county government, predating everyone’s service in the county, with the next tier having around a decade less.
“John went way back…you don’t know where to begin with him,” he said. “We always joked, he was elected before I was born.”
“First, he was just a genuinely decent person and that’s what will probably stick with me the most.”
Bretl described Griebel, the longest serving elected official in Wisconsin at the time of his passing, as having a good personality for his position, noting that a lot of people might view the coroner as someone who works with the dead, though that’s not really the case.
“Actually, you’re working with the living, in terms of dealing with families, loved ones of the decedent who are at their worst possible point in time,” he said.
“He was able to do that with dignity and compassion.”
Bretl said Griebel was a quiet man and a great listener, attributes he believes was a huge part of his success as the county’s coroner,as well as Griebel’s ability to handle the number of stressful and depressing situations over the years as he was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In his first year as coroner, he handled a total of 85 cases, a number that has rose over the years as he made sure to remain current with developments in his field without losing sight of where he started, despite the ever changing technology.
“He had started in an era when that wasn’t the expectation, people held these offices and they did it many cases by themselves,” he said.
“He kept that to a certain extent and I think the county and county taxpayers are huge benefactors of his management.
According to Bretl, Griebel made numerous connections over the years and people often did things out of respect for Griebel and who he was as a person.
“The county, I think, recognized a huge value in so many ways,” he said.
“I thought I knew a lot of them, I just knew the tip of the iceberg in terms of the relationships John had.
“Right now we just feel a real loss…people are just feeling kind of down about it.”
A true member of the community, Bretl said Griebel took his job very seriously, and handled most everything personally.
“Today, we kind of get in this mindset that the department head is a figurehead,” he said. “John was the quintessential working department head.
“His pager would go off, I can’t tell you how many times, and he would get a call and John would be there, he would be there himself. Each one of those cases, someone has to tell the family and that was often times him.”
A unique individual, Bretl said while legal issues would come up from time to time, as they do with public records, chain of custody and autopsies, Griebel would ask the county for legal counsel, even though Bretl said he already knew the answer.
“He always knew the answer, but he respected that process and the players here in the county, and we of course respected him,” he said.
Bretl said Griebel was truly dedicated to his position, and the people of Walworth County.
“He really prided himself on the quality of the job he did, he was proud of his length of service,” he said.
Bretl said they would often joke with Griebel that he would pass up Lloyd L. Jensen’s term of service, who served as the county surveyor for 66 years.
“He would laugh at that, but he really was the true definition of a public servant.”
Being a history buff, Bretl said working with Griebel, a 1952 graduate of Elkhorn High School, was a treat, as he had been around for so many years and had so many stories to tell.
“You kind of had to draw these stories out of him about back in the early days and all the different board members of the time and issues,” he said. “John remembered it all.”
While Bretl said Griebel wasn’t one to go idly talking due to his deliberate, polite and reserved nature, when he did talk, it was a time to listen.
“After I realized that, I would shut up and try to listen to him because he was a lot more interesting,” he said.
Bretl said Griebel’s knowledge ran the gamut, stretching from general county issues and how the board, county and government has changed to societal issues.
“Respect for the dead and funeral customs and why things are the way they are,” he said.
“He had insight into all of that and that’s all going to be missed.”
Bretl said on a professional level, Griebel will be missed due to his depth of knowledge and professionalism, which made Bretl’s life easier as he could always be counted on. But more importantly, Griebel will be missed on a personal level.
“At a personal level, I feel a loss of someone who I considered a friend and a role model…he’ll be missed.”
Though funeral services and entombment will be private, a public memorial visitation will be held this Sunday, Jan. 5, from 1 to 5 p.m. at Elkhorn’s Evergreen Golf Club, N6246 US Highway 12.
Filling the vacancy
Bretl said currently, Griebel’s two deputy coroners are handling the office. He said Walworth County Clerk Kimberly Bushey has notified Governor Scott Walker, as is required when an office is vacated due to death.
Griebel’s term would have run through 2014 and it will be up to the governor to make an appointment to the position, according to Bretl.
Governor Scott Walker announced Dec. 30 that he is seeking applicants for appointment as coroner in Walworth County.
According to the press release, the new coroner will begin serving upon appointment and will complete a term ending Jan. 5, 2015.
The press release said interested applicants must reside in Walworth County at the time the appointment becomes effective.
Those interested in applying for the position are encouraged to submit a cover letter, resume and application. Application’s can be found online at www.walker.wi.gov, by selecting the “Apply” tab on the right side of the page, and then clicking on the “Reg. of Deeds/Sheriff/Coroner” tab.
Applicants should outline in their cover letters what professional and academic experiences qualify them to be coroner and describe their civic activities and community involvement.
Applicants can submit materials by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail to: Office of the Governor, Attention: Eric Esser, Director of Gubernatorial Appointments, 115 East, State Capitol, Madison, WI 53702.
Application materials must be received no later than noon on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. Potential applicants with questions about the appointments process may contact Eric Esser at (608) 266-1212.