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Hurley Education Foundation honors alumni


August 2, 2022


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Hurley — The Hurley Education Foundation inducted three distinguished alumni from schools in the Hurley School District into their list of Distinguished Alumni and Friends at their 19th annual induction ceremony on Saturday.

Col. Michael Downey, a salutatorian of the Saxon High School class of 1958, was the first of the new inductees to be honored at Saturday’s ceremony. Maj. Gen. Rodney Hannula, another Saxon graduate who was inducted into the foundation in 2019, gave a brief presentation on Downey to the audience.

Hannula explained that Downey has two careers — one in education and one in the military. Downey taught physics and math for 10 years at high schools in Wisconsin and Michigan. He then served as assistant director and later director of Consolidated Community School Services in Michigan.

Downey later returned to Wisconsin and served as superintendent of the Mellen School District for four years and business administrator for the Hayward Community School District. Downey retired in 2002.

Downey’s military career started when he joined the Wisconsin National Guard on his 17th birthday in 1957. He attended Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1961. Hannula said that Downey served with Company E, 127th Infantry Battle Group during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, where Cold War tensions almost erupted into open conflict over the post-WWII division of the German capital.

After returning from active duty, Downey served as commander for the 724th Engineer Battalion and executive officer and commander of the 264th Engineer group. Eventually, he was promoted to colonel and the Wisconsin State Staff.

“If I had a theme (for my speech), it would be ‘no man is an island,’” Downey said as he accepted the honor. “Everybody is connected with everybody else. Nobody accomplishes anything on their own. First of all, you have to be blessed with several attributes and secondly, you have to make a lot of friends and help a lot of people and they’ll reward you back a thousand times over.”

Downey’s father, Vern Downey, was previously inducted into the foundation in 2018.

Judge John Varda was inducted posthumously into the Hurley Education Foundation on Saturday. Hurley attorney Paul Sturgul presented the honor and Varda’s eldest son, John Duncan Varda, accepted the induction on his behalf.

Varda attended Hurley schools and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1932 as a member of the National Honor Society. Varda was a member of the first class to graduate from Gogebic Community College in Ironwood.

Varda received both his undergraduate and his law degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While in law school, he met his wife and future legal partner, Margaret Pinkley. Pinkley was one of the first 100 women to earn a law degree from the University of Wisconsin.

At the age of 24, Varda was elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature as a member of the Progressive Party. He volunteered for the U.S. Army during WWII, while his wife, Margaret, served as legislator in his place.

During the post-war period, Varda remained in Europe until 1950 to help rebuild Aschaffenburg, Germany from wartime devastation. Varda was among the people honored by the city for their work in its reconstruction in 1968.

Following Varda’s service in Europe, he became the chief counsel and lobbyist for the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association in Madison from 1950 until 1978. Sturgul said that his advocacy culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court decision changing laws regarding tractor-trailers in Wisconsin. Congress later affirmed this decision with legislation throughout the country.

Varda was co-founder and board of directors member of Range Savings and Loan Association in Hurley. In 1981, John was appointed Iron County Circuit Judge by then-governor Lee Dreyfus. Varda assumed reserve judge status from 1986 until 1990. He resided in Hurley until his death in 1993.

“As you can see, Judge Varda had an impressive and remarkable career, one which really was of service. He is exemplary in having become very successful, (but) he did not forget his roots and did a lot to help this area,” Sturgul said.

Sturgul said that Varda is the third person in his extended family to be honored by the Hurley Education Foundation. The others were Varda’s cousins Norma DeRubeis Rusch in 2016 and John “Tony” Cattelino in 2010.

The last of the three new inductees was another graduate of Lincoln High School, Italo Bensoni. His award was posthumously accepted by his daughter, Bonnie Bensoni McDonald, and her husband, Larry McDonald.

Bensoni graduated from Lincoln High School in 1937. He enrolled in the Corporation Conservation Corps for two years and served as an army staff sergeant with the 90th Infantry Division from 1941 to 1945 during WWII. Bensoni received a Bronze Star for heroic or meritorious service in the Battle of the Bulge and earned a Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

After the war, Bensoni joined the Iron County Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1580 and was elected VFW commander at both state and local levels. Bensoni served as chairman of the State Veterans Board on two occasions. He was co-founder and board of directors member for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. The Northern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery administration building in Spooner was named after him.

Bensoni also served as chairman of the Iron County Board of Supervisors, member of the Hurley City Council and chairman of the town of Kimball.

Members of the Saxon American Legion Mercier-Kero Post 371 presented colors at the beginning of the ceremony. As part of the event, the Hurley High School and 6th Grade Choir performed selections under the direction of Lydia Mattson and 8th grader Evan Corullo performed a clarinet duet with Hurley School Band Director Jesika Cane.


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