Community helping retired nurse after her house collapsed

Published: Oct. 2, 2023 at 5:36 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Judy Witkowski stood in the kitchen of the 75-year-old house near downtown Sioux Falls she has called home for over 40 years.

The 78-year-old flashed a beaming smile and laughed as she told a story about how one of her kids burned a Thanksgiving turkey in that kitchen by turning the stove’s temperature knob too high while Witkowski was away, working.

“We ate what we could eat of the turkey, and that was it,” Witkowski said, laughing. “It was a fun night, then.”

There were many fun nights. This could be any older lady, telling any old stories, anywhere in America. Anywhere in the world. It could be anybody’s house. Maybe it reminds you of yours, or the one you grew up.

Witkowski then stepped into the dining room, then living room, and happily gushed about how many a gleeful Christmas morning she had with her four children.

When asked what she loved most about the old house, the retired nurse choked up, eyes welling.

“Just that I raised my kids here,” Witkowski said, shaking her head and trying to hold back tears.

These were not tears of joy. This is not how it was supposed to end under this roof.

Witkowski raised those four kids while having to start her life over in this house. She moved the family from Milwaukee back to her hometown of Sioux Falls in the early 1980′s after her husband Jim choked on food in a restaurant and died of a sudden heart attack in his early 40′s.

She was 36. The Cathedral and O’Gorman schools alumnus bought the house on Sixth Street, just blocks away from where she grew up. Her nearby parents and siblings helped babysit her kids while Witkowski worked two or three jobs at a time.

The memories and tears have come flooding back over the last month for Witkowski, who planned on living in the house until she could no longer walk the stairs.

Those plans changed on the night of Aug. 25, when the dwelling became too dangerous for her to live. As the old saying goes, a house is not a house without a foundation, and the foundation of the wooden structure fell apart that early morning.

The basement wall literally caved in — a tsunami of cement crashed into that space, immediately destroying the electricity, gas, and water lines. A massive heap of rubble now occupies the room where she did her laundry and stored some of her old family keepsakes and pictures — only some of which she has been able to recover.

Witkowski is moving out — to where, she doesn’t know yet — because she can’t afford the repairs and realtors “aren’t hopeful” that the house can be salvaged to put on the market.

And yet, she’s grateful to be alive, calling that night, in a way, “a miracle.”

“Oh, honey, it could have been far worse. I know that,” Witkowski said. “The whole side of the house could’ve collapsed when I was in bed. I mean, it could’ve just gone, and my bed would be totally hanging out the side.”

It was 3 a.m., and Witkowski awoke in her upstairs bedroom from her slumber to a loud “pop” noise. She thought it was maybe her dog, which might have been startled by the raging thunderstorm outside. When she went downstairs to check on the Cane Corso, it didn’t whine or fuss. She shrugged her shoulders and went back to bed.

It wasn’t until she finally went down to the basement at 6 p.m. the next evening when she discovered what that “pop” from the night before had been. She laid eyes on the destruction.

“I had to come downstairs to do the wash, and I go, ‘Ugh! My gosh,’” said, flailing her arms. “I was just flabbergasted.”

She called her neighbors. They called 9-1-1. Over the next three hours, six Sioux Falls Fire Rescue trucks, an ambulance, and several Sioux Falls Police officers came. They stabilized the house by wedging in a few wooden two-by-fours from ceiling to floor.

“They were just awesome,” Witkowski said of the first responders.

And they told her she needed to leave immediately, before the whole house sunk.

It made her heart sink.

“Very busy and traumatic” is how Witkowski describes the last five weeks ever since, full of phone calls and paperwork with city officials, appraisers, realtors, lawyers, family, and neighbors.

The city told her she did not financially qualify for any help from a grant — as in, she’s not underfunded enough. But the city is putting a $35,000 lien toward the house. Problem is, an appraiser deemed the cost of repairs to be $60,000, and that’s just for the one side of collapsed foundation on an older, sinking structure that could continue to crumble if other walls are unstable.

“I don’t know what else to do, because I can’t afford $60,000, and I’m not borrowing anymore on my house,” said Witkowski. Her only sources of income are about $200 per month in retirement funds, plus her social security checks.

“I’m not going to be able to live here,” Witkowski said. “I know that, so I’ve just been gradually packing up things. I can’t afford to fix it. Nope.”

She is temporarily staying at her daughter’s house near Larchwood, Iowa — about an hour away. She takes the two-hour round-trip drive every day back to the house to gather more belongings — a slow and painful process both physically and psychologically.

It’s enough to make an entire community of people feel her pain and do everything it can to ease it, starting with Witkowski’s dear friend, Lisa Kutter.

“We don’t know if (the house is) sellable or fixable,” Kutter said on Monday, herself coming to tears while trying to muster words about what she has seen Witkowski go through. “We’re kind of in limbo, and we just want to help her.

”This is home. She was widowed very young, unfortunately. All these young kids, working multiple jobs. At some point, some people just deserve a break.”

Kutter worked the nursing night shift with Judy for over 20 years in Avera health system’s psychological wards. The two remained close after Witkowski retired seven years ago at the age of 71.

“We call her ‘Grandma Judy,’” Kutter said. “She will do anything for anybody. In fact, she has nothing, and she still brought me treats the other day.”

Kutter has feverishly spent many of her waking hours over the last month finding any way she can to raise money for Witkowski, starting with a GoFundMe page with a goal of $10,000. She hopes a windfall comes next week at a charity stand-up comedy event she has organized.

“Comic Relief for Judy” will take place on Friday, Oct. 13th from 7 p.m. to midnight at Ken’s Korner bar — three doors down from Witkowski’s house. That it will happen on Friday the 13th is intentional, Kutter said, because of the strange and freaky thing that happened to her friend. There will be a $10 cover charge, with all proceeds and 10 percent of the bar’s sales going directly to Witkowksi.

A long-time member of the arts and entertainment community of Sioux Falls, Kutter called local comedian Sara Manson to see if she would perform at the benefit, and perhaps bring some of her fellow comedians.

“She got other 11 comedians, right away, in one 24-hour period,” Kutter said of Manson. “These comedians, I don’t know a lot of them, and they don’t know (Witkowski). They’re from the city, and they said, ‘We’ll be there. What day do you want us?’

“These are strangers who can make plenty of money on their own, and they do. And they’re donating their time. That was all within 24 hours.”

While Dakota News Now was interviewing Witkowski on Monday, Kutter was standing a few feet away, taking in a text from The Premier Playhouse, a community theater group in Sioux Falls, who will make tickets available for the silent auction at the benefit. The Mighty Corson Art Players community theater in Corson and the Good Night Theatre collective of Sioux Falls also donated tickets to upcoming shows to raffle.

Local artist Jackie Krouse of J K Galleries will bring screen art that she created for a show on HGTV. ACE Hardware of Hartford is putting together a gift basket. Local pottery stores and restaurants are providing gift certificates. Kutter has lined up other artists and a jewelry maker to provide things to bid on at the auction, as well.

Kutter has lived in Sioux Falls her whole life, but never near Witkowski’s neighborhood. Shortly after the house collapsed, Kutter walked into Ken’s Korner and met the manager and events coordinator for the first time.

“When I went and approached them, I didn’t know them, and the second they heard about this, they were on board,” Kutter said. “They said, ‘Anything for our neighbor.’”

Witkowski has not been much of a patron at Ken’s Korner because she doesn’t drink alcohol. But she knew the namesake and former owner Ken Vanderloo when the structure was a gas station and auto repair garage, and said he was “a great person.” The act of kindness by the pub’s management does not surprise Witkowski because it is how her neighbors have treated her for four decades.

A couple down the street recently allowed Witkowski to share a garden with them on their property. They canned the produce and shared it with her. Another neighbor bought pizzas for the first responders on the night Witkowski’s life changed.

“The neighbors, they just pitch in to help whenever you need it,” Witkowski said.

Asked about the generosity of Kutter, Witkowski had to pause to hold back tears.

“She has been a friend throughout everything,” Witkowski said. “We’ve been great friends. Our children know each other. We’ve helped each other with our children.

“That she’d do a benefit for me — (pause, sniffle) — I just was really thankful. Thankful that I’ll be able to do some things. I have to find another place to live, because I don’t want to impose on my daughter for all this time, and I don’t want to be driving back-and-forth from Iowa to here.”

Asked if she hopes to find a place in the neighborhood she’s called home for over 40 years, Witkowski said, “Yeah, it would be great. It would be nice. I’m just looking around, but I haven’t found anything that gets you to be able to —.” Her voice trailed off, until she found the words.

“I just don’t know what to do, what to look for anymore.”

Kutter hopes her long-time friend won’t have to look far, and that the “Comic Relief for Judy” event and GoFundMe page will go a long way. She hopes a lot of people will read this story and step up.

She is optimistic because she’s seen people in the Sioux Falls area step up time and time again for people in need.

In this case, a blue collar part of the city, anchored by Ken’s Korner, an establishment whose sense of humor is plastered on a giant banner on the building’s exterior: “Welcome to the North End Country Club.”

Although both ladies are crestfallen over Witkowski’s tragedy, they are moved by their experience with the “North Enders.” Kutter will never forget walking in to Ken’s Korner for the first time a few weeks ago and plunking down on the bar the donations box explaining Witkowksi’s plight. The three patrons didn’t even bother reading the box before they reached into their pockets and dropped in money.

”You just hear the north end is maybe tougher, maybe not as safe sometimes,” said Kutter. “But, they are the sweetest people. They have come together just immediately for Judy, and it really seems like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name, and I have not yet met a bad person here. I mean, they’re just really supportive of one another, and I don’t think the community really knows that.”

It does now. It will on Friday night, Oct. 13, at Ken’s Korner.