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Goeltz family tries to bring good from awful event

Tom and Wendy Goeltz are trying to make something positive from an awful crash that took the life of their daughter Megan. They're helping raise awareness about the danger of distracted driving. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)1 / 4
Megan Goeltz liked to look her best. She was known for her bleached blonde hair and sense of style. (Submitted photo)2 / 4
“She was a good sister,” Melissa Goeltz said of Megan, who was two years younger. Megan used to wear Melissa's clothes. Now Melissa is wearing hers, including the sweater she has on. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Randy Hanson)3 / 4
A plaque on the piano in Tom and Wendy Goeltz's living room expresses their love for their late daughter.4 / 4

Spunky and outgoing. Adventurous. Fun-loving and outspoken. A cheerleader and a dancer.  An explorer and outdoors lover. A fashionista. Beautiful. A caregiver. A devoted mother.

Megan Elizabeth Goeltz was all of that, according to her parents and siblings.

Photographs, videos, her possessions and memories are what they have left of the vibrant 22-year-old woman. Paisley, Megan’s 3-year-old daughter, is missing her “momma.”

Monday evening, Feb. 29, Megan was sitting in her car at a stop sign on 22nd Street N. in West Lakeland Township, Minn., when an approaching car on Hwy. 95 crossed two lanes of traffic, went into the southbound ditch and vaulted back up, hitting Megan’s car on the window of the passenger side door.

The collision tore the roof off of the 2010 Ford Fusion and killed Megan.

The Minnesota State Highway Patrol said the 20-year-old Hudson man at the wheel of the other car was likely distracted by something he was doing besides driving.

“We’re looking at everything,” not just texting, State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said at a news conference following the crash. “We will leave no stone uncovered.”

The investigation hasn’t been completed. Langer said the other driver, Drew T. Fleming, could face charges ranging from petty misdemeanors to a felony, depending on what the investigation uncovers.

Megan’s parents, Tom and Wendy Goeltz, and her sister, Melissa Goeltz, agreed to talk about the accident and its impact on their family earlier this month. The National Safety Council has declared April to be Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

“We kind of waited a little bit so the emotions weren’t so raw,” Tom said on a Friday morning nearly eight weeks after Megan’s death. He and Wendy talked to a reporter over coffee at the kitchen table of their home in the town of Hudson. Paisley, on an overnight visit with grandma and grandpa, was asleep in an upstairs bedroom.

“I feel we have to have a purpose for her. I mean, we really do -- to make something good come from it,” Wendy said, her eyes growing watery. “Because otherwise, you could just lay in your bed all day and wallow in… .”

“Because that’s what we feel like doing,” Tom said, continuing for his wife. “We don’t want to do anything really. But this is kind of motivating us to try to make a difference in other people’s lives. It’s kind of too late for us.”

Safety consultant

Tom is a vice president of risk management services for Hays Companies, an insurance brokerage house with an office in the IDS building in Minneapolis. He travels the country, and internationally, inspecting factories and other kinds of businesses for safety hazards.

He also gives presentations on safety and risk management to the companies’ employees. One of the hazards he talks about is distracted driving.

He was already passionate about his job, Tom said, but Megan’s death has taken it to a new level.

“I’m in the process of putting together a much stronger training program compared to what I had in the past,” he said. It will include his family’s story, complete with photographs.

“I think it is a powerful message to get out,” he said.

Tom also wants to bring the message about the danger of texting and other forms of distracted driving to elementary and middle school students.

Children are getting cell phones at an early age, and they need to know what can happen when you text and drive before they form the habit of doing it, he said.

Education needed

Melissa Goeltz, Megan’s older sister by two years, shares her father’s desire to educate young people.

A 2015 graduate of UW-Whitewater, Melissa is in her first year of teaching first grade at Malone Elementary School in Prescott.

She has talked to the driver’s education teacher at Prescott High School about speaking to his students and is thinking of ways to bring the message to students in lower grades.

When she spoke to students during Minnesota’s recent Distracted Driving Awareness Week, Melissa compared driving a car to having a job operating machinery or heavy equipment.

“If you choose to do something that will (distract) from your job, it can really hurt someone,” she said.

Her mother touched on the same theme.

“What I keep saying over and over is, your vehicle is a weapon and if you don’t take it seriously (someone can get killed),” Wendy said.

Tom said he talks about distracted driving to everybody he meets.

At Megan’s funeral, he told approximately 400 mourners that driving is the most dangerous thing they do every day. He concluded his remembrances of Megan with an admonition for people to be careful on the roads.

“Have a safe day,” is how Tom ends the message on his voice mailbox.

Turn off the phone

Tom was on the road home from Fargo, N.D., the day he made arrangements for the interview with the Star-Observer. He had other business that was unfolding, too, and people who wanted to get in touch with him. But his phone was turned off when the car was in motion.

“It’s really not that inconvenient,” he related. “You just stop and you get your information -- make a phone call or a text or an email while you are at a stop in a safe position.”

“Then when you are driving you are decompressing (from) all the stuff, all the crazy things, that you do all day. It’s a time for you to focus on the road and kind of decompress. Actually, it felt really exhilarating to do that.”

Wendy has been asking her friends and family members not to call her on their cell phones if they are behind the wheel.

“I can’t do that anymore,” she said of talking over the phone to someone who is driving. Her conscience won’t allow it.

Like wearing seatbelts

“It’s like wearing seatbelts,” Tom said of turning off your cell phone while driving. “When we were younger, nobody wore a seatbelt. Then all of a sudden we were required to wear a seatbelt. … Pretty much everybody does.”

He said studies indicate that 80 to 90 percent of motorists participate in activities that distract them from driving. Society needs to reduce the percentage to something like the percentage who still refuse to wear seatbelts, he said.

Current laws aren’t doing anything to help the situation, according to Tom.

“The penalties for distracted driving are ridiculous,” he said. “It’s kind of like a slap on the wrist. It’s just ridiculous. Until they start making some legislative change to (penalties like those for) people who get busted for drunken driving people aren’t going to stop. It’s just going to keep going.”

A happy family

The weekend before the crash, Tom and Wendy were happy parents attending the State Cheer Championships at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison.

Their son, Gavin, is a member of the UW-Stevens Point Cheer & Stunt Team that won the state title in the college division. The Hudson High School Cheer & Stunt team won a championship in its division.

Megan was a high school cheerleader and a member of the competitive cheer and stunt team. When she was a senior, she talked Gavin, then a sophomore, into adding his muscle to the cheer and stunt team.

“When Gavin would come home (from college), Megan would still want to stunt with him,” Wendy said, smiling at the memory. “She had been out of it for a long time.”

The UW-Stevens Point team went on to win the national cheer competition in its division. The team members wore ribbons in memory of Megan as they performed.

Almost all the team members and coaches made the trip to Hudson for Megan’s funeral at Bethel Highlands Lutheran Church, too. The Goeltzes are members of First Baptist Church, but the service was moved to the larger sanctuary to accommodate the number of people who attended it.

Shock

Tom, Wendy, Melissa and her boyfriend, Cameron Loomis, were at the Goeltz home visiting when the call came saying that Megan had been in a car accident.

“I knew it was bad,” Melissa said.

Tom and Wendy left immediately for Regions Hospital.

“I wanted to go with. They didn’t let me,” Melissa said.

She sat for the next 20 to 25 minutes with her cell phone in her hand, shaking.

“I just knew,” she said.

Tom called Cam and told him he needed to drive Melissa to the hospital right away.

When Tom talked to Melissa, he told her that Megan was gone.

“I don’t know how to describe it. I really couldn’t breathe,” Melissa recalled. “It was almost like the whole world had just stopped.”

Megan was a typical younger sister, Melissa said. She’d wear her clothes and try to get into all her business. She was the adventurous child. She was outspoken and liked to have fun.

“She’s the best sister I could have asked for -- I wouldn’t trade her for the world,” Melissa said.

Tom and Wendy also had the painful task of calling Gavin at college to tell him the terrible news. They longed to be there with him through those awful moments.

Gavin said he fell to the floor when he heard Megan was gone.

It was a devastating experience that Tom and Wendy relived again and again as they called family members and friends to relate the sad news.

Final visit

Megan was already dead when Tom, Wendy and Melissa reached the hospital.

“We couldn’t say goodbye or anything,” Tom reported.

They were asked if they wanted to spend some time with her body.

“We needed to see her. It didn’t matter what she was going to look like. I had to see her,” Wendy recalled.

Tom remembers that Megan’s body was still warm when he grabbed her hand. When it was time to go, he held her hand again, and it was cold.

“That’s where it actually set in for me,” Tom said, his voice breaking for the first during the interview. “You don’t ever get that vision out of your head. Even though we see all the nice pictures of her, we saw her in a different state. We wouldn’t want anybody to see that.”

Tom speaks matter-of-factly, with a steady, gentle voice and kind eyes.

“You know, a lot of people have told me that I’m really holding it together well. But I’m really not,” he said. “There was one day where I was worthless the whole day. I couldn’t even do anything.”

The pain shows more visibly on Wendy’s face.

“It doesn’t see real yet,” she said. “I had a couple of rough days earlier in the week. It’s kind of setting in, but it still doesn’t seem like it is real.”

“No,” agreed Tom. “I keep thinking she is going to walk through the door.”

Support

The love and kindness that people have shown to the Goeltz family offers some comfort.

Many from near and far have sent sympathy cards and Facebook messages of support.

A card they received from the wife of a resident at Christian Community Home, where Megan worked as a certified nursing assistant, made Wendy cry. The woman had enclosed a photo she took of Megan on the job.

“She said Megan was always so bubbly and cheerful, and always put together with matching outfits and accessories,” Wendy remembered.

Tom added: “We got a lot of cards like that from the families of the people that she took care of at CCH. They told us how passionate she was about her job.”

Young people from around the state who knew Megan from Camp Tamarack, an American Baptist camp near Waupaca, attended her funeral.

At the end of her eulogy to her sister, Melissa invited the camp alumni to the front to sing “He’s My Rock, My Sword, My Shield” as a farewell to Megan. It’s a camp song with motions something like those of the “Chicken Song” danced to at weddings.

“Megan used to do it when she would come home from camp,” Tom said. “We were crying and laughing at the same time. It was kind of a weird set of emotions.”

Tom said they’ve received “incredible support” from the members of their church, as well as Christians around the country and the world who say they are praying for them.

“It’s just overwhelming,” he said. “The first three or four weeks, I was just kind of in a fog. But it wasn’t like I was depressed. I think I was being held up by all the prayers to be able to function.”

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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