Arlington Heights mom dies saving boy in Wisconsin lake

  • Karen Wessel, 47 of Arlington Heights, was a "great mom," say friends and neighbors.

    Karen Wessel, 47 of Arlington Heights, was a "great mom," say friends and neighbors. Courtesy of Don Bussey

  • A photo several years old, of Karen Wessel with her children, Michael and Elizabeth.

    A photo several years old, of Karen Wessel with her children, Michael and Elizabeth. Courtesy of Don Bussey

  • Karen Wessel, left, with her sister, Janice Potocki.

    Karen Wessel, left, with her sister, Janice Potocki. Courtesy of Don Bussey

Updated 7/25/2014 5:03 AM

An Arlington Heights single mother of two died Tuesday after jumping into a northern Wisconsin lake to save the 9-year-old godson of her friend.

Karen Wessel, 47, was vacationing with her son, her sister, a friend and two other children in Star Lake, Wisconsin, this week.


The three children were swimming from a sandbar back to the shore of Star Lake when they started to struggle, according to a news release from the Vilas County sheriff's department.

Wessel and her sister, Janice Potocki, also of Arlington Heights, swam out to save the children, two of whom were rescued.

Wessel then swam to her friend's 9-year-old godson, where she got underneath him and pushed the boy above the surface to keep him from going under, police said. Nearby boaters were able to pull the boy out of the water.

But a short time later, Wessel went under.

She was recovered by authorities and taken by helicopter to Aspirus Hospital in Wausau where she was pronounced dead at 5:20 p.m. Tuesday, police said.

Wessel is survived by her sister, Janice Potocki, her 9-year-old son, Michael, and 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.

Her family and the Pioneer Park neighborhood where she lived are mourning the loss of a woman they said was a great mother and friend.

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Potocki, still reeling, said the family is trying to figure out how to move forward.

"She is a hero for saving the life of that 9-year-old boy," Potocki said. "I almost drowned, too. We are totally in shock. It's a horrible tragedy."

The two sisters were very close, living next door to one another in Arlington Heights and in their vacation homes in Star Lake, a small unincorporated community in far northern Wisconsin near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

"My mother used to call us 'Pete and Repeat' because where there's one, there's the other," Potocki said.

Friends said Wessel's house was the one in the neighborhood where kids would just walk in and grab something to eat, knowing they were always welcome.

"My whole neighborhood is absolutely devastated," Potocki said.

Wessel was active in the Westgate Elementary and Rolling Meadows High School communities where her children attended school, said neighbor Barb McCoy.


"She was completely dedicated to her family, and now the kids are without a mom," McCoy said. She said Wessel was like a second mom to her 12-year-old son.

"Karen didn't aspire to riches," said friend Don Bussey, who lived nearby. "She defined herself as being a good person if she was a good mom and she was a great mom."

Bussey is working to set up a fund to benefit the children and their futures.

"It's just such an immense tragedy," Bussey said. "It's just unimaginable."

Funeral services have not yet been planned.

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