Remember: Emily running by a stream

Love lost, such a cost,

Give me things that don’t get lost.

Like a coin that won’t get tossed

Rolling home to you  — Neil Young. Old Man



by Vince Bushell with messages from co-workers and friends, photos by Emily Thornburg


I only know what I can know. What I know of Emily Thornburg is only a small slice of her life. She crossed paths with me down by the river. One day she showed up, red hair, freckles and all, to volunteer at River Revitalization Foundation (RRF). I was struggling to keep weed free and in view, a replication of an effigy mound. Mishipeshu, the underwater panther, which graced the shores of our river for at least 400 years. Mounds destroyed by “progress”, as the city grew.

I wanted people to remember the stories of those who came before.


I asked Emily to mow around the form of Mishipeshu.  She energetically agreed and donned a safety helmet with mask and ear protection. She took the handles of the souped-up walk-behind weed-whacker and munched away the tall grass and weeds hiding the ancient form. That is the memory of Emily that I cherish. Smiling, happy, full of life and looking to the future. It seems just yesterday. Indeed on a time scale it was. At most, my meeting Emily was three years ago.


She told me of her life, her family, her dreams.


Remember. Those who knew her. Remember. The gifts she gave to you.


I would run into her on the river trails. Running, she loved to run. Swiftly, through the woods of the city, all seasons. Water flowing, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes frozen, within view and earshot. Running.


I asked her to perform in a play with me and other friends. She was hesitant but agreed to do it.  Thank you Emily for that gift of time. Her work with RRF became as an office manager and event coordinator. Part time work that she coupled with a job at the Humane Society. Her cat Derek jumped into her lap and her life there. He was with her to the end. 


Bits of her story. Bits of her life.  


“Emily was never afraid to be herself and is one of the most genuine people I have ever met. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had her in my life. She will remain with me forever in many memories of laughter. I will greatly miss her.” -Joanna Demas – Land Manager RRF


Emily came to RRF as a volunteer. She brought with her a quirky sense of humor, creative ideas, positive energy and an odd way of looking at the world! These qualities and her intense passion and commitment to the river and the environment made her the ideal candidate for a position with RRF as administrative/ HR assistant and event planner extraordinaire. Like a lightning bug, she lit up the day and our events with a beautiful flash. Her contributions were many and include winning the Heart of Canal Street grant from Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, nominating RRF and reaching finalist for a MANDI award in the Brewers Community Foundation Open Space category, and of course, orchestrating the most fun events ever like the Wild & Scenic Film Festival.

She wanted a career, and I must say she did – being part of the RRF team for the time we had with her. – Kimberly Gleffe, ED RRF


I wish to thank my friend and coworker on the river, Ellie Kirkwood, for the friendship and time she gave to Emily during this difficult period. Ellie held her hand when needed.


We were 2 ditzy-azz loud-azz weirdy kids at this job. Smartest kids I know. I met her and couldn’t believe my luck. We grew closer as she got sicker. Weird how that shit works. Like, we could talk death, we could talk always feeling sick, we could talk anything. We could dream about the future of the river through all of it.


Emily didn’t act sick, whatever that means. I mean, yeah, I held her hand, but she held mine. I remember one night, I got trashed at her place and she, crutches and all, made a bed for me in her bathroom, and rubbed my back while I puked. I got to do the same for her later on. We talked so much about health, what the fuck does that word even mean. I think she knew, but I never did get to ask her. I can’t stop thinking about how much she knew.


I see her everywhere. It’s like any of my friends, alive, dead, somewhere in between, whatever, I’ll see em when I see em. And I’ll see Em when I see Em. She will always be my friend is what I am learning now. Now I get to learn to communicate with her in a whole new way. She loved challenging my communication skills and calling me out for how bad I am at them sometimes. Challenge accepted. I’ll see you soon, Emily. I love you so much. — Ellie Kirkewood, Field Manager, Close friend of Emily.


Yesterday people paddled on the river in a sort of Pokemon on our waters. Emily helped that happen on our stretch of the river and Michael Tim of the water group Reflow, dedicated this section of the Great Water Race to Emily. 


We will plant a boat full of native wild flowers to remember Emily along our river.

A sort of solar boat that will bring to mind the rays of life she gave to us.


I cry now.


But we will celebrate with stories, song, and canoes on Sunday July 30, starting at 4pm along the river at RRF- 2134 N Riverboat Road. Join us if you knew Emily.


Mishipeshu, the spirit of the deep. The spirit that gushed the sturgeon out of its mouth. The spirit that could drown the unsuspecting in the waters deep. As in nature, a balance between grace and terror. Between loss and gain. A deep lesson to learn. Easy to forget and so hard to understand.


There is a unity of time and space

Light transcends all of time

and all of space

When we become aware of the Light

When we become one with the Light

Then we are infinite

Someday I will be

One with Emily

In the Light



I will publish on line  memories and stories of Emily that are sent my way at

Emily took up photography to fill her hours and replace the time she did when she was running.

Her photographs are magnificent. I will post more of her work on the Riverwest Currents website.

Crocker Stephenson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a story about Emily. It is accompanied with a video. Emily had the courage to share her journey with the public. It is bitter sweet. It is testimony to the life of a young woman facing a deadly disease. She did her best to come to terms with the struggle and the probable prognosis given her at 30 years of age. This link is live on line at or search jsonline Emily Thornburg