Rock County family grieves the loss of beloved chef at popular supper club
Kevin Pope was head chef at Buckhorn Supper Club for more than 20 years
MILTON, Wis. (WMTV) - A family in Rock County is devastated after losing their son to depression and alcoholism last year. They’re now sharing their story in the hopes that they may help save someone else’s life.
Kevin Pope had plenty of family and friends who loved him. He also worked as the beloved head chef at the popular Buckhorn Supper Club on Lake Koshkonong in Milton.
But unfortunately, Kevin’s demons proved to be just too powerful.
“He didn’t want his life to be like that and why it was chosen to go that way, I don’t know.” said Dawn Pope, Kevin’s mother.
Dawn Pope is experiencing the kind of pain no parents ever wants to feel; the pain of losing a child.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she said.
For years, Kevin Pope battled both depression and alcoholism.
“He struggled every day to get out of bed and he struggled every night to go to bed,” said Chico Pope, Kevin’s father.
On August 17, 2021, Kevin Pope died at the age of 44.
“I knew he was sick. And I think -- and I know -- that Kevin finally just said to myself ‘I’m tired’ and his body was tired, and he passed away of natural causes and just fell asleep,” said Dawn Pope.
For more than 20 years, Kevin worked as the head chef at the Buckhorn. Back in the late 1990s, Chico and Dawn bought the Buckhorn and eventually Kevin rose to the role of head chef.
“He made a damn good steak, he was good at what he did,” said Josh Lund, Kevin’s friend. “If you want the best prime rib or the best steak in the area, it’s hands down where you are going.”
“I mean he could have 50 steaks on there and every one would be cooked perfectly and well-seasoned,” said Chico. “A plate never left the kitchen without him looking over it. He really was a perfectionist.”
Three years ago, Chico and Dawn retired and sold the Buckhorn to their daughter Shelley and her husband Matt.
“The supper club business is a great business to be in,” said Shelley Huhnke, Kevin’s older sister. “We serve a lot more than just food. We care a lot about our customers,”
Family, friends, and co-workers all knew about Kevin’s struggle with depression and alcoholism. In 2018, he went to get help at a rehab center in Florida.
“He finally felt like he needed to make a change,” said Dawn Pope.
He seemed to be getting his life together. But in 2020, things took a dark turn.
“We had him on the right track, I think. We had him in a good spot in his life and then COVID hit, ya know, so all the meetings he was going to regularly -- AA meetings -- once a day, twice a day. He enjoyed talking to all the people. All the sudden COVID hit, all those meetings stopped, and it sent him into a more isolated and depressed environment,” said Chico.
Kevin stopped answering phone calls. He became more withdrawn and fell back into the cycle of addiction.
“Something started to change with him a little bit, he became more isolated,” said Brandon Ferrell, Kevin’s lifelong friend. “As the pandemic started hitting, things got a lot worse for him. He was making real progress I think and then COVID hit and everything shut down and I think really started a tailspin for him that he just didn’t recover from,”
“He just wanted to be accepted,” said Huhnke through her tears. “I think he wanted to get married, and he wanted that life, but alcohol and depression got in his way,”
“I think Kevin – or I know Kevin because he told me – I’ve let everyone down,” said Dawn. “I can’t get out of this mess and I’m letting everyone down. He was embarrassed. So, he just stayed home by himself.”
In a study from the World Health Organization (WHO), in the first year of the pandemic, anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25% worldwide.
“Our career boomed,” said licensed therapist and Kevin’s friend Jessica Cullen. “There was no down time. We actually got a lot more clients.”
Cullen has worked at the Buckhorn helping out off and on for the past 16 years. She says as a therapist, the pandemic took a toll on all walks of life.
“It definitely increased; substance use and mental health issues. Just that isolation not being able to go places. I mean, you name it, from school aged kids to adults,” said Cullen.
Dawn Pope said she would check on Kevin every day while he was sick. She was the last person to see him alive.
“At noon when I had left that day, he was kind of sitting back and relaxing and he said, ‘I’m OK, mom, see ya later, I love you.’ I think he knew that he was leaving us. So, I’ll always remember that last time I was with him. Those were his last words. ‘I’m ok, mom, I love you.”
Dawn came back later that night to check on him and found that he had passed away.
“I walked in and he was sitting in the recliner chair and I thought he was sleeping and I touched him and he was cold. He looked so peaceful,” she said.
Family and friends are now left wondering if Kevin could have been saved.
“What else could have I done? Could I have been a better friend? Could I have been around more? Would I have made a difference?” said Lund.
“A friend of mine died, I watched him drink himself to death,” said Ferrell. “I asked myself daily. ‘Could one more phone call had made a difference? One more drop by the house? If I had knocked on the door, would he have answered? I tell myself that I can’t beat myself up about it, but I do, and I probably will for the rest of my life.”
The Pope family finds comfort in photos and a quilt made of Kevin’s old sports jerseys.
“If I can look at a different picture each day, that gets me through the days,” said Dawn. “We’ve got things in our bedroom that we look at first thing every morning and the last thing we look at every night when we go to bed,” added Chico.
The Popes also hope Kevin’s story acts as a cautionary tale. They want anyone who might feel depressed and thinks they need help, to seek out those resources.
“I wish I would have done more and I can wish all I want and I have regrets and I always will and I’m getting better at that,” said Dawn Pope.
“There are plenty of people out there that will help. All you have to do is ask. That might be the biggest thing for some people is to say I need help,” added Lund.
Kevin’s smile was ear to ear, but it was something else that Dawn misses most.
“It was his hugs. He gave me a hug every day. And he told me I love you.”
Those hugs – now only memories – but Dawn says one day she’ll see her son again.
“Oh, I sure hope so. I sure hope so. I want one of those big bear hugs, yeah.”
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