Traveling a Rocky But Rewarding Road—Together

My mom and dad met in Washington, DC when they were both working for the FBI. My mother quit when she had my oldest brother and then my dad went to work for the CIA. His job took us to South Miami, but I didn’t like it there. The heat and climate were a bit much for me.

Photos by Sharon Vanorny

Cheryl & David Riedmiller | Dodgeville, WI

“In my early 20s I met a guy from Wisconsin who said, ‘Hey, if you want to move, I have family in Wisconsin. We can get you settled.’ So, in 1976 I moved to Belleville. 

I ended up finding work as a carpenter. On the first day of the job, the builder asked me, ‘So you’re a carpenter?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a carpenter.’ 

At the end of the first day he looked at me and said, ‘Carpenter, huh?’ He kind of laughed, but he kept me on. I was eager to do well and I wanted to learn. I think he saw that. One thing led to another, and I ended up working as a carpenter for over 40 years. I enjoyed it. 

When I was first learning the trade, a fellow carpenter was building guitars. I’d go over, and he’d show me what he was doing. I’ve played guitar off and on since I was a teenager and thought, ‘This is so cool.’ I started to build my own guitar but then needed to take it off the front-burner. I met my wife, Cheryl, and we started a family. I didn’t do anything more with the guitar for 25 years, because making an income took precedence. Life happens.

I was able to make a good living for my family in home building. My real interest was in the finer aspects of woodworking, so I ended up doing interior finish work. I did a lot of staircase installations and railing work in many of the big, expensive houses in Madison. I retired after 40 years in the carpentry trade, and shortly after that I took up guitar-building again. 

It took me quite a while to build the first one. It’s kind of exciting, because you’re just taking a pile of wood, these flat, thin pieces of wood, and you’re turning it into a three-dimensional musical instrument. 

It was scary and exciting when I finally strung up my first one. I remember when I finally strung it up, I was tensioning the strings and just kind of standing back out of the way, just expecting something to implode, or fall apart, or fly apart. But it held together well. Nothing fell apart.

“I custom-build each guitar. I find out what style of playing the person does, just by talking to them and listening to them play. You can build a guitar that lends itself more to finger style, or it lends itself more to flat picking. There’s a lot of different types of playing, and the guitar style has a lot to do with what a player expects. A typical custom guitar can take me up to 10 weeks, and there are 300 steps from start to finish.

It’s really challenging to build something like that, that is really high quality. I always say that I strive for perfection, but I’m very willing to settle for excellent. You can never really find perfection. 

I finally started my own business making custom guitars from my home in Dodgeville. Our three adopted children had high needs, so it was important for me to work closer to home. Cheryl and I named the business Rocky Road Guitars, which has several meanings to us. We knew there would be struggles and trials for me as I learned the guitar building process. Many musicians travel a rocky road trying to build their passion for music into a viable career. And our family was traveling its own rocky road.”


Become part of the Love Wisconsin

Cheryl: I grew up in Green Bay. My dad was in the Air Force and we moved often when I was a kid. I was working at the check-out counter at Cub Foods in Madison when I met David. He lived in the Belleville area, but kept making the trip to Madison to shop at Cub Foods.

David: Such is love. Eventually we moved out to Dodgeville, and together built the house we live in now.

Cheryl: For many years, we raised our three biological children. When they were 21, 11, and 10 we had the opportunity to help out my niece, who had a baby at a young age. She was having a hard time transitioning into motherhood. We would take her son, Joe, for weeks at a time. When Joe was 22 months old, she came to me and said, “I’m putting him up for adoption.” 

David: Cheryl saw it coming.

Cheryl: We had a feeling. We knew he had special needs. He had a lot of emotional and behavioral challenges. But we already had a bond with him since we’d taken care of him so often, so we decided to adopt him.

When Joe was eight, we sent him on a short-term placement to a ranch for at-risk boys so he could get more intensive support for a few months. He met a younger boy there named Zach, just a year younger. Joe started talking to us about this kid. Zach had been abandoned on the steps of an orphanage in Guatemala at eight months old. His adoptive family sent him to the boys’ ranch and didn’t want him back. Right before Christmas that year, Zach didn’t have a place to go.

Joe asked us, “Can Zach come home with me?” We said, “Sure.” So Zach spent Christmas with us. Then Joe said, “Could we adopt him, Mom?” Zach was one of the first people that Joe ever really bonded with.

David: That was a big deal.

Cheryl: It was, because when you have kids who have had a lot of trauma in their early life, bonding is not necessarily what happens. Zach wanted to be adopted, and so we adopted him.

David: We had to learn very quickly about attachment disorder.

Cheryl: I would have been a crazy person by the end of each day if I didn’t understand how attachment disorder impacts children, because of the intensity of it. I did have to educate myself, find the people who knew what to do, and also rely on my own instincts. 

Joe and Zach had so many challenges. Both had damage done to their brains before they were born and suffered abuse in their early life. This left them with both emotional and behavioral challenges, but also fairly profound mental health disorders. 

David: It was tough for a while.

Cheryl: I don’t want to say we weren’t able to handle it, because we were. We were getting by. But having David start building guitars from home was like a piece of the puzzle that was missing. Those years with the boys until they turned 17 were extremely, extraordinarily challenging for a wide variety of reasons. Having David here at home made things a lot easier for me.

We are a Christian family, and we felt that this was what we were called to do. In each situation, each child came to us in different ways. In each situation, I felt like we were being asked to give, but really we were being given incredible gifts. Our boys are young men now and have lifted themselves up from the depths of their challenges and are doing really well within the confines of their disabilities. To see that happen has been, to me, just amazing.

David: Cheryl learned about our youngest daughter, Evonne, while researching online to find special needs educational help for Joe.

Cheryl: A woman in Montana posted something to the effect of, “There’s this little girl in Africa, and she’s dying, and could somebody help?” I was drawn to that, and I said, “What are the details?” Her husband had visited an orphanage in Uganda and met Evonne there. She has cerebral palsy. Part of her brain is missing. She’s blind. The list of her health issues was very long.

David: I remember talking to Cheryl, and said, “Cheryl, I think we have enough to do right now.”

Cheryl: We did talk about it and pray about it, and said no. The woman from Montana said, "That's okay, because seven families have stepped up and are willing to take her." I'm like, "That is so awesome." About three months later, she emailed me and said, "Seven families have stepped away. Would you reconsider?" This time we said yes.

David: We prayed and mulled it over and thought about it. You try to think, “What’s that going to be like?” Then you realize, there’s no way to know. The only way that we could possibly put ourselves into a position of saying yes to doing something like this is to say, “Okay, God’s going to provide.” 

My belief is that you are not going to take your belongings with you. You came into life naked and penniless, and that’s probably the way you’re going to go out. Why not be willing to give and help others?

Cheryl: We were lucky because we always had people to help us.

David: I really believe we were blessed. That’s become abundantly obvious, especially looking back over the years.

Cheryl: To adopt Evonne we had travel costs, lawyer fees, it was quite expensive. That year, before we learned about Evonne, David took some extra jobs and we had extra money. Actually, he made more money that year than he’s ever made, before or since. 

When we told the people in our church that we were going to travel to Uganda to adopt this little girl, people started to help. A guy we knew from church drove into our driveway and handed me something. He says, “Here.” I looked, and it was a check for $1,000. We never asked anybody for anything. People were just moved to help us.

David: There were many moving parts to adopt Evonne. In Uganda, we had a hearing at the Supreme Court. We were told, “These things can take quite a while. Things don’t move very fast in Africa.” The woman who ran the orphanage said, “You know it’s going to take six months, you might have to stay here quite a while.” 

About two weeks later we were granted permission to adopt her, but we had to travel to the American embassy in Kenya. We took a bus to Kenya, completed the paperwork, and made our flight back by just a few hours. Bottom line is we had just enough money and we had just enough time. It was almost like a movie, where everything worked out just the way it should have.

Cheryl: We adopted Evonne when she was two. She was very medically fragile. We’ve had many close calls. Just going through all that and now, to see her healthier, is amazing. 

David: Parenting children with significant needs makes you stronger, a bit wiser, and teaches you a little about humility. 

Cheryl: David and I work together well. If we weren’t strong as a couple, the fabric of our family would have quickly unwound. Particularly where our more involved kids are concerned, if they did not feel that security of a firm foundation. Parenting a larger family can be a challenge, to keep up with everything and keep priorities straight.

David: I have been pleasantly surprised at how well our biological children had adopted these kids as well, and how through this, they gained an understanding and appreciation that everyone is different, and comes into this world with challenges of varying degrees. But are all people deserving of respect and dignity.

Cheryl: It all came together at the right time for our family. The years David spent honing his craft as a finish carpenter and builder gave him the skills to produce his guitars, which allowed him to be home to give me a break from the children when I needed it. 

Adopting Joe was an important turning point for our family. Through him, we met Zach and learned about Evonne. Evonne helped bind our adopted kids with our biological kids. She radiates joy. She sings and just wants people to laugh with her and have fun. She’s kind of the glue that brought everything together for our family. Her first name, Evonne, means life. And her middle name is Faith.

-Cheryl & David Riedmiller | Dodgeville, WI

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