SMALL TOWNS: Menominee, Mich., parents honor son’s legacy by granting wishes

When a young boating enthusiast died, a boat race became a memorial, and that memorial became a fundraiser
Updated: Aug. 11, 2022 at 6:00 PM CDT
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MENOMINEE, Mich. (WBAY) - Twenty-eight years ago, the people of Menominee, Michigan, came together to ensure a dying boy’s wish came true. Since then, that boy’s parents have been giving back in an unbelievable way thanks to a sailboat race in his honor.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Menominee ahead of this Saturday’s Joey Shepro Memorial.

At the M&M Yacht Club every Wednesday evening, a quick skippers meeting is held before members head for the docks.

It’s race night in the summer series, and thanks to Mother Nature it’s going to be a good night on the water.

On one of the boats set to leave the marina are two people who fell in love with the sport after their first child, Joey, was born in 1978.

“We started sailing back when Joey was just maybe about a year-and-a-half old,” says Connie Doboy, Joey’s mom.

Those early years ignited a passion by the time Joey Shepro reached high school.

“He loved to sail, and he loved to compete, and he could be very strong-willed and gave it his all, but I think he knew what he left it all out on the water,” recalls Joe Shepro, Joey’s dad.

As a teenager, Joey competed in -- and won -- a number of the yacht club’s summer races.

But just ahead of the sailing season in 1994, at the age of 16, Joey started to experience balance issues and dizzy spells.

“We thought he had like a potential middle ear infection. He would look one way, walk the other way a little bit,” says Joe.

A trip to the doctor would lead to the Shepros’ world unraveling quickly.

“Within a week of him really being checked out by that first doctor, that it happened that fast,” explains Joe.

Doctors discovered Joey had a cancerous brain tumor, inoperable and untreatable.

They gave him six months to live.

At home was a boat Joey had bought with dreams of repairing and sailing.

“Our friends here from the yacht club, when they found out Joey was sick with a terminal illness, they all banded together, they came to our house, they helped us restore his boat and we restored that boat in 12 days,” recalls Connie.

“When they were working on it, I remember him being in his wheelchair watching people working on his boat. There would be 10, 12, 20 people out here working on that boat to get it in the water for him,” says Joe.

That magical summer, the winds favored Joey and he won the club’s sailing series.

But he also had one other dream, to meet legendary sailor Buddy Melges, a Wisconsin native with Olympic gold medals and America’s Cup titles on his resume. Joey’s community pitched in to grant his wish.

“And that meant the world to him. It meant the world to us. To think that we could have the wish come true, it made ours true too,” says Connie.

Joey Shepro passed away on June 29, 1995.

That summer, the yacht club renamed one of its races the Joey Shepro Memorial.

“That made us want to carry on and figure out how we could help other kids in his memory,” explains Connie.

With the yacht club’s blessing, Joe and Connie decided to turn the race into a fundraiser, with every penny going to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Thanks to raffles, auctions, donation buckets,-and a whole lot of community support and giving, Joe and Connie’s dream has come true.

A wall inside the club filled with photos represents all the children in the community to receive a wish granted.

Last year, the event raised more than $31,000, enough to bring joy to five more kids and their families.

“And that’s the way I feel about Make-A-Wish, we’re giving back something that if times are really bad, this all goes south for those people and those young kids that have the serious illness, what do you talk about, what do you talk to a 16-year-old, or 15, or 8-year-old? You talk about things that were special to you, those moments in your life that really meant something,” says Joe.

As with many couples, Joe and Connie’s marriage didn’t survive Joey’s tragic passing, but they remain friends, and on every Wednesday night they sail together, with Joey close at heart, still inspiring them to honor his legacy by making other children smile.

“I think of him every single day. I have not gone through a single day since he passed that I do not think of him. He was my firstborn and it was very devastating for our entire family, these kids and him were all very close, and he’s just very well missed even today, and I don’t think until I take my last breath that will go away,” says Connie with tears in her eyes.

“The bravest and strongest individual I know. He accepted it. One time he said, ‘Why me?’ and that’s all I remember, but most of the time, nobody else in the family could do this and he just took it on and I think it was an incredible experience for me to know him,” adds Joe with a proud smile.

Joe and Connie never set a goal on how much money they hope to raise each year. But one thing is certain, tens of thousands of dollars will once again be sailing off to Make-A-Wish after Saturday.

Anyone interested in viewing this year’s online auction items can visit

Monetary donations to the Joey Shepro Memorial can be sent to:

Joey Shepro Memorial

M&M Yacht Club

P.O. Box 232

Menominee, MI 49858

When a young boating enthusiast died with cancer, a race was named in his honor, and a legacy of fulfilling wishes was carried on.

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