Unified Newspaper Group lost a rising star last month.
Amber Levenhagen, our Oregon and Stoughton local government reporter, was fatally injured in a multivehicle car wreck Friday, Aug. 9, on Interstate 94 while returning home to Madison from Oconomowoc. She was 25.
Levenhagen joined UNG in October 2016, a few months after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She quickly became an indispensable member of our community reporting team, focusing on Stoughton, and helped establish a strong bond with the community that had been lacking.
In short, she was everywhere, and she was well-known around town.
When her opportunity came to take on the grittier, more painstaking work of reporting on budgets, ordinance changes and arguments over alcohol policies, she didn’t just tackle it, she loved it. The messier the better.
To her colleagues, she was a newsroom leader who held herself and others to high standards, and did so with grace and good humor. She viewed it as her personal responsibility to ensure the quality of our newspapers.
She also had a strong and convincing voice in office debates about social justice issues, helping to promote equity through coverage decisions, phrasing and word choices.
One of the stories she enjoyed covering most was the ongoing Ted Bruno murder case, a yearslong process that involved sifting through court documents and attending hearings. And she was particularly proud of a series she was working on regarding a sex offender facility in the Town of Rutland and the program that put it there. She enjoyed covering anything that got people riled up or was multifaceted, such as Stoughton’s ongoing riverfront redevelopment planning.
She was devastated when the Kittleson house – a story she had been covering for months – was scheduled for demolition at a time when she had a prior engagement. When she got the opportunity to put on beekeeper gear last summer for a story, she jumped at it without a second thought. She was the kind of reporter who found satisfaction in being involved with every aspect of a story.
She also loved writing feature stories about our communities and lamented at having to pass them along to other reporters in recent months so she could continue to hone her skills covering governments.
She was also one of the most supportive people on UNG’s staff. She was always willing to lend an ear to help her coworkers through their difficult times, and was a relentless cheerleader as they worked with tough sources and impossible stories.
She also fervently supported them outside of work, going to their photography exhibitions, college capstone presentations and other activities they were involved in.
She started early as a journalist, penning a blog on environmental issues as a teenager that garnered more attention than she’d anticipated. After that, she went on to study journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, writing and taking photos for its student newspaper, The Royal Purple.
There, she expanded her photography skills from art photography to that of photojournalism, learning on the fly as she was thrown into sports games, political rallies and even a flour fight event. She was also the first student photographer hire for the university’s marketing department, paving the way for other students to hone their craft.
Levenhagen was named a Future Headliner by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association in 2018, one of five reporters under the age of 30 across the state chosen as an emerging leader in the industry.
“Being able to walk down the street and ask people some of their favorite parts about the community and then seeing how that translates into the story,” she said of her job in a video she made as part of the recognition. “I believe in journalism as a tool for getting the community engaged in what is happening outside of their own back door.”
She also won three second place awards: Two for her photography work at Syttende Mai in partnership with reporter Kimberly Wethal and another as a “Rookie Reporter of the Year.”
In a blog post from her senior year of college, she wrote that after she graduated, she hoped to continue with a career in photojournalism to further her interests in environmental and social justice.
“Dream big, right?” she wrote.
State Patrol Sgt. Matt Noah told Unified Newspaper Group that Levenhagen struck a truck in front of her at high speed as traffic slowed for a crash and that the investigation was still open Monday morning.
Levenhagen donated her organs, which will help up to 75 people.