Author Archives: Suzy Farbman

Despite a stellar career, Gary Rosenberg claims, “I never worked a day in my life”

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Kelly and Gary Rosenberg

“The hotel business is just a matter of inviting someone into your home, giving them a good meal and a nice place to sleep and inviting them back again.”
Gary Rosenberg

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Gary’s dad, Rosie, owned The 520, a small bar in Chester, PA, near Philly. “It was Cheers. Same bar, same stools, same customers,” Gary says. A local businessman offered Rosie the chance to run the bar in the new Colony Hotel. Rosie accepted and sold The 520.

Man pours; God laughs. 2 months later, Rosie suffered a fatal stroke behind his new bar. He was 49. Gary, 13.

“I was devastated. He was my best friend. I immediately knew the man I
wanted to be.“

Gary “grew up” in hospitality. As a teen, he bused tables at the Colony. Waitresses paid him a quarter a night. “I noticed the bellmen got $1 a suitcase. I aspired to be a bellman.”

He did considerably better. His career would make most golfers tee-to-green with envy…

In 1977, a major snowstorm closed PA schools down. Gary’s best friend, a school teacher, invited him on an impromptu visit to his mom in Ft. Lauderdale. He’d never been there before. Both in their 20s, they decided to stay.

Gary had run the Mendenhall Inn on the DuPont estate in Wilmington, Del. In FL, he became assistant GM of the beachfront Bahia Mar Hotel & Yachting Center (with the largest marina in the state). “OMG,” he thought. “I’m so over my head.” A year later, he became GM.

After 5 years, a headhunter called. Arvida, the largest luxury property developer in FL, was building a new resort on Longboat Key. Did Gary want to interview for C.O.O.?

“Yes,” Gary said. “I’ve never been to the Keys.”

He soon learned the FL Keys were 200 plus miles from Longboat Key off the west coast of Sarasota. Arvida needed someone to oversee finishing the resort operation, including the Inn on the Beach and the Harborside Golf Course at the new Longboat Key Resort.

“They tell me you’re the guy,” the CEO said.

“Let’s do this,” Gary said. He moved to Sarasota to open and run his first golf resort. It opened in 1982.

In 5 years, Gary became a regional v.p. Arvida ran luxury resorts, including the Boca Raton Hotel, the Boca Beach Club, Boca West and many golf courses. Sawgrass TPC was a crown jewel. “Sawgrass opened lots of doors,” Gary says.

ClubCorp, then the world’s largest hospitality company, managed 300 golf courses on 6 continents. They were taking over Palmas del Mar in Puerto Rico. Would Gary oversee it?

You bet.

3 years later, Gary moved to Pinehurst, NC. He managed the legendary Pinehurst Golf Club and traveled to France, Scotland and Ireland to work on ClubCorp deals.

But Gary’s heart was in the States.

“I want to run the Homestead,” he told his boss about the once grand hotel and 1500 acre resort that dates back to 1766.

“You’re an idiot,” his boss said.

“You don’t know what the Homestead is. I want to bring it into the next century.”

hot_springs_resort_in_virginia___the_omni_homestead_resortThe Homestead in Hot Springs, VA and the Greenbrier in W. VA are 2 of the most historic hotels in America. Gary lived in Hot Springs for 15 years. “At the first executive staff meeting, I established our mission statement: to kick the Greenbrier’s butt.” Based at the Homestead, he was COO of ClubCorp’s resort group, helping to run famed courses and resorts including Pamilla in Cabo, Barton Creek in Austin, Ocean Reef in Key Largo and Pinehurst.

gary-rosenberg-with-arnold-palmerAt the Homestead, Gary became close friends with Sam Snead, one of the greatest golfers ever. He met and golfed with legends including Arnold Palmer.

Gary retired for the first time in 2004. He bought a Harley and spent the next 4 years touring 38 states with wife Kelly (more about her later). A business friend called and asked him to become COO of a hotel group. “Nope,” he said. “I’m ridin’ my Harley.”

6 months later, another call. This time an offer to run Noble Resort Group. By then, he’d had enough of the vagabond life. He said, “Let’s do this.”

After 5 years, Noble was bought by Interstate, the largest hotel management group in the world. Gary was sr. exec. of the resort group. He worked on plans to carve a golf course out of an old phosphate mine in the middle of nowhere (aka Bowling Green, FL). Streamsong’s now 2 (soon to be 3) courses rank among the country’s top 100 public courses.

In 2012, “I hung it up for real.”

gary-honored-on-a-magazine-coverAbout his career, he says, “I never considered it work. At the Homestead, everyone knew my 3pm appointment was on the first tee. The hotel business is just a matter of inviting someone into your home, giving them a good meal and a nice place to sleep and inviting them back again.”

One night in Virginia made him especially proud. He was soaking in the tub, reading a book by his friend who ran the world’s largest tennis management company. “He wrote about reaching out and getting to know your staff. I realized I didn’t know our midnight crew.”

He dried off, dressed and drove to the resort. Walking down a corridor, he came upon a housekeeper. His name was on his name tag.

“Hi, Steve,” Gary said.

“Mr. Rosenberg, do you have a minute?”

“Sure. Let’s go into the boardroom and sit down.”

In the boardroom, Steve said, “I’ve worked at the Homestead for 25 years. It’s given me the ability to feed my family. I’ve always fed them hamburger. Since you’ve been here, we’re eating steak.”

Gary’s eyes misted over. His nickname at CC was Misty. Every year he took his execs to Las Vegas. Whenever he was introduced to speak, “I’d overhear guys doing the over/under, betting on how long I’d take to tear up.”

And now for the story about Gary and Kelly.

It was 1984. Gary was working at the Longboat Key Resort. Walking past the pro shop, he noticed a striking young brunette behind the counter. “I did a double take. But I was the boss, so I didn’t get too familiar.” A couple of years later, he still hadn’t made his move. One day at Harborside, the first course he’d developed, he scored a hole-in-one. It was July 15, 1984. Hole #3. He walked into the pro shop.

Kelly Churma, the striking brunette, said, “Congratulations, Mr. Rosenberg. I hear you made a hole-in-one.”

“A lightbulb went off,” he says. He walked behind the counter. “Doesn’t that deserve a peck on the cheek?”

Kelly obliged, but thought to herself: I want to call security.

Several months later, Gary had become a regional v.p. and moved to Sawgrass. Driving back to Sarasota one weekend, he thought about how he was no longer Kelly’s immediate boss. Kelly had been promoted, too. She was a real estate broker handling sales and rentals for LBK condos.

He was on I-4, just past the Disney exit. He called Kelly from the car. “I’d love to take you out for dinner tonight.”

Kelly said, “When you get to Longboat, stop in the office. We’ll talk about it.”

At the office, she agreed. “Tell me where you live,” Gary said.

“Tell me where we’re going. I’ll meet you.”

“She made me grovel,” Gary says. They married 5 years after. Gary was 40; Kelly, 25. “30 years later, I’m still paying for that first kiss. With Kelly’s maturity and my lack of it, the marriage works.” They have 3 adult children, Alexis, Andie and Kevin (Gary’s son from an earlier marriage.)

During his career, Gary met and/or golfed with luminaries including Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford. And Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf shortly after Desert Storm. He became dear friends with Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys. “If you look up ‘class’ in the dictionary, you’ll find Tom’s picture.”

Gary became close to Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, named for Thomas’ adopted daughter. Thomas, who “enjoyed a little wager on the golf course,” started a foundation to support adoption. “He didn’t finish high school,” Gary says. “He felt he wasn’t a good role model for kids. So in his 90s, he got his GED and walked in graduation with the class at Coconut Creek High School. He was voted Most Likely to Succeed.”

Gary scored his second hole-in-one last year, on #7 of the West Course at Laurel Oak CC in Sarasota. The date was 5.20, a meaningful date for Gary whose dad’s bar was The 520. Gary and Kelly also married on 5.20.

Scoring his 2nd hole-in-one, Gary couldn’t wait to get back into his car and call Kelly with the news.

Her response? “Thank heavens you have a new story.”

(Your dad would be proud, Gary. So are your friends at LOCC. Thanks for sharing your story.)

At Detroit’s Temple Beth El, Rabbi Megan Brudney speaks to her generation…and mine

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I was so taken with what Rabbi Megan Brudney said on Rosh Hashanah, I wanted to share it with you. First some background…

megan-brudney-tbeFrom Athens, GA, “home of the Georgia Bulldog,” Megan grew up in a Reform Jewish home. Her family belonged to a small temple—“the entirety of the Jewish community.” At 15, Megan attended her first Jewish youth group event. “300 Jewish teens all seemed to know each other. They ran screaming across the room to see old friends.”

Megan was one of 4 from Athens; they only knew each other.

When the excited group settled down, they joined in singing the Motzi (blessing over bread). “It blew my mind,” Megan recalls. “Somehow we had all learned it and all ended up in that conference room on that day.”

Megan returned home to become a v.p. of the Athens chapter of NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth). She stayed involved during high school. In college, as a counselor at Harlam summer camp, she learned to song lead and play guitar. As a student at Duke, she led services and songs on Friday nights at the Hillel building. By the time she graduated, the Reform minyan (meeting of Jews for worship) had grown from 2 or 3 to 15 regular attendees.

Friends suggested she become a rabbi. Megan wasn’t convinced. “It seemed too much like the path of least resistance.” She moved to D.C. and held jobs with two different non-profits. She signed up for an email about Jewish affairs. When she realized reading those bulletins was “the best part” of her day, she surrendered.

Megan was accepted into Hebrew Union College. She spent her first year in Jerusalem and another in Tel Aviv. She finished her studies at the L.A. campus and was ordained last May 15. “We wore grand white robes and tallises (prayer shawls). We walked down the aisle passing our professors—this brilliant faculty who cared so much about us and about Judaism. I started to cry. The school photographer told us to smile for the group picture. I’m the only one in the shot who’s crying.”

Megan had interned at smaller temples in Seattle and worked as a spiritual counselor at Beit T’Shuvah, a rehab center for Jewish addicts in L.A. When it came time to apply for her first job, the placement process was “tense.” On the first round, all synagogues convened in NYC for 3 days of interviews every hour on the hour. There she met outgoing Jordan Wortheimer, “grandson of the great Rabbi Hertz” and current president of Temple Beth El.

(Personal aside: My grandfather, David Wilkus, was TBE president when Dr. Hertz arrived in 1953. Dr. Hertz led the temple for many years and married Burton and me. Political aside: in 1959, Rabbi Hertz visited the USSR on a secret mission for President Eisenhower. He reported on treatment of Soviet Jewry in preparation for Ike’s upcoming summit with Khruschev.)

“I loved the long history of Temple Beth El,” Megan says. “I felt chemistry with Jordan and (senior rabbi) Mark Miller.” The next step in the hiring process was call backs, 2 days later, at 8am. “You just hope the synagogues you liked like you.” 3 weeks of site visits and more interviews followed.

The final step, the offer occurs at the same time, same day for all rabbinical hopefuls. Prospects have one hour to say yes or no. “From my first interview at Temple Beth El, when I started my tour, I knew it was right. I wanted to be here so badly. I was so thankful to get that call.”

Now several months into her first assistant rabbi position, Megan, 32, is happy with her choice. “The High Holidays were unbelievable. To officiate in a place as big and beautiful and grand as the main sanctuary, with Rabbi Miller and with Cantor Rachel, was amazing. I had only worked and worshipped in much smaller places. Never such a soaring sanctuary looking out at about 1400 people.”

Her installation was another highlight. Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, founding rabbi of the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, where Megan interned for 2 years, came to help install (officially welcome) her at a Friday night service. So did her mom and dad, brothers, sister-in-law and niece, and her aunt from California.

Megan finds highlights in her daily work as well. One day, back in November, she started out at a breakfast meeting with a lay leader from TBE’s young family group. When she got to temple, she went into every Early Childhood Center classroom to sing and tell stories (which she does every week). Next she visited a sick temple member in the hospital, then did a double baby naming. That night she taught an adult ed session in a private home.

“When I went to bed that night, I thought: Wow! I got to interact as a rabbi across the age spectrum. What a banner day.”

The first female rabbi in North America was ordained in 1972. Women now represent the majority of rabbinical students.

And now for the insight I mentioned earlier…

I enjoyed Megan’s ability to interpret ancient scripture in a contemporary light. The haftarah is a series of readings from the book of Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. At services, Rabbi Brudney spoke about that week’s portion, on Chanah from First Samuel.

“Chanah’s the protagonist, the star, one of two wives of Elkanah. The other wife has several children. Chanah struggles with infertility, a plight familiar to many of us. Every year Elkanah’s whole family would pile into the old station wagon and go to the special temple in Shiloh to sacrifice and pray. Chanah hated these trips because her sister-wife was mean to her.

“Also, like many of us when we see a friend in pain, Chanah’s husband would say well-meaning but insensitive things such as, ‘Am I not better than ten sons?’ That’s the point I want to take from the story. It’s hard to be with a person who’s suffering, to be really present and know what to say.”

The shofar, an ancient musical instrument made from a ram’s horn, is blown on the High Holy Days. Rabbi Brudney said, “The call of the shofar relates to the sound of suffering. It’s based on the cry of a mother in the bible who learns her son has been killed. It’s an expression of absolute brokenness.

“Our obligation is to listen. To stand in solemn attention and hear the pain without flinching, without responding, without changing the subject.”

I’ve heard the mournful sound of the shofar many times. I thought it a novelty, a sign that services were almost over, that dinner—breaking the fast—awaited.

Rabbi Brudney concluded with a message we can all appreciate…
“As we move into 5777, I want to bless us with the ability to truly, simply hear the pain of others. Whether they are people like you or unlike you, to hear the voices of people who are suffering. And to let them tell their story. Without interruption, without judgment, without attempts to cheer them up. To listen with the respect and awe with which we greet our shofar.”

Thanks for the wisdom, Megan. And brucha haba’ah. Welcome.

After a harrowing quadruple bypass, tennis pro Tony Acosta is back on the courts

The team that helped save Tony's life: Dr. Edmund Bermudez, nurse Kristin Gephardt, Tony Acosta, Leslie LeBlanc and at far right Dr. Alan Glover.

The team that helped save Tony’s life: Dr. Edmund Bermudez, nurse Kristin Gephardt, Tony Acosta, Leslie LeBlanc and at far right Dr. Alan Glover.

 

Tony was the picture of health. A physically fit and energetic 47. Last Sept. 16, tennis pro Tony was in his 3rd hour of lessons, a playing lesson with 3 friends, all doctors. “They talk trash, tell me I’m no good, try to hit me at the net,” Tony says. “They never get the best of me.”

Normally Tony gives as good as he gets. This time he was uncharacteristically quiet. One of the docs said, “You’re not yourself today.”

“I can’t catch my breath,” Tony said.

Dr. Wadi Gomero-Cure checked Tony’s pulse. “Your heart’s racing. Sit down.”

Cardiologist Eric Pressman was playing on the next court. He got out his stethoscope, massaged Tony’s carotid artery. His heartrate kept increasing.

“You’re going to the hospital now,” Dr. Pressman said.

Tennis pal Dr. Alan Glover called ahead. A room was waiting at Venice Regional Hospital. Tony was hooked up to an IV and monitor, still in afib. Cardizem didn’t help. Ibutilide did. Several hours later, Tony’s heart returned to normal. He was released.

A subsequent stress test showed an abnormality. Follow up tests were scheduled. A nuclear stress test showed a possible blockage. Tony was scheduled for a heart catheterization. 2 weeks later. Why the delay? Tony had tickets to the Miami vs Florida State football game. Tony “felt fine.” As an alum, he’s a diehard U. of Miami fan. “He bleeds orange and green,” girlfriend Leslie LeBlanc says. (Aside to sports fans: Miami lost by one.)

On Oct. 13, Tony was prepped for the cath. Dr. Glover was on duty, wearing a silver surgery cap. Leslie donned one, too, calling it “a Jiffy Pop hat.”

“Nobody was too worried,” Leslie says. “Worst case– Tony would need a stent and have to stay overnight.”

Dr. Glover checked on Tony’s cath procedure and returned to the waiting room. His face was somber. “It’s serious,” he said. He led Leslie and Tony’s dad to an office. Dr. Edmund Bermudez, Tony’s cardiologist, showed them imagees from the heart cath. One of Tony’s 2 major arteries was over 95% blocked. The cardiologist said, “If 2 platelets tried to come through at once, Tony would have died.” Tony needed 3 or 4 bypasses. He could not leave the hospital.

“In an instant, life changed,” Leslie says.

Dr. Bermudez was amazed Tony had functioned as well as he had. His heart was working at 20% efficiency. He had taught 7 and ½ hours of lessons the day before.

Leslie’s a trainer who runs boot camp at Laurel Oak C.C. in Sarasota. I’m one of her groupies. (Admittedly the least limber and weakest, but—hey—I show up. And I excel at complaining.) A tennis player, Leslie met Tony at LOCC. They’ve been together for almost 4 years.

Before his surgery, Leslie warned Tony, “This will be the hardest thing you’ve ever been through.”

Tony leaving the hospital. His parents are in the background.

Tony leaving the hospital. His parents are in the background.

Tony’s open heart surgery took 5 and 1/2 hours. After, Leslie and Tony’s parents were anxious to see their patient. At first, he resisted.

After receiving 4 bypasses with veins harvested from his muscular legs, Tony was stuck full of tubes. Coming to, he gasped for breath. “It felt like a truck was parked on my chest. I didn’t want anyone to see me until I could breathe. The fluid tubes in my lungs burned like a blow torch. The first hour after I was extubated, I didn’t think I’d make it.”

Tony had served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm (air recon and topography). Just out of surgery, Tony recalled his naval flight training. “They deliberately stress you out under water,” he recalls. “A lot of people passed out and turned blue. Aviators call it ‘getting Smurfed.’”

Tony never got Smurfed. When the tubes were removed, he concentrated on what he’d been taught: taking longer, deeper breaths. “Remembering that training got me through.”

Dr. Glover checked on his friend and reported back to the family every 30 minutes. Leslie says they waited 5 or 6 hours after Tony’s surgery to see him. Tony says it felt like 5 minutes.

Tony was philosophical about the outcome. After surgery, he said to God, “If you need to take me, I’m fine with that. I have no fear.”

Before his operation, Tony’s cardiac surgeon, Dr. Roberto Cervera, asked if he attended church regularly. Tony said no. Dr. Cervera suggested he start doing so after his surgery. “Clearly,” his doc said, “God had a hand in your survival. Your life could have ended on the tennis court.”

While he has yet to become a regular churchgoer, he did follow his surgeon’s advice about taking it easy for 2 months. Tony’s now returned to the courts giving lessons. Not serving or hitting overheads, but otherwise back in action.

The ordeal has changed him.

“I was hit with the reality that tomorrow’s not promised. I’m probably less of a joker than I was. I make sure my parents and friends know how much I appreciate them. I tell Leslie I love her about 100 times a day.”

And he has a “weird craving” for cheese pizza.

Tony’s mother refers to Drs. Pressman, Glover and Gomero-Cure as Tony’s guardian angels. She prays for them every day. Thanks, Tony and Leslie, for sharing this inspiring story of recovery. Lucky (???) you were hitting with capable doctor friends. And that Heaven didn’t have an opening for a cheese pizza eating tennis playing jokester.

Leslie LeBlanc and Tony Acosta

Though gone for 3 years, Doug Leith is still in the game

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A Final Tribute: Driving Doug Leith out over the waters.

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Our friend Doug died on July 8, 2013, at 73. An old acquaintance who’ll never be forgot. His stepson, Andrew Marr, provided the hook for this story—appropriate since Andrew’s a fishing guide. Doug was such a good guy that even his stepchildren loved him.

Burton and I met Doug and Suzie circa 2000 as members of Laurel Oak CC in Sarasota, Fl. We played golf (about equally) and bridge (they whomped us). They visited us Up North, and we, them, in Southampton, Ont.

doug-leith-playing-with-his-oxygen-tank

Doug golfing with his oxygen line.

A few years back, the Leiths moved and left LOCC. We remained friends. One of Burton’s favorite Doug moments was when the two of them stood at a bar. Doug gazed at the bartender, whose endowments were well displayed, and said, “You have beautiful…eyes.” I loved the grin that darted across Doug’s face at the surprise party Suzie threw for his 70th when she proclaimed, “You’re my movie star.” And how he nicknamed her his Suzie Sunshine.

We were heartbroken when, about a year after that party, Doug was struck with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. But Doug wouldn’t permit broken hearts. Even as he coughed more and struggled for breath, even as a small oxygen tank turned into a big one, he refused sympathy. He forbade friends to discuss his condition. He carried on, dragging his tank behind him. But still playing. Still in the game to whatever extent he could manage.

After 2 years, Doug finally made the waiting list for a lung transplant. He and Suzie moved to a condo in downtown Toronto to await the life-saving donation. He died 3 weeks later.

Doug had 3 children of his own. When he married Suzie, Andrew says, “He accepted 3 more into his family.” Doug also had 6 granddaughters and a large circle of close friends. Andrew calls him “a true charmer.”

At Doug’s “celebration of life,” his son Fred spoke about Doug’s relationship with Suzie. Both were divorced from first spouses. Fred said, “Doug said of Suzie, ‘She changed my life, but she didn’t change me.’” Fred mentioned his dad’s love of sweets—especially Doug’s mom’s Dutch apple pie. In Doug’s honor, the service concluded with a pie buffet.

Recently, Suzie sold their Sarasota condo. We took her out for dinner and what we trust wasn’t a final hug. Her son Andrew came along. We talked about how the family had honored Doug’s wish to be cremated. Doug left no directive about his ashes. Andrew said, “The most conventional practice is to commit ashes to an urn and keep them in a place of honor, such as on a mantle. Our family chose something less traditional.”

Doug had 2 more great passions. The game of golf. And the home he and Suzie built above Lake Huron, about 75 yards from the water. After the funeral, Andrew recalls, the whole family gathered at the house “to share stories, laugh, cry and mourn the loss of our patriarch at the family home where we had such wonderful times together. We didn’t have Doug any more. But we did have the whole family, and a deck, and a lake and golf balls and clubs. Who came up with the idea, or how much wine we’d had, or how sad we were didn’t matter. We figured out a method to spread some of his ashes in a way he’d have loved.”

They proceeded to dip golf balls in water and then in Doug’s ashes. The entire family took turns hitting ash-covered balls from the beach into the lake. “We sailed some, duffed some, sliced, hooked, popped up and hit all manner of shots that took Doug into the great blue yonder. We knew he was smiling upon us and probably saying: ‘Keep your head down and follow through.’ It was a special moment we all cherish to this day.”

canadian-geese-flying-south-a-memory-of-doug-leithJust as the family finished driving Doug home, Suzie took a photograph. A flock of Canadian geese flew overhead, in V formation. “How profound,” Suzie said. “They were heading south, just as Doug would, if he were still alive.”

Some of Doug’s closest friends also received small portions of their buddy’s ashes. Andrew says, “Doug accompanies many of us around golf courses, tucked away in our golf bags. Some of us still ask him for advice on a shot now and then. His friends have sat down on his favorite holes and enjoyed a scotch in his remembrance while laying some of his ashes.”

Doug’s pals, including David Ferguson, Gord Lickrish, Don Grant, Bruce Mitchell, John Clappison, Doreen McLashon and Pete Smith, spread some of Doug’s ashes on the famous, harrowing 17th hole of the Old course at St. Andrews, Scotland. (Known as the Road Hole, it’s bordered by a road along the property line. The sport of golf began at St. Andrews in the early 15th century.)

Andrew personally scattered some of Doug’s ashes at Gator Creek Golf Club in Sarasota. There, on the 8th hole, Doug scored his only hole-in-one. Last winter Andrew drove to the course and told the golf staff who he was and what he wished to do. “They promptly gave me a cart and I wound my way out to the 8th tee. No one else was around, so Doug and I shared one last memory at the course where he and I had created so many great memories together.”

My mother, also a golf enthusiast, used to refer to her ultimate resting place as “that great golf course in the sky.” Mom, you’re in good company.

Thanks, Andrew and Suzie, for sharing this remembrance. Doug may not have made it through the entire back nine, but he nailed the holes he was given.

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Doug and his wife Suzie (and your columnist with them, at right)

Courage, love and great faith carry CC far beyond horrendous crash

In college, CC poses with Cody in his baseball uniform.

In college, CC poses with Cody in his baseball uniform.

CC Hudson had life made.

She’d graduated from college and married her college sweetheart, a baseball player named Cody. They lived with his parents for a year, saving up for a new house in Byhalia, MS. CC loved her job as a nurse in a neuroscience unit at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis.

In an instant, everything changed.

CC was driving to work on the interstate last December 31 when an SUV slammed into her. The driver was arrested and jailed. He had no driver’s license or insurance. CC crashed into a concrete wall. Though her seatbelt remained buckled, CC was thrown from the car. When she didn’t show up for work, Le Bonheur phoned her husband, who was hunting with his father. From a deer blind, Cody frantically called the police. He learned his wife was at Regional One Hospital in Memphis in “critical condition.”

Cody and his dad raced to the hospital. CC was unconscious, covered with blood. A scan showed diffuse axonal injury (DAI), or brain shearing (multiple tiny tears). She also had a subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding between her brain and the tissue covering it). Nothing could be done medically. Doctors expected “some improvement,” but warned some patients never recover from such brain trauma.

CC with her medical team in a flight to the hospital where she would undergo her rehab.

CC with her medical team in a flight to the hospital where she would undergo her rehab.

CC (given name Xiamar) remained in a coma for nearly 3 weeks. When she regained consciousness, she couldn’t walk or talk. After about a month, her condition stabilized enough to move her to Shepherd Rehab Hospital in Atlanta, GA. She stayed there for about a month and underwent physical, occupational and speech therapy, then returned as an outpatient for 2 more months. CC was wheelchair bound for almost 4 months, unable to balance, or even go to the bathroom without help.

Cody had hoped to play pro baseball. “Baseball was his life,” CC says. After some encouraging offers fell through, Cody went to work for his father’s landscaping company. But for the first few months of CC’s recovery, helping his wife was Cody’s chief focus. Now, nearly a year later, CC’s almost back to normal. She says, “Cody was my nurse, my p.t.. my o.t., my speech therapist all in one. He was my rock. I doubt my recovery would have been so successful without him.”

Before CC’s accident, Cody had talked about joining the military. He waited until his wife was cleared to drive, then signed up in August. He started basic training in November. Now 25, he hopes to make it into Special Ops and become a Green Beret.

While CC was in a coma, Cody had watched a sermon on the hospital TV. The minister talked about using one’s God-given talents. “That sermon spoke to him,” CC says. “He has the physical ability to serve. He has the courage. He has the heart.”

CC, whose dad was an Army Ranger, supports Cody’s choice. But her voice broke when she talked about how hard it is not to be able to reach her husband whenever she wants. Still, CC says, “Our country wouldn’t be as awesome as it is without the sacrifices of our soldiers and their families. When Cody gets deployed, it’ll be terrifying for me. He’ll be in dangerous places. But I know God is on his side. When I ask him about the dangers he’ll face, he says nothing will compare to what he went through when I was in a coma.”

CC’s grateful for the attention she received from family, friends and teammates during her recovery. (She ran cross country and track at Austin Peay State U. in Clarksville, TN.) And for the nurses who worked with her at Le Bonheur. When she was comatose, they visited constantly, comforted her family and checked up on her nursing care. Ula, her preceptor (the senior nurse assigned to mentor her), wanted to wash CC’s hair while she was in the ICU. She volunteered to bring in a bucket, but the request was denied. She braided CC’s hair instead.

CC recently returned to her nursing position. She works with children suffering from seizures or brain trauma. She believes her health challenge made her more empathetic, more able to relate to her patients. She has walked the walk. While she still has some minor weakness in her left hand, she’s basically healed.

CC’s faith has strengthened, too. “Through all the chaos of my accident, God was with me. When I was stuck in a wheelchair or in bed, I read the Bible every day. I still do. It helped me come through this ordeal with peace.”

Thanks, CC. Your story’s a New Year’s gift of hope and survival. Thanks, Sheila Hudson, Cece’s beloved mother-in-law, for sharing CC’s story when we were seatmates on our recent flight to California.

And thanks, Cody, for your service. God bless all who keep us safe. And God bless America.

CC and Cody today.

CC and Cody today.

Valeri Serlin and other Jews, and Muslims, make Christmas merrier

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One of the many sites where volunteers helped out on Mitzvah Day in 2015. Chef Matt Prentice, left, and a host of Jewish and Muslim volunteers helped out at Cass Community Services in Detroit.

Editor’s Note: Southeast Michigan’s religiously diverse community provides lots of opportunities for interfaith cooperation that is rare—and inspiring—in our world, today. One of the most dramatic occurs this week: Mitzvah Day. Readers may be aware of another similarly named occasion, promoted by the United Nations and especially in the UK, usually held earlier in the year. That “international” Mitzvah Day also calls for religiously diverse volunteers to tackle community projects. However, the Michigan Mitzvah Day has a special twist. It is especially focused on bringing large numbers of Jewish and Muslim volunteers together on Christmas to free up time for workers who want to celebrate with their families. This an especially thoughtful effort in 2016, since Christmas is also the first full day of Hanukkah. This week, GodSigns author Suzy Farbmn tells the story of one Jewish volunteer. Enjoy!

By SUZY FARBMAN

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From left: Carley, Valeri and Alyssa Serlin.

Valeri is one busy lady.

She’s a mom. A volunteer. And a full time legal assistant. She merges those roles with grace.

Judaism is important to Valeri. So important that she sent daughters Carley and Alyssa to Hillel in Farmington Hills, MI. So important that both girls were bat mitzvahed in Israel. (The day also had an ecumenical aspect. After Carley’s service on Mt. Masada, the family hired an Arab cab driver to drive them through Bethlehem.)

In 9th grade Carley announced she’d make aliyah (move to Israel) when she grew up.

“I don’t think so,” her mom said. She wondered if she’d overdone the Israel zeal, figured her daughter would outgrow the notion.

But in 10th grade, Carley hadn’t changed her mind. Nor by 11th. Nor 12th. Meanwhile, she learned to speak Hebrew and Japanese. After graduating from Andover High School, she announced she was moving to Israel.

“I had to take the high road,” Valeri says. “I told her, ‘If you’re determined to proceed, I’m coming with you.’”

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Click on this image to visit the website for the Jewish Community Relations Council of metropolitan Detroit to learn more about programs of the Council. Mitzvah Day 2016 is expected to bring together 1,000 Jewish volunteers along with many Muslim neighbors to fill roles at 46 sites across southeast Michigan.

The Jewish commandment of tikkun olam (helping others) runs strong in Valeri’s life. She’s been a devoted community volunteer for years. Among her favorite causes is Mitzvah Day. On Christmas in southeast Michigan, Jewish and Muslim men, women and children volunteer in more than 40 charitable sites around Detroit, enabling Christian staff and volunteers to celebrate at home with their families. Sites include churches, nursing homes, soup kitchens.

One site staffed by Mitzvah Day volunteers is the Friendship Circle. This privately funded organization for special needs kids features Safety Town. With a model of a bank, pet store, post office, beauty shop, etc., Safety Town teaches special needs individuals to function in the outside world.

Another of Valeri’s favorite Mitzvah Day sites is the Detroit Rescue Mission. Volunteers plate food, distribute it and bus tables for homeless diners. “It’s a big dose of reality,” Valeri says. “I had no idea how many homeless people there are in Detroit. We bring them warm socks, blankets—whatever they need. You can see them on TV, but until you’re up close and personal, you don’t know them. Most aren’t bad people; they’ve just fallen on hard times. The people we serve are incredibly grateful. The women always hug me. The men smile and shake my hand.”

Valeri began taking her daughters to Mitzvah Day when they were about 10 and 12. Each of them said, “Mom, I never knew. We’re so lucky to have a home and 2 parents.” Both girls are now grown. Valeri’s example of helping others has taken hold. After 8 years in Israel, Carley now lives in LA and works at Emak Hebrew Academy. Alyssa lives in Chicago where she’s a medical technician at Northwestern Hospital.

“Mitzvah Day helps keep our lives in perspective. It’s important to remember where we came from and to appreciate what we have.”

The tradition of standing in for Christians on Christmas began with the Jewish War Veterans in the 1970s. About 20 years ago, it was taken over and named by the Jewish Community Relations Council. 8 years ago it gained a new dimension when the Michigan Muslim Community Council joined in and it became Mitzvah/Muslim Day. Last year’s event had over 900 volunteers, of which about 150 were Muslim. Jews and Muslims work side by side at a variety of sites. This year, even more volunteers are expected to participate.

Valeri, divorced for 13 years, has traveled to Israel 14 times. “For me, Israel symbolizes a love for our people.” Valeri was there on 9/11 on a Jewish Welfare Federation sponsored mission. “We couldn’t call the U.S. We couldn’t get a plane for 2 days.” To remember that day, she incorporated her room number and the name of the town she was visiting into a new email address.

She also wears a symbol of what Israel means to her. “Israel is in my heart,” she says. It’s also on her wrists. She buys a handmade silver bracelet on each visit. “These bracelets are my way of remembering. From Eilat to Haifa, each trip has been special. Visiting Israel is walking through history. It strengthens my commitment.”

Thanks, Valeri, for sharing your experience. And thanks to all Mitzvah/Muslim Day volunteers, for helping make Detroit a more humane place to live. For everyone.

Kim Marsella’s grandpa inspires friendship with Neil Armstrong

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Neil Armstrong with Kim Marsella

If you enjoyed last week’s blog post on Kim Marsella, you’ll love this delightful postscript…

Recap: After Ava Goldberg died of a car crash in 1988, daughters Kim and her sisters moved in with Ava’s parents, Leilah and Marvin Goldberg, in Woodbridge, CT. Many grandparents consider it their right to spoil their grandchildren (guilty as charged). Marvin exhibited more discipline.

Anticipating a paid internship in college, Kim, a sophomore, asked for a car to drive around campus. Marvin suggested Kim get a job. In fact, a job working for him. Marvin was an electrical contractor. In 1994, Kim became an electrical assistant. (To this day, friends ask her to wire and rewire switches, lamps and ovens.) That summer Kim and her grandfather commuted to and from Newton, CT, to the job site his company was hired to complete (new road with 25 homes). Kim lugged ladders, wired dining room light fixtures and circuit breakers, installed plug plates. The skin on her fingers turned raw from working with wires, tools and lug nuts. But Kim got her first car—a new blue Toyota Paseo.

Kim Marsella and grandfather Marvin Goldberg.

Kim dancing with her grandfather.

And she and her grandpa became pals.

4 years later, at dinner one night, Kim asked Marvin a question. “Grandpa,” she said. “You’ve lived a long time. What’s been the greatest experience in your life?”

Marvin paused. “Good question,” he said. “I need some time to think about it.”

A few minutes later, Marvin said, “I’ve got it. When I was a boy, my parents used to tell me a story about the boy in the moon. In 1969, a man landed on the moon. And I was alive to see it.”

Marvin died in 2006. Two months after losing her beloved grandfather, Kim attended the Air Show in Reno, NV. At the time, Kim was director of global travel for Atlas Air. Her significant other, Scott Dolan, was senior vice president of United Airlines. The couple were guests in the private box of Rolls Royce Engines, a supplier to United. As luck (smiley face) would have it, another guest in that box was Neil Armstrong.

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Marvin Goldberg earlier in life.

Kim told the first man on the moon about the conversation she’d once had with her grandpa. “He smiled,” she says. “But he was humble about it.”

Over 4 years, encountering each other at Rolls Royce Engines events, Kim and Scott became friendly with Neil and Carol Armstrong. In Indiana, during the Indy 500, Rolls Royce sponsored a golf tournament. Neil Armstrong requested Kim and Scott in his foursome.

Despite Kim’s golfing prowess, it was match play. Kim and Neil were defeated by Carol and Scott. But Kim felt like a winner in any case.

“Neil Armstrong was kind, polite and reserved,” Kim says. “He reminded me of my grandfather. You could tell he was thinking but spoke only when he had something to say. His answers were short and to the point, but sweet and endearing. Every time I saw him I felt comforted. It reminded me that my grandpa was somewhere watching over me, like the boy in the moon.”

Thanks, Kim. Your story follows the recent death of John Glenn, whose 1962 flight as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth made him an all-American hero. Thanks for sharing your brush with another all-American hero. And for reminding us how lucky we are to have such modest, brave human beings blazing trails for us all.