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Kate Carter creates lasting memories for dying people

Kate Carter behind her camera

In 1998, Kate’s best friend Tairi was dealing with breast cancer. Tairi’s husband had recently died of ALS. They had young children. Kate says, “I sat around crying, wondering how I could help.”

Kate ran a medical transcription business in Santa Barbara, CA. She began thinking there was “something more meaningful” she was meant to do. Waiting for that something to appear, she signed up for a TV production class.

Soon after, she called Tairi and asked: What do you want your kids to know? She volunteered to film Tairi talking to them. “At first she was excited. But months went by. Facing her mortality became too frightening.”

Even though Tairi died before doing a video, Kate thought others would appreciate the chance. “I knew I had a really good idea. I was terrified I didn’t have what it takes.”

Kate’s inability to help Tairi taught her a lesson. “I learned to start with a conversation that said: This isn’t about giving up. It’s about taking care of business. Knowing it’s done will provide peace of mind—even if you live to 90.”

Kate shared her idea with Gail Rink, who ran the Santa Barbara Hospice. Gail said, “In my years of doing this work, I’m not sure I’ve met anyone else who’d be ready to do something so tough.”

Another friend had acquired 501C3 status for a foundation that didn’t go forward. She offered the charitable designation to Kate, who jumped at it. She decided to focus on seniors and seriously ill patients.

Kate Carter interviewing a client

Kate Carter interviewing a man to capture his story for his family.

Kate’s new mission began slowly—2 or 3 videos the first couple of years. Demand grew. Now, 19 years later, through her non-profit LifeChronicles, Kate has created over 1,500 videos. She’s worked in 40 states and 287 cities, plus Canada and the UK. Friends and/or supporters often donate frequent flier miles or money for last minute flights. When traveling, Kate may sleep on subjects’ sofas or in their kids’ bedrooms.

Health care organizations including Boston’s Dana Farber and Presbyterian Hospital in Queens, NY, have reached out for training so they can provide LifeChronicles services to families.

The video experience is, Kate says, “more than I expected. At first I thought it was about telling stories. I didn’t realize the therapeutic value for families. Some things need to be said. Families have a chance to resolve issues and tie up loose ends.”

Kate enters each filming without a set of questions and with no preconceived ideas. Each situation is different. Kate’s staff and volunteers do their own post-production work. “Anyone can operate a camera with today’s equipment. Our value is our ability to facilitate families. We enter into highly charged situations and walk families through a process that’s unique to them.”

Kate often works with dying young parents. LifeChronicles videos help ease the fears of young children worried about permanent separation from their parents. She photographs parents and children together, as a family, and one on one. “A child who sees herself on camera with her mother not only remembers her mother. She remembers how felt to be with her mother.”

Last November, just before Thanksgiving, Kate received a call from a young mother of boys 5 and 2. She was referred by Dana Farber where her husband was being treated for pancreatic cancer. Kate recalls, “I asked: Could we wait until Sunday? She started crying. OK, I said. I’ll be there tomorrow.”

Kate arrived at their home on Thanksgiving. The 5 year old was wearing a Batman costume. On camera, Kate asked, “What’s it like to be Batman?”

“It’s hahd.” (Kate mimics his Boston accent.) “It takes special training.”

Kate asked about his father.

“Daddy has a bad tummy ache. I have his special medicine in the bat cave.”

“What does your daddy do?”

“Daddy cleans the oceans. Daddy likes to help people.” (He worked for the EPA.)

His father limped into the next room and lay down under a blanket. Following the filming, the family insisted Kate stay for dinner, from Boston Market. After, as Kate got into the car, the mother grabbed her in a hug. She said, “I hardly know you, but I love you.”

Batman’s daddy died 4 days later.

Another time Kate filmed a very sick 34 year old mother of 4 girls. First, with her husband and children, then with her parents. The dying patient turned to her mother. “Gently but firmly, she said, ‘I need you to be different with my girls than you were with me. I need you to be kinder.’”

On that occasion, Kate was accompanied by a volunteer—a professional psychologist. After, Kate and the psychologist talked about the woman’s request to her mother. The psychologist said, “Whether or not their grandmother is any kinder to them, those girls will know their mom went to bat for them.”

Raven, a 28 year old woman with ALS, was the mother of a daughter, 2. While a doctor from Johns Hopkins ran a second camera, a social worker wiped away the patient’s tears as she labored to speak. She was so ill she needed a ventilator to force air into her lungs; she exhaled on her own. Kate wondered how to turn this sad filming around. She asked, “At this time, what gives you joy?” The mom answered, “My daughter gives me joy,” and she spoke about her love for her.

A week later, Raven’s husband called. 5 days after the filming, Raven died. Her mother was “ecstatic” to learn about the video.

Kate regards her work as about more than leaving a legacy. “It’s about the courage of people facing their own mortality who want their loved ones to have these memories when they’re gone.” She sees her involvement as “walking into holy ground.”

Kate’s creating a website, LifeSpace, to catalogue videos by the human values they represent, such as overcoming adversity. She hopes the website becomes an academic resource. Almost all subjects have agreed to be included. “Most people want their lives to have had meaning and to benefit others after they’re gone.”

Kate, who turns 65 next month, has learned lessons from the families she’s filmed. “Laugh every moment you can. Don’t take anything for granted. Life is fragile and precious. What matters most is the connections between us.”

Kate has 3 children. Husband Russell Carter is an artist who reproduces masterpieces and also creates original paintings. Kate’s passion for her work means the family sometimes goes without vacations or Christmas presents. “And I’ve taken out a loan on our house. But the sacrifices are worth it.”

In the for-profit world, Kate says, a video would cost $3500. LifeChronicles asks subjects to pay whatever part of $3500 they can. Some pay more to support the cause. Others, far less.

At one fundraiser Kate conducted in a mall, a lady came up to her. “You taped my husband five years ago,” the lady said. (Kate recalls, “She had a TV and a couch in the living room, and that was it.”) The lady said she and her children watch that video every year on her late husband’s birthday. She insisted on giving Kate $25.

Having struggled with serious health challenges, Kate has faced her own mortality. “I have no fear of dying,” she says. “I can be with a dying person and not be devastated because I know he or she won’t really be dead. I believe only our body dies; our spirit lives forever.”
* * *

(Thanks, Kate, for sharing your story, and for the brave and selfless work you do. Thanks, Anne Towbes, for introducing us.)

Marti Huizenga shared her wealth and her spirit with others

Marti Huizenga at left at a fundraiser for the Humane Society (1)

CLASSIC POSE OF A GIVER: Throughout her life, Marti Huizenga (at left) found herself sprinkled across the pages of newspapers and magazines with “giant checks” as a public way to bring attention to her philanthropic causes. In this photo, she’s part of a major donation to a Humane Society affiliate.

Marti squeezed every last drop out of her 74 years. Her motto, according to mutual friend Patty Chaplin: “What fun is it to have money if you can’t share it?”

And share it she did. She had a close circle of friends who sailed the world with her on her yacht and circled it on her plane. As Patty puts it, “She fulfilled all of our bucket lists.”

I met Marti 3 years ago when Patty and I attended a luncheon/fashion show benefit for Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Hospital. The event was held in a tent erected on a tarmac of the Sarasota Airport. Patty and I were seated at Marti’s table before she arrived. Suddenly we heard the sound of an airplane engine. We watched a jet taxi to within several yards of the tent. Marti and a small group of friends and family descended the steps and walked to the tent. She was friendly and unassuming, dressed no more nicely, nor more bejeweled, than the rest of us. If I hadn’t known who she was or seen her disembark, I’d never have guessed she was one of the country’s wealthiest women. Nor would I have known she was suffering from what would be terminal cancer.

Hearing about Marti’s recent funeral, which she planned, I had to share her burial with Godsigns readers. But first, a little more about Marti…

Marti’s husband of 45 years, Wayne Huizenga launched 3 Fortune 500 companies: Waste Management, Blockbuster Entertainment and AutoNation. He also owned the Miami Dolphins (football), the Miami Marlins (baseball) and the Florida Panthers (hockey). The Huizengas had one box for family and one for friends in each stadium.

Marti and Wayne Huizenga talk about the year of the rat craze

Marti and her husband Wayne talk with reporters about the year of the Rat craze.

Marti loved watching their teams play. In 1996, the Year of the Rat, the Panthers competed for the Stanley Cup Finals. (They lost to the Colorado Avalanche.) During the game, fans celebrated goals by throwing plastic rats onto the ice. Marti brought bags full of rats and heaved them with glee. She hosted luncheons at her home for players and staff and cooked and baked herself. Once a friend’s son wore a Jets t-shirt to a Dolphins game. “Marti had a fit,” Patty says.

Marti was as generous to organizations as she was to friends. Her philanthropic passions were “kids, critters and cancer.” The Huizengas gave millions to the Humane Society, the Boys & Girls Club, Moffitt Hospital and many other causes. Marti put in countless hours of personal time as well.

Marti loved adventure. For one birthday, she flew in an F-18 fighter jet and landed on an aircraft carrier. After watching a TV special on the migration of polar bears, she arranged for 25 friends and family members to fly to Churchill, Canada, to witness it.

Marti often took a small circle of friends on travel excursions aboard their yacht (the 229 ft. Floridian formerly belonged to Greg Norman) or 737 jet plane.

Marti Huizenga (right) with Patti (1)

Marti (at right) with Patty.

At one point, she asked Patty, “Where else would you like to go?”

Patty said “Venice.”

Marti said, “Let’s go.”

2 years ago, when she still felt well enough, Marti took her girlfriends on a mystery trip. It would be their last. Screens on the plane were covered; window shades drawn. They landed at Teeterboro and rode to New York City where they enjoyed front row seats to “Book of Morman” and “Warhorse.” Designers welcomed them to their showrooms for private fashion shows. As always, the best wines flowed.

Several years back, Patty’s husband Lee’s family was badly injured in a car crash while on vacation. They were immobilized with multiple casts, braces and rods. Unasked, the Huizengas flew them all home from the hospital.

Marti loved giving gifts. Patty, who graduated from the U. of Florida, is a devoted Gators fan. Marti sent her gators in every form, including an enormous gator-shaped table and chairs. A devout Catholic, Marti sent a last gift to Patty a few weeks before she died. It was a leather-bound daily devotional, Jesus Calling, signed “to my true and dear friend.”

It was quite a life for a small town girl from Florida who once swam for tourists as a mermaid in Weeki Wachee Springs.

And now for Marti’s unexpected burial…

Her funeral was followed by a larger celebration of life. Her small funeral was by invitation only. It was attended by family, close friends, staff and several EMT firemen Marti had hired to take care of Wayne, who’s also been ill. Marti, who traveled the world in such style, chose a simpler way to travel to her final resting place–a plain pine casket. Mourners were given colorful Magic Marker pens with which to sign the casket with their names and a message. And so to accompany her to eternity.

Patty signed with the nickname Marti gave her. “Always in my heart. Pattycakes.”

(Thanks, Patty, for sharing your remarkable friend with Godsigns readers. What a finale.)

Marti Huizenga (1)

After much uncertainty, Stephanie Weil will soon become a farmer

Stephanie and Dan Weil sampling the ripeness of wheat by tasting it

Daniel Weil shows his daughter Stephanie how to test the maturity of wheat by picking and tasting a bit of the crop.

Like many young people, Stephanie couldn’t decide what she wanted to do when she grew up. As a little girl, she wanted to be a farmer. Her grandparents had started Weil Dairy Farm in 1951. Later, Stephanie’s father, Dan, joined in the family business along with his wife and Stephanie’s mother: Shauna. But, for years, it was not clear if there would be a third generation of Weil farmers.

Stephanie says at 5 or 6, she was “a natural farm kid. I loved working beside my dad, helping him milk and feed the cows.”

As Stephanie grew older, the dream faded. In middle and high school, she fancied music. She took piano and percussion lessons and sang in the church choir. She was busy, and as for the farm? “Dad didn’t really need my help.” Her 2 older brothers were more likely to spend time working on the farm.

As her brothers grew older, however, neither chose farming as a career. Nick Weil works at Michigan State University in geo-spatial analysis used in map making. Brother Drew is at UCLA on a fellowship in health care administration. The family farm looked as though there’d be no more family to run it after Dan and Shauna retired.

In middle school, Steph wanted to become a graphic designer. Later, working on the high school yearbook, she decided she wasn’t creative enough. In 11th grade, she held an internship with an occupational therapist. That didn’t suit her either. “It was unsettling not knowing what I wanted.” As a senior, she got the go ahead to intern with her dad. The next summer, her dad suggested she haul wagons of haylage, a form of feed for the cows. “I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it. But I still didn’t think I could be a farmer.”

Stephanie Weil with Cow 288In college, she began to wonder if agriculture wasn’t her destiny after all. “I was nervous about it,” she says. “There’s so much you have to know, both about technology and how to work with animals.” Nevertheless, she dove in and is now almost finished with her ag studies at MSU.

For instance? “The use of precision ag. We plant every field with variable-rate seeding. We take into account 5 years of previous yields from our fields, as well as soil types. We plant higher rates of seed in areas that will have a higher yield and lower rates in poorer areas.” Before adopting precision ag, she says, they planted one rate across an entire field.

Now, they use the same approach for applying nitrogen to corn and when spraying herbicides. The result? “We better manage our applications and support environmental stewardship.”

Stephanie has worked full time on the farm the last 3 summers. “I love being outside with our animals, and seeing the sunrise, and working with my dad. After that first summer, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a farmer.”

Weil Dairy Farm is in Goodrich, MI, about an hour north of Detroit. The only dairy farm in town, Weil has 190 dairy cows and about 500 cattle in all, including calves. Male calves are kept for beef; females for milking. Alfalfa, soybeans, corn and wheat—much of it to feed their livestock—are grown on farmland of about 1200 acres.

Having recently watched “Charlotte’s Web” with my grandchildren, I wonder if Stephanie ever becomes attached to their animals. “Our oldest cow was 11. I celebrated her birthday with her. I made her a ‘cake’ of her favorite feed ingredients and served it to her on a bucket lid and wished her happy birthday. I was sad when she got shipped. But it had to happen. It’s part of the cycle.”

Stephanie, an animal lover, would like to eventually take over the cow side of the farming operation and free up her dad, now 57, to concentrate on crops. Stephanie hopes to someday be able to afford a system of robots. Presently, cows are milked by farm workers using standard milking equipment, twice a day, at 5am and 4pm. Each session takes about 4 hours, including time to clean equipment and clear the manure. The process could be done by robots, she says—but at a cost for the equipment of about $1 million.

Stephanie Weil's childhood books

The books Stephanie created in elementary school. Click the photo to see it in a larger format.

While thinking about her future, Stephanie had “many” talks with her mom, whose support encouraged her. Her decision was further reinforced by a discovery she made on her mother’s bookshelf. She came across 5 little books she’d created as an elementary school student. Printed in the school’s publishing center, the books contain Stephanie’s illustrations and stories about her dream of someday becoming a farmer.

Stephanie Weil's Facebook post about her vocationWomen comprise a growing minority in farming. In 2007, women were 30% of the 3.3 million farm operators in the U.S., according to a government survey. That was up 19% from 2002, significantly beating the 7% increase in overall number of farmers.

Now 21, Stephanie graduates in May. About her decision to join her father, she says, “I think my brothers are excited for me. They’re happy there’ll be a farm to come home to.” Her grandmother, 89, still lives on the farm. “My grandma’s the most proud. She brags to everyone that the farm’s going into its 3rd generation.”

Thanks, David Crumm, for introducing me to your niece. Thanks, Stephanie, for sharing your story. May your cows’ udders runneth over and your fields abound.

 

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

gary-and-kelly-rosenberg

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

megan-brudney-bts

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

sending-doug-leith-ashes-into-the-waters

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.

doug-and-his-wife-suzie-with-this-columnist-at-right

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