Author Archives: Suzy Farbman

Nancy Conrad carries on husband Pete’s legacy

“Say, AHHHH!” In this famous 1973 NASA photo, astronaut Pete Conrad receives a dental exam in the Skylab space station.

Visiting Tucson’s Miraval spa with my daughters-in-law last spring, I noticed a petite gal with spikey hair, lunching with a couple other attractive women. I came up with an excuse to talk to them. (Probably something about food, an old standby icebreaker.) I learned these gals came from different parts of the country and met through their husbands, who were fishing buddies.

Nancy Conrad

The one with the trendy hair was Nancy Conrad. Her husband died, she said, but she and the gals get together every year. She lives in D.C. and runs the Conrad Foundation. It promotes STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Math) activities among highschoolers. She started the foundation in memory of her husband.

I march right through that door. “Who was your husband?”

“Pete Conrad.”

Me: “Sounds familiar.”

Duh.

“The astronaut.”

Holy Venus and Mars, I think. Pete Conrad was a legend. As commander of Apollo 12, in 1969 he was the 3rd man to walk on the moon. He made 4 flights in space. He commanded the first manned Skylab 2 mission. (He and crewmates repaired launch damage to the Skylab space station, for which Pete received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978.)

Nancy lived in Colorado; Pete, in St. Louis. A mutual friend introduced them, telling Nancy, “He’s as smart, short and funny as you.” (Pete was just over 5’6”; Nancy’s 5’1”.) Pete’s personal motto: “When you can’t be good, be colorful.”

Pete makes his own first step onto the lunar surface. (NASA photo)

When Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, stepped on the lunar surface, we all remember his famous remark. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Conrad, the physically shortest man in the astronaut corps, followed 4 months later. When his foot touched the lunar dust, he said, “That may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”

Nancy and Pete married in 1990, a second marriage for both. Nancy had taught English, then been associate publisher of an international business women’s magazine. Pete went on to start four companies focused on making space travel more accessible.

Pete died in 1999 of internal injuries from a motor cycle accident. (He was wearing a helmet and within the speed limit.) He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Nancy co-authored his posthumous biography, Rocketman, published in 2005. Nancy says, “Pete died as he lived, doing what he loved.”

The LBJ Space Center in Houston has a grove of trees honoring the memory of astronauts who’ve died. Every Christmas, the center lights these trees with white lights, except For one. In respect for Armstrong’s motto, “be colorful,” his tree has red lights.

As a student, Conrad struggled with dyslexia. He was expelled from 11th grade for his inability to read or spell. At a different school, according to the foundation’s website, “a perceptive head master saw Pete’s spark of genius and gave him the confidence he needed. Pete went on to earn a scholarship to Princeton and a ride to the moon.”

As Nancy puts it, “He became an aeronautical engineer. He loved to fly and didn’t need to read or spell.”

In 2008, Nancy started a foundation dedicated to “transformational education” and to Pete’s “four decade passion for innovation and entrepreneurship.” Once a teacher, Nancy’s critical of our national education system. In a 2009 TED talk, she said our system was created for a manufacturing based economy. She called it a “Cuisinart” approach in which you throw ingredients into a machine and hope something good results.

“We now live in a global economy. Technology rules,” Nancy says. “Kids around the world stay up all night communicating online.” Nancy created a program that encourages young people from all over to work as teams, competing to produce ideas that benefit mankind
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The “Spirit of Innovation Award” is supported by the US Navy, NASA, Kennedy Space Center and other big time players. It’s given to students, 13-18, in aerospace & aviation, cyber technology & security; energy & environment and health & nutrition. This year 145 teams competed. The most recent Conrad Scholars winners come from NC, FL, OH and VA. Students from Japan and Australia also received awards.

Students have produced ideas anywhere from a lightweight space suit with electrical muscle stimulants to noninvasive biomedical glasses that measure a person’s vital signs. Award winners present their ideas to leaders in their respective industries.

As Nancy puts it, “Think Shark Tank meets the Academy Awards for students.”

Nancy has spoken at MIT and Harvard. She testified before a US House of Representatives committee. She’s been named one of the top 100 leaders in STEM Education.

Nancy says, “We encourage kids to imagine. We want them to ask questions, to integrate their knowledge of science and to participate in designing the future.”

Talia Nour Omid, an early Pete Conrad Scholar, joined Nancy in the TEDx Talk she gave in San Francisco. It was 40 years to the day Nancy’s late husband landed on the moon. Talia said, “The Conrad Award helps students to look to the stars for their ideas and to fly there.”

Marc Schupan’s grief over his son leads him to write letters and tell the story

Even as a boy, Seth Schupan shared a love of hockey with his father Marc. Later, Seth overcame a serious injury to get back onto the ice.

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Whoever survives a test, whatever it may be, must tell the story. That is his duty.
Elie Wiesel

Jeanne and Marc Schupan. Photo by Carolyn Kennedy, used by permission.

Most everyone agrees the worst loss any parent can face is the loss of a child. Marc and Jeanne Schupan of Kalamazoo, MI, parents of 4, faced that nightmare. In 2002, Seth, their oldest son, along with Jeanne’s parents were killed in a car crash. It was morning. Seth was driving his grandparents across state to join the family for Thanksgiving dinner that night. Seth’s car was hit by a van at a country crossroad. He was 23.

Seth was a recent graduate of Northwood U. in Midland, MI, a Phi Delt and a hockey player. “Though physically strong, he was always gentle and kind. He brought warmth to people young and old,” his obituary reads.

When Seth died, Marc and Jeanne received over 1200 notes and letters. Some revealed aspects of their son’s life they hadn’t known. There was a letter from a classmate who’d been bullied. Seth stood up for him, he said, and the bullying stopped. A different classmate, a girl with Lupus, wrote, “Seth made a point of asking me about my health. He was one of the few who showed genuine interest and concern.”

Seth’s club hockey coach from Northwood mentioned the time Seth, then a junior, broke his ankle. “No one expected him to play again,” he said. “But he came back his senior year and was an inspiration to younger teammates.”

Marc was no stranger to loss. At 26, he took a leave from his job as a high school teacher and coach to work for his dad’s small scrap metal company. 3 weeks later, his father Nelson, 53, died of a stroke. Marc had 3 younger siblings. His dad’s funeral was on a Sunday; Marc took over the business on Monday.

Marc has since built Schupan & Sons manufacturing companies from a firm with 6 employees to a powerhouse that employs 500. Among its various recycling activities, Schupan & Sons is the largest recycler of redeemable aluminum containers in deposit states.

Despite the business challenges Marc had overcome, dealing with the loss of his son was nearly insurmountable. Two years after Seth’s accident, having read dozens of self-help books, Marc was still unable to cope with his grief. He began a practice which helped console him: writing letters to his late son.

In hope of supporting others who are grieving, Marc shared his letters. They’re honest, informative and, at times, heart-breaking. They trace Marc’s emotional arc and give him a way to feel still somehow connected to his son.

Letters begin Dear Seth…

December, 2004. “I’ve become more functional on the outside, but the pain internally is sometimes even more severe. The stages, shock and numbness, have led me to the present stage of reality—in some ways the hardest. Understanding the permanence of your absence is the worst reality… Mom is taking care of everyone and shows more strength than any of us, but I do worry about her. We are going to be the exception to the 85% rule.” (Some studies claim as many as 85% of couples who lose a child end up divorced.)

September, 2006. “The closer we get to your birthday, the harder it is not to have you a part of our physical life. …How we appreciate each other and value life itself is your gift to us.”

November, 2006. Marc writes that he and Jeanne attended son Jordan’s hockey game in N.H. After, they walked the beach and enjoyed a seafood dinner. “It was one of the most positive days your Mom and I have had together since the accident. When we went to bed that night… I started to think of you. I went from 70 to 0 in about two minutes. I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I could not understand how I could ever be as happy without you as I had been that day.”

February, 2008. Marc and Jeanne’s daughter Shayna had a second child. “You now have a namesake, Benjamin Seth Barry. Watch over him for us. My only hope is he grows to be the man his uncle Seth turned out to be. I know I always tell you how proud I am of you. I only wish I’d have told you more often.” Marc tells Seth he’s begun supporting other families who’ve lost children. “I’m not sure how much I really help, but I try.”

September 9, 2009. “Today, would have been your 30th birthday. Besides painfully missing you, I think of all you are missing.” Marc’s niece Tori got married. At the rehearsal dinner, a slide presentation showed several shots of Seth. It featured the Beatles’ song, ‘There are places I remember.’ Lyrics include the line: Some are dead and some are living. In my life I loved them all. Marc admits, “I sort of lost it and had to go to a corner away from everyone.”

September, 2010. “Mom and I are doing pretty well. I still think she is the most beautiful woman there is, inside and out. I think about you probably even more than I should. As each day goes by, I appreciate you more. Your values, what a joy it was just to be around you, what a warm, unselfish person you were.”

November, 2012. Marc mentions various activities linked to Seth’s name. A Big Brothers facility, a Northwood Institute hockey tournament and scholarship, a Kalamazoo Foundation memorial fund, all of which have made “a positive difference” for others. “There is no doubt there is an empty place in our lives that will never be filled. …We are trying to appreciate the good. I believe that we as a family and individually have continued our lives in directions that would make you proud. …You were a terrific young man, respected and loved by many. I am proud to have had you as a son and appreciate infinitely the years we had together. I love you son and always will, even more as each day passes.”

Marc still writes to Seth. He details family activities and milestones. His letters aren’t only a source of comfort for him, they provide ongoing family history. Along with copies of his letters, Marc also sent a touching little book by Kathryn and Ross Petras. Don’t Forget to Sing in the Lifeboats is a compilation of inspiring quotes. The title comes from Voltaire: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”

I flipped open the book to a quote from the playwright Moliere: “If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.”

I flipped again to one from diplomat Dag Hammarskjold: “Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible—not to run away.”

Thanks, Marc, for not running away. Thanks for sharing your lifeboat. May it help save others as well.

Seth Schupan as the family likes to remember him.

Walid Al Houssami’s grateful to America and to Mitch Albom

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With the refugee issue front and center in the political discourse, a story of hope and prosperity…

WALID AL HOUSSAMI, IN HIS PROFESSIONAL ROLE.

“Work as if you’ll live forever; pray as if you’ll live for 5 seconds.” That’s the motto of Walid Al Houssami.

You never know where you’ll find such wisdom. In this case, it came from my driver on the way to Detroit’s Metropolitan airport. A sage behind the wheel. (Actually this story’s about two wise men; the first, behind a steering wheel; the second, behind a laptop.)

Walid, his wife Najwa (a teacher) and kids moved to Detroit from Lebanon in 2001. Walid, nickname Weeda, had learned some English at school in Lebanon. The family chose Detroit because relatives had preceded them. “And,” he says, “family is No. 1 in my life.”

Having worked in HR in Lebanon, Weeda found an HR job with a quality control company in the auto industry. With the 2008 downturn, Weeda lost his job and his house. He went to work for a gas station, cleaning and refilling the pop cooler. “No problem,” he says about his gas station job. “I wasn’t ashamed.” He would have been ashamed, he says, if he had applied for welfare when “my health is good, thanks God.” (That’s a direct quote. Weeda’s English is a little spotty. But a helluva lot better than my Lebanese!)

“When my son catch me working at the gas station,” he says, he switched jobs. He became a driver for Metro Car.

The Al Houssami children flourished in the U.S. Their father insisted they learn to work. “If I give them $100, and they lose $20, it doesn’t mean anything to them. If they work for $20 and lose $5, they feel it.” Son Hassan, 35, is now national sales manager for UBC, an express scripts company. Daughter Leila, 30, is a store manager for Limited Express in NY.

WEEDA’S GRANDDAUGHTER, CHOSEN TO APPEAR IN THE LION KING.

Weeda’s children each have a son and a daughter. His 10 year old granddaughter, Najwa, was chosen to sing and dance as Moana in “The Lion King” on Broadway last June.

Weeda says, “God bless the USA and the American people.”

Weeda often drives for journalist/author Mitch Albom. He also drove for Mitch, his wife Janine and Chika. Chika’s the young Haitian orphan the Alboms, who never had children, took into their home and hearts. She’d been living in a Haitian orphanage the Alboms started funding after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Chika had DIPG, a brain tumor, for which there was no treatment in Haiti. Assured that DIPG was fatal, the Alboms nonetheless brought this delightful child home to Franklin, MI, and did whatever they could to save her. In good times they took her to Disneyland, sledding, an aquarium, a mall. In bad times they took her to Ann Arbor, New York and Germany for medical treatment. After 23 months, Chika died from the tumor. She was 6.

CLICK THIS IMAGE TO VISIT THE FREE PRESS WEBSITE AND READ MITCH’S STORIES.

As I’m out of town so often, I hadn’t heard the story. Weeda produced a section of the Detroit Free Press, with a long, heart-warming and heart-breaking article on the Alboms’ journey with Chika. It’s written in the direct, observant, sensitive style I admire in Mitch’s work. As Chika becomes more debilitated, Mitch writes, he carries her often. His doctor tells him he may have a hernia and should stop lifting heavy things.

Mitch writes, “He says I should stop, but I know I will not. Holding this little girl, her arms hooked around my neck, head cradled beneath my chin, is the most satisfying posture I have ever known.”

Toward the end of Chika’s life, Mitch relates a scene from Christmas day. Chika opens a gift, a red sweater. Janine leans over and kisses her. Janine asks, “’Do you want to kiss Mr. Mitch?’ She nodded and kissed my cheek with a spitty smack. Then Chika whispered, ‘Kiss each other.’ So we did, in front of her face, and Janine started to cry and said, ‘Thank you, angel.’ And with her good hand, Chika reached for the tissues and pulled one out and tried to dab Janine’s tears, which only made her cry more.”

Weeda’s proud to say that after 9 years without a home of his own, he bought a new house this year. He and Najwa recently celebrated their 45th anniversary. Weeda hopes to buy and operate his own car, allowing him to spend more time with family.

When Chika died, Mitch ordered Weeda’s car so its driver could attend Chika’s funeral. Weeda was there to say goodbye to the Alboms’ short-lived but extraordinary little girl.

Weeda says, “Mitch Albom is the Detroit Angel.”

Thanks, Weeda, for the ride and the story. And for being a fine example of what’s possible in America.

An adventure that cascades through many lives (Karen Raff, part 3)

‘IN ALL THINGS GIVE THANKS’ says the plaque in the background. This remarkable, far-flung family comes together for a celebration and a group photo. Karen carefully notes the names and professional backgrounds for us: BACK ROW FROM LEFT: Marika Raff (MD), her beau Arun Nagaraju (MD), Karen Raff, Gil Raff (MD), Genie Raff (Gil’s sister and his stem cell donor), Evan Raff (MD, MHA). FRONT ROW FROM LEFT: Asher Raff, Laura Fahey Raff (PhD), Adam Raff (MD/PhD), Helen Kort (Karen’s 86 year old Mom), Barbara Rubino (MD and Evan’s wife).

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PREVIOUSLY: Enjoy Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
Here is the third and final part in our story …

“After Boston and New York, I’d gotten the need for a big, sophisticated city out of my system,” Karen says. Following her dicey drive to Ann Arbor, my resourceful new friend moved in with Gil and took a job in the ICU at the U of M Hospital, again working nights.

Meanwhile, Nancy and Ken got married. They lived on a commune Ken had started on land he bought before moving in with the nurses in Vermont. Ken called the property Ant Rockies because ants and rocks covered the ground. Karen and Nancy had made silk-screened stationery for Ant Rockies using those two images. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Nancy and Ken had a baby girl. They named her Earth Iris. Today Earth Iris is a mother herself. She legally changed her name to Erica. Nancy and Ken divorced, and Nancy came out as a “free and gay” woman. Karen lost track of Ken but remains friends with Nancy, who has since become a Dean of Nursing at Northeastern University in Boston.

Before moving in with Gil, Karen enjoyed “an easy, fun, long-distance letter writing relationship” with him. Living together, Karen learned more about Gil’s Brooklyn family. His grandfather, Bernard Senter, had held social gatherings inspired by European salons. These were attended by intelligentsia like playwright Clifford Odets and writers for the Jewish newspaper The Forward, to which Bernard also contributed.

As a boy, Gil went to public school in an accelerated class, spent a year at a Yeshiva, then returned to public school. He loved Lincoln High School where teachers invited students home to discuss great books and ideas. At 16!!! Gil received a full scholarship to MIT. He studied photography with American photographer Minor White, long time editor of Aperture magazine, and literature with playwright Lillian Hellman (“The Little Foxes”). He graduated with a degree in Humanities, while also taking needed pre-med classes.

When they first met, Karen had been “captivated by Gil because he could talk about so many things—photography, film, books. He was so well-rounded.” The difference in their religions didn’t trouble her. “I was a Presbyterian from a Bible Belt state. I found his Jewishness exotic and compelling.”

So what took them so long???

Both Karen and Gil had been married before, to high school sweethearts. Both had soon divorced, neither with children. “We arrived in Vermont and New Hampshire unencumbered in 1975, and unwilling to settle down too soon this time around.” Before Ann Arbor, Karen says, “I moved from one boyfriend to another. I wanted to experience so many things while I was unmarried and free.”

In time, as she corresponded with Gil, Karen says, “He suffered through my constant complaining about organic chemistry. Gil probably realized before I did that I wasn’t cut out for a career in medicine. I loved art, and having fun, and going to parties.”

When she moved to Ann Arbor with Gil, his friends started asking him: Is she or isn’t she your girlfriend? Gil and Karen weren’t quite sure.

Less than a year later, it was time for Gil to leave Ann Arbor to begin his cardiology fellowship in San Francisco. “I don’t think you should come with me,” Gil said. “I’d like you to, but you won’t have a job because you don’t have a California nursing license. I don’t think it’s good for you to follow your doctor-boyfriends around the country being dependent on them. That’s not the kind of person you want to be.”

“It was true,” Karen says. “How many surgical residents in training did I intend to follow around the country before I found the right one to settle down with? In those days, it seemed acceptable to experiment in that way. But my search was coming to an end.”

Gil was giving notice on his apartment. He recommended Karen start looking for a place to live.

“Well,” Karen said, “If I did happen to have a California nursing license, would you want me to come with you? If I could earn my own way when I got there?”

“Of course I would.”

“That’s great,” Karen said. “Because I do happen to have a California nursing license. I applied for it as soon as I knew you were going to San Francisco. I have it right here. So that means I’m coming.”

(I told you Karen was resourceful.)

And so they drove to San Fran in Gil’s little brown VW Rabbit and rented an apartment near Golden Gate Park. Karen got a job in the ICU at Moffitt Hospital at UCSF, and Gil completed his fellowship. They confirmed to others: they were more than friends. “It was confirmed to us as well!”

A year later, they married and soon after bought a house in Noe Valley near the Castro District.

In 1978 they were both caring for patients “with strange pneumonias and Kaposi’s sarcoma who were really sick. We kept them on reverse isolation, which protected them from us and us from them. None of us knew at that time we were treating the first cases of AIDS.” It was the era of Haight-Asbury and free love.

The Raffs moved to Albuquerque, NM. Gil practiced cardiology for 20 years, then opened a fee-based financial management company. MarketSpace Financial catered to the pension plans of doctors with whom Gil worked. Karen managed his office. Gil wrote a book, Trading the Regression Channel, about a technical method for trading. (If you’re stock market/mathematically inclined, Google the”Raff Regression Channel.”)

After 6 years, Gil returned to cardiology, starting the MRI imaging program at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, MI. He and Karen moved to Milford in 2002 to live in horse country with their daughter, Marika, a competitive equestrian. In recent years, Gil underwent a stem cell transplant for acute myelocytic leukemia, with his sister Genie Raff’s stem cells. (More about this in a future post.) Karen developed Cushings Syndrome (2 diagnoses per million persons per year). She underwent the removal of a benign adrenal tumor and gland. So, far, so good, on both counts.

The Raff sons and daughters-in-law are all in medicine—either MDs, PhDs or MD/PhDs. Marika, also an MD, is an Ob/Gyn resident; her boyfriend, Arun Nagaraju, is a radiology resident. The Raffs raised their children in the Jewish faith. (Karen’s conversion’s another good story. Look forward to that one as well in a future post.)

2 beloved border collies, Willow and Sedona, make up the rest of the family.

This capable and congenial couple celebrated their 38th anniversary on May 26th. As Karen puts it, “We’ve continued our adventure to this day!”

(Thanks, nurses everywhere, for all your sleepless nights taking care of patients. Thanks, Karen and Gil, for everything you and your family do to help heal others. And thanks, Karen, for sharing a journey that illuminates an era.)

And they’re still crisscrossing America …

Karen and Gil on Macmillan Pier in Provincetown, MA.

 

Seeking adventure, nurse Karen Raff continues her romantic wanderings (part 2)

Karen Raff at the time of this story.

Last week, in Part 1 of this story, we learned of Karen Raff’s peripatetic ways after she graduated as a nurse in Kentucky. Ken, the transplanted California hippie she’d been dating, confessed he was in love with her housemate, travel pal and colleague Nancy.

Since Nancy’s beau, Gil, was often at their house, Karen had become friends with the stranger she’d invited to their “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” party. Karen told Gil “the sad news” about Ken’s confession. Gil surprised her saying, ‘It’s really not so bad. I’d rather spend time with you.”

Karen began visiting Gil’s apartment in Hanover, NH. They talked, listened to music, shared meals. “Vermont in the winter was cold and dark,” Karen says. “You needed someone warm and cuddly at night.” At home, however, Karen felt uncomfortable. Nancy and Ken were so “lovey-dovey” around her.

Karen told Nancy Vermont had gotten “too small” for her. She was moving to Boston, “the biggest city I could think of that my old Chevy sedan could reach.” Though she knew no one in Boston, she didn’t worry. “In those days, the hospital felt like home. The nurses I worked with became instant friends.”

A few days later, Nancy said to Karen, “Our friendship means more to me than my relationship with Ken. I’m coming with you.”

They drove to Boston and rented an apartment in Sommerville near then-famous Steve’s Ice Cream. They had no idea how big the city was or how far they were from the hospital district. They found jobs at Beth Israel (now Beth Israel Deaconness).

“It took a subway and two bus transfers to get to work each day, but we had jobs. We were living in the city, embarking on a new adventure. And we didn’t know any better.”

2 weeks later, Nancy admitted her feelings for Ken were stronger than she realized. She moved back to VT. “She left me with a too-large 2-bedroom apartment I could no longer afford.”

Reconnecting with Gil.

Karen and Gil stayed in touch through weekly letters. He finished his internship at Mary Hitchcock Hospital and transferred to the U of M in Ann Arbor to complete his 3-year medical residency.

After a year, Karen decided Boston “wasn’t big enough” either. She followed a surgical resident to NYC. She moved in with him at the Waterside Towers, built out over the East River. She got a job at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital working with serious cancer patients.

When she lost interest in her NY interest, she moved once more. She realized she “liked doctors a lot” and wanted to become one. She returned to KY to take organic chemistry, then apply to med school. Organic chemistry proved daunting. She dropped out.

Gil read Karen’s letter about her organic chemistry fiasco. “Gil cared about my inability to settle down and throw myself into something meaningful. He wanted to help me find my direction in life.”

Gil suggested she move to Ann Arbor, get a job at the hospital and live in his apartment until she was settled. Gil closed his hand written letter to Karen with an incentive. “If you can get here by Jan. 7, I have tickets to Marcel Marceau. That’s not exactly a bribe, but what a shame if you couldn’t make it!”

Karen says, “I jumped at the offer.”

Karen’s dad provided a “generous down payment” and co-signed for a loan on a royal blue Fiat Spider. As Karen couldn’t drive a stick shift, her brother drove her new car home from the dealership. She practiced driving around her neighborhood for a day “but never really got the hang of shifting gears.” Still, she headed north to Michigan.

“I’d start from a dead stop, go from 1st to 2nd to 3rd to 4th, then put the car in neutral and coast down an exit ramp to a gas station or parking place in front of a restaurant.” The day she drove to Ann Arbor there was a torrential downpour. “Huge 18-wheelers sprayed so much water on my little sports car I could barely see where I was going. The car shook each time a truck passed.”

She smoked Virginia Slims all the way. Arriving at Gil’s apartment, she got out of her car and tossed her remaining cigarettes into the dumpster. Gil wasn’t a smoker. “If things didn’t work out between us, I didn’t want his memory of me to be one of a smoke-filled shared apartment.”

That night, over Dungeness crab at the Gandy Dancer, Gil asked why she hadn’t excused herself to go outside for a cigarette, as she usually did.

“Oh!” she said. “Did I forget to tell you? I quit smoking.”

“Great!” he said. “I was worried about how I was going to handle cigarette smoke in my apartment. Now I don’t have to worry. That’s a relief.”

“Little did he know I’d given up a 10-year pack-a-day smoking history just hours before. My desire not to offend him was stronger than my nicotine craving. I’ve not had a single cigarette since that day.”

Karen’s relationship with Gil takes a new turn. Stay tuned for next week’s final episode…

Go back and enjoy Part 1 or move on to Part 3 of this series.

Seeing life as an adventure, Karen Raff discovers friendship and love

Karen (left) and Nancy (right) at Nancy’s home in Maine in the late 1970s.

Long legs and bad knees necessitate my husband Burton’s flying business class. On my own, I choose Economy Comfort. I meet the most interesting people. Recently, on the way to my sister’s birthday cabaret, I sat next to Karen Raff. We became instant BFFs. It was love at first flight.

From Milford, MI, Karen and husband Gil, a cardiologist at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, MI, were on their way to meet their son, Evan. He was graduating from USC’s radiology residency training program. (Older son Adam also graduated from USC’s Keck School of Medicine.) Karen shared a story emblematic of an era. A story filled with adventure, travel, and a circuitous romance. And the faith of a more trusting time…

It was 1975. Karen Laib Lewis and Nancy Hanrahan, from Lexington, KY, had just graduated from the U of K with nursing degrees. Karen sold Nancy on traveling to “far off and exotic places.” They sought to leave their “old fashioned Kentucky ways behind and strike out into the world.” They drove north to Montreal, “eager to shed our denim skirts and Birkenstocks for the haute couture of a sophisticated, metropolitan city.”

They got jobs at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Seeking an apartment, they stayed in a hostel. Turned out Montreal was hosting the upcoming 1976 Winter Olympics. Housing was scarce and unaffordable. An advertised one-and-a-half meant “a studio with a kitchen in a closet.” Next problem: Montreal was nationalizing the French language. Neither jeune fille knew French.

“Disappointed but undeterred,” they got back in their car on a Sunday and headed south on US-91 into Vermont. They looked for blue hospital signs along the highway and found one in Burlington. They took the exit. The nursing office was closed on Sundays.

They continued driving south. The next blue hospital sign was in White River Junction. By then it was Monday. They were hired on the spot at the White River Junction V.A. Hospital, for the night shift. “Always the night shift,” Karen says.

Nancy worked on the medical floor; Karen, the surgical. Karen says, “Our plans for an interesting life outside Kentucky seemed to be working.”

But winter was approaching. The New Englanders they met “tended to keep to themselves. We felt isolated. And we were chatty girls from Kentucky. To be happy, we needed more friends.”

Taking a silk-screening class at a local community college, they created a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” invitation. They sent it to “the only five interesting people we’d made friends with in the last few months.”

The invitation instructed recipients to meet a total stranger on a particular day and invite him or her to a dinner party that night. “We were always thinking up crazy ways to have fun, and this sounded like a real adventure.”

The night before the soiree, they went to work at 11pm. They’d be done by 7:30am, head home to sleep, then start cooking for the dinner party. (They’d prepped earlier.)

Dr. Gil Raff, then an intern at Mary Hitchcock Hospital

Around 7 that morning, Karen was writing up notes at the nursing desk. “A rather young and sleep-deprived doctor came up and asked for a patient’s chart. Back in the day, nurses handed doctors their charts. Today that request would be met with: ‘Get it yourself, doctor.’”

An intern from nearby Mary Hitchcock Hospital (affiliated with Dartmouth), the doctor was seeing a pre-op patient to approve a surgery.

Yawning, the doctor asked, “What’s the date today?”

“September 17th,” Karen answered.

The doctor knocked his forehead with his hand. “He said, in a foggy, been-up- all-night daze, ‘Oh geez. It’s my birthday.’”

Carpe M.D.’em. Karen seized the moment.

“How would you like to come to a dinner party tonight?”

“’Sure,’ he blurted out, as surprised to be asked as I was to have asked him. This is going well, I thought. Only 30 minutes before I go home and I’ve found my stranger.”

As the sun was coming up, Karen met Nancy in the parking lot. Karen told Nancy about her invited stranger. Who had Nancy asked?

“No one. Everyone on my shift was someone I knew.”

“We have to find someone,” Karen said. On their way home they’d detour to a market or the airport and seek out a prospect. As they drove, a thunderstorm struck. The motorcyclist ahead of them veered to the side, pulled out a blue plastic tarp and slung it over himself.

“’There’s your someone!’ I shouted to Nancy. He looked like a perfectly normal hippie who needed something good to happen. And boy was he in luck.” Nancy rolled down the window and invited him. He followed them home to Queechee about 20 miles away.

Weren’t they worried that inviting a perfect stranger into their home was asking for trouble?

Karen says, “We trusted in the goodness of human nature and the universe. We were trying to add some positive karma.”

As I said, it was a different time…

The cyclist had been camping for weeks in the White Mountains. They showed him where to shower and wash his clothes while they slept. Later, all five invited friends brought their strangers. “The party was a success and we made a group of new friends.”

As for Gil, the doctor she’d invited, Karen was “a bit intimidated.” Nancy spent much of the evening with him. Over the next few months, Nancy and Gil’s relationship deepened.

Meanwhile, Karen became involved with Ken Johns, a “super handy” transplanted Californian, one of their first five invitees. “Ken taught us how to be Vermonters,” Karen said. He showed them how to buy block heaters for their cars and plug them in at night so their radiators wouldn’t be frozen when they needed to drive to the hospital for their night shift. They lived on a hill and required 3 long extension cords to connect the heaters to their cars.

Ken moved in. He and Karen were enjoying what she considered “a close, loving relationship.” But… “One morning Ken said, ‘Karen, I need to tell you something difficult. Thank you for teaching me how to love. But the truth is, I’ve discovered I love Nancy.’”

Karen’s story is too good for shortcuts. To learn how she handled Ken’s revelation, tune in next week…

Karen, her dog Moonshadow, and Ken in Penobscot Bay, Maine, in the late 70s, where Nancy and Ken lived after they married.

Move on to Part 2 or Part 3 of this series.

Stacey Alexander and Kevin Thornberry find love is lovelier on Christian Mingle

Stacey and Kevin sharing a delightful afternoon with me (blue scarf) and my sister Anne Towbes (at right).

The complimentary champagne cruise for 12 was booked, said Agatha, the Le Sireneuse concierge. She was sure there’d be cancellations. Agatha had the thick, tawny hair and olive complexion my sister and I had envied since arriving in Capri and now Positano, in early June.

Agatha proved right. Just 4 of us, plus a photojournalist, showed up. Perfect 80 degree weather, blue skies, calm water. Our fellow passengers were on their honeymoon. Stacey Alexander had eyes to match the Tyrrhenian Sea; Kevin Thornberry was big and solid. They radiated the excitement of newlyweds, tempered by the wisdom of experience. This was a second marriage for both– a marriage that almost didn’t take place.

From northern Kentucky, they met on Christian Mingle. Kevin’s an exec with Merck. Being on the road 3 out of 4 weeks made it tough to develop a relationship, he said. He’d met other women online. “With Stacey, I knew right away.”

This was Stacey’s only online dating adventure. Girlfriend Tiffany Sams kept insisting she try it. After filling in questions about personality, past experiences, strengths and weaknesses, she felt “ready and mentally stonger than ever.” When she read Kevin’s self-described traits, “hard-working and passionate,” she felt he was talking about her. When she read he was a Christian, she was sold.

About their failed earlier marriages, this couple’s philosophical. “As adults, we know ourselves better,” Stacey says. “We know our strengths.”

Stacy and Kevin with their newly blended family on their wedding day. This image (and one below) courtesy of Katie Woodring Photography.

So far, their kids get along well. Stacey’s are William (14) and Nicholas (11). Kevin’s are Seth (20) and Bridget (19). “Kevin’s protective but gentle,” Stacey says. “He takes time to talk with my boys and be silly with them. He treats me better than they’ve ever seen me treated.”

Stacey manages the office of a day care center, Skidaddles. A newly certified life coach, she also organizes retreats “to help women become their best selves,” focused on faith and fitness.

Kevin worked for Toyota for several years and says Toyota’s admired for production efficiency. Merck recruited him to help optimize production/distribution of their new cancer drug Keytruda.
Kevin’s also a Lt. Colonel, in his 27th year of the National Guard.

The couple shared the near-miss story of their wedding. On Friday, Kevin had terrible stomach pains. A doctor diagnosed a bad gall bladder attack. The pain lessened over the weekend. “I was determined not to let anything get in the way of our wedding,” he said. On Saturday, June 4, they got married on the rooftop of a downtown Cincinnati hotel. Kevin wore his US Navy uniform.

Monday morning, Kevin checked into the hospital for emergency surgery. By Tuesday morning, he felt well enough to be released. That afternoon, they made it to their scheduled flight to Italy.
Talk about miraculous.

The day of our cruise, Kevin, who enjoys cooking, spent the morning at a cooking class at Max restaurant. Stacey climbed 1400 steps, visiting tiny towns near Positano.

An hour into our cruise, I asked about the advertised champagne. (Okay, I asked in half an hour.) I was reassured it was coming. I figured sooner or later the 4 of us would share a bottle of something cheap. The cruise was complimentary, after all.

Midway the captain pulled into a cove and cut the engine. The co-captain put out a yummy spread of salty olives, chunks of Parmesan cheese, salami and taralli (savory O-shaped crackers). And poured 2 bottles of something fine, cold, dry and bubbly.

Kevin and photojournalist Roberto Salomone, who was aboard snapping pix for the hotel, shared war stories. Kevin talked about tours with a branch of Special Ops. Having served in the Navy for 28 years, he’s currently Deputy Mission Support Group Commander of the Air National Guard. Roberto, who covers the migrant crisis for an Italian news service, mentioned a close call he’d had in a war zone. While he was embedded in a combat unit in Herat, Afghanistan, an i.e.d. blew up the vehicle in front of his. Anne and I, naive but grateful, were fascinated by a conversation so far from our experience.

I asked Kevin about his military service. He said, “From supporting combat operations in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia to helping those most in need in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, I’ve had the honor of stepping in and giving back. I joined for the purpose of serving this great nation. I continue to do so with the mindset: if not me, then who? Wearing the uniform isn’t easy, but the world requires a ready force prepared to defend our nation’s values. I’m proud to be a part.”

Amen.

Thanks for your service, Kevin. And thanks to you and Stacey for sharing your love story. Grazie mille. And tanti auguri!

Starting their new life.