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T.S. Eliot and a friend named Sharon help Kansas City’s Mary Lou and Tom Brous write their own love story

Tom Brous reading from T.S. Eliot at Burnt Norton

While touring sites related to T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, Mary Lou took this photo of Tom reading some of his poetry at Burnt Norton.

My friend Mary Lou is a quintessential survivor.  I’m  happy to see how gracefully she’s landed on her feet.   We met 30+ years ago at a tough time in her life. Our sons, Reed and Andy, were in a class at Cranbrook School, Bloomfield Hills, MI.  Mary Lou and I met at parents’ day; we bonded instantly.

Mary Lou came from Kansas City where she was a graphic artist and involved philanthropist.  She was married to a scion of a family of successful real estate developers.  She created stunning graphics for clients including the Nelson-Atkins Museum and the Junior League.  The cookbook she designed for the latter is in the Cookbook Hall of Fame.  (Cookbook Hall of Fame?  Who knew???)

Mary Lou’s then husband turned out to be a “dishonest” businessman (her tactful way of putting it).  He lured dozens of their good friends into dubious investments.

Godsign alert.  In 1987, newly aware of her husband’s travails, Mary Lou attended a lecture by Katherine and Michael McCoy at the Kansas City Art Institute.  The McCoys were then co-chairs of the renowned Design Department at the Cranbrook Art Academy.  Hearing them at what she calls “the darkest moment” of her life, she wished she’d been able to attend Cranbrook.

And then she thought: “Oh, my God.  Maybe I can.”

Mary Lou wanted her children to avoid the trauma of what became their father’s very public trial and  prison sentence. She moved to Michigan, with sons Brad and Reed, to enroll her boys at Cranbrook School.  She attended the Cranbrook Art Academy to obtain an MFA.  All received scholarships and lived in faculty housing. Later, she and her husband divorced.

After all 3 had graduated, Mary Lou moved to Chicago.  She was creative director for Arthur Anderson, which became Anderson Consulting/Accenture.  Though Mary Lou remained a single working gal in Chicago, she never lost her love for Kansas City.

Mary Lou and Tom Brous.

Mary Lou and Tom Brous.

Scene change.  10 years later, in Kansas City, well-loved Patty Brous died of lymphoma after a long battle.  Before she died, Patty asked her best friend Sharon Hoffman to “take care” of her husband, Tom.   Sharon was also friends with Mary Lou.  Wheels started turning.  After selling her house, Sharon suggested Mary Lou come for a last visit, and while in town, attend the Kansas City Art Institute Auction.  And by the way, would Mary Lou meet Tom’s daughter, Anna Brous, who’d moved to Chicago?  To help acclimate Anna to her new town, Mary Lou took her to lunch.

Unknown to Mary Lou or Tom, Sharon was executing her strategy.  She invited a few friends for “drinks in the kitchen” before the auction. She told Mary Lou who was coming, including Tom whose daughter Mary Lou had just met.  Mary Lou remembered him from high school.  He’d been a BMOC, 2 years ahead of her.  As she puts it, “We were all aware of the upperclassmen.  Tom was head of the senior class, voted Most Likely to Succeed.  An athlete.”

Mary Lou, Tom and I met for lunch several weeks ago.  She recalled Tom as “the fastest guy on the track team” in the citywide meet.  Tom said, “That means I came in 5th.”

Back to Sharon the Matchmaker’s kitchen.  As Mary Lou sipped pinot grigio, Tom walked in.  Mary Lou recalls, “I’d been single for 12 years.  I’d just met his daughter.  I wasn’t shy about walking up to him.  I gotta tell you sparks went off.”  The twosome talked all evening.

Tom, a corporate tax lawyer (now retired), was coming to Chicago the next week on business.  He took Mary Lou out for dinner, then asked for the next night.  When he came to Mary Lou’s apartment, he brought a book, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets inscribed with a note about what the poem meant to him.

Mary Lou said, “You’re not going to believe this.”  She led him to her reading chair.  Beside it: a stack of books including The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot.  One corner of one page was turned down; one passage highlighted in yellow.  It was from “Four Quartets.”  Mary Lou had read it many times.

“I said to my soul be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.  Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.  So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”

Mary Lou says, “After being single for so long, the poem spoke to me.”

(Personal note: It speaks to me, too.  During Burton’s current health crisis, I’ve repeated the lines over and over, working to memorize them and accept the wisdom.)

The Godsigns continued.  That same night, on their 2nd date, Mary Lou had also inscribed a book to Tom.  She said, “I’m not in the habit of giving inscribed books to my dates.”

The book was CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed about the author’s loss of his wife.  Lewis and Eliot  were both intellectuals who worried about the aftermath of World War II.  Both were featured in Alan Jacobs’ influential The Year of Our Lord 1943, which argued that Lewis and Eliot were Christian Humanists.

Tom and Mary Lou married 4 months later in 2001.  I’m pleased to have attended their wedding.  During the service, they read from the “Four Quartets.”

“…We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Tom preparing to read at their wedding.

Tom’s an avid reader, especially of books about history.  His romance with Mary Lou rekindled his interest in Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”  For their 10th anniversary, the couple visited  the sites that inspired Eliot’s poems, 3 in England, 1 in Gloucester, MA.  Their favorite site was Burnt Norton near England’s Chipping Campden.  Burnt Norton was the title of and inspiration for the first of the “Quartets.”  The current owner of the Burnt Norton estate invited them to stroll the grounds.  They sat in the box circle mentioned in the poem and read from it.

Tom’s fascination with the poem and with Eliot’s interest in mysticism inspired him to write and publish a short book, Why Read Four Quartets? “Four Quartets” was composed between 1935 and 1942.  Eliot lived for 23 years after publication and lectured often but never published another significant poem.  Tom’s working on a sequel examining why.

T.S. Eliot is also known for The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  His body of work earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Thanks, Tom and Mary Lou, for reminding us of the wisdom of waiting.  And for sharing your own Lovesong.

Charlevoix artist Bill Staffel finds the perfect Up North resting place

Bill and Bonny Staffel as the family of artists heads onto the road in the '60s.

A LONG AND WINDING ROAD—Bonnie and Bill Staffel head out on a journey in the 1960s with their daughter and Marell and Skippy peeking out of the roof.

Cremation surpasses burial these days.  The National Funeral Directors Assoc. predicts it will reach 80% by 2035.  Survivors scatter ashes in ways that reflect the life of their loved one. Andrew Leith dipped moistened golf balls into stepfather Doug Leith’s ashes and hit the balls into Lake Huron, propelling Doug into eternity by means of one of his favorite activities (if you missed it, here’s a link to that column).

Marell Staffel of Charlevoix, MI, came up with another creative final resting place for her father, Bill.

Bill in Charlevoix.

Bill and Bonnie Staffel, Marell’s parents, were artists in Maumee, Ohio. In 1961, they entered an annual juried art fair in Charlevoix, MI. The Charlevoix Art Fair has grown significantly since that 3rd one.  On the 2nd Saturday in August, it now features about 120 artists and draws over 25,000 visitors to a picturesque park overlooking the harbor.

The Staffels, like many of us, were enchanted by the beauty of the area. They bought an old farmhouse in the country north of town and set up a pottery studio. In the late ’60s, when Burton and I began coming to Charlevoix, we visited Staffel’s Pottery. Today the home’s occupied by the Cycling Salamander Gallery.

When Bonnie and Bill first bought in Charlevoix, she spent summers in northern MI; Bill visited on weekends.  In Ohio, he held jobs designing plaster wall plaques, instructional diagrams, Halloween masks.  But his heart was in Charlevoix, and eventually he moved Up North full time, helping Bonnie to run her pottery business.

Marell and her daughters Heather and Shannon with Grampa, 1980

For Bonnie’s studio, Bill designed and built a lift with pulleys to move objects up and down for storage.  Bill also created a small door by which wood could be brought in for the fireplace.   Marell recalls, “Every kid got to ride on my father’s elevator and crawl through the little door.  My father loved kids and made everything fun for them.”

Children loved Bill, Marell says,  because “he really listened to them.”  In his later years, Bill received a letter from Brian, a  childhood friend of Marell.  Brian thanked Bill for teaching him so much.  He wrote, “You took the time to explain things.  You told me about the stars.”

Bill loved nature and animals and especially enjoyed watching deer play in the field behind his house.  He began building a shed near the pond behind their home.  Marell says her father only worked on the shed during the fall hunting season, hammering loudly to warn the deer to skedaddle.

Bill loved discards.  In the ‘60s, he wanted some spikes from the railroad bridge being torn down.  Marell, then a waitress at the Grey Gables, enlisted the help of Dave Phillips, a chef at the restaurant.  Bill and Dave filled the trunk of an “ancient” blue Ford Mustang with so many iron spikes that the car dragged on the ground.  Her father turned the spikes into “beautiful” letter openers, Marell says..

Bill with his great granddaughter Alex

Bill was a blacksmith who created iron hardware and fixtures.  He made artworks from found materials.  He designed logos for the Crooked Tree Art Center and the Charlevoix Art Fair, both of which are  still used today.

In his last years, Bill suffered from dementia.  But when with his buddy Joe, he remembered all their escapades, including the time they spotted a house being remodeled.  Wood pillars had been discarded.  They were too good to pass up.  Bill and Joe rescued them, cut them into sections, painted them and turned them into containers.

Bill spent the last 5 years of his life living with Marell.  Bonnie, now 97, and divorced from Bill, lived with her, too, as did Marell’s daughter and teenage grandson.

5 and ½ years ago, Bill died.  He was 89.  “We didn’t have a lot of money,” Marell says.  “So we brought him back to the house in his simplest form—his ashes in a can.”

The funeral home director, Ron Winchester, asked if Marell would like to transfer her dad’s ashes to one of her mother’s pots.  She said,  “The last thing my father would want would be to spend eternity entombed in one of my mother’s pots.”   Wondering what to do with the ashes, she came up with the perfect resting place.  She put them into one of the scavenged containers Bill had painted.

Bill liked sweets.  After he died, one of his caregivers stopped by Marell’s shop, Picture This, a photo and framing business in the Olesons Shopping Plaza in Charlevoix.  The caregiver had kept candy in her car for Bill.  She handed Marell an unopened bag of M&Ms and a box of Good & Plentys.  Marell kept them on a shelf in her shop.

In January, 2018, a fire broke out in a nearby restaurant.  Picture This suffered smoke and water damage.  After, Marell was relieved to see the plastic bag with Bill’s candy remained unharmed.  She brought the candy home and created a little memorial for her dad. The container Bill painted sits with his ashes on a shelf in Marell’s home.  Beside it:  the 2 boxes of candy, 2 iron spike letter openers and a cd of Leon Redbone, one of Bill’s favorite musicians.

Joe, the friend with whom Bill had once scavenged pillars, has since moved to North Carolina.  On a recent visit north, he stopped by.  Marell put the container of Bill’s ashes on the coffee table and sat talking to Joe.  When her dad’s old buddy left, he reached over and patted the container.   He said, “See you later, Bill.”

A sweet story, in more than one way.  Thanks for sharing, Marell.  May your father rest in peace… in a piece of his own.

 

The story of a beautiful beach in Atwood, MI, involves author Rex Beach and developer Burt Farbman

1904 Olympic water polo team

GOING FOR THE GOLD—No, this isn’t a scene from Northern Michigan’s shoreline. This is from the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, where star athlete Rex Beach helped to lead the American team to a silver medal. Exactly where is he in this photo? The archives don’t record the names..

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A stunning, stone-strewn coastline (okay, maybe I overdid it with the alliteration) extends along Lake Michigan a few miles from Timber Ridge, our farm south of Charlevoix in NoMI.

Grandson Beau & Burt Farbman at Timber Ridge, our farm in Northern Michigan

Like Rex Beach, Burton enjoys a broad-brimmed cowboy hat as he sits in the son with grandson Beau at Timber Ridge, our farm in Northern Michigan.

The lake is reached by Rex Beach Road. Most drivers speeding to or from Traverse City on Highway 31 don’t know the origin of the road’s name.

Rex Beach was a novelist and playwright born in 1877 in tiny Atwood, MI (today’s population, @1500).  Nearby Charlevoix officially bills itself “Charlevoix the Beautiful.”  Atwood residents like calling their town “Atwood the Adorable.”

Burton discovered the pristine shoreline several years ago.  The property was about to be subdivided into home parcels.  Burton decided the 156 acres, including nearly a mile of Grand Traverse Bay shoreline, should be kept in their natural state, accessible to all.

My husband collaborated with local residents to ensure that future generations would be able to enjoy this lovely stretch of forest and beachfront. Burton knew state money was available for land conservation purposes, but that the bureaucratic process would take many months. He found a foundation to buy the property from the previous owners and, eventually, sell it to the county.

Rex Beach in Wikimedia Commons image

Rex Beach looking as stern as many of the characters in his Western romance novels.

Today the Antrim Creek Natural Area features signage explaining its history. It tells about the glacier that formed the Lake Michigan basin some 12,000 years ago, about the Anishinaabeck Native Americans and later European settlers who once lived here, and about modern efforts to preserve the land for all.

Of the latter, the sign reads: “The full story of the acquisition of ACNA is as complicated and multifaceted as the many individuals that played a part in the process.”

With Burton’s memory challenged by last year’s brain surgery, I’ve appointed myself family historian.  Burton’s too modest to claim any credit for saving this beautiful area for the public.  But for the record,  my husband is one reason that today I, and many others, can walk barefoot on warm, packed sand, enjoy waves lapping  at our feet, collect rocks worn smooth by eons and admire sparkling blue vistas.

As for Rex Beach, he deserves recognition, too.  Educated as a lawyer, he was attracted to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush.  After five years of unsuccessful prospecting, he found literary gold.  He wrote  over 30 adventure novels.

DVD cover The Spoilers with John Wayne.

Care to learn more? Click the image to visit the DVD’s Amazon page. It’s inexpensive.

His second, The Spoilers, was based on a true story of corrupt Alaskan government officials stealing gold mines from prospectors.  The book was a best seller in 1906, and was adapted into 5 movies, one starring Gary Cooper; another, Burton’s hero John Wayne.

As if his literary success weren’t accomplishment enough, Beach was also an athlete.  He played for the U.S. on the water polo team that won a silver medal in the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis.

Burton’s philosophy these days: “You’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got.”  For now, the best he’s got involves a wheelchair.  He’s no longer able to hike the sandy shoreline of Rex Beach.  I hike it for both of us.   I take special joy in coming upon castles created by children, studded with flat black slate rocks, and in knowing my husband helped make these building projects possible.

In Latin, the word Rex means King.  Strikes me as appropriate.  Rex Beach, for whom the road was named, and Burt Farbman, who helped keep this lovely area forever open to all.  Both kings among men.

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Care to learn more?

ENJOY HIS NOVELSProject Gutenberg offers 17 of Beach’s novels in free-to-download editions.

GOT A KINDLE? One eBook vendor is offering a collection of his novels for Kindle, via Amazon, for only $1.99.

SEE THE MOVIE—Most of the early movies made from Beach’s novels are either “lost” or only available in grainy copies. However, Burton’s pick is the John Wayne version of The Spoilers, which is inexpensive on Amazon.

Rex Beach cabin Rampart Alaska

HE LIVED THE LIFE! This was Rex Beach’s cabin in Alaska, during the years he prospected there just after 1900.

Thanks to Burton’s efforts—what a beautiful stretch of Northern Michigan!

Share your wisdom with others, and make it as meaningful as Burton’s uncles did

“Write this down,” Uncle Max insisted.

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It’s not only what you say that matters.

It’s how and when you say it.

Burton and I learned that lesson on 2 different occasions.  Each involved one of Burton’s uncles.  Both times the set up made the message memorable.

Uncle Max dancing with his daughter Judie.

Some 40 years ago, Burton traveled to Florida for business.  Flying out of Palm Beach, he got to the airport early.  Remembering his uncle Max Schuster lived in Palm beach, he picked up a pay phone.

Max: “Burt, I hear you’re doing great.”

Burton: “Uncle Max, I’ve been lucky.”

Max: “I want to tell you something about luck.  Write this down.  Do you have a pen?”

“No.”

“Get one.  I’ll wait.”

Burton left the receiver hanging, sped to the gift shop, bought a pen and pad of paper, sped back to the phone.  The receiver still hung where he’d left it.

“Okay, Uncle Max.”

“Burt, write this down: Luck is on the side of the able navigator.”

It was Max’s version of the adage: Luck favors the prepared.  Because he framed the thought as he did, neither Burton nor I, when Burton told me the story, ever forgot it.  We’ve quoted Uncle Max umpteen times.  And now that Uncle Max’s daughter, Judie Koploy, has become our loyal and true companion during Burton’s health crisis, we quote her dad even more often.

Uncle Jack and Oosie Schlesinger.

The second piece of advice came earlier.

Burton and I had dinner at his Uncle Jack and Oosie Schlesinger’s home in Franklin, MI.  Burton was new to the real estate business.  Before dinner, Jack took him aside, said he had something important to tell him.

“I’ll tell you later,” Jack said.

Oosie was a fine cook.  We applied ourselves to her tender brisket.  At the head of the table, Jack caught Burton’s eye.  “After dinner,” he said.

By then I was curious, too.  After dessert, Jack led Burton into the den.  I followed.

“Okay, Burt.  Here’s what I want you to remember.”  Dramatic pause.  “Every hit can’t be a home run.”

The notion seemed obvious at the moment.   But as Burton fought to make his first deal, and over time when smaller deals came through, and even when they didn’t, Burton and I often recalled Uncle Jack’s advice.  And quoted him.

We’ve passed the story on to our sons.  Now that most of our grandchildren are athletes, and Hunter and Fischer play baseball, Uncle Jack’s words remain fresh in our minds.  I’m convinced it’s because of the lead up.

When I have a significant message to deliver, I tend to blurt it out lest I otherwise forget it.  (More and more senior moments these days.)  But words are not only how we communicate with others.  They’re how we remember them.  Uncle Max and Uncle Jack each gave Burton a great gift.  Both passed away years ago.  Their wisdom, and our affection for them, remains.

Whenever we quote Uncle Max or Jack, I’m convinced that somehow, somewhere their souls shimmer.  So take a lesson from them.  Share your wisdom with your loved ones.  Make the moment memorable.

May our wisdom be their legacy.

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PHOTO CREDIT for opening image: Thanks to Wikimedia Commons and Wellcome Library, London.  http://wellcomeimages.org 

Celebrating American Ingenuity and Self Reliance, Artist John Rowland Honors His Father

CREATIVE SELF RELIANCE—John Rowland writes, “I took this photo of my father, Paul, in the autumn of 2010 as we were using his air compressor to blow out his sprinkler system before the winter. He was peering out the window of his garage to see if his old machine was still humming along half a century after he toggled it together from spare parts. As you can see, the protective cover over the top is the lid from a plastic trash can. Other components he connected were a motor, an air tank and an air-conditioning compressor he salvaged from an old Ford. Even in 2019, nearly a decade later, his compressor still hums along! Oh, and I forgot to mention the garage! He built that himself in 1968.”

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By SUZY FARBMAN

John Rowland took the Fifth Commandment to a new level.

Paul Rowland and his artist son John.

He honored his father with a significant exhibition of his work.

John’s an artist who spends much of his time framing pictures for other artists and galleries at his workshop in Ferndale, MI. Though John often frames pieces by renowned artists, his dad wasn’t a renowned artist.

Paul Rowland was a talented mechanic in the experimental development garage of Ford Motor Co. He developed tools and parts for new models. The company held patents on many of them.

GENERATIONS OF CREATIVITY—John writes, “This photo was taken around 1975 as my father was in the process of building a guitar, the first of a number of these stringed instruments he made over the years. Then, as I was looking more closely at this photo, I was pleased that it also includes the violin that was made by Adonis Rowland—his father, my grandfather, who was a fiddle player. It’s the only one we have left that Adonis built by hand, probably in the 1940s. I can still remember the stories my father told about how few tools he had to finish his violins. For example, Adonis found that he could use cut glass to scrape and shape the wood.”

Paul was born in 1925. He grew up in Casey, IL, dropped out of high school, and married the girl next door. The youngest of 9 kids, Paul lived through the Great Depression. That experience, John says, taught his father values of thrift and self-reliance. Paul figured out what he and others needed and crafted it in his garage.

When Paul died last year, John wondered what on earth to do with all his dad’s handmade tools, instruments, jewelry, toys, etc.

Inspiration dawned.

John turned his workshop into a gallery and mounted an exhibit of his father’s creations. John’s friend and professional photographer Tim Thayer took images of Paul’s creations for a catalog John published, “Paul Rowland, American Artisan.  Objects from an American Garage.”

In a delightful essay that accompanies the catalog, John recalls stories of his dad’s history as a problem solver.

When Paul was a kid, his house sat across the street from a street light that shone into his room at night when he was trying to sleep. John writes, “It took him no time at all to figure out a way to run a wire from the light to his room so he could turn it off at night. Problem solved.”

Paul became a craftsman who epitomized a term that garners respect in Detroit. He was a “maker.”

STEPPING BACK IN TIME—“With this last photo, we’re going back even further into Dad’s long life of ingenuity,” John writes. “This photo was taken around 1952, when he worked at a gas station in Dearborn repairing cars. Many young adults today don’t remember when these local businesses were known as ‘service stations’ and always had a mechanic on duty. One day, a manager at Ford Motor needed service and was impressed at Dad’s skill. That encounter led to Dad’s long career as an employee at Ford.”

John writes that his father “lived in a world where problems were being solved by inventions and new contraptions, and early on he involved himself in that world of creativity and invention.” He observes that his dad’s life bridged almost a century, from the Great Depression years before World War II to the world of 21st century technology.

Paul taught himself to play guitar, then took apart a Gibson to see how it was made. He made 8 guitars by hand and over 31 dulcimers. John recalls being 10 years old when the family  camped in Mountain View, Arkansas, where mountain music played everywhere.

One Friday night the family went to the town square. Locals gathered on an outdoor stage to jam. John watched his dad get up on that stage, “picking and fingering his own hand-built dulcimer in his own special way.  I know that was not an easy thing for him to do: Dad loved playing music but he did not like performing.  He was never comfortable in front of an audience.“

John’s essay also reveals thoughtful insights about his own artistic practice and attitude.   For someone who  makes art and works with other artists, John writes about originality. “Being original is a very hard thing to accomplish. Being honest is fraught with temptations. I’m suspicious of most art I see in the world because it is usually neither original nor honest.

“Many people have talent, but few are original. The artist is concerned with conveying an idea through art; aesthetic questions are asked and aesthetic judgments are made. Then there is the craftsman, whose concern is producing a fine object, and here the questions and judgments are basically functional. Both the craftsman and the artist should be concerned with honesty and purity of expression in the work itself.  If they are in it for attention, or admiration, or financial gain, they are misguided…

“I’m not sure what to call dad. He was most definitely a maker of a diverse range of original, honest objects. And that in itself is a huge accomplishment of both creation and character. His objects represent both the quiet pride of Old World craftsmanship and the flair of American ingenuity. He is not interested in impressing anyone…

“So let me call him an artisan. A skilled, ingenious craftsman whose work expressed a powerful, intuitive aesthetic.”

John sent out Invitations to “Objects from an American Garage.” About 100 people came to the opening. No doubt, they were bowled over. For that matter, I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul Rowland made his own bowling pins.

And here’s a bonus …

CLICK ON THIS IMAGE to jump to the Henry Ford website to learn more about the exhibition.

THERE’S MORE! A curator from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, heard about the show and visited John’s studio. “The Henry” now has an exhibit on Detroit makers, “Break, Repair, Repeat.” It includes some of Paul Rowland’s pieces, among them 2 guitars, a paint sprayer and a sewing machine. The Henry Ford exhibit runs until September 15, 2019.

I can only imagine how Paul, a modest man who devoted his life as a mechanic for Ford Motor, is beaming down from some other dimension, having been chosen and displayed by the Henry Ford Museum.

Bravo, John, for recognizing your father’s talents and honoring him in such a special way!  It reminds all of us to remember and revere our own legacies.

After years of work, Ron Kagan and Burton revel in the wonders of a day at the zoo—even if you’re in a wheelchair.

ONE OF THE MANY WILD WONDERS AT THE DETROIT ZOO. This is the Detroit Zoo's giant anteater—also known as Myrmecophaga tridactyla or the ant bear—an insectivorous mammal native to Central and South America

ONE OF THE MANY WILD WONDERS AT THE DETROIT ZOO. This is the Detroit Zoo’s giant anteater—also known as Myrmecophaga tridactyla or the ant bear—an insectivorous mammal native to Central and South America

Thanks to a gorilla named Ivan, Detroit has one of the top zoos, and zoo directors, in the nation.

Ron Kagan sits comfortably with Burton in the Detroit Zoo’s new wheelchair-adapted cart.

In the 1990s, Ivan was a featured attraction at a shopping mall in Tacoma, WA.  Ron Kagan was an assistant director of the Dallas Zoo and an animal rights activist.  He spoke out on NPR against demeaning a gorilla in such a circus-like way.

In Detroit, our good friend, esteemed Judge Avern Cohn, was on the search committee for a new director of the Detroit Zoo.  Hearing Ron on NPR, he recommended his being considered.  He was told Ron had been asked, but had turned Detroit down because his children were in Dallas.

“I’lll handle it,” Avern said.  Avern’s not only brilliant, but convincing.

Burton and I hosted a dinner party welcoming Ron to Detroit.  We’ve since been close friends.  Burton has served for years and still serves  as the Zoo Commissioner of Detroit and a Zoological Society board member.

Here’s a full view of that new vehicle at the zoo.

Fast forward to a recent weekend.  The Detroit Zoo acquired a cart that accommodates a wheelchair.  Ron invited us for a visit.

The zoo features open air exhibits meant to recreate the environment in which animals live in the wild.  I watched a lion roll over and stretch,  zebras munching grass, an anteater lumber with searching snout.  Ron said the anteater has a long, sticky tongue that remains coiled until he finds his prey.  He darts out his tongue, and it’s Sayonara, stuck ants.

In the Wildlife Interpretive Gallery, we saw a sculpture of a lioness with 3 legs, part of a program called Snares to Wares.  The program encourages East Africans who trapped wild animals for food to instead create artworks out of metal from the snares.   The zoo shop has some of these sculptures for sale.

We visited the carousel on which dozens of happy children rode up and down to calliope music.  I sought out the camel Anne and I dedicated to our late mom a while back.  Ron said he’d long wanted a carousel but didn’t have the funds.  He preferred  artistic wood carved animals rather than fiberglass ones and found an Ohio company to create a carousel for $600K.

After talking about his dream for months, Ron received a call.  A stranger asked what the carousel would cost.  “About $1 million,” Ron said.  “It should be $600,000,” the stranger said.  Ron explained he’d included the cost to plan and prepare the site.

“In that case, it won’t cost you $1 million,” the stranger said,  “It will cost you $500,000.  I’m giving you half a million.  You’ll have it in 2 days.”  And he did.  The donor remains anonymous.

Burton waited in the shade in the wheelchair cart while Ron showed me the Polk Penguinarium, the largest in the world.  I watched children delight in being nose to nose with a penguin on the other side of a glass wall.  Ron escorted me down a ramp depicting Shackleton’s famous doomed voyage to  Antarctica, where penguins live.  British explorer E.H. Shackleton attempted to cross Antarctica in 1914.  His wooden ship Endurance became stuck in ice.  Ron said that when Shackleton  realized they’d been stopped, he told his men to find a big enough piece of ice and grab a football.  Stranded for almost 18 months in Antarctica, the 28 man crew returned safely after a stormy voyage of 720 nautical miles.

(US District Court Judge Avern and Lois Cohn brought us dinner soon after our zoo visit.  Turns out Avern’s read many books about Shackleton.  And he remembers what he reads.  Btw, Avern’s in his 90s.  Avern quoted the captain of Shackleton’s boat who warned, “What the ice takes, the ice keeps.”  Hence: Shackleton’s heroic rescue efforts.  The Endurance was eventually crushed by ice.)

But back to the zoo.  Burton was tiring.  Heading for the parking lot, my stoic husband didn’t complain about the discomfort of being wheelchair bound.  He didn’t lament his inability to get close enough to see the lion or stride in and out of the Penguinarium.

Over the years, Burton ran or was active on umpteen boards including Beaumont Hospital, the YMCA Southeast Region, the Economic Club, the Legal News and U of D Mercy College, all while raising 2 sons and building a company.  (Not to mention his tireless work for Special Olympics in Sarasota.)   Brain surgery has sidelined my husband now.  It hasn’t dimmed his appreciation for organizations like the zoo with which he was involved.

As we crossed the train tracks and approached the gate, here’s what my amazing husband said to me, “It’s been an honor to serve this community.”

Fred and Kathy Yaffe lived life with verve, nerve and humor

Fred and Kathy Yaffe enjoying their love of travel.

Another silver lining of my husband Burton’s (hence, my) current health crisis is a casual friend who’s become a good friend, Kathy Yaffe.  Her late husband Fred died of a stroke this past April.    Before, when Kathy heard about Burton’s post brain surgery complications, she reached out to me.

Kathy gave me a gift bag of things she found useful in dealing with Fred’s disability, including a doorbell he could ring if he needed her.  But it was her companionship and empathy that comforted me most.

And the stories!

Fred founded Detroit’s Yaffe, Stone & August in ‘69.  The ad agency produced terrific work for clients including Murray’s Auto Parts, WDIV, Little Caesars, the Michigan Lottery and more.  In the early ’70s, Fred hired me to consult on fashion account Gantos, from Grand Rapids, MI.

Kathy and Fred met in the ’60s, when Fred did public relations for Playboy.  Kathy was a Playboy bunny.  At first they were just friends.

Fred was fun, crazy, a charmer.  He was no sooner named one of Detroit’s most eligible bachelors than he fell for Kathy Fitzpatrick, who had brains as well as ears and a tail.   Kathy, whose father was a longtime state rep, ran for Detroit’s Common Council.  Fred managed her campaign, which featured shocking pink billboards.  At the time, a newspaper columnist wrote about Kathy, “She looks like a swinger, acts like a school marm and thinks like a politician.”

Kathy won the primary but lost the campaign.  She was then dating a man named Howard.  But, she says, she and her campaign manager “accidentally fell in love.”   Before kissing her for the first time, Fred said, “Sorry, Howard.”

In 1970, the late mega-star radio host JP McCarthy and his wife Judy threw an Irish/Jewish dinner party for Kathy and Fred.  They served green bagels shaped like shamrocks.  Fred wore a green yarmulke; Kathy, a St. Christopher medal with a Star of David on the back.  Fred gave Kathy a cocktail ring with small diamonds surrounding an emerald.  Kathy said it looked like a Christmas tree.

Kathy asked Fred if it was an engagement ring.  He said, “Whatever.’”

The couple planned a trip to Las Vegas.  Kathy’s friend and early AIDS activist Mary Fisher took her shopping for a wedding dress—in case she needed one.  Kathy packed the dress and flew to Vegas with Fred on a junket.  Alice and Sam Gruber, then co-owners of the legendary London Chop House, were on the trip, as were others Vegas hoped would prove “high rollers.”  Caviar and Dom Perignon lubricated the dice.

Kathy and Fred’s bags arrived at the Riviera Hotel 2 days late.  They had coffee in their travel clothes, “looking like 2 drunks off the street.”  They went to the Clark County court house for a wedding license.  There they noticed a Justice of the Peace sign: Marriages $4 before 6pm; $6 after.

They had planned to be married the next day.  But while sitting waiting for the license, they looked at each other and said, “Now?”  Fred had prepared for a bigger moment.  He handed Kathy a press release about their planned nuptials, scheduled for the next day at the Rivera Hotel where Burt Bachrach was performing.  Fred planned to get down on his knees while the famous singer sang “This Guy’s in Love with You.”

Kathy wasn’t deterred.  She and Fred were married that afternoon by the Justice of the Peace.  She says, “We got the early bird special.”

At the time, the book “The Sensuous Woman” by J was the rage.  The author advised bathing in Jello as an inducement to romance.  In their hotel room, Kathy called room service to order 100 boxes of Jello.  She was turned down.  So she went to a store and bought several boxes of Jello and bags of ice which she poured into the tub.  She “stirred and stirred” with a broom handle.

“All I can tell you is it never gels.  And it stains the tub.”

Fred was as creative with Kathy’s birthdays as he was with his ad accounts.  For his wife’s 42nd birthday, since Kathy was always losing hair combs, Fred gifted her with 42 combs.  For another, a card read “And together we’ll pop the cork.”  Fred flew her to New York for lunch at 21.  Still another card read, “If you’re able, we’ll buy you a sable.”  (He’d made an appointment with a furrier.)

For one birthday, Fred gave Kathy ten $100 gift certificates to Bloomingdales.  “It wasn’t my nature to spend $1000 on clothes,” she says.  She dashed from department to department figuring out the least expensive thing to buy, so she could get cash back.

For another birthday, Fred decided the couple should have Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  He set up a table in front of the legendary store in Somerset Mall.  Their handyman dressed in a tux and served them chocolate croissants and coffee.  When the store opened, Fred bought Kathy a watch.

Another birthday gift: a surprise trip to London to see “Phantom of the Opera.”  At the time Kathy was on dialysis for a kidney problem.  Fred had arranged for her to have dialysis abroad.  For yet another birthday, Fred planned a surprise trip to Ireland.  Kathy’s birthday’s in November.  She expected to accompany Fred to a convention in Maine and packed accordingly.  Instead they few to Ireland on Aer Lingus where Fred had tracked down and arranged for Kathy to meet her relatives.

Despite his stroke, Fred was determined to continue his birthday tradition.  He talked Kathy’s brother into taking him in his wheelchair to the Lexus dealership.  He was unshaven and wearing an old jogging suit.  “He didn’t have a dime on him and looked like he should be selling pencils on a street corner,” Kathy says.  Still he managed to seal the deal.   Red balloons floated from Kathy’s new car.

My favorite Fred story didn’t have to do with birthdays, but with a bet.  The couple had a running argument about whether it was faster to drive home by the expressway (Fred) or surface streets (Kathy).  A few years back, they were leaving the Traveler’s Tower in Southfield, MI, in separate cars.  They decided to race.  As Kathy drove, she spotted friends David & Doreen Hermelin.  (Legendary philanthropists and party hosts.  Among David’s many achievements, he was ambassador to Norway.)   Kathy stopped to invite them over for a drink.

Fred beat her home.  Kathy and the Hermelins pulled up a few minutes later.  To underscore his victory, Fred awaited Kathy in the driveway…stark naked.

At 9am the morning of Fred’s funeral, I read on FB that Fred’s service was an hour later.   As a fan of Fred, and grateful for Kathy’s support, I shed my PJs, threw on clothes and sped to the Ira Kaufman funeral home.  I made it in time to hug Kathy and attend the service.

Fred, 87, had endured a rough 3 years since a stroke destroyed his ability to pull off any more surprises or pranks.  But he left Kathy, 76, with a trove of memories.  As Kathy says, “We’ve had a wonderful life.”

RIP, buddy.  Veni, vidi, vici.  You came, you played, you conquered many hearts.