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Santa Barbara’s Suzanne Duca and ex-monk Ross Quigley share funds and philosophy in a modern non-marriage

Another first in my quest, dear reader, to introduce you to fascinating people: My first ex-monk.

Ross Quigley and Suzanne Duca

Raised Catholic, in 1978 Ross Quigley, then 28, sought “a contemplative, monastic life.” He lived at the Franciscan Retreat in Danville, CA. The next year he joined the “Spiritual Life Institute,” a Catholic Carmelite monastery in SW Nova Scotia. Later he spent time at monasteries in Sedona, AZ; Crestone, CO; and County Sligo, Ireland. Ross was what he calls “an apostolic hermit.” For 23 years he lived “in solitude and community” with men and women, aiming “to be personally, passionately present.”

Eventually Ross realized that while he’d learned to meditate and focus his mind, he was a workaholic. He decided he’d been spending too much time working on publishing projects and doing tasks around the monastery. He’d sought a contemplative life but had gotten too busy to stay disengaged.

“I’d lost my way,” he says. “Instead of going deeper, I kept focusing on another To Do list. To be me, I needed to go somewhere else.”

Ross left the monastic life and decided to go home again. He returned to Santa Barbara, CA, where he’d grown up and where “the air felt like home.” In this next phase of his life, a yoga teacher introduced him to Suzanne Duca.

Suzanne was on a break from teaching Art History at Moorpark, CA’s Moorpark College.  She was in San Francisco, working with the Making Waves Education Foundation. The program empowers and educates “historically underrepresented and underserved people.”  Suzanne is devoted to improving educational opportunities for others.  She and former husband, Reece Duca, had created and sold The Learning Company, an internationally recognized developer and marketer of educational software. Suzanne and Reece set up a family foundation to support human services, open spaces and recreation. They fund scholarships for inner city and local schools in Carpinteria, CA, and Taos, NM.

Suzanne lived in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara. While she was in San Francisco, Ross watched over her home. On her return, Suzanne became friends with Ross. Inviting him on hikes with her girlfriends and introducing him to potential dates. When nothing developed between Ross and Suzanne’s prospects, Ross says, “she started introducing me to her gay friends. Nothing happened there either.”

Despite failing to spark Ross’ romantic interest in anyone else, Suzanne, now 73, and Ross, now 72, became good friends. Eventually very good friends. They realized they shared an interest in walking the Camino de Santiago spiritual trail through France and Spain. They headed overseas together and “became close,” Suzanne says, while walking the 1000-mile trail.

Ross sums up their relationship. “Suzanne started seeing me herself and hearing my stories.  Along the way we became romantic and committed lovers.”

But marriage was not in the picture. Suzanne says, “My first marriage ended in divorce. I didn’t want to risk another failure.”

The couple are now 22 years into what Ross calls “a friendship/lover relationship.” He says, “With my Catholic upbringing, I told Suzanne I couldn’t promise to spend the rest of my life in a marriage. I have nothing against it; it’s just not necessarily for me. But Suzanne and I live a committed life. If we’re still together in our 80s, maybe we’ll get married.”

Suzanne admires the effect Ross has on others. “He’s like the Pied Piper,” she says. “He gets together with informal groups of men for coffee and meaningful conversation. He helps a lot of people to be more honest and in touch with themselves. In that aspect, he’s still really a monk.”

I sense Suzanne’s meaning. Ross radiates a kind of inner peace. He says, “So many people live in fear. I’m not afraid to be simple, humble or foolish. I’m happy to carry around a kind of joy and to share it with others.”

Part of Ross’ commitment to Suzanne included nurturing her through a horrific accident four years ago.  An expert, lifelong skier and one time ski instructor, Suzanne was skiing at Red Mountain in British Columbia north of Spokane.  She was gliding down a trail at the end of the day when another skier merged from a much steeper trail without looking and head butted her.  “It could happen to anyone,” Suzanne says.  “My helmet probably saved my life.  I don’t remember anything about it until a doctor stood above me and said 99% of my face was damaged.  Luckily the crash didn’t harm too much of my brain.”

One long surgery and prettily restored face later, Suzanne’s back to leading an active, productive life.  Her home sits on a bluff in Carpinteria.

Several years ago, Suzanne and Ross took over a monthly singer/songwriter program they’d enjoyed attending.  Hearing the program was about to cut back, Suzanne protested.  “You’re filling a huge void in our lives,” she said.  The organizer suggested Suzanne and Ross take over the event, and they did.  (The founding couple still help out.)

With lawn space for 140, Suzanne and Ross invite a singer/musician of Americana music to perform in their front yard.  Suzanne sends out an email inviting guests to each monthly summer concert, first come/first served.  The setting, overlooking the ocean with horses grazing in paddocks, plus complimentary buffet dinner and beverages, render concerts quick sell-outs.  Guests make cash donations to performers.

Suzanne and Ross are especially excited to have Nashville Hall of Fame, American country music singer/songwriter/musician Marcus Hummon as their latest artist.  Hummon’s “Bless the Broken Road” won the Grammy for Best Country Song in 2005.  Hummon is currently working on “American Prophet,” a pandemic-delayed Hamiltonesque musical about abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  (After checking it out on You Tube, I prophesize “American Prophet” will net an American Profit.)

Thanks, Anne Towbes, for introducing me to this terrific twosome.  And thanks, Suzanne and Ross, for all you do to make California, and our world, a more harmonious place.


Getting lost at the Detroit Institute of Arts led the Rev. Keyon S. Payton to find something special with friend Brenda Rosenberg

From left:  Rufino Lin, Davona Boyd, Brenda Rosenberg, Keyon S. Payton at Mumford High School in Detroit

I love how the universe, or God, or Source or whatever you call it presents astonishing coincidences when we’re open to them.  BFF Brenda Rosenberg and her new friend Keyon recently had such an experience.

Brenda knows what it feels like to be shot down in her efforts to create peace among people of different faiths and backgrounds. Ever hopeful, when one approach doesn’t work, she tries another. Having once managed fashion apparel for 900 Federated department stores, in the last 20 years Brenda’s turned her formidable focus on a thornier problem. With partner Samia Bahsoun, an American citizen born in Senegal, Africa, of Lebanese descent, they’ve created and presented programs around the US.  And in spots as far flung as Haifa U. in Israel and as guests of King Abdullah in Jordan.

Brenda describes her peacemaking work as fostering “relational equity.”  She’s lately teamed up with the Rev. Keyon S. Payton, lead pastor of Pontiac, MI’s New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.  They hope to create an Institute for Trauma and Economic Justice (ITEJ). Keyon, with degrees from Morehouse, Princeton and more, is working on his doctoral studies.

He recently came to the Detroit Institute of Arts to support Brenda at a signing of her new book, Charmed. That visit—Keyon’s first to the DIA—sparked a series of Godsigns.

Nature called.  Keyon asked a security guard for directions to the loo.  Unsure whether the closer restroom was open, the guard sent him to a farther one.  Keyon took a couple of wrong turns, eventually finding the loo on the other side of the DIA.  On his way back he noticed a display of photos by Detroit students.  He walked up to them.  In the middle of the grouping, he spotted a photo of a hand holding a silver medallion inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer. Studying the photo, Keyon realized the hand was his own. The photo was borrowed from a mailer Keyon produced for Michigan United, a group promoting justice for underserved communities.

Keyon’s a friend of Rufino Lim, an art teacher at Detroit’s Mumford High School. “Mr. Lim”  focuses on photography. The image Keyon discovered was submitted by Davona Boyd, a teenage student of Mr. Lim. Keyon told Brenda about the photo he’d come across after making a couple of wrong turns. Seeing the picture, Brenda concluded, “Two wrong turns made a right turn.”

In the description accompanying the photo, Brenda learned Davona was a student at Detroit’s Mumford High School.

Several decades ago, Brenda herself was a student at Mumford.  Her drawing of a dragon had won first place in an art contest and been exhibited at the DIA.  That honor, Brenda says, “empowered me to see myself as an artist.”  Brenda became an accomplished photographer, as readers of her new book Charmed will attest.

Brenda and Keyon visited Mumford and met Davona Boyd, a bubbly senior.  Visiting Mumford had yet another benefit for Brenda.  She’s been producing stunning wallpaper panels from photos she’s shot around the world.  In Nevada, horseback riding with husband Howard, Brenda had taken a photo of wild mustangs racing through valleys and over mountains.   The Mustang is the mascot for all Mumford sports teams.  Brenda’s mural of mustangs will soon enhance the lobby of her alma mater.  It will be installed the last week of July by the Detroit Wallpaper Company.

Brenda’s determination has amazed me for more than 50 years.  Godsigns readers have met Brenda before.  Keyon’s story is equally amazing.  Stay tuned.  Your ECC (ever curious columnist) has another humdinger in store.

An ex-Catholic priest, Floridian Dino Silvestrini is now a married pastor

Dino with his wife Dee.

Attending a memorial service, I was intrigued by the engaging clergyman who conducted the service.  I caught up with him in the parking lot.

Pastor Dino Silvestrini, 65, grew up in a rural Catholic parish and “felt a vocational call” in second grade.  ”I’m not sure what compelled me,” he says.  He attended mass at 7:30 every morning.  A pastor noticed his regular attendance and asked him and another student to meet him in the sacristy.  “I thought we were in trouble,” he recalls.

Quite the contrary.  The pastor invited him to become an altar server.  Dino lived near the church and began serving at weddings, funerals and holy hours.  By high school graduation, he says, “I was sure I wanted to be a Catholic priest.”

In 1984, Dino was ordained.  For over 25 years, he served as a Catholic priest.  As time went on, “I didn’t feel challenged to the extent I’d hoped.  Being in the priesthood was meaningful but lonely.  I’d spent eight years training for the priesthood, but after my staff left at 4pm, the walls began to cave in on me.  I felt attracted to women and didn’t want to spend the rest of my life by myself.   It was a confusing time.  I fought my feelings for years, but finally realized I could reinvent myself as a chaplain.  Same circus, different tent.”

As a chaplain, Dino, performs many of the same rituals.  He counsels people, visits patients in hospitals, performs burials and preaches sermons.  Having undergone an official process of laicization, he no longer celebrates Mass or administers Catholic sacraments.

Dino officiated at a memorial service for Faith Storm Graves, the105 year old mother of my good Florida friend Phyllis Keyser. Faith and her husband, Ellis Lee Graves, were missionaries in Brazil.  Ellis died in 2015.  At the time, Phyllis found a coin etched with the numbers from John 3:16, the beloved Bible verse that promises eternal life for Christian believers.  The discovery comforted Phyllis who still treasures the coin. (See my 2015 column, “Beloved Presbyterian minister lives well, loves well, and leaves well.”)

Faith, a longtime breast cancer survivor, outlived Ellis by several years.  She demonstrated the spunk daughter Phyllis inherited.  Each year, Faith reported on how she was faring.

“98: Feeling great.”

“99: Doing fine.”

“Don’t you laugh: I’m 99 ½.”

100: “Please bow; I’m 100 now.”  Phyllis decided that occasion merited a parade.   She decorated a golf cart from the home to resemble a carriage.  Phyllis’s son played the horse.  Faith wore a tiara and a cape.  A red carpet lined the parade route which was populated with residents from Westminster, Faith’s continuing care retirement community in St. Pete, FL.

By 104, Faith was done.  She announced, “104. I want no more!” She got her wish a year later.

Pastor  Dino sent her off with a lovely eulogy.

Service to others has been a hallmark of Dino Silvestrini’s life.  An athlete, he grew up in Iron River, MI, a town of under 3,000 in the U.P., and coached JV basketball at a Catholic school in nearby Marinette, WI.  As Pastor of St. Rita’s in Trenary, MI, his assignment was affiliated with St. Therese, in Au Train.  The small mission church was in danger of closing.  To support St. Therese, Dino came up with a fundraiser and ran 23 miles from from Trenary to Au Train.  Sponsorships produced $14,000 for St. Therese.

In 2010, a month after leaving the priesthood, Dino moved with his mother to Florida.  Out to dinner with a friend, he noticed a woman on the dance floor, introduced himself and called her the next day.  He and Dee have been married for 11 years.  At the time, Dino thought his clerical career was over.  He began applying for civil jobs; he was a groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles and a teacher’s aide.  His perceptive wife suggested he was “wasting” his time and should resume his pastoral duties.  So encouraged, Dino became a chaplain for Suncoast Hospice in St. Pete and was later hired as chaplain for Westminster.

His favorite part of the job?  “Sharing in the joy of peak moments like baptisms and weddings.”  The toughest? “Helping people cope with death.  I try to offer solace, encouragement and guidance.  It’s a privilege to share in a person’s faith life.”

His thoughts about the celibacy requirement for Catholic priests?  “Many Catholics forget celibacy wasn’t imposed on priests until the 12th century.”  Before that, he explains, when a married priest died, the church property reverted to his wife.  He says the Pope mainly introduced celibacy to protect property rights.  In recent years, a shortage of priests has led to more discussions about dropping the requirement, he says. “But I don’t see things changing any time soon.”

Regarding pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church that broke in the early 90s, he says, “The hardest part was all of us were tarred and feathered for the sins of a few.  To wear my clerical collar in public at that time was not a pleasant experience.”

Wife Dee’s a real estate broker.  When possible, Pastor Dino joins her in conducting open houses to make sure she’s safe.  These days, this one-time altar boy is on the job by 6am and “excited” to come to work. He’s a happily married and happy man.

An entire community contributes to bringing golf pioneer Ann Gregory’s life to the screen in “Playing Through”

Ann Gregory in her prime.

“One hundred years ago, there was a poor nine-year-old Black girl in rural Mississippi, an orphan, fixing to turn 10 come summer.  Could she possibly have imagined that she would someday have a biographer (in a manner of speaking) from a prominent white Southern Family who now lives in a gleaming high-rise with a view of the Gulf of Mexico?”

So begins a recent post on  And so begins the inspiration for “Playing Through,” a movie written by a novice and mostly filmed two years ago at Laurel Oak Golf Community.  The filming process intrigued me and my fellow (make that: sister) LOGC golfers in Sarasota.

The orphan cited by was Gary, Indiana, resident Ann Gregory.  In 1956 she became the first black woman golfer to play in a US Women’s Open and, at 44, in a US Women’s Amateur tournament.  The story’s astonishing on two counts.  The golf world was notoriously male dominated.  It’s joked the term golf was an acronym for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden.  And, before Tiger Woods, the sport was overwhelmingly a Caucasian affair.

“Playing Through” premiered at Ringling College in Sarasota.  I was lucky to attend that premiere with some golf buddies. We had fun figuring out which scene was shot on which hole.

Curtis Jordan with Julia Ray, who plays the character Babe Whatling.

At the premiere, I met producer Curtis Jordan and followed up with a conversation.

For 30 years Curtis coached rowing at Princeton U.  He also coached several Olympics rowing teams.  His mother, Josephine Knowlton Jordan, had been a golfer as well as a harness-racing driver.  Curtis knew she’d competed in a 1959 US Women’s Amateur at Congressional golf course, but she’d spoken little about the experience.  In 1991, after Ann’s death, a friend forwarded a Sports Illustrated article mentioning African American golfer Ann Gregory as a pioneer in women’s golf.  The article referenced a match she’d played against his mother.

The article “sparked my imagination,” Curtis says.  He began writing about the event “as an exercise.”  In retirement, for about four years Curtis had “slowly, painfully” worked on a movie script. He mentioned it to a friend from Princeton.  That friend’s son, Peter Odiorne, is a producer and director.  His company, Unbounded Media, wanted to produce sports films with inspirational messages.  Odiorne was in.  His company took Curtis’ rough script and “structured” it.

Curtis and Peter spent five months looking for two lead actresses.  Those they wanted weren’t available at the same time.  “We knew this would be a low budget film,” Curtis says, “but we still weren’t sure how to pay for it.”  They changed their approach and started looking for women who could play golf, act and had a social media presence.

On Instagram, they found Andia Winslow, a black woman who played golf and was a voice over actress.  They were “relieved” when Andia, with no on-screen experience, proved comfortable on camera.

As for the fictional Babs Whatling character, Peter had previously worked with TV actress Julia Ray.  He knew she played golf.

“We didn’t have a lot of money or time,” Curtis says.  “But Andia and Babs turned out to work well together.  They put in long days and adapted on the fly and were invested in each other’s success.”

Curtis says the film represents “a collaboration of the Sarasota community.”  That collaboration included Ringling College, which provided tech facilities and student labor.  It included the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, which brought in cast members including founder Nate Jacobs.  It included the Sarasota Opera which provided housing.  And local residents.  LOCC members Audrey Robbins and Harry Leopold, hearing about the project, introduced Curtis to Larry Thompson, the dynamic president of Ringling College.  The Leopolds also arranged for the filmmakers to have access to Laurel Oak’s two golf courses for ten days.

“The whole community can feel proud,” Curtis says.

Ringling College had built a state-of-the-art film production department with two sound stages and pre and post operations, hoping to attract commercial business.  But tax laws in Florida changed, restricting Ringling’s ability to affect commercial collaborations.  During the pandemic, the facilities weren’t used.  Ringling president Larry Thompson was delighted to cooperate.  He deemed the experience his students received “as good as cash in their pockets.”

The film’s about 95% finished, Curtis says.  The project has consumed the past five years of his life.  What’s next?  “I look forward to spending time with my wife and my dog and playing some golf.”  But he considers the project “worth all the time, effort and expense.”

“Playing Through” was shown at the Sarasota Film Festival and has been accepted by film festivals in Montreal, Durban and Martha’s Vineyard. Curtis hopes others will include it as well.

The moral of the story:  Never underestimate the power of a woman to play golf.  Or of one man’s determination to tell an inspiring tale.

Celebrating the creative life that sprang from Detroit’s First Generation Cass Corridor Artists

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page. ABOUT THE COVER: Dining room of our Franklin home. Brenda Goodman, Untitled, oil on canvas, 1985, from the Edward Thorp Gallery, NY. Ellen Phelan, Untitled standing cross, 1976-77, oil on plywood, from the Susanne Hilberry Gallery.

‘How we welcomed Detroit’s first avant-garde art movement into our home’

I thought about calling this book Love Stories for the Angels of Detroit. The phrase comes from a collaboration between poet John Yau and painter Archie Rand referenced in the text. Art appreciation has been a love affair for me. And my life has been blessed with many angels.

This book was dreamt up—literally—by some personal angels. Well into the coronavirus pandemic, I’d been quarantined for months. With my husband’s brain surgery and resulting stroke and my history as a stage IV cancer survivor now deemed—cough, cough—elderly, we were both high risk. On a Zoom call, girlfriends Brenda Rosenberg, Peggy Daitch and Sandy Seligman perceived my lackluster condition. The four of us had visited Paris in 2018, joyfully sipping champagne and nibbling foie gras. Joie had turned to blah.

My girlfriends knew writing was and is a lifeline for me. I’d written two books about previous crises: my earlier marriage problems and my later cancer diagnosis. The morning after our Zoom call, Brenda phoned. “I dreamt you wrote a coffee table book about your collection and your interest in the early Cass Corridor,” she said. “I want that book. I have a place for it on my coffee table.”

Brenda was right, I thought. I had a happier story to tell. With no end to the pandemic in sight, I had time to tell it. If Brenda had a place for such a book, and Sandy and Peggy were vying for the book launch party, who was I to deny them?

I hung up the phone and turned on my laptop.

There’ve been other angels as well. People who’ve shown up with encouragement that stirs me, support that keeps me going. My sister Anne’s a personal angel who volunteered to read this manuscript twice and drew smiley faces on parts she loved.

Another personal angel is Beth Singer, my friend and partner for five years with Better Homes & Gardens, etc. Beth shot most of the professional photos in this book several years ago, when our house looked pristine, before ramps and grab bars were installed. Recently, Beth returned to take several more photos, helped by her capable assistant Patrick Tunison. I’m grateful to them both for the main visuals in this book.

Lauren Holder, a Marketing Executive with Farbman Group, has been another angel. I’m about as tech savvy as a shoelace. Lauren has helped me convert photos to printable form, figure out graphics and been cheerful and generous with moral and technical support. As has Farbman Group’s tech wiz, Rodney Lange, who has helped me through innumerable technical glitches.

The professional photos come first; the candids later in the book. The latter are mostly from my iPhone, a few older ones reshot from paper prints I saved in albums. They don’t compare with the professional images but represent meaningful memories. Historically, I’ve taken pictures of friends and events. At Kingswood, I was photo editor of the “Woodwinds,” the school yearbook, my senior year. If I’d known this book was in my future, I’d have shot more photos all along. I’m grateful for those I did take.

Since I long ago accepted the truth of the adage about pictures versus words, the story of my collecting adventures follows the photos. Captions often provide fascinating insights beyond the aesthetic equivalent of name, rank and serial number—if I say so myself.

Other angels in this endeavor are Grace Serra, curator/coordinator of the Wayne State U. art collection and a chief cheerleader. Fayez Hammoud and Angela Askew, caregivers whose devoted and professional help with my husband has freed me up to focus on remembering and relating my art adventures. Rick Carmody, who shared some of the photos shown here, my interior designer and friend. Judie Koploy, a fine storyteller, cohort and cousin. And most of all Burton, who has generously and selflessly encouraged and supported all my writing efforts.

I appreciate the cheering me on of my family—sons David and Andy, daughters-in-law Nadine and Amy, grandchildren Hunter, River, Fischer, Beau, Alexis, Camryn and Lindsay. Their support and love have also kept me going during these challenging times. Thanks, too, to Michael, Roger, Barry, Curt, Artie, Danny, Jerry and Sandy and Sue, who check in often.

The Detroit art world has been blessed with angels, too. Jackie Feigenson and Mary Preston were angels who influenced collectors including me. They did everything they could, including giving up their own artistic practices, to boost the careers of other highly talented Detroit artists.

I’ve had other angels as well. If you’re among them, please know how grateful I am.

This book begins with photographs of our collection in Franklin. Additional images come from our home in Florida. There are also art related photos from trips I’ve taken and events I’ve attended.

They add up to a story of joy. The joy of collecting.

Though viewed as backwater, flyover country by connoisseurs on both coasts, Detroit has an art history worth respect. Many talented fine artists got started in the D. Some stayed and continued to produce exciting work. We’ve been blessed with top-notch galleries and dealers, knowledgeable art writers, first rate art schools, dedicated collectors and art advocates, an internationally renowned museum and, more recently, an exciting contemporary museum. Credit where credit’s due.

This book is a story of the art world I knew. An art world less destabilized by politics and political correctness. Not forced into months of seclusion by a deadly virus. A world where people felt comfortable in crowded galleries and museums. Where we relished squeezing together for the taking of a toast and tea.

This is the story of the Detroit I knew and wrote about, mostly in the 1970s and 80s, the art world I experienced, the joy I had in collecting.

And here again is a link to Detroit’s Cass Corridor and Beyond on Amazon.

Care to see a few of the images?

Historic photo of early Cass Corridor members. L to R: Bradley Jones, Ellen Phelan, Ron Winokur, Nancy Mitchnick, Doug James. Artwork: On wall at left by Ellen Phelan; construction (foreground) by John Egner; Flower painting on wall by Nancy Mitchnick.

Snapshot of artist Bradley Jones and me at Bradley’s opening. I wear a jean jacket Bradley embellished. (I still have it.)

Untitled standing cross, Ellen Phelan, 1976–77, oil on plywood, from the Susanne Hilberry Gallery.

Portrait of Jim Duffy by Nancy Mitchnick.

Michigander and psychologist Donna Rockwell sparkles and inspires others to sparkle, too

Elen Schwartz’s family. Donna and her husband Bernie are at right in this photo.

Last week we met the irrepressible Elen Schwartz in the first part of this story.

Now, in this second column about her remarkable family, you will get to know her equally irrepressible daughter, Donna Rockwell…

Donna began her career at CNN in June, 1980, one of the “CNN Originals.”

Producer for Emmy-award-winning TV journalist Daniel Schorr, Donna was with him as the Iran hostages returned to the US and on the White House South Lawn the next day as newly elected President Ronald Reagan welcomed them home. She accompanied Schorr on Reagan’s trip to Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall and to summits in Bonn and at Versailles Palace.  She  then became CNN’s Capitol Hill producer. At CNN, 23-year olds Donna and Katie Couric became good friends and remain so today.

Donna covered the House and Senate for three years. She was then hired by NBC station WRC-TV as Executive Producer for anchorwoman, Susan King.

Donna met Bernie Smilovitz when he was a young sportscaster in DC. They fell in love (he could speak Yiddish to her grandmother!) and married in 1985. Three months later Bernie was offered his dream job, Sports Director for WDIV-TV in Detroit. The couple moved to a Tudor home in Huntington Woods and started a family.

Donna adored Michigan. For the Huntington Woods 4th of July parade, she recalls, she “stood on the sidewalk watching and weeping—it was so quintessentially American.”

Donna became an executive producer at Detroit’s WJBK-TV,headed by Marla Drutz—one of the few women running a TV station at the time. Donna oversaw For Kids Sake, a station-wide public service campaign.

Donna also dove into raising sons, Zach and Jake.  “I went from producing TV news to producing the lives of two boys.”

An “urge for more” inspired Donna to pursue a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Center for Humanistic Studies (now the Michigan School of Psychology).  She wrote her dissertation on the psychology of fame and celebrity.  As a result, Donna often appears as a fame expert on TV shows, radio and social media.  She says obsession with fame, linked to the rise of Instagram and social media, has caused depression, anxiety and suicidal thinking to jump over 30%. with girls as young as 9 attempting suicide.

Hoping to diminish that influence, Donna founded Already Famous with Dr. DonnaThe online wellness community for women and girls focuses on building self-confidence and inner worth.  Donna wants women of all ages “to see that they’re enough, perfect just the way they are, and already famous in the ways that really matter.”

Donna says, “My mother may not have danced for Balanchine, but she knew, on the inside, that she was the star of her show.”

Rather than crave external validation, Already Famous helps women and girls discover their internal compass and find “the lust for life, confidence and resilience” her mother had.  As Donna learned from Elen and hopes to pass on to others, “True joy is an inside job.  The only real happiness is to find joy within.  Then we’re able to share that joy with the world.  Of course, mixed with a little hot sauce and sparkle.”

Just like The Belle of the Bay.

In just over 300!!! columns I’ve written for RTS, this is my first mother/daughter story.  Thanks, Donna.  And Elen—wherever you are.  Sparkle on!

Donna Rockwell Smilovitz and her late mom, Elen Schwartz, lend sparkle to the Caribbean, Michigan and beyond

Elen Schwartz at the helm of her sailboat Moon Dancer in the 1970s.

Donna Rockwell and her mother Elen Schwartz shared a special bond.  Both petite in size, one reflected and one still reflects a big heart and positive influence on others.

Elen died recently on the island of Barbados.  She lived in the Caribbean for nearly  50 years, most on the tiny Grenadine island of Bequia.  Neighbors regarded her as a kind of informal queen of the island until age 84. She was friend to the Prime Minister and taxi drivers alike.

Though I missed the joy of meeting her Elen, Donna’s been writing a memoir about her vivacious mother.

Donna and Elen.

“Mom was like a comet,” Donna says.  “The life of any party.”  Donna, a psychologist, “felt privileged to know my mom and to happily pour her scotch.”

Elen grew up in Weehawken, NJ, attended NYC’s prestigious professional school to become a ballet dancer and trained with famed choreographer George Balanchine.  Her career was short-lived, Elen said, because her “bosoms got too big for ballet,” and she was forced to quit.

Elen didn’t quit at much.  She was a go-getter from the get go.  At Finch College in Manhattan, she wanted to become class president.  She succeeded by studying a school yearbook, memorizing every student’s face and greeting each by name in the hallways.  Later, she became president of the sisterhood of her synagogue in New Jersey and organized a cookbook of members’ favorite family recipes.  She applied the same energy to motherhood.  She was a den mother for her son’s Cub Scout troop and stayed up late adding tiny improvements to every boy’s craft project.

After leading a relatively conventional upper-middle-class life, Elen changed direction.

At a time when divorce was deemd a Shonda (Yiddish for shame), Elen divorced her first husband, Donna’s biological father.  Donna was 11; brother Josh, 10; sister Leah, 6.  Elen met and married Ray Schwartz, a New Jersey commercial real estate broker with two grown sons. Ray’s lifelong dream was to live in the islands and sail.  After Elen and Ray married in summer, 1971, the couple and Elen’s three kids moved to Barbados and rented a house.  Donna recalls, “It was a totally new environment, with British schools and uniforms, standing when teachers entered the classroom, having to wear a wide brimmed straw hat to and from school.”

The family bought a sailboat.  On vacations, they sailed through the Grenadines.

“We slept on beaches in Mustique, picked vegetables in Canouan, saw amazing fish and coral off the coast of Grenada,” Donna says.  Sadly, their idyll ended when, at 52, Ray contracted lung cancer.  Elen went to the US to be with her husband for treatment.  “She stayed for three months, cuddling with Ray in his bed until he died.”  Back in Barbados, Donna, then 16, took charge of her siblings, preparing meals and getting them off to school.

”Mom was so stoic,” Donna says.  “She refused to be sad.  As she put it, ‘Most people never get to experience true love in life.  I did.’”

When New Jersey friends encouraged Elen to move back to the states, Elen declined, saying,  “Barbados is our home now.”  The family had moved there when Donna was 14.  Though resistant at first, Donna says, “I eventually realized we’d landed in paradise.  From then on, my life was all about sunrises and sunsets and an expansive view of the sea.  On an island, you’re forced to be present.  You learn to synchronize to the rhythms of the planet.”

Elen threw “lavish, joyful parties” at their house.  Among her many friends were Tony and Jeffrey, a gay couple who lived down the street.  Jeffrey’s family were stationers to the queen of England.  Donna deems Elen’s friends “as fascinating as she was.”  Donna came to appreciate “a verve deep within West Indian culture.”  She says her mom reflected that verve.  “She was as spicy as the local hot sauce.”

Elen outside the Franipani Hotel on Bequia.

When Elen’s youngest child, Leah, returned to the US for college, Elen moved to Bequia with her new boyfriend, Peter.  Nine years younger, Peter was a German who’d sailed on his own from Hamburg to Barbados.  Elen and Peter moved onto her boat and sailed together for ten years “until things got complicated.”   Peter wanted children; Elen didn’t.  He met a woman who did.

Meanwhile, Donna had married Bernie Smilovitz, Detroit’s WDIV sportscaster of 36 years.

Elen continued to live on her sailboat in Bequia’s Port Elizabeth Harbor.  One sunny day, Peter, an alcoholic, left a photo of Elen in her mailbox with a note, “Thanks for all the memories.”  Later that week, after sailing to Venezuela, Peter hung himself from the mast of his sailboat.

“Lots of happy memories and lots of drama,” Donna says.

Donna went on to earn a masters degree in journalism from American University in Washington, D.C.  She visited her mom often.  Those visits “were like arriving in Shangri la.”  She’d fly to St. Vincent and take a two hour ride on the local schooner, Friendship Rose, to Bequia.  Elen would be waiting at the dock, wearing a big straw hat.  Elen enjoyed living among the European boating set, catching fresh fish in a cage hung over the side of her boat.  She was beloved by the local islanders.

“In Bequia,” Elen said, “I’m the Belle of the Bay.”

When grandchildren visited, they’d walk through the center of town.  Shop owners would shout, “Miss Elen! You’ve got the Grands!”

Meetings on Skype at 5pm became a daily ritual.  Elen and Donna tag teamed each other’s jokes.  But some days, Donna says, “even in paradise my mother expressed worries.  Susan Jeffers’ Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway became her personal bible.”

In later years, Elen moved off the boat and became the overseer of a beautiful guest house.  She’d walk upstairs, join guests for cocktails and regale them with stories of the islands or of the many books she read.  Return guests said they’d come back just for Elen’s stories.  Elen helped start Bequia’s Sunshine School for Children with Special Needs and remained active on its board.

A stroke in her early 80s slowed Elen down.  She had smoked most of her life, refusing to quit because she “liked the effect.”  In discussing a possible move to Michigan, Elen’s doctor warned Donna, “You mother’s been tropicalized.  She won’t survive up north.”

Four years later, after a second stroke at age 84, Elen was flown to Barbados.  She passed away peacefully in a nursing home.  Tropical breezes wafted through the room, and she was surrounded by her three children.  The week before, a little bird landed on her windowsill and stayed.  Elen decided it was Ray.

On what would have been Elen’s 85th birthday, Donna and her siblings returned to Bequia.  From a small skiff on a glittering morning, Elen’s children scattered her ashes in the ocean.  On Becqui there’s a gourmet pizza restaurant, Mac & Judy’s, which Elen frequented.  Even if she wasn’t dining there on any given day, she’d stick her head into the kitchen and call to the staff, “Hello, girls.”

After the funeral, Donna peeked into Mac & Judy’s kitchen and called, “Hello, girls.”  When the staff heard Elen was back with them, at final rest in the sea, Donna says, “They were all sobbing.”

Donna says, “My mother was so affirming.  If I hesitated about a decision, she quoted Shirley Temple’s mom.  “Don’t wait.  Do it now.  Sparkle, Shirley.”

And Donna did.

Rainbow over Bequia.

(Check out next week’s column to see how Donna sparkles.)