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Indianapolis restauranteur Steve Huse and wife Lila learn lessons from a tough battle with Covid 19

Steve Huse celebrating with caregivers as he began the huge challenge of learning to walk again.

Steve Huse is renowned in Indianapolis, IN.  He chairs Huse Culinary, Inc., which owns several restaurants including St. Elmo Steak House, founded in 1902 as a tavern but converted to a steak house during Prohibition.  Many millions of dollars and two more adjacent historic buildings later, St. Elmo’s seats 500. Volume-wise It ranks among the top 25 U.S. restaurants.  Hoosiers drive for miles to treat themselves to St. Elmo’s medium-rare prime rib.  Steve has also taken two companies public.

As envied as Steve can be, this year he underwent an experience not another soul would envy.  A grueling case of Covid 19.  In the process, Steve and wife Lila learned valuable lessons.

On March 14, 2020, Steve and Lila, snowbirds in Sarasota, FL, were driving to a friend’s party.  They’d been taking precautions to avoid Covid 19, which had begun infecting people around the globe.  They wore masks in public, washed their hands often and well, stocked up on toilet paper and sanitizer.  But seeing old friends at the party, Steve returned to his teddy bear self and dropped his cautionary behavior.  “I’m a hugger, not an elbow bumper,” he says.

Twelve days later, Steve ran a low-grade fever, was coughing and short of breath.  An oral test proved positive. Preferring to keep Steve out of the hospital, his doc prescribed the antimalarial drug Plaquenil and a Z-pak.  Lila monitored Steve’s temperature and blood oxygen level.  As Steve had increasing trouble catching his breath, he was given an oxygen concentrator.  If Steve’s pulse oximeter dropped to 88 while he was on supplemental oxygen, Lila was told to call 911, then their doctor.

On March 30, Steve seemed to be improving.  “He finally had an appetite and wanted some spicy Mexican food,” Lila says.  “I thought: Hurray!  I called the family and sent photos of Steve eating and smiling.”

Within hours, Steve became disoriented. His oxygen level plunged.  Lila called 911.

EMTs arrived in hazmat suits.  As they wheeled Steve on a gurney into the ambulance, he said to Lila, “Well, this is a surprise.” The couple had made a pact not to send Steve to the hospital, “no matter what.”  Lila says, “I felt like I was betraying his trust.” She feared his comment would be the last words she’d hear him say.

“Every day we read about the death toll from this disease,” Lila says.  “People were dying alone, without their loved ones by their side, holding their hand.  That was my nightmare.”

An ICU doc they knew called to say he was sorry to see Steve on his ward.  They’d intubate him, he said, and keep him on a ventilator for a few days.  Hopefully, Steve would be home in a week.

That week turned into 102 days.  Steve came home on July 9, in a wheelchair, unable to walk.  He had a wound vac to help heal a bedsore almost deep enough to reach his tailbone.  He’d been unconscious for most of his hospital stay.  “Though Steve was the one in the hospital fighting for his life,” Lila says, “it was the hardest time of my life as well.”

Lila spoke to a group to which we both belong.  She shared some valuable lessons she’d learned during their health crisis.  Lessons worth knowing.

Lesson 1.  “Make sure you have great doctors.”  Their personal docs stayed on top of the ICU and infectious disease docs and briefed Lila every day.

Lesson 2.  “Don’t be too quick to provide a living will.”  Asked if Steve had one, Lila said she couldn’t find it, though she knew just where it was.  “No one wants to be kept alive on ventilators, feeding tubes, dialysis and full life support.”  Steve received all those treatments, but Lila didn’t want the hospital to have anything official to justify unplugging him.  “Maybe they were short on ventilators or hospital beds or just exhausted from the onslaught of Covid patients.  I didn’t want them deciding someone else had a better chance of survival.”

Lesson 3.  “You don’t have to follow a doctor’s advice.”   At one point, an infectious disease doc phoned Lila, asked her to consider taking Steve off life support.  Think about how Steve would like to live his life, he advised.  They were trying to wean Steve off paralytic drugs and heavy sedation.  He wasn’t responding or following simple commands.  He was fighting serial infections, including a fungus that can hide in the aortic valve and brain. He might never be the same mentally.  “NO,” Lila responsed.  “Steve was 78.  They couldn’t prove his mental capacity was deficient.  There’d be time to pull the plug.  He needed the chance to get well.”

Lesson 4.  “Make time for yourself.”  For the first two weeks, Lila stayed in bed, awaiting the daily update.  If she didn’t hear before 10:30, she’d start praying.  After the call, she texted or emailed family.  She binge-watched TV, excluding news channels.  “Anything to keep my brain from going to a dark place.”  She began walking “til I could walk no longer,” then back to bed.  All their children offered to come and stay with her.  Eventually she said yes to her daughter, Heather Gaalaas, and husband Kevin.  They could work from the Huses’ home while Lila watched 5-year-old Alice and Cecily.  A former ballet dancer and teacher, Lila taught the twins to read, write and do math.  She watched them learn to swim without floaties, to ride bikes without training wheels.  Lila cooked for everyone and “finally started to eat normally myself.”

The long journey toward recovery involved family and friends supporting and encouraging Steve along the way. In this photo, taken not long after he returned home in July 2020, Steve enjoys time with his son Craig and daughter Kim.

Lesson 5.  “Be good to those who are caring for your loved one.”  Steve’s son Craig and the culinary staff of their restaurants were sending food to first responders and health care workers in Indianapolis.  Once a week, Lila called the charge nurse on Steve’s hospital unit, asked how many staff were working that day, and sent lunch from a local deli.  “I hoped it showed how much I appreciated their efforts during the pandemic.”

Lesson 6.  “Educate yourself on your health insurance benefits.”  Under Medicare, Lila says, we all have 90 paid in-patient care days (hospital, skilled nursing, inpatient rehab).  Those days renew when we’ve been out of the hospital for 60 days.  Steve was in the hospital for 102 days, out for 30, and back for another 8.  Lila had the choice to pay his expenses for the additional days (over 90) or agree to use some of his non-renewable “Lifetime Days” (of which there are 60).  Medicare paid Sarasota Memorial Hospital $1.7 million for Steve’s care.  Steve used 20 of his 60 lifetime, non-renewable days.

Lila concluded her talk with some anecdotes which surely seem funnier now.  When Steve was recovering and the hospital began allowing Lila to visit, they Facetimed the family.  Steve assured daughter Kim that he and Lila had “made up and were back together again.”  At one point, Steve thought most of his family had joined a cult and were leaving to go to the Middle East.  (Lila reminded him she was Jewish and wasn’t welcome in much of the Middle East.)  When Lila entered Steve’s room one day, he was on the phone with their good friend Johnny Kittle asking him to come and rescue him from the hospital.  “And bring Annie,” he said, referring to Johnny Kittle’s wife.  “I know she’s not very strong but we might need her help.”

Steve owns a Ferrari and belongs to the Sarasota Ferrari Club and the Café Racers (car guys who lunch).  The members wanted to surprise Steve by escorting him home from the hospital in their exotic cars.  Both clubs sent emails to their group to coordinate the plans.  One club forgot to delete Steve from the email chain.  Lila came to visit a few days before his release.  Steve demanded, “You’ve got to stop the escort from happening.”

Lila: “That’s an honor.  Why don’t you want it?”

Steve: “I was looking forward to going to Culvers’ drive-through.  After all this hospital food, I want a burger and fries.”

25-30 exotic cars escorted Steve home.  He’s since eaten plenty of burgers and fries.

Ending her remarks, Lila said, “The good news is he’s doing great with no lingering effects.  And we’re definitely back together again.”

Thanks, Lila, for sharing this harrowing and heroic story.   We’re all glad Steve’s back on the road again.  And glad you’re back in the passenger seat.

Celebrating Steve’s recovery with a toast are Steve and his wife Lila.

A biblical fruit, pomegranates help my troubled tummy– thanks to fashion designer Diane vonFurstenberg

Godsigns readers know I like to mix it up.  My last column on Patty Runquist and Stevie Schaefer was my first mother/son subject.  This week’s ode to the pomegranate marks my first culinary column.  Hope you eat it up.  (Couldn’t resist.)

Last winter the WSJ ran a profile on Diane von Furstenberg.  As a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily and a fashion editor early in my career, I’ve followed Diane for decades.  I’ve worn her wrap dresses and been a fan through her marriage and divorce from Prince Egon von Furstenberg.  (His father, a German prince, and mother, a member of Italian nobility and an heir to the Fiat Automotive fortune, were less than thrilled with Diane’s Jewish heritage.)

Diane later married American media mogul Barry Diller.   They’ been very philanthropic, including pledging $20 million to the New York High Line.  This elevated park and path installed on a discontinued railroad spur is one of my sister’s and my favorite walks on our sisters’ trips to New York City.  But that’s just one reason for my DVF appreciation.

My stomach appreciates her, too.

Several months ago, I read a feature on DVF in the WSJ magazine.  ICYMI (I love acronyms, as if you hadn’t guessed), Diane mentioned that for breakfast she eats yogurt and pomegranate seeds.

Sounds interesting, I thought.  I was already eating yogurt and berries for breakfast.

A pomegranate tree in an illustration for the Tacuinum Sanitatis, an eleventh-century Arab medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad.

I hustled over to Publix and bought some pomegranate seeds.  They were sweet/sour and crunchy and—like Mikey–  I liked them.   I continued to buy them—out of the shell or in.  You Tube showed me how to extricate the seeds.

I have IBS.  (Yay! I snuck in another acronym!)  Irritable Bowel Syndrome is what docs call stomach distress when they can’t figure out what else to call it.  I’ve had IBS for years—maybe a result of chemo 17 years back.  Who knows?

After three or four months, it occurred to me that my IBS had significantly lessened.  Only one thing in my diet had changed: pomegranate seeds.

Hmm.  I Googled pomegranate seeds.  The first benefit claimed: improved digestion.  Whoa!  Exactly what I’d stumbled across.

Friends of a certain age may have noticed: as we—ahem– mature, our organs become less cooperative.  My sister, Anne, has several friends in California who get together often.  They start their conversations by limiting themselves to what they call “a 10-minute organ recital.”

What inspired me to share my new tummy treatment (I love alliteration, too) was a recent article in the Detroit Jewish News.  According to contributing writer Keri Guten Cohen, “Pomegranates have a long Judaic history—from Jewish ritual objects to ancient Jewish coins, to Jewish cuisine, and Jewish art, architecture and jewelry.”

Keri writes that pomegranates likely originated in Iran and have grown in the Mediterranean region since ancient times.  King Solomon used pomegranates as capitals for the columns of the First Temple, later destroyed by the Babylonians.  Solomon saw pomegranates as symbols of love and fertility and used a pomegranate metaphor to describe a lovely young woman in Song of Songs 4:3.

Pomegranates are significant during Rosh Hashanah, the recent Jewish holiday.  The symbolism stems from the belief that the fruit contains 613 seeds (arils), the same number as the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah.

Pomegranate season is upon us: October through January.  Give this noble fruit a try.  Only leave some for me, SVP!


NOTES ON PHOTOGRAPHS: The top photograph today is an award-winning photograph shared via Wikimedia Commons by Ivar Leidus, which means you are free to share that beautiful photograph with friends in celebration of November’s National Pomegranate Month. The illustration of a pomegranate tree comes from a later Italian copy of Ibn Butlan’s original guide to home medicine. He was a physician and a member of a small Arab-Christian minority, the Nestorians. His guide to hygiene, diet (including his recommendation of eating pomegranates) and exercise was widely used around the Middle East.

The Remarkable life of Charlevoix’s Stevie Schaefer

Stevie Schaefer joked that he just might start flying as he posed in front of a panel in a magical mural in downtown Charlevoix. (If you would like to see more of this mural, click on this photo to read an mLive story about the mural with 12 photos of the entire breadth of the piece.)

Thanks especially to his mother Patty Runquist—

Not even a tragic boating accident kept Stevie from enjoying life

Stevie Schaefer never met a stranger.  He was a good looking, fun loving, high school grad who played football, tennis and baseball.  He washed dishes, cooked and served at popular NoMI restaurants Grey Gables and the Weathervane and tended horses on a farm.  His future seemed as bright as the sun shining on Lake Charlevoix where he’d water skied for over ten years.  But instead of attending Central Michigan for college, as he planned, he spent the last of his 17th year and the rest of his life in and out of hospitals.

Even that didn’t stop him.

In July, 1985, Stevie visited a friend at Crystal Lake in Mount Pleasant, MI.  Stevie and some pals went for a ride on a pontoon boat.  As the pontoon returned to the dock, Stevie spotted several boats tied there and overestimated the water’s depth.  He dove in headfirst as he’d done in other lakes for years.  This time he didn’t come up.  Stevie was a known prankster.  His buddies thought he was fooling around.

After several minutes, Stevie’s limp body rose to the surface.  He floated face down, having broken his neck and drowned.

Stevie’s friends called an ambulance.  Stevie’s lungs were pumped out.  He was rushed to the hospital.  A  device was screwed into his skull to immobilize his neck.  He was transferred to a hospital in Lansing.

That’s when he called his mom.

Stevie’s mother, Patty Runquist, is my summertime friend.  Patty, mutual pal Lynne Kukes and I play golf many mornings.  Patty’s one of the most unflappable people I know.  Whether she nails a 10’ putt or misses a 2-footer, she stays calm.

Patty raced to Lansing.  Over and over, she reassured her youngest son, “We’ll get through this.”   Patty remembers Stevie’s hands being cold.  She rubbed them all night long.   She remembers the doctor who uttered the term “quadriplegic.”

The accident took place two days before Stevie’s 18th birthday.  Because he was immobilized and could only look up, Patty taped dozens of birthday and get well cards to the ceiling.  The doctor walked in and said, “Don’t tell me it’s your birthday.”

Then a part time dental hygienist, Patty uprooted her life to help her youngest son.  After a month, Stevie moved to the Craig rehab facility in Denver.   Stevie’s three siblings were in college.  Patty rented an apartment across the street from Craig.  Mother and son stayed in Denver for four months.  Staff at Craig termed Stevie a “super quad,” meaning he had more capability than a typical quadriplegic.

For the first month, the Halo screwed to Stevie’s skull immobilized his neck.  Every hour Patty tipped her son back in his chair to prevent pressure sores.   Stevie’s young male roommate in Denver was on a ventilator after a body surfing accident.  He couldn’t move his arms.  Compared to his roommate, Patty says, “Stevie felt lucky.  He could move his arms.”

While Stevie was in Denver, his nurses noticed all the cards and calls he received.  One nurse told Patty, “That’s the kind of friend Stevie must have been to them.”

At Craig, Patty recalls, she met a young patient whose mother and grandmother lived together in a  Victorian house.  They refused to “spoil” the exterior of their home with a ramp.  They sent the young man to a nursing home for the rest of his life.  Patty says, “Hearing that made me realize how I didn’t want to be.”

After Denver, Patty took Stevie to the Miami, FL based Buoniconti clinic founded by Boston Patriots/Miami Dolphins football All Star Nick Buoniconti.  Nick’s son, Marc, was paralyzed from a spinal cord injury suffered while making a tackle.  Nick helped found the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, now a leading neurological research center.

For a long time, Patty says, Stevie was “hopeful he’d walk again someday.”  Though that someday never came, Stevie was good humored about his dependence on others.  His friends remained devoted, picking him up and taking him to parties.  He learned to drive with hand controls worked by flexing his wrists.  He paid road tolls with Solo cups he’d pre-loaded with change.

Patty helped Stevie with his bowel complications.  Lynne and I marveled at how upbeat our friend remained, often leaving the golf course early to assist Stevie with functions most mothers leave behind once children are grown.

Stevie’s family called him a “wise ass.”  He liked hats depicting a horse or duck or rabbit head.  He sent  “goofy” presents to relatives and friends, including a flatulating stuffed monkey and a bank shaped like buttocks.  (You can guess where the coins were inserted.)  One Christmas Stevie bought the family  Santa costumes so they could bounce around in them entertaining kids at the hospital.  He attended all his nieces and nephews’ graduations and gifted them a pontoon boat.

Stevie laughed at his occasional incompetence.  His adapted van ran into a Burger King one day when he lost control of the tripod steering wheel.  The family thought it hilarious and never let him forget it.

During stressful times, Patty says, “When I got discouraged, I’d just take a deep breath and keep going.  It’s better to laugh than to cry.  When it’s your son, you do everything you can to make his life easier.”

Stevie died last December of complications resulting from three surgeries for a bleeding ulcer.  He was 55.  Friends from around the country came to his memorial.  Some 200 mourners gathered at Charlevoix’s Grey Gables Restaurant where Stevie once worked.  Giving Stevie’s eulogy, his nephew  Andrew Gasior said, “While most people in Stevie’s situation would feel sorry for themselves and allow their disability to be their defining characteristic, Stevie did just the opposite.  He made a Christmas gift the year’s most anticipated reveal.  He could tear up a dance floor without lifting a single foot.  Above all, he was a fighter.  He fought until his very last breath.”

Stevie’s big brother Rick Schaefer wrote a song for him and found a young woman in his church choir to record it.  He illustrated the song with family photos and published it on You Tube.  As a mother of two and grandmother of seven, I have yet to watch “The Prince of Charlevoix” without crying.

From left: Uncle Jack Daley, Stevie, Aunt Mary Daley, sister Stacey Gasior and Stevie’s mother Patty

Thanks, Patty, for sharing your indomitable son with Godsigns readers.  We can all use a dose of his determination and your dedication.

Here’s hoping the Prince of Charlevoix is somehow back on both legs now, free of pain and skiing the waves of a heavenly wake.

Like many of us, ABC newsman Dan Harris went from skepticism (and anxiety) to a love of meditation

This photo is from Dan Harris’s conversation with the Dalai Lama and one of his friends. I’ve got links to watch this video and another one by Dan Harris, below.


At the start of the pandemic, I developed a new hero.  He doesn’t see himself as a hero.  Most often he refers to himself as a jerk.  But a recovering jerk.

Dan Harris

My hero, Dan Harris, has been an anchorman with ABC—and a meditator. Now, he’s leaving ABC. (Here’s Good Housekeeping story about his decision to leave the network.) He’s going to spending more time working on promoting and teaching about forms of meditation.

I welcome that—and I’m pretty sure a lot of his regular listeners will, too.

Dan accompanies me to and from the golf course most non-rainy mornings in Northern Michigan. On his podcast, Dan interviews meditation instructors and practitioners. He’s a good listener with an almost 100% record of tracking well and asking what I want to know.

I’m a late in life meditator.  I began the practice at the start of the pandemic.  I stink at it.  (A less ladylike verb comes to mind.)  But I keep trying.

Harris writes about his journey to meditation in a memoir, 10% Happier: How I tamed the Voice in my Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.  He discusses  how meditation helped him kick a drug and alcohol addiction and become less anxious.

On his podcast, Dan interviews famous meditators like the Dali Lama, less famous meditation instructors like Sharon Salzberg and diverse devotees such as fashion designer Eileen Fisher and celebrity chef Eric Ripert.  Dan interviews them about their lives and their practice.  Eileen Fisher says she incorporates meditation into the daily running of her company.  Ripert, owner of NY’s lauded Le Bernardin, says since becoming a Buddhist, he’s no longer a plate smashing tyrant.

A basic principle of meditation is finding an approach that works for you and committing to it on a regular basis.  I decided 15 minutes a day was manageable.  I set my iPhone timer and try to focus on my breathing, first thing in the morning, before a million excuses commandeer my attention.  Some version of sitting is recommended.  It doesn’t work for me.  I’m a feet up kind of girl.  I prop up two pillows and lean against them in bed.

I silently count to 100, then back again.  Sometimes I’m so distracted I don’t get past the counting.  As one of Dan’s guests advised, when distracted, “Simply begin again.”  I then perform a breathing exercise.  Another guest, Emma Seppala, Ph.D,, author of The Happiness Track, says breath work is scientifically shown to benefit your heart rate and blood pressure. Following Emma’s advice, I breathe in for a count of five and breathe out through gently closed lips for ten.

Guided meditations are helpful for most.  There are terrific ones available on the internet, including on the 10% Happier app.  Our son David’s website, Carbon Media, offers soothing guided meditations for nature lovers on Carbon Unwind.

If directions have more than one step, I glaze over.  For me, guided meditations feel contrived.  I’m better off doing my own unconventional thing.

As he was typing his manuscript, Dan says, he’d been meditating for nine years.  “I am still capable of being neurotic, ambitious, and cranky,” he writes.  “Which is why I like my whole 10% shtick; it sets the bar pretty low.  That said, I am significantly happier and nicer than I used to be.”

Dan calls himself a meditation skeptic.  He doesn’t understand why meditation works.  He just knows it does.  I’d agree.  The stress and uncertainty in Burton’s and my lives following my husband’s stroke can be overwhelming.  With my innate talent for catastrophizing, I need all the support I can get.  Meditation helps me stay present.

If something’s troubling you, dear reader, (these days, who isn’t troubled?) give meditation a try.  It won’t hurt and just might help.

And, Dan? Thanks! I wish you all the best as you move from your desk at ABC into this “whole 10% shtick.”

Trust me: It’s a whole lot more than shtick.

Care to Learn More?

FIRST, get the podcast. You can find out more about the TEN PERCENT HAPPIER PODCAST right here.

SECOND, here is the full interview Dan did with the Dalai Lama, and a mutual friend, back in 2017:

FINALLY, here is a Google Talk Dan Harris did about his whole approach to 10 Percent Happier.

Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal withholds forgiveness from dying Nazi soldier

Simon Wiesenthal, best known for helping to bring former Nazis to justice, including Adolph Eichmann in 1961, survived five concentration camps.

89 of his family members didn’t.

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

In his book, The Sunflower, Wiesenthal relates a small but searing interaction he had while in a camp in Poland.  The day began with his passing by a cemetery where a sunflower bloomed atop each grave.  “Suddenly I envied the dead soldiers,” he writes. “Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave.  For me there would be no sunflower; I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me.  No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.”

Later, laboring on a project at a military hospital, Wiesenthal is approached by a nurse.

“Are you a Jew?” she asks.  She beckons him to follow her and leads him to the bedside of a dying S.S. officer.

Covered in stained bandages with openings for his nose, mouth and ears, the patient whispers, “I know the end is near.”

Wiesenthal writes he was “unmoved.  …The way I had been forced to exist in the prison camps had destroyed in me any feeling or fear about death.”

The patient says he was raised Catholic.  When the war started, he’d joined the Hitler Youth, hoping “to see the world.”  He grips Wiesenthal’s hand as he speaks.  When Wiesenthal tries to withdraw his hand, the patient grips tighter.  Wiesenthal writes, “I began to ask myself why a Jew must listen to the confession of a dying Nazi Soldier.  If he had really rediscovered his faith in Christianity, then a priest should have been sent for…”

Wiesenthal “wanted to get away,” he writes, but “all of a sudden I felt sorry for him.”

The patient, whose name is Karl, says, “We were told the Jews were the cause of all our misfortunes… They were trying to get on top of us, they were the cause of war, poverty, hunger, unemployment…”

Karl speaks of his battalion’s coming across about 150 Jews, mostly women and children.  The soldiers force them to carry cans of petrol into a deserted house, then crowd them in the house and set it on fire.

“I knew how this story would end.  My own country had been occupied by the Germans for over a year and we had heard of similar happenings.  …The method was always the same.  He could spare me the rest of his gruesome account.  So I stood up ready to leave, but he pleaded with me.  ‘Please stay.  I must tell you the rest.’”

Wiesenthal recalls.  “He was so shattered by his recollection that he broke into a sweat and I loosened my hand from his grip.  But at once he groped for it again and held it tight.  He spoke of additional atrocities, then sighed and whispered, “My God, my God.”

Wiesenthal writes, “For this dying man and for his like there could be no God.  The Fuhrer had taken His place.”

The soldier says, “The pains in my body are terrible, but worse still is my conscience. …I am left here with my guilt.  In the last hours of my life you are with me.  I do not know who you are.  I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough.  I want to die in peace, and so I need…”

Wiesenthal writes, “I saw that he could not get the words past his lips.  But I was in no mood to help him.  I kept silent.”

The patient says, “I know that what I have told you is terrible.  In the long nights while I have been waiting for death… I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him.  Only I didn’t know if there were any Jews left…”

Wiesenthal writes, “Two men who had never known each other had been brought together for a few hours by Fate.  One asks the other for help.  But the other was himself helpless and able to do nothing for him.

“I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands.  Between them there seemed to rest a sunflower.  At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”

Wiesenthal remains uncomfortable about his interaction with the dying man, unsure if he’d been right or wrong in not expressing forgiveness.  Eventually he is sent to a concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria.  There he meets Bolek, a Polish man who, before the war, studied for the priesthood.

“Bolek,” Wiesenthal says, “you would have been a priest by now if the Nazis had not attacked Poland.   What do you think I ought to have done?  Should I have forgiven him?  Had I in any case the right to forgive him?  What does your religion say?  What would you have done in my position?”

Bolek says, “…One thing is certain: you can only forgive a wrong that has been done to yourself.  Yet on the other hand: whom had the SS man to turn to?”

“So he asked something from me that was impossible to grant?”

“Probably he turned to you because he regarded Jews as a single, condemned community.  For him you were a member of this community and thus his last chance.”

Bolek and Wiesenthal argue the point at length.

Wiesenthal: “Had he come to the right person?  I had no power to forgive him in the name of other people.  What was he hoping to get from me?”

Bolek: “In our religion, repentance is the most important element in seeking forgiveness.  And he certainly repented.  You ought to have thought of something.  Here was a dying man and you failed to grant his last request.”

Wiesenthal: “That’s what is worrying me.  There are requests one simply cannot grant.  I admit I had some pity for the fellow.”

They talked for a long time, Wiesenthal writes, but came to no conclusion.  “On the contrary,” he adds,  “Bolek began to falter in his original opinion that I ought to have forgiven the dying man, and for my part I became less and less certain as to whether I had acted rightly.”

Burton and I received a reprint of The Sunflower from our good friend, businessman and talk show host Jack Krasula.  Jack received the print-out from the Trinity Forum, a non-profit faith-based organization that works to “cultivate, curate and disseminate the best of Christian thought.”

The Sunflower tackles a moral dilemma born out of monstrous, immoral behavior.  The reprint arrived some weeks ago.  The story and the dilemma have stuck with me.  Like Wiesenthal, I become less and less certain as to whether he acted rightly.

What do you think, dear reader?

In any case, thanks, Jack, for sharing a powerful but troubling tale.

At the 80th anniversary of ‘Paddle to the Sea,’ here’s the epic journey of filmmaker Keith Famie and veteran Maire Kent

Kieth Famie and crew finally managed to get Maire Kent’s boat out into the Atlantic.

24-year old Maire Kent, a former U.S. Army PFC, died of cardiac sarcoma, a rare cancer of the heart, in 2013.  She touched thousands of hearts of people she never knew.

Keith with Maire

Maire (pronounced Mary), from Milford, MI, had read a book as a child. Paddle to the Sea, by Holling Clancy Holling, tells the story of a Native Canadian boy who creates a small wooden Indian in a canoe.  On the boat bottom, the boy carves, “Please put me back in water.  I am Paddle-To-The-Sea.”  The boat undergoes many trials, but after several years and five Great Lakes makes it to the Atlantic.

Remembering the book she once loved, Maire had a dying wish.  She wanted her ashes placed in a wooden sailboat that would travel to the ocean so she could “see the world.”  With much effort, her friend Keith Famie made her wish come true.

Personal note.  In the late 1980s, chef Keith Famie started Les Auteurs, a popular restaurant in Royal Oak, MI, where Burton and I often dined.  Among other awards, Esquire named Les Auteurs one of the “Best New Restaurants of 1988.”

Keith became a contestant on the TV show Survivor: The Australian Outback in year 2000.  After 42 days, he was voted out.  He turned his talents to producing videos of foods around the world and made specials for the Food Network from locations as exotic as Bora Bora to the fish markets of Seattle.  He formed his own video production company.

Some years later, chest pains took Keith to an onco-cardiologist, Dr. Monika Leja, at the U of M.  Keith mentioned he was working on a video about end-of-life issues, an 8-part series for PBS.  Monika introduced him to another patient, Maire Kent, then 23, as a possible subject for his film.  With a daughter the same age, Keith was apprehensive.  But the ringtone of Maire’s cellphone turned out to be the theme song from Clint Eastwood’s 1960 epic, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”  A ringtone, Keith says, “you have to search for.”  It was Keith’s ringtone as well.

In his memoir, Living Through the Lens, Keith says he felt the ringtone coincidence meant “something beyond our control had brought us together.”  That, my friends, is what we call a GodSign.  Keith was even more convinced when that night, for the first time in weeks, the thumping sensation didn’t return to his chest.

Keith became friends with Maire, driving her to appointments and visiting her nursing home.  When he filmed Maire for his series, she said of her diagnosis, “At first, I was scared and terrified.  I wasn’t sure how to accept it. I’ve stayed awake at night and thought about what would happen to me.  How much longer would I have?  What was my bucket list?”

Experimental chemo didn’t help.  Maire grew sicker.

Maire’s dying wish was to be cremated and have her ashes put in a small boat which sailed from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic so she could “see the world.”

George Wurtzel with Maire’s boat.

Keith had produced a video on and become friends with a blind carpenter, George Wurtzel, who years before attended the School for the Blind in Flint, MI, with Stevie Wonder.  As a child, George lost his sight from retinitis pigmentosa.  But nothing stopped him.  He’d become director of Camp Tuhsmeheta, a western Michigan camp that has a program for the visually impaired.

George told Keith, “When a new kid comes to Camp T… and we’d announce we’re going canoeing, sometimes the child would say, ’I can’t canoe—I’m blind.’  I’d tell him or her, ‘The reason you can’t canoe is not because you’re blind.  It’s because someone told you you can’t canoe.’”  Keith introduced Maire to George, who began crafting a three-and-a-half-foot sailboat.

In August, 2013, Maire was in hospice.  In his memoir, Keith writes, “The story of a young woman fighting a deadly cancer had become the story of a young woman preparing to die.”

Maire’s last days brought a sense of urgency to finish the sailboat that would carry her ashes to the sea.  George and Keith asked Maire to write a message to be printed on the sail and—in case the sail should break during the journey—on the body of the boat.  Shortly before she died, Maire penned her message:

“My name is Maire.  I died of sarcoma cancer.  My ashes are enclosed in this boat and I am on my way to the ocean.  If you find me, please set me back on my path.  I will bless you from Heaven.” 

Maire died on September 27, 2013, among friends and family.  Keith was there filming and “bore witness to the value of hospice and how loved ones cared for Maire as she departed from our world.”

Keith scrambled to raise the funds to complete his video and fulfill Maire’s last wish.  He sold “anything I could think of” including his 25th anniversary Ironman racing bike from the triathlon he did in Kona.  “As any documentary filmmaker will tell you, the vision and passion for a story are necessities.  But without the cold, hard cash, the story may be just that and nothing more—a great idea.”

Keith reconnected with John Feist from L.A. who’d produced and directed Survivor: Australian Outback. Feist became co-director of Maire’s story.   Previous backer and friend Tom Rau also chipped in.  Keith lined up people to help on Maire’s voyage.

On July 12, 2014, Maire’s boat launched from the beach at Cross Village, MI, north of Harbor Springs, on Lake Michigan.

Maire’s journey took her from water to cars, trains and planes.

A troop of girl scouts from Alpena, MI, found Maire’s boat floating in weeds and released her.

Maire’s boat with the Girl Scouts in Alpena.

Her boat rode through the streets of Detroit in the side car of a motorcycle procession of four Vietnam Vets.

The four Vietnam veterans who carried Maire’s boat through Detroit.

“After an array of encounters and some close calls with nature, Maire reached New York City and eventually found herself being towed out to sea at sunset, south of the Statue of Liberty.” Keith filmed the conclusion of Maire’s voyage from a big sailboat trailed by two chase boats.  “With our cameras rolling, Maire’s ashes were released into the ocean, just as she had hoped.”

Keith’s documentary, Maire’s Journey, showed at several film festivals.   Thanks to the support of Drs. Kim Eagle and Monika Leja, Maire’s boat is now on permanent display at the U of M Frankel Cardiovascular Center.  During the Covid pandemic, Keith rewrote the script he authored in 2014 and is currently shopping it in L.A.  With any luck, the world may come to know Maire’s story.

Thanks, Keith, for all you did to fulfill one special young woman’s last wish.  And for sharing the good, the bad and the ugly of a beautiful story.


Care to read (and see) more?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

THIS JOURNEY really started in Chicago before World War II with the passion of Holling Clancy Holling to get children interested in the natural world. Holling was born in Michigan, but studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and then worked at the Field Museum of Natural History. Outside work, his vocation was to produce colorful children’s books that would draw families toward the wonders of the natural world—and the first peoples to live in North America.

Paddle to the Sea appeared in 1941 just before World War II, which was auspicious because an interest in colorful children’s books boomed during the war years when the materials used in many children’s toys were rationed. The book was honored with a prestigious Caledcott Honor.

If you are intrigued by Holling’s work, many of his delightful books are still available. You may also want to look at Minn of the Mississippi, which follows a turtle down the big river, and Pagoo about a crab in a tide pool.

This year, 2021, is the 80th anniversary of the original Paddle to the Sea, which has taken on a whole life far larger than the original hardback, including locations along the fictional boat’s journey that are marked today in locations around the Great Lakes.

Click the cover to visit the Criterion DVD’s Amazon page.

The next huge leap in Paddle’s journey was the commitment of the famed Canadian naturalist, author and filmmaker Bill Mason to create a movie version of the little canoe’s journey. While largely unknown in the U.S., Mason is revered in his homeland, including a Canadian postage stamp honoring him in 1998, a decade after his death.

Mason’s approach to retelling the story on film is now a legendary story of a low-budget filmmaker strategically planning each step. Mason even spent time training to become an expert wood carver so he could personally make all the versions of the boat needed for the filming. In some cases, Mason and friends even defied posted limits along the waterways and risked their safety more than once to achieve some of the most dramatic shots.

In 2008, the 20th anniversary of Mason’s death, the prestigious Criterion Collection released a fully restored version of his film on DVD.

Perhaps in the future, we will see Keith Famie’s next chapter in the Paddle journey.

Burton and I shared our motto, ‘Keep Paddling,’ with dozens of guests at our farm in northern Michigan in honor of our 25th anniversary

Our friends Bob and Conita Bihler stand on either side of Burton and me at our farm-themed anniversary party.


In a recent column, I shared the motto of actor Andre DeShields: Keep Climbing.  Burton and I live by a similar motto: Keep Paddling.  We turned our motto into the theme of our 25th wedding anniversary celebration.

In 1992, we hosted a big anniversary party at our farm in northern Michigan.  Several dozen guests drove up from Detroit.  Though the weather had been dubious for weeks, that day Mother Nature strutted her stuff.

The sun shone warm and bright in what felt like a celestial celebration of our milestone.

During the day, guests enjoyed trail rides on horseback and hay wagon rides through the countryside.  That night, in a big tent near the old red barn, we inhaled the smoky scent wafting from grills and savored barbeque.  Tables were topped with checkered cloths, silverware wrapped in red kerchiefs elevated to napkins.  A Country Western band played in the open doors of the barn, with stacked hay bales as a backdrop.  So many guests drove from Detroit that the event reportedly boosted the economy of West Branch, MI, home to dozens of discount shops on the route north.

Kerchief napkins were printed with the date of the party and the motto: Keep Paddling.  That motto continued to motivate us through our subsequent marriage issues and my bout with cancer.  With Burton’s current challenge of CNS lymphoma, it motivates us still.

My sister, Anne Towbes, and David Singer play guitars for a campfire singalong.

Taking the mic that night, I told the story behind the motto.  “People ask how we’ve managed to stay married for 25 years,” I said.  “The answer is printed on your kerchiefs.  Lots of you have tied them around your necks.  They read: Keep Paddling.”  I told the story behind that motto.  The story takes place on a farm, so it was especially appropriate that night.

Years later, the motto still applies. We’ve all come through a grueling pandemic that stole millions of lives and countless moments of remembrance and celebration.  We’ve experienced more solitude than we’ve ever known and called on an endurance we didn’t know we had.  To boost your spirits, here’s the story I told the night of our 25th anniversary party and the motto that still applies…

Two frogs on a dairy farm jumped into a bucket of cream.  They slurped and slurped but soon realized they couldn’t get out of the bucket.  They paddled for hours.  Eventually, an exhausted frog said to his buddy, “This is hopeless.  We’re doomed.”

“Keep paddling,” his companion urged.  “We’ll think of something.  Just keep paddling.”

The next morning, the dairy farmer peered into the bucket.  One frog had sunk to the bottom.  The other was sitting on a pad of butter he’d churned up all by himself, licking the flies that swarmed from all directions.

“So the moral of the story,” I said,  “and the way you stay married for 25 years: you keep paddling.”

Burton and I have continued to paddle for 53 years.  Due to the stroke that paralyzed his left (dominant) arm, he paddles only with his right arm now.  But he paddles the best he can and remains remarkably upbeat.

If something is getting you down, dear reader, hang in there.  A swarm of flies may not be your heart’s desire, but the Universe has other surprises in store.

However hard the going gets, just keep paddling.

Care to see more photos from the party?