Robin Williams and Betty Gold

By David LaBelle

Last week, Robin Williams broke the hearts of millions of adoring fans by taking his own life.   Witty and entertaining, on stage and in front of the camera, Williams eventually was unable to cope with his tortured private person and made a choice that stunned the world.

How could he do it?   Many people are wondering how someone who made so many laugh be so troubled? How could a man, who appeared to have everything, decide life was too difficult to continue?  

Because many of us watched him grow up from his early career as Mork on the television series Mork and Mindy, and then through the years in dozens of movies like Dead Poets Society, Patch Adams and Mrs.Doubtfire, each of us felt we knew him personally.  

Some expressed anger, feeling robbed of his comedic genius. (In a world so ravaged by war and hatred, we could sure use a good laugh.) Others felt betrayed, as if all those encouraging, positive characters he played were lies.  

I am not one of those people.

Born only five weeks before Williams, I have learned in 63 years to be gentle in my judgment of others, especially of public figures. Perhaps it’s because on my comparably tiny life stage, I have struggled with many of the same emotions, minus the drugs.   Like Williams, I have always felt a need to please others, to bring them joy, comfort and hope and to make them laugh, even when privately I was crying inside.

 The truth is that many of us are actors at one time or another. Sometimes it is only God who can see the depth of our pain, so well hidden by our efforts to comfort others.

Betty Gold

Betty Gold 2013 © Photo by David LaBelle

Gold speaking in Akron, 2013

Last month a different kind of celebrity, not likely on your radar unless you are interested in Holocaust studies, passed away somewhat suddenly.   Like the famous actor, Betty Gold had her audiences.   Always positive, friendly, smiling and encouraging, Gold worked tirelessly to promote Holocaust education. Even in her eighties, she continued answering requests to speak, and for many, she was the face of the Holocaust.   Even Steven Spielberg interviewed Gold for his IWitness Challenge archival project.

But like Robin Williams, the private person often suffered a tortured hell when she went home alone at night and battled her demons.

 As a young girl of eleven, she and fellow Polish Jews spent three years hiding first in a wall with sixteen others and then in the wilderness. Betty came of age as a woman, huddled in a dirt hole, forced to scavenge fields for food at night for the rest of those hiding.   She lost toes to frostbite and lived in constant fear of being killed by Nazi soldiers.   She even watched helplessly as her cousin smothered her own baby to stop the crying and therefore saved the rest of the group in hiding from discovery.

Out of the 5000 Jews from her town of Trochenbrod, Poland, 4200 were exterminated.

Yet as painful as that was, Gold said it was not as difficult as what she called her “Second Holocaust”, the deaths of two of her three sons. First Michael (named after her brother who died in the Holocaust) died from an illness and then Allan, who committed suicide in 2010.  

Betty Gold-July, 2011 ©Photos by Amy Gaskin

Betty at home with the heartache of Allan’s voice still on the answering machine.  Photo by Amy Gaskin.

I listened to Betty speak on several occasions and asked her to be part of a Kent State photojournalism project titled “Children of the Holocaust”. I didn’t really know her, anymore than I knew Robin Williams, but Amy Gaskin, one of my students who worked on the Children of the Holocaust project, did know her.  Gaskin also knew the demons Gold lived with daily.  

Gold embraced Gaskin like the daughter she never had, and the two stayed in touch through the years, often talking on the phone for hours each month. They had planned on meeting at the Cleveland airport last month during Gaskin’s trip from California to Ohio to see family. But stormy weather delayed Gold’s fight from Chicago (she had just spoken in Washington D.C.) and the friends were never to see each other again.   Betty died two weeks later.

“I feel like there’s two personalities,” Gold told Amy Gaskin (then a Kent State student) in a 2011 interview in her home. “My social personality, the social Betty Gold and the sad one. You know, when I’m home alone and so forth, it hurts a lot and it’s painful to know you lost two sons. It’s very, very difficult to live with and it doesn’t get easier. The harder it gets, the busier I get and try and cope with it “

Though it was often physically and emotionally draining, especially after losing two of her three sons, Gold continued telling her story over and again. She especially loved talking to children, hoping, believing her words would sink into their hearts and be instrumental in helping avoid similar atrocities.  

 Most who saw this tiny, happy, energetic, accomplished business woman, had no idea the of demons she lived with when she was alone, or the many tears that were spilled.

I read the book Night by Eli Weisel my senior year of high school. It was chilling then and is chilling still. I couldn’t fathom how humans could be so cruel to other humans.   Weisel’s graphic description of the forced marches, barefoot in the snow, and mass exterminations angered, frightened and confused me.   When I met Betty Gold and listened to her story, that horrific event moved closer, across the ocean to Ohio. It became personal.   How does one experience such brutality and witness such horror and live a “normal” life?

Betty Gold-July, 2011 ©Photos by Amy Gaskin

Betty looks out the window and at the phone in her bedroom. Betty is believed to be the last survivor from her village, which was destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. She describes another Holocaust since the recent tragic deaths of her sons Michael and Alan. Michael died of sudden illness, and Alan took his own life, despite Betty’s many attempts to get help for him. On the telephone answering machine by the window is his goodbye message to her, which she plays from time to time. Betty says that when she sees clouds out her window she “sees my boys like angels trying to talk to me.” © Photo by Amy Gaskin

Even in their tangled forests of pain, both Williams and Gold put on a good public face. They were smiling cheerleaders who made us laugh and filled our hearts with humor and hope.  

In a sad twist of irony, Gold was denied the one thing she requested at her death: to be cremated and have her ashes returned home to Trochenbrod with those murdered in 1942.   She repeated this request often, especially to Amy Gaskin.

Her lone surviving son made a different choice.

Against her wishes, Betty was buried July 27 in Beachwood, Ohio.

Watching Betty and Amy connect at a time each seemed to need to each other’s strength and comfort most, reminded me of the beauty and power of human connection born out of documentary storytelling.

On one occasion, Betty told Amy, “I want to thank you very, very much because what youʼre doing does make a difference and thatʼs what Iʼm here for… And what youʼre doing is great because people are going to learn from it and you will teach them and for that we thank you.  Itʼs a great,  great contribution to society, what youʼre doing.”

Recently, Amy wrote in an email, “I miss her already.  I miss our talks on the phone.  I learned so much from her. She was probably my single biggest cheerleader.  Always encouraging.”

 She added,  “I just can’t believe she is gone.  She was one of the greatest people I will ever know.”

(Please follow the link to Betty’s story published in the Plain Dealer in 2010.

Betty Gold-July, 2011 ©Photos by Amy Gaskin

Betty in her home, 2011. ©Photo by Amy Gaskin

An introduction to a story of healing

An introduction to a story of healing

By David LaBelle

Anna and Abby

Anna and Abby

There are stories that reach inside us and entangle us with emotions so complex and confusing, only God can unravel them.

Tom Robinson and Susan Dieter-Robinson’s story of loss, faith and forgiveness is one of those stories.

In truth, it is a multitude of stories connected by the thread of terrible coincidences, a community’s loving response, and a couple’s decision to share their grief and healing.



Last October, my friend Linda Wiseman, from Ruralite Magazine, told me a heart-wrenching story from Forest Grove, Oregon, about two young girls who were run over while playing in a pile of leaves on the street in front of their house.

I am not embarrassed to say I cried when I read several online news articles about the tragedy.

But what made this story different than most stories of loss was the response of the girls’ parents.  They chose to grieve and heal publically, inviting their community into the process.  Even in their deep and unimaginable pain, Tom and Susan chose the path of sharing because they felt it would help others heal, and believed this is what God and their girls would want.

The more I read about this incredible couple, the more I felt compelled to meet them and share their story.

Three weeks ago, along with two students – Hongting Li (Yolanda) from China and Randy Vanderveen from Canada – I was given that opportunity.

I decided to build my semi-annual storytelling workshop around and Tom and Susan’s story. I was particularly interested in how the community of Forest Grove is grieving and attempting to heal from the terrible accident that took two young lives from this world and changed so many lives of those left behind.


Tom and Susan were welcoming and patient with us.

They continue to be gracious, reaching out and “sharing love and peace” and seeking to comfort others, even while wading through their own deep grief and trying to continue this life without their daughters, Anna and Abby.

But their path is not easy, especially when it comes to forgiveness.

“I deal with this second by second,” says Susan about the many triggers that remind her of her girls.   “Because I can be okay right now and then I can see something…”

Stopping to prayA family stops to pray at the decorated memorial tree.

“Honestly, if I try to wrap my own head around it, I can’t, I come up short.  It’s only divine,” she insists.

“We are just trying to do what we can,” offers Tom.  “You can say you forgive and the words can come out of it… you can ‘head’ it but you can’t ‘heart’ it.”

“That’s it, we have a choice,” he explains.  “So we can try and do what God was wanting us all to do, or we can not.  So we are trying to chose the path of love and joy, trying to spread a little bit, because that’s what our girls meant to us.”

Love rocks

For now, I am merely introducing you to these amazing people.  With their blessing, I hope to share more of their story in the months to come.

Rather than try to retell this nightmare of a story, I am attaching several links to a few of the news stories, as well as a link to Susan’s blog.   Susan was encouraged by a friend to use writing as a healing tool.   She hates writing and says that it is hard, but knows it has helped.

To learn more about Anna and Abigail, please visit Susan’s blog:


(Oct 21)

(Oct 24)










By David LaBelle

My dear friend Bryan Farley asked me to contact a high school student whose mother died in April, one month before his graduation.


Veronica Flores left this world on April 6 at the age of 47, leaving four men to care for themselves. 

Talking with Flores’ oldest son, 18-year-old Ivan, I realized the young man and I had some things in common.

Like Ivan, I was a senior in high school when my mother died.

Both of us came from small towns in California.

Both of us love photography.

And both us lost the one person we felt closest to and safest with.

My eyes filled as I listened to the young man speak so lovingly about his mother. It was like hearing my younger self 45 years ago.

“It isn’t that I am not close with my father or brothers, but my relationship with my mother was different, “ he said. “I would come home from school and could tell her anything.”

He found that his high school graduation ceremony earlier this month was one of the hardest of days of his young life. “She wanted to make it long enough to see my graduate,” he said.

The graduating senior said he “feels a life purpose” after his mother’s death that he didn’t have before.

“I want to make my life count, to do something for others and to make her proud.”

He is starting college next month and studying law enforcement so he can help others.

With Ivan’s permission, I am sharing this brief open letter to him.                                                                        


Dear Ivan,

I thank God for connecting us, perhaps for a purpose greater than either of us know.

Our stories are similar.

Your mother died (April 6) three days before my youngest son’s birthday, and four days before my mother’s birthday.

I, too, was a senior in high school the last time I saw my mother.   I had siblings – an older sister, younger sister and two younger brothers – who would be raised without their mother. 

Like you, I felt a hollow sadness the day I graduated from high school without the person who believed in me and supported me most.

Ivan, there may be times when it feels like she is there with you, invisibly guiding you.   And you may even swear you saw her face through the glass of a bus window or lost in a crowd.   In the years following my mother’s death, I was sure I saw her face many times. 

There may come times when you feel angry or even cheated because she isn’t there.   Sometimes when we miss people, we get irrationally angry with them for not being with us when we need them.

And sometimes you will have to accept that there are no words for your feelings.

During these times, I have learned that only God truly knows the deep and complicated thoughts of my heart.

My friend, you will have times when you will hunger for your mother’s comforting touch, to have her hold you again, like she did when you were a little boy. Truth is we never get too old to miss our parents.

There will be things you wish you had told her, important things you forgot to share. And as you age, you will ache for the questions you wished you’d asked. I would willingly and happily trade every single earthly possession for just one more hour with my mother. It would hardly be a sacrifice.

And if you are like most of us who have lost loved ones, you will miss her at different times.   Holidays and celebrations, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, graduations, weddings or births have always been the hardest for me. And I wish my mother could have known my wife, my children, and her grandchildren. I see flashes of her personality in each of them.

Don’t be afraid to cry; it is one of God’s great cleansing gifts. There is a time for everything, including a time to grieve. But there is also a time to dry our tears and smile and be thankful for the numerous wonderful memories.

Ivan, I admire your resolve to do something meaningful with your life, as a way of honoring your dear mother.   And I admire your desire to be strong for your family and be a sober guide to your younger brother. Such is a mature resolve. 

But I caution you not to try to live your life just for others, to fulfill their expectations or live out their dreams. It is a noble thing to live our life in a way that honors others and makes them proud, but if our dreams are not authentic, they will usually wither into bitter burdens. I am reminded of one of my students, a bright young lady who wanted more than anything to be a photojournalist.   But to please her parents, she went to medical school and became a doctor.   Watching her internal struggle saddened me. She was so torn between wanting to be what her parents wanted her to be and following her own heart. I have often wondered what happened to her.

I am not saying that we should not listen to our parents or even dedicate our lives to serving others. On the contrary, in giving to others, we often find ourselves. 

I have also observed that when something precious or someone special is taken from us, often something precious is given. Sometimes the gift is empathy. My mother’s death opened my eyes and my heart to the grief of others, and heightened my sensitivity to those struggling.

Finally, my new friend, live every day with thanksgiving. Be thankful for the time you had with your mother.   You were blessed to have her care and guidance.   She had much to do with shaping the spirit within you and will always live on in you, as she does in your brothers.   I remind you, as I also have need to remind myself, to cherish the time you have with your father and brothers. Make time for your father; he needs you, and is also a part of you. 

I thank God He has brought us together, and I pray we will help each other live meaningful lives overflowing with gratitude.

Your new friend,




Looking into time’s mirror

by David LaBelle


Nearly 10 years ago I watched helplessly as my oldest son, Bergen, and his wife Cameron learned there was no longer a heartbeat in the tiny body of their unborn child.   Brooklyn, the name they had given the baby girl, would enter this world stillborn.

The news was devastating and it grieved me to watch them suffer. 

Cameron had endured several miscarriages early in their marriage, but this time her body had allowed her to carry this child full term.  

Cameron came to the marriage with a young son named Dylan, but as a couple, she and Bergen were unable to have a child together. In time they accepted they never would.  

Then, almost a decade later, Cameron became pregnant again and delivered a ball of sunshine, a baby girl they named Kindred.

Now, 13-year-old Dylan has a little sister, and I am a grandfather again.

Visiting my son last week and watching him lovingly cradle his four-month-old daughter stirred me more deeply than I could have anticipated. It was like looking in time’s mirror and seeing myself, holding my only daughter, my firstborn, 38 years earlier.


As I drove away from the little farmhouse my son is fixing up for his family, I thought about that hollow midnight scene at Vanderbilt Hospital a decade earlier. I thought about the memorial service I helped officiate for the granddaughter I would never know.

And then I considered what a blessed contrast this day was.

It struck me how terribly I had failed as a parent and a grandparent, how too often I had allowed the needs of others to come before those of my family.   Though I had dedicated much of my life to teaching, listening and encouraging others, I had failed my own family. Time and attention, rightfully belonging to my children, had been given to the children of others.

I thought about the Biblical admonition that asks the rhetorical question: Thou that teaches another, do you not teach thyself?”

And then I thought about how greatly God blesses each of us in spite of so many bad decisions, and how new life is a chance to begin again, an opportunity to do something better, to be a better father and grandfather.

 I couldn’t contain my emotions and broke down in a flood of tears.

Often emotions and relationships are too deep and complicated to put into words.  

Sometimes all we can say is “I’m sorry.” And “thank you.”

And determine to do better.


Some moments are gifts

By David LaBelle

Janury, 2011- Kent Ohio.   Everette Gowin. @photo by David LaBelleI remember seeing him sitting alone, with a face that looked as if it carried a lifetime of loneliness.

I made a couple of pictures, silently, then approached him and asked his name.

His name was Everett, he said, and he had had been coming to the Kentwood restaurant a long time.

“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked.

Then he shared that this was “their” spot, the place he and his wife often sat and ate together so many times. “She passed a few years earlier,” he said, but he still came and sat and ate in the same spot. Alone.

I felt torn. I wanted to sit and talk more and hear his story but I had called a photo faculty meeting and it had already started without me.

I would have to find him later, another day.

But that day never happened, because all my efforts to find him failed.

I could have kicked myself for not writing down his last name or where he lived. I assumed I could just catch him again in a day or two or the waitresses would know his name. Like me, they only remembered his first name.

So for the past three and a half years, I have shown this picture during various lectures across the country. One of the very first pictures I shot after purchasing my first Android cell phone, the image has remained one of the favorite cell phone moments.

And then last week, after teaching a session on Smart Phone Photography for the university, the organizer of the alumni event, Brenda Hudkins, along with her daughter, Erica, approached and asked if they could see a picture I shared in my presentation.

“I think I saw a picture of my father,” Hudkins said.

As I began sorting through the Power Point presentation, I stopped and asked,
“What is your father’s name?”

“Everett,” she said.

I stopped sorting, looked up and said, “Yes, that’s him, I remember his name.”

I could see tears begin to well in her eyes.

I learned his name is Everett Gowin. He is 81 and now lives in a care facility.

I told Brenda how her dad told me that his wife, her mother, had died a couple of years before.

“Actually, mom passed almost 11 years ago,” she clarified.

He had lived without his wife for eight years when I met him.

I imagine time is hard to measure when you’re alone.

Everett Mona Gowin  2Gowin Everett Mona 3Gowin Everett Mona retirement 4

“Mom and Dad were married 48 years on July 31, 2003. I can always remember how long they were married because Dad had me purchase four dozen roses on that date.”

Now, her daddy is in care facility, his memory fading.

Some call happenings like this serendipity. I don’t know what to call such connections, but I’m thankful for them. To be able to solve a small mystery and finish a story I have hungered to know for years, is a gift.

Brenda Hudkins thanked me for the photograph and said the photo of her dad
will always be special to her and her family.

It will be to me, too.

At or With: The story of Alan

By David LaBelle

Words are powerful things. Even the small ones.

Here are two words – prepositions – it took me years to understand the canyon of difference between them:

I can point my camera “at” you or I make a picture “with” you. One is a cowardly drive-by shooting, while the other is a collaborative, shared experience. One objectifies, capturing subjects as objects, graphic elements in a broader landscape. The other is a collaborative, shared experience of communion with another human being.

When we photograph people from a distance, we miss the opportunity to know them.

A few weeks back, while speaking with college students in New York City, a disheveled man with a great hat in a parking garage near my hotel room caught my eye.


Although the seminar was six blocks away, I had to stop briefly and engage the man. His name was Alan, and he was up early hoping to find work helping vendors unload produce. It was a bitterly cold morning and Alan clearly needed something warm to drink. He asked me for some spare change so he could get a cup of coffee. I hurried into a little store, bought him something healthy, and gave him a couple dollars for coffee.

Rushing to the seminar, Alan stayed in my mind. He was about my age.

Was he homeless? Where did he sleep? How did he end up on the streets? Unlike a lot of people I meet “on the street,” he didn’t smell of alcohol.


There was a gentleness and kindness in this man. I wanted to know more about him and hoped I would see him again.

I was reminded of the many opportunities we miss to “know” someone, to engage them, to share because we are afraid, don’t trust, are too busy, or simply don’t care.

That evening when I returned to my hotel room near Times Square, Alan saw me and hurried toward me.   I was getting a virus that had been passed around my family and felt totally depleted after conducting two educational sessions. When I saw Alan approaching, I felt conflicted. I wanted to talk to him, to learn more, but I felt terrible.   I thought he was hurrying toward me because he had found “an easy mark,” a tourist who would give him a few bucks.

“How was your day?” He asked.

“Huh?” I was shocked he even remembered me.

“I’m tired, Alan, but it was OK.”

“I made some money today, can I buy you a cup of coffee.”


At that moment I hated myself for the assumption I made. Tears filled my eyes.

My last day in the city, I saw Alan again, looking more  lost and disoriented than before.

After spending more time with him, I learned he had a room that kept him out of the elements, subsidized by the state. I also learned about his life, his past, his family and even some bad decisions he had made with women and gambling. But he was happy, even content, with his life.

I needed some help so I asked Alan if he wanted to do a little work for me. He eagerly jumped at the opportunity and said, “You don’t have to pay me.”

I asked Alan to watch my belongings while I made a couple trips up to my room and got my car.

“I can do it,” he said proudly.

After about 15 minutes, I returned and found my new friend guarding my stuff on the curb of the busy New York street. Everything was fine.

I thanked Alan for the assistance and tipped him a little more than I might have the hotel’s bellhop. I shook his hand, and we embraced.


Several people said I was nuts for trusting a stranger in New York City to watch my valuable things – luggage and even cameras – with an unstable, homeless guy that I “didn’t even know.”

I disagree.

I knew him.

His name is Alan.

And besides, isn’t everything we do about dignity and trust?

I tell my students when we photograph people we are honoring them, giving them gifts. But more often than not, we are the ones receiving the blessing.

Thank you, Alan. I will never forget you.


All photos © David LaBelle

What Photography Means to Me

(Originally published in Ruralite Magazine, April 2014)

By David LaBelle

I have known photography longer than I’ve known my wife, my children, and most of my relatives.   For a half century, this magical medium has been both a vocation and an avocation.

Self Port with Henry

Like many of my generation, my first camera was a Brownie Hawkeye.  Actually it was my mother’s camera, but she let me use it.    I must have been 11 or 12 when I began trying to get close enough to animals like opossums, skunks, raccoons and bobcats to shoot good pictures.  I risked my life climbing out on tree limbs, high above cliffs and creek beds, to photograph crow and hawk nests.

A few years later, I began photographing human animals.

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Our Most Prized Possession

By David LaBelle

Like most teachers during the first class of a new semester, I went around the room and asked students to introduce themselves.  As I worked my way around the long tables, I stopped and faced a young lady with an unusual name.

“Where did your name come from?” I asked. “Were you named after a relative or a celebrity?”

“I don’t know,” the young lady answered. “I have no idea.”

“Weren’t you ever curious?” I asked in disbelief.

She shook her head no.

As I continued, I was shocked at how many students didn’t know where their given names originated.

Finally I came to two young ladies who seemed to be friends. The first was named Priscilla, and yes, she knew who she was named after.  Her mother was watching, Elvis and Me, and decided to name her daughter Priscilla after Priscilla Presley.

Then, I turned to her friend. With happy, dancing eyes, she reluctantly shared that her name was Special.

Kent, Ohio, 2014 - Photos by David LaBelle

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Holding the Flashlight

By David LaBelle

When I was child, I would lie on the cold ground, beneath the metal body of a car, holding a flashlight for my father as his skilled hands worked to fix something broken.   I hated the job and often resented the duty, especially on Friday nights when I wanted to be with my friends at our high school football game. But my father needed help.

When I hunted at night with my hound dogs or took neighborhood friends on hikes in the Southern California hills after dark, I was the one who held the flashlight and led the way.  There were dangerous cliffs, and I knew the hills well; better than I knew most people.

Gallilee light

The night before my dear mother died, we crossed over an angry, swollen creek together on a swinging footbridge and walked nearly a mile in the rainy darkness.  I held a flashlight in one hand, her arm in the other, and led her home across muddy pastures, through barbed-wire fences.   She had protected and comforted me since birth.  I felt proud that I could lead her home.

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One Habit Leads to Another

By David LaBelle

The Waver 1

The richness of life isn’t measured by a few big events, but by the thousands of small, seemingly insignificant moments woven together to make a lifetime.

Last summer as my family passed through Camden, Maine, we saw a man sitting by the side of the highway in a wheelchair, waving at all who passed.   He looked so content, so full of purpose; we had to stop and talk to him.

As it turns out, 85-year-old Kert Ingraham had found a small, but new, purpose in life – to wave at passing strangers.

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