I met Agnes, “Aggie” Wulfekuhle, shortly after moving to Iowa. A loving, giving soul, the 73-year-old Special Olympian brings joy to everyone she meets. And though she has never driven a car or flown in an airplane, never married, or even had a serious boyfriend, Aggie is a portrait of kindness, gratitude and contentment.
But her life hasn’t always been easy.
For too many years she was isolated, kept out of the mainstream population, hidden in the world assigned to kids with special needs.
Though she doesn’t complain or hold grudges, Aggie admits there were years when children “were not nice” to her and made fun of her each day, teasing and calling her names, even throwing ice and snow balls at her while she waited for the bus.
“But it is all changed now, she just forgives them,” her younger sister, Helen, shared.
Raised on a farm, Aggie was one of six children. She lost two infant sisters and then her brother, Loras, died two years ago after contracting COVID-19. Her dad, who she adored, left the world in 1997 and her mother passed in 2018. She still has her older brother Charlie, who lives in Minnesota, and younger sister, Helen, 10 years her junior, on a farm just a few miles away.
Aggie lives in her own apartment within a residential care home designed for independent living.
I asked Aggie for an interview at her apartment. Nervous about our conversation, she called her sister and asked if she could be there. Always the support, Helen took off work.
“I’ve never done this before,” Aggie admitted nervously.
On her kitchen door hangs a multitude of medals won during Special Olympics competitions through the years.
Following are excerpts from the brief interview:
AW: I’ve never done this before.
DL: You got all dressed up.
AW: She told me to look nice, she said, looking at her sister.
AW: Aggie nodded in agreement. If I need something she comes and meets my needs. She lives out of town on a farm.
DL: What do you like to do?
AW: I like to read. I like those Harlequin romance novels.
DL: Who is your best friend in this community?
AW: Well, everybody here is.
DL: What troubles or concerns you?
AW: That the food is up so high. The groceries. Everything is going up high.
DL: If you could do one thing to make the world better, what would it be?
AW: Well, get rid of the guns. There’s been a lot of shooting going on.
DL: What else can we do to make the world better?
AW: If people would get along.
DL: Does your group get along?
AW: We do, usually. When I get upset, I just go for a walk.
DL: You always seem happy and laugh often.
AW: Might as well. Better than being sad or mad. Laughter is supposed to be good for you.
As a society, we have a poor track record in accepting people with “differences.” We avoid them, make fun of them, or even fear them. And sometimes we discount people like Aggie, maybe even feeling sorry for them because they’re not like us.
“He who is forgiven much loves much and he who is forgiven little, loves little” – Jesus
This holiday season I want share with you a love story about a man, a woman, and their faith in the God of second chances.
John and Lisa Erwin
I met John and Lisa Erwin in October. The couple live in a van and attend the church where I go when I am back home in southern California. To appreciate where they are in life, in their marriage and especially in their faith, it is important to know a portion of their backstory.
John, 61, spent 33 ½ years in prison, more than half of his life, before being released in 2013.
He joined the Aryan Nation Brotherhood while incarcerated and twice was sent to solitary confinement. He said he became an enforcer and hated people of color and gays. “I brutalized child molesters in every way you possibly can – child molesters, rapists, informants.”
John was sent to New Mexico State Penitentiary and was there during the terrible riot in February, 1980. “That’s where a guy stuck a shank in my arm,” said. “I fisted my grip, and my muscles, tendons caught around the shank, I pulled it out of his hand and then stabbed him with it. He was an inmate. We killed 33 informants and rapists, and that is where I became involved with the Aryan Brotherhood. They said, “You can either die with us or you can die by yourself.”
Out of prison less than a year, John met Lisa, who was dealing with her own past. Lisa had been married twice and was heavily immersed in witchcraft and the occult. She had a daughter from her first marriage and then gave birth to a son right after her first divorce to a relationship she had. She said the child’s father never really had anything to do with him.
“Early of 2013, less than a year after John got out of prison, this guy was moving across the street from me and I really wanted nothing to do with him because I was pretty much done with guys,” Lisa said. “But I was looking for something. I was on a pursuit, and it was to know what it was to love. I was friendly and I was kind, and I knew he was interested because the way he acted. Then one day as I was talking to him on the street between our houses, and all of a sudden, this voice said to me, Lisa, you need to open your heart. I was wanting to learn to love like Jesus loves. When I met John, I knew I was going to practice love in my life. “So, I did and we were married six months later. Though Jesus was my deity and the pantheon of God, I was still practicing witchcraft; I was studying all the world’s religions. I studied every religion you could ever imagine. I studied everything, all philosophies, and I was a fan of Joseph Campbell, Carl Young and people like that. So, I was all over the place, I had a lot of experiences to know the spirit world is real. I was doing my own rituals, I made my own brews. I thought I was really enlightened or something.”
Lisa said she had worked for a family out of Hollywood for 14 years, a Hollywood attorney who was “extremely wealthy.” After she married John, they let her go. “I married John without talking to them, without talking to anybody,” she shared. “We got married at the courthouse, and at that time, I probably didn’t know as much about John as I do now.” When her boss did a background check on John, Lisa said she was given her notice and let go. Without a job, she lost the house she was buying. They sold everything, bought what they thought they needed and packed up whatever they could carry in John’s little Elantra and hit the road. “It was just loaded down with our stuff and when we pulled out of the driveway, I looked at him and said, we’ve never done this before. I have never been homeless, this is going to be a big learning curve, and it was, and it is.”
“It still is,” added John.
A little more about John’s past
Like a lot of kids, John had an unstable, sometimes violent childhood, according to Lisa, who often speaks for the two of them. “John’s parents were nomadic and his mother seemed to hate churches and God, but still she would dress up her children and go to churches and beg for money and help and food. She taught John that in order to do this, you have to weave a story, to become and effective liar, and she taught him how to hustle at a very young age, how to get money. He became an obsessive liar.”
John nods in agreement. “My mom was a gypsy.”
Lisa continued, “It wasn’t long before young John began hanging with the wrong crowd. He was friends with older criminals and started doing burglaries. The fiery redhead began running drugs when he was just 10-years-old. They would give him a bag of dope and put him on a bus. He was a child, no on suspected him.”
Again, John confirms this to be true.
Added to this, he said his siblings were always trying to kill him. It was a very violent home in the Salem, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington areas where he grew up.
Looking back on his string of wrongs, there is one day that stands out as a turning point in John’s young life.
John said he came home one day and found his father crying, something he had never seen him do. John’s mother was often sick, but this time she was deathly ill and needed dialysis. His father told him that unless he could get his wife dialysis, she wasn’t going to make it. John said he immediately went out and did some robberies to get the needed money. But when he brought the items home, his father reprimanded him and told him to return the items. That was when he was caught, he remembers. “Then as a 15-year-old, I was sent to jail. That was 1978, the beginning of my incarceration.”
John was still in minimum security when he received the news his mother had died. “They wouldn’t let me go to her funeral because it was in Washington State, so I said, ‘Okay,’ and I left.” Thin enough to fit through the bars, he escaped.
“I went out and after I went to my mom’s funeral, I spent the night with my dad at my brother’s house. My dad said, ‘where ya going?’ I said I am going out and do some robberies. Because by then I made up my mind to be a criminal. And be the best one I could possibly be. At my first attempt, I wasn’t very good,” he laughs.
Bad turned to worse.
So, I robbed these diamond importers and exporters. I walked up to one of them at the Salem airport (it’s just a little airport in Salem not a big, major airport), and I walked up to him and he had two security guards with him and I pulled out a .12-gauge pump shotgun, that I sawed off and put a pistol grip handle on it that I learned to do from a Mack Bolan book. So, I robbed him and his security guards and took their guns. And took his suitcase and everything that he had. And I said, you need to get better security. I was 18. I was a jerk.”
“I went out and did another robbery and gave my brother David an imperial gold Rolex watch with a presidential band on it. One of those TV programs crime stoppers or 911 offered a reward for this guy who going around and doing these robberies. But they didn’t know who I was. They thought I was a 25-26-year-old man. They had no clue.”
“Well, my brother knew it was me and he turned me in for the reward which was supposed to be up to 5,000. I heard he ended up getting only 200 dollars.”
“I ended up getting two 20’s running wild with 10-year mins on each 20.”
John said he went before the judge and he sentenced me as an adult. Then they held me in county jail for almost two years, maybe a little over two years.”
He became an animal
John said he “did three and a half years in isolation with my door welded shut after beating a cop’s head in with a mop ringer. I was extremely violent.”
“I had no fear of God. Matter of fact, I looked forward to seeing him so I could try to fight Him.
That’s how vain I was in my thinking. That’s how delusional I was. My whole goal was to get out of prison and become a master criminal.”
According to Lisa, “When they put him in isolation, he tore out the toilet and knocked out his lights; he was very strong. He was just basically crazy. They took all his cloths and left him with a Bible. He had one thing on that cement slab. He used the bathroom down the hole in the floor and read the Bible by the dim light of his cell window. He read the Bible numerous times so that he could get to know his enemy. Because he wanted to kick God’s butt.”
John said during his years in “the hole,” I was so filthy my armpits had dreadlocks, literally. I had crystal growth on my legs from urine. I had sores on my body. When I got up off the cement slab, from laying there, the scabs would stick to the cement slab and pull off as I got up. It sounds like a horror story that was done legally back then.”
His life began to change
“There is a reason why the Lord put me in that isolation,” John said. “People say bad things don’t come from God, but this wasn’t a bad thing, it was a good thing that I was in that isolation cell. You could call me a monk inside a cave that was sealed.”
‘One day this guy comes up to my cell and I heard the doors unlock. And I started collecting snot in my mouth.”
John said Pastor Joe had come from Baker City to Salem, an 8-hour drive every Sunday to come to the prison. “God told him there was somebody He wanted him to see in isolation.
Unbeknown to me, he went through a lot of things to come and see me.”
So, he walks up toward the isolation section of the prison and he could hear somebody scream. I screamed so loud that the back of my throat ruptured and blood spurted lout of my mouth.”
“John also had some demonic stuff going on inside,” Lisa inserted.
“Pastor Joe came into see me, and you can’t see me because it is dark, so I come right up to the bars, that’s where the sally port light is, and I spit this huge ball of snot in his face.”
Tears slide down John’s face as he remembers that encounter.
“He looked right at me without even wiping it off and said, ‘man, why are you acting this way? Don’t you know you are a mighty man of God?’ And he turned around and walked out. And this went on for 6 months, every Sunday. Then one day, this filthy animal, which was me, I knelt down by this little metal food slot where they slide our trays in, and I said man, tell me about this Jesus who keeps you coming back here with me spitting in your face. And he gave me his testimony.
John breathes deeply, he can barely speak thru his tears. “And God started changing my life. My whole troubles didn’t end, but I was a new creation.”
A new life in prison
Everybody thinks you are a fake, thinks you are a phony, except a few captains; a few that know what is going on in prison. You can’t be a fake in prison. The last thing you want to be saying is you are a follower of Jesus Christ and then mess up because you’re our hope and we will kill you. We are not going to be like these guys out here that just ostracize you, we are going to take you somewhere and beat you to an inch of your life or maybe take your life. If you say you are a Christian, you are a Christian. You say you’re this, you’re this.”
‘So, when I walked out of segregation and professed to be a follower of Jesus Christ, a lot of things had to change. I had sold people into human slavery, trafficking, all these dots on my wrist are stabbings that I did, people that I stabbed. I was an Odenist. I followed Odin and Thor and Lokee, Nordic pagan gods. I was a pagan. I was a hateful person.
That old stuff is garbage. The new thing that God did, was this new creation come walking out of that hole. I walked up to a table that had three Christian brothers sitting there. The whole chow hall got quiet, literally 400 some odd people got quiet. The guards in the walkways cocked their shotguns. I had my own table. Even if I am in the hole, nobody sits at it. I asked if I could sit with them. They were just in shock.”
John grew emotional, barely able to speak, tears streaming down his face. “They let me sit with them. Even though two of those guys have scars on their face from me and my friends.”
That is the cool thing about God, as my wife said, He reconciles people. It’s just amazing. This brother with scars on their faces, he forgave me. So, for the next 5 or 6 years we went to Bible study together.”
He always wanted to cry
“I have never been able to cry in my life,” John said, wiping his tears with the back of his hand. I’ve seen some things, done some things, and have been given some in my life that would bring people to tears, but never have.
“I said, Lord, I want to cry. I have never been able to cry.”
Now, this former hardened criminal would rather hug someone than shake hands. And the tears flow easily.
“I’m not worthy of God’s attention,” John says, his eyes pooling. “It just amazes me that He pays attention to me because I am not worthy of it, of any of that. Even though I know my baptism has washed my sins away, and I am in accordance with God’s Word, I said, Lord, who I am to speak of you when I hated you so much.”
“God is a God of restoration,” John said, tears leaking.
A changed man
Lisa tells of time they went to a church where the assistant pastor had done 5 years in prison for child molestation. “So, when we were in this church, John got to hug him and apologize for all the people he had harmed. It was a healing moment both for the child molester guy and John,” Lisa remembers. “God had changed both lives. God is a God of restoration; He brings healing. It was a restoring moment,” she assured.
Recently the Erwins were approached by a black man at the laundromat, who John said was either a Blood or a Crip. There was a time this might have been a violent meeting, but not anymore. “God brought us together. For me to be able to hug another man of color, and sincerely enjoy the fact that I get to hug one of God’s children, was such a blessing.”
“My commandment given to me by my God is to love you and pray for you and to give you the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what I am supped to do.”
“Statistically, I am not supposed to be here. Statistically, they will tell you after 5 or 10 years, you’re institutionalized. That you’re polarized. That you’re not able to really function out on the community because the community has changed so drastically and so quickly that your mind cannot catch up with modern day. So that’s what creates institutionalization which makes you want to get back to your comfort zone which is crime, jail, prison. Because you feel secure there. So here I am three and a half decades of institutionalization, but one of the proofs to show someone that God has changed me and made me a new creation, He protected my mind and gave me a new mind is because I am not a statistic. I am right here in front of you.”
“Here is the cool thing: I believe in God. You see, I believe in God. When a problem comes, I take it to God.
“God has never failed us,” said Lisa.
“Ever! Added John. Ever. Ever. Ever.
“When I need something, and there is difference between a want and need, I go before my Father. So, if people want to know what happens when the rubber hits the road, my knees hit the ground.”
Indeed, God is a God of restoration.
For me, there are few, if any, sights more beautiful than seeing an angry human heart, filled with the venom of fear and of hate, become truly transformed into a thankful, loving, husband and brother.
October was John and Lisa’s ninth anniversary. Both are Christians now, determined to live the rest of their lives for God.
On the eve of the second MLB game to be held at Iowa’s Field of Dreams Movie Site, I am sharing with you a piece I wrote for the Dyersville Commercial on a wonderful ex-ball player, local legend, and longtime Ghost Player named Hank Lucas. In deference to readers outside Iowa, I added and subtracted some from the original story.
Ron “Hank” Lucas said he had never been on a bus or a plane or in a cab. And had never seen Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
That all changed in the spring of 1967 when, after being signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, 18-year-old Lucas, from small-town Holy Cross (population about with a graduating class of 59), took a plane from Dubuque to Chicago, a bus to Wrigley field, another plane to Salt Lake City and a cab to Ogden, Utah (a city over 100,000) to join a minor league team coached by Tommy Lasorda.
Overnight, the small-town country boy found himself in a different world.
“Ogden was a rough place then,” said Lucas. “At that time Washington Street (the street where the Ben Lomond Hotel was located ) was supposed to lead the nation in killings. They told us, don’t go down there.”
Lucas soon learned that not only was a bustling Ogden different from quiet Holy Cross with a population of about 325, the game he played in Iowa was also far different from what the minor leagues played out west.
“It was an eye-opener for a small-town kid who played team ball all the time,” he said. “I was shocked. The pitchers didn’t even room together because they hated each other. So many individuals were out for themselves and not the team. It was dog eat dog.”
“I was homesick,” Lucas admitted. “I was ready to come back home. I was a big baby. I really was.”
But under the tutelage of his new manager, an ambitious Lasorda, even more competitive than himself, Lucas adjusted to his professional baseball life and Ogden’s beautiful Ben Lomond Park. The Ogden team went 41-25 to win the Pioneer League, and Lucas still cherishes his championship ring.
By the end of the season, Lucas was ready to return home to Iowa thinking he was hot (stuff).
In February 1968, he was excited about his second season. Scheduled to report to Vero Beach (the famous Dodgertown facility), he was determined to work two more weeks at his meat packing job, then take a week off to rest before reporting to camp in Florida. He had just turned 19 and was working the night shift. Then, a terrible auto accident, on his way to work, barely three miles from home, changed his life forever. It happened on Feb 2, Groundhog Day, he remembers.
“I guess my face hit the mirror and then went through the windshield,” he said. “It shattered my nose. My nose is half plastic, and took care of a lot of the teeth.”
Though Lucas eventually returned to pitching regionally (no longer with the Dodgers), hoping for another shot as a pro ballplayer. But that shot never came, and his dream of making the major leagues was over.
“It comes back and haunts you, not as much as it used to,” admits Lucas, thinking back to the accident and loss of opportunity. But the Iowa legend – who threw his first little league game when he was just 8 years old – never lost his love of baseball, and even after the accident, he continued to pitch until he was nearly 50.
All who know him say that Hank Lucas loves baseball and played to win. They also said he is a lot calmer now.
“When I went to that mound, the last thing I wanted to do was see my name in the paper. ‘L Lucas.’ I wanted a ‘W Lucas.’ It meant a lot to me. And if you can’t be that way, get out. There is nothing wrong with being competitive.”
His wife Diane, who has been by his side and watches almost every game or event Hank participates in, bristles a little at the characterization of her husband being overly competitive.
“I think ballplayers would say that,” she admits. “In baseball, he’s always a win no matter what kind of guy. But I don’t think people he grew up with and his friends would say that. He is kind and thoughtful and he puts family first.”
In fact, it was Diane who recognized her husband’s strengths in teaching young players and encouraging them not to quit during hard times, which prompted her to nudge Lucas to coach American Legion baseball.
“I have never seen a guy want to help a young player more than Hank,” said Marv Maiers, who has known Lucas since grade school and coached Legion baseball with him. “His major concern is to help young guys. The best way to say it is, ‘his bark is a lot worse than his bite.’ He’s one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet.”
Lucas shares a letter from the mother of a boy he coached in Little League, telling how much he meant to the young man who died recently.
In 1988, as luck, or fate would have it, Hank Lucas’ life took another unexpected turn when he auditioned for and was cast in the movie Field of Dreams, which became one of the most beloved and popular baseball movies of all time.
Soon after the movie’s success and the growing popularity of the movie site, local baseball lover, Keith Rahe, assembled a group he called Ghost Players which eventually traveled the world entertaining people. Lucas was one of the earliest players to join the group in 1990, and being on the Ghost Team extended his baseball career by as much as 30 years, Lucas said. Rahe said, “Hank has been with us since 1990 and was one of the first guys from the movie that came onboard. He’s just an amazing individual and has a heart of gold.”
Though a little reluctant to talk about it, Lucas feels there is definitely something special (as in real ghosts or divine intervention) going on with the Ghost Players, the movie and the Field of Dreams. “They will be thinking I am drinking too much again,” he laughs. “Sometimes you wonder if there is or not. Being in the movie and all that stuff – and coming out of the corn as many times as we done – you are standing in the corn waiting for the song to come on and it makes you wonder,” his voice falling to a reverent whisper.
Lucas, now 73, cherishes the role and recognizes how lucky he is.
“Every time I start dressing, and I put my socks on, I say a little prayer. Because two of my buddies were born with muscle diseases. And baseball was their love and they never got to play Little League. Never, ever got to do this. Now they are both dead. God almighty, that means a lot to me.”
How good was Hank Luca
“He was the finest the state of Iowa had back then in the 60s,” assured 74-year-old Al Steffen, who started as a Ghost player a year after Lucas. “That is why he got drafted by the Dodgers.”
“If Hank would be honest, nobody did very good against him,” assured Maiers. “If you were going to get a hit, he made a mistake. When he was on his game, there weren’t many hits.” Then addressing Lucas’ competitive spirit, Maiers said, “He was conveniently wild, effectively wild. He will tell you, ‘I own the inner half of the plate.’ If you lay out over the plate, there was a price to pay.”
He knows because Lucas hit him.
Lucas said, “The other guys are going to say ‘he was a mean sonofabitch when you played against him.’ But I was going to win. I wanted to see ‘W’ not ‘L’ next to my name in the paper. That meant a lot to me.”
From high school star to playing professional baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, to changing so many young lives through coaching and teaching, to his role in the Field of Dreams movie, to his induction into the Dubuque County Baseball Hall of Fame, to becoming an international goodwill ambassador and bringing joy to millions as a Ghost player — Lucas agrees he has lived “A blessed life.”
And though he said he never considered his life to be similar to the movie’s Archie “Moonlight” Graham played by Burt Lancaster, there are similarities.
Like Graham, Lucas only batted once in his professional career, flying out to deep left field. And also like the beloved “Doc Graham,” Lucas’ life after his brief professional career has likely been more meaningful than if he had made the majors, though he might not agree.
When suggested he is likely more famous for being in the movie and traveling the globe as a Ghost Player than he might have been as a professional ball player, he quipped, “That’s what kind of ticks you off a little bit. Oh, you were in the movie. Hey, you son of a gun, I played minor league ball for the Dodgers, damn it. It was more important, it’s what I wanted to do in life.”
That said, he is grateful and at peace with his life.
When it was intimated in the movie that Graham’s lost opportunity was a tragedy, the great response by Graham was, “If I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy,” might ring true for Lucas as well.
“I never tell anybody this, but if I had made it to the major leagues, I wouldn’t be married to Diane,” Lucas said of his wife of 45 years, his voice softening to a whisper. “I would have missed Diane. I thought I was in love a couple of times, but nothing like this.”
Few lives turn out the way we think when we are young. Sometimes what appears to be a tragedy turns out to be a blessing. And sometimes one dream gives way to a different, sometimes better dream.
On this eve of my 71st birthday, I travel back through the years, wondering what dreams or fears swam through my dear mother’s head and heart as her body prepared to usher me, her second child, into the world from a hospital bed in Orange, California.
I wish I could ask her.
And then, as I sweep nostalgically over the past 7 decades, I consider my three fathers, and how different my life might have been without them.
My First Father
My first father, my biological father, with whom I share both a middle and his last name, taught me practical things like how to drive a car, ride a motorcycle, hunt and work on cars, and most importantly, to love the land.
He was a dreamer, and I inherited his wanderlust, his sense of humor and unfortunately, his blinding temper, among other of undisciplined characteristics. It saddens me to realize I mimicked too many of his selfish actions in my younger years.
Growing up, we lived in constant fear of my father, never knowing when he would come home late at night in a rage, pull us from our beds or spank us for something we did or did not do. I remember several times trembling as he yanked me out of bed late at night and sent me and my siblings out in the shivering darkness in our underwear with flashlights to finish chores he had set for us. I vividly remember one frightening episode when he shouted that he wished we were all in hell. I truly believed he was going to kill us all that night.
As a teenager, I ran away from home several times, once after he chased me with a tire iron, threatening to beat me because I was having fun moving rocks in the creek driveway, something meant to be a punishment. I returned a few days later, after his rage had quieted.
Because of my fear of him, and contempt for the way he treated my mother, I almost killed him after slipping into his bedroom with a loaded pistol while he was sleeping. I pointed the gun at his head. Thankfully, I didn’t pull the trigger.
His example was confusing and often contradictory. He was resourceful, a hard worker, and often helped others in trouble. He taught me many good things. But keeping company with his many good traits, he had a quick and violent temper, and a vengeful spirit.
He believed in ghosts, spirits and flying saucers, and never talked of God, except to curse His name.
I remember as a boy sneaking through a dark night and helping him pour bags of sugar into the gas tank of our neighbor’s tractor because the wealthy and unscrupulous man tried to steal our property. But my dad wasn’t always like that.
In fact, my early years were wonderful, happy times when my father was present, taking me hunting, fishing, and riding motorcycles. We went camping and took family vacations. But through hard financial times and unrealized dreams, a deep bitterness grew to own him. It wasn’t until late in his life, he seemed to have found some peace.
In spite of his sometimes cruel and selfish behaviors, I think he wanted and tried to be a good father. It just felt like he didn’t know how.
He died several years ago at the age of 89.
Though sadly, we were not close much of our lives, we became friends and shared some wonderful times together his last ten years. I told him often how much I loved him, and thanked him for raising me and my siblings in the country, away from the asphalt and noise of the city, where we could run barefoot and learn about nature.
And the man I never heard say he loved me growing up, learned to tell me often he loved me.
My Second Father
In most stories of survival, there is usually at least one person, an unselfish soul who offers hope and keeps us from giving up. For me, he was a beautifully imperfect man named Mason French, an angel sent to me during a lonely and dark time in my young life. Though I have been blessed with several mentors, no man has changed the course of my life more profoundly. For 50 years, he has demonstrated what sacrificial and compassionate love looks like.
I was around 21 when I met Mason, a landscaper and preacher,15 years my elder. My
brother Steven was living with the French family at the time. Though he had two sons and two daughters, Mason graciously accepted stray souls in need of a home and guidance, much the way a mother cat accepts stray kittens, feeding and protecting them as her own. I immediately fell in love with this man and his family, and he soon became a second father to me, as he was to my brother Steven.
I was jealous of his children. They had a father who played ball with them, talked with them, worked with them, spoke often about God and took them to church. As the Biblical Timothy was to the apostle Paul, I became Mason’s son in the gospel of Christ.
He taught me what love looked like, while patiently introducing me to the person of Jesus. When he talked about Jesus Christ, it was if he knew Him personally. By example, he showed me the meaning of mercy and forgiveness, for others and myself. In fact, it was through him, my second father, I learned to forgive and love my biological father.
I once watched him forgive and embrace a man who had deeply hurt him and his family.
That man was me.
There is a famous Biblical seen in the book of Luke often titled “The Prodigal Son.” It reads, “ …and he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
I have been that son more than once, and hope someday to be that father.
But of the many life-gifts he has given me, no gift has been greater than introducing me to my third Father – my real, eternal Father and Creator, of whose offspring I am.
He is a man of great courage and even greater humility. With a quick wit and sense of humor to match, he remains a great storyteller, powerful speaker and patient teacher.
I have met many people who love God, who would surrender their lives if need be. But I don’t know anybody who respects, cherishes or loves the Word of God more deeply than Mason French.
The Bible says of the virtuous woman, that her children will grow up and call her blessed.
So also, will the children of a good man.
My second father, turned 87 earlier this week, and he continues to contribute to the world as a loving father, grandfather and dedicated gospel preacher.
But just as my biological father died a few years ago at 89, I realize if I live long enough, I will have to face losing my second father, too.
A final thought
Some, the lucky ones, are blessed with caring, loving fathers – guideposts who show the best life paths, teaching their children to navigate a sometimes harsh and confusing world.
Others never know their fathers, raised instead by a single mother, a relative or even by strangers.
So, on this night, 71 years after my mother brought me into this world, my heart is filled with love and gratitude for her and the men, like Mason French, who have been a father to me.
My friend Curt Chandler left this world Monday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
I last spoke with him on January 9.
As I agonize over what to share in this post, I suffer with pangs of inadequacy, realizing I don’t have the words to convey how much I admired and loved this good man. That acknowledged, I will try to give you a glimpse into the life of this lovely human.
Like most of us, Curt was different things to different people.
A big, friendly bear of a man with an equally big heart, Curt was a loyal husband, a proud father, an accomplished photojournalist, a talented writer and editor, and an unselfish teacher who dedicated most of his last 15 years to students at Penn State.
A big presence
Always spilling over with enthusiasm for whatever project he undertook – whether restoring old houses, editing books for friends or leading students on out-of-country excursions – you always knew when Curt was in the room. But he seldom talked about himself or his accomplishments, which were many. When praised for his awards, Curt usually laughed uncomfortably and quickly redirected the conversation away from himself to celebrating the accomplishments of others.
When we started a photography workshop for students at the University of Kentucky called Picture Kentucky, Curt eagerly agreed to make the drive from Pennsylvania to Kentucky and sleep in a less-than-desirable motel room to coach students and help us organize the new workshop. He loved technology and was an industry leader in implementing the latest devices and software programs. Truth be told, he was a bit of a widget nerd. But I cannot recall a single time when I asked Curt for a favor, especially if it involved education, that he did not eagerly volunteer to help.
A walking encyclopedia
Curt was intelligent, and usually the most well-read person in any room. Blessed with a great sense of humor, he also oozed with an insatiable, childlike curiosity. He seemed to want to know something about everything.
In budget meetings at the Post-Gazette, it seemed he knew something about every topic or subject under consideration. Whether discussing George Washington’s uncomfortable visit to what is now Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle or the current stats of a Steeler’s running back, Curt usually shared some obscure fact unbeknown to other editors. It was as if he read books and newspapers in his sleep and remembered minutia most would pass by. In one meeting, he excitedly (and loudly) educated us on Pittsburgh’s underground sewer systems. I often claimed if I was ever to make it on the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” show, Curt would be all of my lifelines.
A non-judgmental soul
One of his life signatures was his acceptance of those different than himself, regardless of background, color, religion, gender or political beliefs. He genuinely loved people and worked patiently with those often shunned by others. He encouraged all, members of his family included, to be their authentic selves, even when it meant going against societal norms. Seeing life differently was never a reason not to work together toward a common goal.
Curt reminded me of a sturdy bridge support often laboring in the shadows to hold up journalistic principles while striving to be a better storyteller. Unlike some in journalism, he was not flashy or consumed with self-promotion but rather dedicated to helping others realize their dreams. In our wonderful, yet eroding profession, Curt maintained his courage and commitment to tell real stories of real people navigating real life. When praised for his awards, Curt usually laughed uncomfortably and quickly redirected the conversation away from himself to celebrating the accomplishments of others.
One of the many Christmas cards Curt made and sent each year.
As a teacher, Curt led by example, often working alongside students while introducing them to new cultures and environments. And he did what he taught.
He was respected and loved by his students, always making time for those interested in learning. Like a nurturing father, he was both approachable and available, and often was a picture of patience, not belittling students (even older ones like me) for not knowing how to use a piece of equipment or grasp a concept. To say he was beloved, would be a gross understatement.
A true friend
Above all, Curt was a true friend not only to me but to hundreds, if not thousands of others. In fact, he could teach a class on what it means to be a real friend. Someone who never met a stranger, Curt made friends often and easily and had the ability to make each person he met feel important.
I am reminded of the time I made the move from California to Pittsburgh as the new director of Photography for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, replacing Curt. He, his wife Stacie and their children showed up to unload the U-HAUL truck and labor late into the night helping us move in. And when we needed to move again a month later, Curt and his family again volunteered to help.
The line of Curt’s friends who could come forward and tell of his kindness and generosity would be lengthy. In his brief time on this earth, he changed many lives for the better.
One time I saw him upset
The only time I can remember seeing Curt visibly upset happened on a Thanksgiving Day in his Pittsburgh backyard. He invited my family to his house for dinner, excited to show us a new cooking procedure where he would boil the bird in oil. (Curt loved to cook and to eat.) When the well-intentioned experiment went awry, sending billows of house-fire-like clouds of smoke across the neighborhood, Curt was visibly upset and embarrassed. His new contraption wasn’t working as he had hoped, and the wizard of technology was losing control. I began laughing and teasing him, asking if I should call the fire department. This further agitated chef Chandler, who was in no mood for jokes. But I couldn’t help myself, it was just too funny.
Forever the optimist
Ever the pragmatic optimist, even in the face of death, Curt laughed loudly and thought about the welfare of others, especially his wife.
On June 8, after mutual friend Bob Lynn shared the sad and shocking news of Curt’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I called Curt hoping to encourage him and get a better sense of his condition. I confess I was a little nervous, fearing what I might hear in his voice, if he felt like talking at all. I took a few moments in silent prayer to gather myself before the call.
I should have known better. He was his lovely, cheerful self, punctuating many lines with his signature laugh.
How are you doing? I asked.
“I am doing great!” Curt cheerfully offered.
Relief flooded through me.
The he chirped, “I am actually driving to Pittsburgh right now so they can do the full body scan and see what’s up,” as if he were going to the store to pick up a loaf of bread.
He shared how he and his wife Stacie were visiting Yellowstone when she noticed he looked yellow, then proceeded in his usual analytical way to excitedly explain the procedures and latest technology involved in diagnosing his condition, laughing about the details – the valves and cords, etc. I told him he was over my head and I didn’t know what he was talking about. He sounded like someone explaining how they hoped to get their car fixed. He laughed heartily.
“I am doing the full body scan today and will talk to the pathologists tomorrow and talk about what future paths may be there,” he added. I told him I would call again in a couple of days.
Three days later
When I called him three days later, he said there was a chance he would be able to teach his classes at Penn State online in the fall.
“Were you planning on teaching online anyway?” I asked
“I was not. I was supposed to be in the classroom, but ever since I got the diagnosis and what was going on…I think another person is going to be in the classroom and I am going to be teaching over a video link and we are going to sort of team teach the class,” he said matter-of-factly.
How many classes are you scheduled to teach? I asked.
“I think they dialed me back to two. Normally in the fall I teach five. It just depends on what I feel like. I have been doing hour-long zoom sessions the last couple of days. I am fine for the hour, but at an hour and 5 minutes, I am definitely running out of gas,” he admitted.
He laughed. “But that may change once I am able to start eating like a regular person again.”
Even after receiving a grim diagnosis, and already suffering from the effects of pancreatic cancer in early June, Curt agreed to judge a photo contest. He finished the rigorous judging of the quarterly photo competition for the Press Photographers Association of Greater Los Angeles on June 28, in part from a hospital bed.
PPAGLA president and contest coordinator Amy Gaskin wrote:
“In early June, Curt and I spoke, and he right away offered to help us. He was in with both feet. I was touched by his generosity. Judging a contest can take many hours, yet Curt really wanted to help.
June 25: “Hi Curt, Thinking of you. Dave mentioned that you are going through a really rough time right now….I’m so sorry you aren’t feeling well. Would you like me to find a replacement pinch hitter judge this time around? I’ll do whatever you prefer Curt. No sweat either way! I don’t want to find a replacement if you were almost finished with these images.
“Never fear, I’ll be done this weekend. Thanks for keeping after me.”
“Not only did Curt judge the contest, he took the time to write thoughtful, educational judge’s notes, which we posted to help our students and members,” Amy said.
Still cheerful and positive three weeks before his death, Curt talked with me for 45 minutes over Facetime. I have attached a trimmed version from our conversation so you can hear his voice and feel his positive spirit.
I have also included links to memorials posted.
Bob Lynn, one of Curt’s longtime friends said when sharing the sad news, “It is shocking news and it makes me really, really sad. He is one of my favorite people of all time, and it just breaks your heart. He is just a great guy. It’s just heartbreaking,” he repeated. “He is just one of the great guys of all time, and I love the guy. Oh boy,” he sighs.
I couldn’t agree more.
Our last words
“Well, I guess the electrons are telling us to call it a day here,” Curt said closing our last conversation.
I love you and I thank you, Curt, and thank Stacie for being such a wonderful support.
“I will do that and will also thank her for editing me on the fly,” he laughed.
I love you guys.
“Love you, too.”
We never spoke again.
I am attaching an edited audio clip of our last conversation.
At the bottom are several links to take you to the obituary posted on Penn State’s website.
On this first day of 2022, I share an experience from last year unlike any I’ve ever had. It profoundly stirred my spirit and continues to challenge me.
Sleeping on the couch while recovering from shoulder surgery, I awoke about 2 am, sat up and quietly enjoyed the view of a clear, starry sky through our large living room window. (Winter skies in Ohio are alive with beautiful, sharp stars.)
Much like watching dancing flames in a campfire, we can lose ourselves in a heavenly sky, and I did. As I let my thoughts drift and wander, I contemplated my mortality, the wonder of the universe and specifically my place in it. It was the kind of peaceful time most of us hunger for in our loud, busy world.
Then, a message, a voice, wrapped around me and spoke to my mind and heart. It wasn’t an audible voice – some clear, booming message from heaven – yet it felt strangely divine. My heart pounded and tears spilled down my bearded face.
What was happening to me?
“Trust me, follow me,” the voice implored.
And then I saw a vision, a threadlike trail winding up the side of a jagged mountain. Not one for heights, I felt a little nausea, as if I would fall.
“Don’t be afraid,” the voice said. “Follow me. Step where I step.”
As I continued feeling like I would slip and fall helplessly down into an abyss, I kept my eyes on the sandaled feet in front of me, much the way a climber might follow an experienced Sherpa up a dangerous mountain route.
Then the vision of the mountain disappeared.
Suddenly, a bright star began racing toward me, like a scene from the beginning of a Star Wars movie. The bright, blue-white light blocked my vision of the remaining starry sky as it grew closer, larger. It felt like the light came through the window, filled the living room and washed over me. Then it retreated back into the heavens.
The entire episode lasted no more than a few minutes.
I sat there shocked, dumfounded, tears flowing, wondering what just happened and what it could mean.
I got up, turned on a lamp and found something to write on. I’m right-handed and my arm was in a sling, so I tried my best to scribble with my other hand the words given to me, before I forgot them.
Then I went to the kitchen, leaned against a counter and began weeping uncontrollably.
Hearing me, my wife awoke, bewildered.
“What is wrong? She asked. “Are you OK?”
“ I don’t think I can explain it,” I moaned. “You wouldn’t believe what just happened to me; I’ve never had an experience like this.”
My wife was giddy, being a person who lives for the mystery and is most comfortable in the realm of the unknown. She claimed I’d finally experienced the mystical realm in a way I could no longer deny or ignore.
It’s important here to share though I am a believer in God’s providence, I am not one who believes God or the Holy Spirit finds parking places close to the doors of a favorite store or tells me what car I should buy. Furthermore, if someone had told me this story, I would think they were either dreaming or on mind-altering drugs.
I ‘ve wrestled with whether or not to share this most unusual experience, finally deciding to simply tell what happened and let you decide what it was or what it meant.
I still cannot say with any certainty what happened, so the best I can do is offer my current interpretation.
That said, I confess I’d been troubled, afraid to move forward with a life-long dream project of visually interpreting scenes of Christ from the gospels, and the internal battle was heavy on my heart.
At one point, an unscrupulous online schemer pretended to be me on Facebook and created confusion for many. This has been remedied.
Here is a brief description of the project I posted last June:
Ever since I began reading and studying the Bible in earnest more than 50 years ago, I have dreamed (at times ached) to use my gifts to share what I see and feel. To this day when I read the Bible, images still flash through my head, as if crying out to be released.
Now, after 50 years of dreaming, I am ready to use my photographic and storytelling skills, developed through five decades as a photojournalist, to create images from the life of Christ as recorded in the New Testament. In other words, a visual commentary.
If you feel inclined, I would love to have you join me in this project. Please use either the GoFundMe site above or send checks directly to me – Dave LaBelle, Athens Book Farm, PO Box 239, Athens, Ohio 45701. You can also donate through my Paypal: labelledave@labelledave
Grief appears in many forms, and I have learned to respect another’s grief even if I don’t completely understand it.
When my youngest son – an animal lover since birth – lost Paco, his bearded dragon, I watched helplessly. (Henry’s little dog Sara died years earlier and then Gus, who had been with us 14 years, passed while Henry was away from home. Hearing my youngest son’s muffled whimpering over the phone when I called to tell him his beloved dog had passed broke my heart and started my own tears.)
But never had I witnessed such a deep grief as I saw with losing Paco. I was home that day as he spilled silent tears while trying desperately to breathe life into Paco’s failing lungs.
They were inseparable the past four years. Henry took Paco everywhere. When he went to school in Iowa, Paco went with him. When he left home and moved to Oregon in the middle of winter, Paco rode wrapped in blankets. Henry took him on walks, played music for him, and even put a book by his glass aquarium so he could read and look at the pictures. When I asked him how he could feel so deeply about a lizard he said, “Paco was my best friend. He was with me for almost every meaningful experience.”
We worried about Henry. Though he put on a good face, we could see his pain, a grief that seemed unshakable. But then, just when it seemed he would never climb out of his depression over Paco’s passing, a new animal came into his life.
A black German Shepherd mix needed a home. Nervous, skittish, afraid of seemingly everything, Sampson needed a lot of love and patience to overcome whatever he had endured in his early life. Though feeling conflicted, as if betraying the memory of Paco, Henry decided to bring Sampson into his life.
Meanwhile, Henry and his girlfriend of several years were deciding to go separate ways.
Both his mother and I worried about Henry, knowing how painful and difficult a breakup can be.
But as confusing as the breakup was, Sampson seemed to be the life preserver Henry needed to stay afloat in the turbulent emotional waters. A joy returned to our son we had not seen in weeks.
Once again, God answered my prayers in ways I did not expect.
I am reminded when we lose loved ones, even beloved pets, others can bring us comfort and life purpose without betraying the memory or deep and unique love we hold for others.
We have the capacity, and often the need, to give our love to others. After all, loving others – human or animal – is a basic human need.
By far, the greatest joy of being a journalist and story catcher is the privilege of subjects becoming cherished friends.
Bill and Gwin Stam, who together built the All Nations Veteran Memorial in Jefferson, Oregon embraced me with open arms. Even after the initial story, we stayed in touch and I visited them whenever I came to Oregon. They always fed me and invited me to stay the night.
Friday night I talked with Bill and he said Gwin had asked him to call me and let me know she was dying. I had long expected the dreaded call because I knew Gwin had battled her health for years, but that didn’t make it any easier.
There are friends, those we encounter in goodwill and share similar interests. And then there are those friends who feel like family, like trusted relatives. Bill and Gwinn have been that to me and my family since the first time we met nearly 10 years ago.
Her life was hard. A broken marriage, challenging sickness (she basically died no less than three times). A beautiful woman, toughened by life, she was fearless and focused. And though her life journey was often filled with pain, I never saw her drop her head and complain. Not once.
She found a trusted love and true companion in her husband Bill, who adored her.
She had a heart for all animals, especially horses, and for humans who suffered abuse and hardship, and dedicated her life to helping others who have suffered. With an honest heart, she spoke truth regardless of her audience.
Her hands made beautiful jewelry, beadwork, leather saddles and outfits . Those same hands calmed frightened animals or wounded people. Always giving, always busy creating, always caring, Gwin was sacrificial, often doing without to help individuals and causes she believed in.
I feel blessed to walk the earth the same time as Gwin Stam and share precious time with her. It is an honor I find humbling.
Below are two links:
The first is a link to an earlier post about Bill and Gwin.
It is a word I find myself using often when covering stories of loss.
When I was told Dan Ripley had left this life, a smile moved across my bearded face.
He was finally free, liberated from that chair, those breathing tubes and that twisted, immobile body which had held him prisoner for most of 35 years. (Dan had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, chained to a ventilator since he was a 12-year-old boy.)
But then sorrow washed over me and my eyes filled as I thought about his family and the pain they were surely experiencing. I feared Dustin, two years younger, and Dan’s constant companion, would be crippled with fear and anxiety. I was wrong. Dustin became a pillar of strength, comforting his parents and helping them cope with his brother’s passing.
I often talked with Dan about this day – when his spirt would soar and when he believed he would go home to be with his God. Still, when that day arrived, the reality of separation began sinking in. I would no longer be able to pop by the house when visiting Kent or Tallmadge and hear him squawk, “Hi Dave.” No more excited talks about sports or life with this joyful, intelligent young man. Unmatched in his love for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Browns, he was looking forward to his beloved Browns making it to the super Bowl (which they almost did last year).
I was introduced to these remarkable brothers when a friend asked if I would help with a family fundraiser by making pictures and writing something about the boys. After the first meeting – as often happens when a camera leads me into someone’s life – I fell in love with the Ripley family and knew we would be lifelong friends.
Dan was looking forward to his 36th birthday and a party complete with cake and ice cream. He loved parties!
Photographing his 30th birthday party, I told Dan I hoped I was alive to attend his 60th.
“I will be here,” he chirped confidently.
Then realizing he might have been a bit presumptuous, he calls to me and gurgles, “Dave, God determines how long we will be here.”
On Saturday, June 26, that day arrived.
Dan didn’t wake up.
I visited the family one week after Dan’s passing. Dale was welcoming as always, eager to share, and Debbie was her quiet, gracious self.
Dustin whispers “hello Dave,” above the incessant barking of two small dogs.
I remembered Bandit but not the other dog. It had been several years since I had seen the family. They quickly share how difficult and even more confining the past year has been not being able to take the boys out because of the virus.
I ask Dustin how he is feeling.
Inseparable, the brothers sat side by side watching television day after day, year after year, sharing many late night and early morning conversations, and sleeping in the same room just a few feet from each other.
“A little better,” he says. It is difficult to hear his quiet voice above the hissing rhythm of the ventilator.
What do you miss most about Dan?
“His smarts. He was really smart,” he gurgles.
“Yes, he was,” Debbie whispers, fighting back tears.
“We learned a lot after Dan passed that Dustin knew that we didn’t know,” she shares.
“Nobody knew that they had talked about what Dan wanted, that he wanted a party.”
Then adds, “He didn’t want calling hours.”
“Dustin has been a real champion, he has really stepped up, Dale inserts. “He helped us with all of the arrangements, even went to the funeral parlor.”
I can’t imagine how different everybody’s life is going to be going forward.
Dustin says he noticed “even Bandit misses Dan.”
The last weeks of his life
Dan had spent 12 days in the hospital with pneumonia, and had only been home two days. He never wanted to go to the hospital, separated from his family and the security of his chair.
“Friday, he had far away eyes, while watching the basketball playoff game,” Dale said.
“I told him Friday night we will see each other again and it won’t be in 35 more years.”
Then, his voice cracking, “He went to sleep and we couldn’t wake him up.”
As I left the house, Dale came out and tearfully shared his son felt bad for not being able to spend Father’s Day with his dad because he was in the hospital.
“He told me, ‘Happy Father’s Day, Dad.’”
Wiping his eyes, he smiled. “He will be missed but I’m sure he got his wings.”
What courage looks like
Dan taught us all many lessons about faith, courage and optimism. But there is one lesson, one photograph I wish to share with you that reveals this amazing young man’s honest view of life.
With his blessing, I made this photograph of his twisted, deformed body. I wanted others to see the road this intelligent and loving young man endured. And then, realizing how shocking the photograph was, I showed the picture to Dan on my laptop screen and asked if he still felt comfortable posting this picture.
“I can’t believe I lived this long, with this disease,” Dan said, his eyes widening. “I am thankful I lived this long.” Then added, I am amazed how my body looks, how terrible this disease is.”
I asked again if he felt comfortable sharing the image. He answered immediately. “Yes, I want people to know about this disease.”
While each person is unique, there are those we encounter whose lives inspire us and become a part of the fabric of who we are. Though his time on earth was relatively short, Dan taught us a lot about faith, courage and optimism He was truly a loving, teaching son, brother and friend.
As Dale admits, “He carried me a lot of times.”
When I think about Dale saying his oldest son “got his wings,” the first line of Albert E. Brumley’s famous gospel song fills my heart.
“Some sweet morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away…”
As I mentioned, Dan loved parties. In fact, while preparing for his memorial service, Dustin told his parents Dan had told him, sensing his time was short, he did not want a typical funeral service where everybody stood around weeping. He wanted them to have a party. On hearing this, Dale and Debbie changed the services to accommodate Dan’s wishes.
If you want to know more about Dan, Dustin and Ripley Family, please look at these earlier stories. Here are the links: