What legends are made of

by David LaBelle

We all need heroes, guideposts who show us the way through this world of tangled paths.

Tuesday, one of mine left this earth.

Bobby at 96.jpg

I never saw Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr play baseball, since he retired in 1951, the year I was born.  Though both of us were raised in southern California, less than 60 miles apart, I wasn’t even aware of Doerr until The Teammates by the late David Halberstam introduced us.

After this discovery, I began a mission to find him, hoping he was still alive.   It took some doing, but eventually I met the legend and was blessed to spend a few hours with him over a couple of days in 2014.   At 96, Doerr was the oldest living member of National Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

“Beloved,” is a word often used to describe him.

In his later years, he was known for being prickly Ted William’s lifelong friend and the greatest second baseman in Boston’s storied history.  Few individuals could navigate William’s fiery personality with the grace and forgiveness Doerr could.  When asked about William’s documented tantrums, he smiled and softly shared, “Ted had a tough childhood.”

If Bobby Doerr ever said an unkind word about anyone, nobody’s sharing it.



Monica and Bob

With a faith in God, this steady, generous man led by quiet example. Whether playing the game he loved with unequalled passion or caring for his beloved Monica, who suffered with multiple sclerosis much of her life and died in 2003, Doerr was a sober guidepost and contrast to the loud bravado of so many undisciplined and selfish athletes.  He viewed his baseball life as a true privilege and proved it by his actions.  Doerr believed so strongly in giving back to the game and his fans. Hours were spent daily, autographing whatever was sent to him, without charge.  This was a lifetime habit he maintained, even towards the end of his life when his unsteady hands struggled to scribble his own name.  I watched in amazement as he pushed his wheelchair up to a table in his modest room in the assisted-living facility, and sat signing photographs, cards and baseballs.  Who does this anymore? I thought.


I’ve been blessed to meet and photograph many incredible people and listen to their stories.  Other than the late John Wooden, a great basketball player and coach, no other sports figure has left a deeper, more positive and lasting impression on me than Bobby Doerr.   Much like the sober Wooden, Doerr was a picture of faith, contentment, grace and humility.

Both lives challenge me to be a better person.

I pray, as I age, I can carry myself with the same dignity and peace I witnessed with these two amazing individuals.

I may never live to see another Halley’s Comet, nor another professional baseball player with the integrity of Bobby Doerr, but I can tell my grandchildren I have met one of the greatest baseball players and gentlemen ever to put on a uniform.

Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr represented everything good about baseball.

Junction City, Oregon-July 4, 2014. Bobby Doerr, 96,Everything.

Thank you, Bob, I am a better person for knowing you.

Our world is one soul less gentle.





From a column written for Ruralite Magazine, October, 2014

Most of us have heroes— people we admire and sometimes even seek to imitate. I have a few, most from a time long before I was born, but occasionally I discover a contemporary whose courage or character beckons me to learn more about them.

Three years ago, while reading “The Teammates” by the late David Halberstam, I was introduced to Robert Pershing “Bobby” Doerr, a Hall of Fame second baseman who played his entire career with the Boston Red Sox. A quiet leader on and off the field, his role-model character seemed too good to be true. Of the many people Halberstam immortalized with his writing, perhaps none was dearer to his heart than Bobby Doerr.

The more I read about the man, the more I hungered to meet him, and I wondered if he was still alive.

Thankfully, he was.


I wrote to Doerr, hoping for—but not really expecting— a reply to my request for a visit and interview in Oregon. To my surprise, within a week or so I received a handwritten note and a signed Hall of Fame card from the famous ballplayer. He apologized for having to decline my request and explained that his beloved sister, Dorothy, had just died. Since he had been living with his sister, he felt unsure of what the future held for him.

I was stunned and impressed that he wrote back to me, especially during a time of grief and uncertainty. This guy is too good to be true, I thought to myself.

While in Oregon this past summer, I decided to see if I could locate Doerr. I arrived in Portland late, but before dawn the next morning I began an Internet search, hoping to locate baseball’s oldest living Hall of Famer.

I was greeted immediately with the headline: Bobby Doerr dead at 96.

My heart dropped.

Not again, I thought. I had waited too long.

In past years, I have planned interviews and photo shoots with famous people, and they died before I could meet them.

I called my wife, almost in tears, sharing what I had learned. I told her I was going to drive to the small town where Doerr last lived and see if I could interview people who knew him.

As I pulled into town heavy hearted, I was surprised to find no signs honoring the famous ballplayer. In fact, there was no visible evidence of his passing. No farewell messages. No flowers at the ballpark bearing his name. Nothing.

Bewildered, I spotted a mailman and asked him if he knew where Doerr had last lived. At first he didn’t recognize the name.

“The Hall of Fame baseball player,” I said. “I know he lived in town or near here for many years.”

Busily sorting mail while walking his route, he stopped and said, “five on six,” then ducked into a building to deliver mail.

Five on six?


I looked up at the street signs and realized it might be some sort of code, so I indulged my hunch and followed the street I was on. Across the railroad tracks and at the end of the road, I found a beautiful retirement and assisted-living complex.

I went inside with camera and notebook, introduced myself and said I had just read that Bobby Doerr had passed. I expressed my condolences and asked if I could talk to somebody who knew the ballplayer.

They looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet.

“I just had breakfast with him,” quipped a caregiver.

An assistant quickly called for an aide and whispered something to him. The man nodded.

I told them about the website, and they called it up.  Sure enough, it proclaimed Doerr dead and even had a quote from someone speaking about the beloved player.

A prank, acruel hoax for sure.

By midday, I was finally able to meet and interview the baseball legend I so admired.

Sometimes the stars seem to align and you find yourself in exactly the right place at the right time. This was one such time.


Bobny and ShureeT.jpg

I want to thank Bob’s son, Don, for sharing his father with the me and the world. And Shuree Sleeper, the Doerr family’s longtime aid and friend, couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful.  I know both are grieving.

If you’d like to know more about this beloved man, I’ve attached a link to another story I wrote about Doerr and his longtime caregiver.


I’m also including links from current articles.









A tribute and visual love letter

Since learning about a dear friend’s passing recently, I have wanted, needed, to write something that expressed how much I loved and appreciated Carolyn Monaco.   But nothing I wrote seemed to fit.   But then I thought about an article I had written which was published this month titled, “A Visual Love Letter.”

In honor of my friend and sister in Christ, I share with you the column and a picture I shot of Carolyn with her husband, Frank, the first day of this year.


By David LaBelle

For 50 years, I have dreamed about photographing God.

In the past, I even kidded that when I died, I wanted my family to place a Nikon F camera loaded with 100 ASA film in the casket with me.

I figure I won’t need a fast film with a high ISO because there will be plenty of light, and I’d sure like to be the first to photograph heaven.

Indirectly, from the first days I picked up a camera, I have tried to photograph God by photographing His creation—be it the natural wonders of the world or the wonders of human creations.

Just as we photograph stunning rock formations in Utah, Arizona, Colorado or South Dakota—whose majestic cliffs have been shaped by countless years of breathing winds—we photograph an invisible God by photographing the influence of His Spirit on His creation.

Each of us carries the genetics—the DNA of our father.

I realize I must walk softly and carefully with this subject, and do so with sensitivity, recognizing there are many who do not share my beliefs. Please accept that this column is not meant to be a sermon, but a personal observation and ambition.

I do not mind admitting that when I witness humbling acts of altruism and love, my throat tightens and my eyes fill. In these quiet acts of compassion, I see my God every bit as much as when I behold a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

I have always been drawn to these genuine, not performed, moments. In them I see the goodness of mankind and the loving influence of God. In these mini stories, I feel the greatest joy and hope for humanity.


Frank and Carolyn Monaco.jpg

While some are drawn to photographing action sports, portraits or nature, I am drawn to quiet relationship scenes of love and compassion—things I often lack in my own life, but continually aspire to own.

My wife and I try to make pictures that reinforce the beauty and love of God on His creation, and try to avoid promoting the opposite.

For me, life looks very different at 65 than it did at 25. I’m confident it is a natural thing as we age to grow more introspective and more deliberate with what time we have left. In my youth, life was a smorgasbord and, like most, I wanted to sample everything.

I have loved many types of photography—from sports to nature, breaking news, celebrities and even some fashion—but lately, more than ever, my heart seeks to capture and share positive pictures that reinforce love and goodness and encourage hope, while glorifying our Creator.

It isn’t that I have not always tried to do this from the time I picked up a camera, but now with the acute recognition of the limited time I have left on this earth, there is an urgency not present 25 years ago.

I am forever reminded and keep this passage from Psalm 90 on the sleeve of my heart: “Teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.”

I photograph God when I record the golden morning light raking across the red earth or prairie grass of Oklahoma, or when evening clouds turn from white to yellow to crimson. I photograph God when I see birds drink the dew of the leaves or eat the crumbs left by man.

Mostly, I photograph God when I see His Spirit working in the lives of His children.

I don’t always love as I should, but often what I see through my lens challenges me to love more purely.

I wish every photograph I make to be a visual love letter to my God.

“She was the love of my life. The best thing that ever happened to me. She was my strength, and blessed me with 3 great children and extended family. She was the most loving and thoughtful person and I look forward to seeing her again in a better place.”  – Frank Monaco






by David LaBelle


Preparing to navigate the narrow, stone streets between the apartment I’d called home the past four months and the Santa Maria Novella train station, I stood on the sidewalk with three large suitcases and a stuffed, 50-pound camera bag.  My situation suddenly felt hopeless.  Try as I might to stack and organize in a way I could pull everything to the station alone, I couldn’t make it work.  I sighed, considered I might have to wave the white flag and call a cab, then whispered my favorite Italian word, “Allora.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a homeless friend carrying a quart of cold beer on his way to a nearby park appeared.   He smiled and nodded.  “I’m going home, back to America, I told him, or at least I am trying to.”

In limited, broken English he asked if I needed help.  “I don’t have any money to pay you,” I explained.  “Oh no, I help,” he smiled, “no money.”

I could have kissed him.


I’m going to the train station, I advised.  “No problem,” he assured.  He grabbed two of the heavier bags, stacked them and realized he couldn’t carry his cold beer.

“I can’t let you do this,” I tried to explain.

He looked down, sat his beer behind a chained bicycle in front of the apartment and said, “It’s ok.”

I felt conflicted, fearing another homeless person would likely pass, see the cold beer and feel the windows of heaven had opened.

Together, on the warmest, most humid day since my arrival, we managed the awkward load to the train station.  At the station, I told him I wanted to make one more picture of him, which he allowed. I fished around and found about three euros and tried to give it to him.

“No, No,” he said, waving his hands.  He beamed with the opportunity to be of service.

I don’t mind telling you, my eyes watered as I thanked him and hugged him goodbye.  I reached into my bag and found a bag of peanuts I had bought for the trip and insisted he take them and the few euros.  “Buy yourself another cold beer, please.”  Grudgingly he accepted the small gifts and disappeared, heading back in the direction of the park where he would see friends and eventually sleep on a piece of cardboard.

One could easily be intimidated by this man’s wild appearance, but from the first pre-dawn morning we met and connected over a cup of coffee, there was nothing but tenderness and kindness in his dark eyes.

Like so many I met on the streets of Florence, he is trapped in a place and a system, unable to go home or get the documents to work legally.  He has been without shelter and a home of his own for 8 years and likely will be there many more.  But he is a humble, grateful man, who looks out for his friends, even those that do not speak his language or understand his culture.

On the steps of a museum, a bridge over the Arno, a street corner in Prato, and in front of a bustling train station, my eyes filled with each embrace and emotional goodbye.  These people, despised by some and clinging to shreds of hope for a better life, greatly enriched my life and I pray I did the same for them.

no help.jpg


It’s my nature to smile at people I pass on the street, regardless of where I am.  In some places, people receive a smile more warmly than in others.   Florence wasn’t a place where eye contact and smiles were often reciprocated or even appreciated, especially when the one smiling was an American with a camera.   More often than not, the lips on faces didn’t move and the eyes spoke of suspicion, fear and sometimes, even contempt.  Thankfully, there were exceptions, usually from the older folks, parents carrying children to school on bicycles or immigrants.

After all, appreciation for another human being, regardless of appearance, nationality or cultural background is far more valuable than the tourist euros exchanged on the street.  The warmth and comfort of a sincere smile transcends the barriers allowing friendship and connection. Many are afraid or too busy to engage a stranger with a smile, but some are trusting and realize, regardless of our many differences, we are born of the same Father.


Of those strangers on the streets of Florence who did make eye contact and return sincere smiles, several enriching friendships began that sustained me during my semester-long visit to this ancient city.   (I know there are a lot of people here – locals, immigrants and refugees –  who are not so kind, nor should they be blindly trusted.   A few sour encounters with unfriendly folks proved this to be true.  I was continually reminded how the camera is an enemy to those with something to hide.)

For the many who spend their time on the streets, it’s a tough and challenging life.  Most I spoke with are conflicted and homesick.   They are grateful to Italy for opening her arms and providing refuge, but they ache for their home country and families.

(Italy is known for many things – art, history, culture, automobiles, leather, wine, food, fashion – but it should also be known for its benevolence in accepting more than a half million refugees over the past three years, mostly from African countries. Italy has a big heart shown by accepting the burden many others have shunned.)


To say this issue is complex and complicated would be a gross understatement.  My heart hurts for the native Italians who have watched the face of their country change so dramatically over the past fifteen years, but also for the strangers, those souls fleeing danger, oppression and seeking a safer and better life.

I, too, was a stranger here, though not without hope of returning home.  Italy allowed me to live in her house and enjoy her beauty and culture, and she was a gracious host.

During the Kent State Florence student and faculty orientation, it was said we may leave Florence but Florence would always be in our hearts.  There was much truth in this prediction.  I will miss many things about Florence and Italy, but perhaps my greatest sadness will be for those people on the street who befriended me, those souls I will likely never see again.

Leaving Florence after more than four months, I want to share with you a few of the immigrant and refugee faces which enriched my life during this wonderful adventure.  These are faces from places like Bangladesh, Gambia, Senegal and Romania, mostly Muslim faces.  They are faces belonging to sacrifice and struggle, but also to hope.

I will miss these friends. I pray each finds peace, hope and is able one day to go home.

What love looks like

By David LaBelle


On the streets of Florence, Italy, Akarin and Tharinee Totab make thier way to the train station. ©Photo by David LaBelle

My wife and I were on our way to a favorite coffee shop/bookstore when we spotted a couple shuffling through a small three-way intersection on a narrow cobblestone street in our neighborhood. These ancient streets were most likely created for the feet of Roman horses or wheels of chariots, but are now filled with bicycles, motorcycles, small automobiles and pedestrians trying to navigate quickly without causing harm.  The thing about this couple which caught my eye was the man’s stick signaling he was challenged in the area of sight.

I made a couple of quick shots, just shapes on the wet stone street, then noticed they were pulling suitcases on wheels and seemed lost. The common sign of a new arrival.

Getting lost is not unusual here, but this small yet busy street is no place to stand still or become paralyzed with indecision.  Being able to leap quickly, like a frightened squirrel crossing a busy highway, is essential for a long life here.  When one is blind, as the man appeared to be, peril is compounded.  Even with ears and eyes, it is a daring game of dodgeball on most Florentine streets.

I told my wife to go ahead, I would catch up, which is the norm, since we are both photographers and easily distracted by the things we see and people we meet.  I felt compelled to assist this couple.

Thankfully, with the aid of another person who spoke some English, were able to get the man and woman to their hotel, which wasn’t far away.   But later that night, while walking towards the train station to meet my boys returning from lacrosse practice, I realized I’d neglected to ask their names or even where they were from.  I decided to go to the hotel and leave a note with the desk clerk, asking if he would give it to the couple when he saw them.  I left my email on the note and hoped the woman leading the blind man would write me.  I was curious to know more about them.  The helpful young man at the desk, named Andrea (which is what many young men here are named) said he would give the Asian couple my message if he saw them.  Later that night, as I was walking home with my sons, the young man excitedly popped out of a coffee shop to excitedly tell me he’d passed along my note.

To my joy, the woman, named Tharinee Totab, responded and explained the man with her was her husband, and he was indeed blind.  They were from Bangkok, Thailand, visiting Florence for two days before going to Rome on a brief sightseeing vacation.   “His name is Akarin, but now he is called Champ, because he is a champion,” she shared.


Husband and wife

Finding fifty euro on the street could not have made me happier than making this connection.

Tharinee, who prefers to be called Tarn, knew Akarin in college, but hadn’t seen or talked to him in 19 years, until Akarin added her as Facebook friend.  Both into banking, the couple soon started dating.  “I would like to thank Mark Zuckerburg,” Tan says, grinning.


Tharinee (Tarn) and Akarin (Champ) before the accident.

Soon the couple fell in love and planned to marry in May of 2013.  But Champ’s parents died, as did Tan’s father.  The couple felt getting married the same year as their parent’s deaths would be inappropriate, a dishonor, so they decided to put off the wedding until 2014.  Then, in June of 2013, Champ was returning home from work when he was involved in terrible wreck. His face was crushed and he lost his eyes and his sense of smell.  His face had to be reconstructed and plastic eyes were set where his real eyes once offered him a window to the world.

“I decided to take care of him and stay beside him,” Tan explains. “We said in our vows, we promised we would love each other no matter what happened. Luckily our family supported our decision, and he became strong after three months of the accident.”

As planned, the couple went ahead and married in 2014.

But the petite, committed 42-year-old admits their marriage has been a lot harder than she ever anticipated.

“Sometimes I am so exhausted, I don’t get much sleep,” she shares.  “I go to work early in the dark and travel one hour to my job and come home and take care of him,” she says, sighing, but not complaining.


It was also difficult for Champ in the beginning and he told me he didn’t cope well with his loss of sight.  “At first I did not accept it, but she helped me.”



Enter a captionNow, three years later, Champ is at peace with his blindness and doesn’t allow the accident to hold him back.

“He learns to have a normal life from Mahidol University under a free program from our Princess,” Tarn explains.  “Currently, he can use a computer – he is previously a programmer/Information technology manager.  He knows a lot of news that makes me think, is he really blind?”

“Afterwards, we are strong and ready and back to a journey as our love again.”

DSC_4870 2.JPG

Tarn checks on the new departure time of their delayed train.

Now, three years later, Champ is at peace with his blindness and doesn’t allow the accident to hold him back.

He smiles and shakes his head.  “No, I trust her.  She leads the way and as long as I can touch her, I am not afraid.”


Tarn continually teaches her husband how to navigate the world. © Photo by David LaBelle

“I have to be the eyes all of the time,” Tarn explains. “But because he trusts me, there is no problem.”

“I tell him what I see,” Tarn adds, sensing my confusion.

“She is my audio descriptive,” Champ laughs.


The traveling couple on their way to Rome.

His joy and optimism are infectious and humbling.

“I ask Champ if I can take a selfie with him.  He agrees.  Then he smiles wide and says, let me take a picture of you.”

I smile.  I immediately wonder if this is a joke but his wife encourages me to pose with her.

Champ pulls out his cell phone, puts it to his ear, then smiling, aims it accurately in our direction.


“Smile,” he says.

He takes one photo, then asks to take another before handing the phone to his wife so she can share the pictures.


“Unbelievable,” I gasp when I see the well-composed picture he has made. The pictures are perfectly composed.

“Amazing,” I add in disbelief.  “How can he do that.”

“It’s an app he says.  I went to school to learn.”

I embrace the couple as they are finally ready to board their delayed train. Champ feels the beard on my face and smiles.  “Earnest Hemingway,” he laughs.  Tarn looks at him puzzled and has no idea who he is talking about.  They chatter in their native tongue and he explains to her who Earnest Hemingway was.   She lifts her brows and rolls her eyes.  “I told you he is very smart. He reads a lot.”

Just when it seems the whole world is complaining and pessimism fills the news, I meet people like Champ and Tarn who remind me what love and optimism really look like.

Though Champ admits it’s still a challenge to live a normal life, he is a picture of thanksgiving, and says he’s especially thankful for the technology which allows him to do so many things and fills his heart with so much hope.

“Someday I hope to see your face,” he says as we say goodbye and the pair shuffle towards the fast red and gray train that will carry them to Rome.


As I stood waiting for a long traffic light one my way home, my eyes filled and I breathed deeply to push down climbing tears of gratitude.  What a gift I thought.   Is there a better profession in the world, one that allows and encourages me to talk to strangers, ask questions, listen to their stories, and make pictures of them?

ere a better profession in the world, one that allows and encourages me to talk to strangers, ask questions, listen to their stories, and make pictures of them?

When friends leave us

When friends leave us

It has been a while since my last post and though I’ve felt a dose of writer’s block lately, my wife has encouraged me to keep posting. “But do so with less formality,” she insists. “Loosen up and just write what’s on your heart.”

I know her advice is sound, and so with her words in my ear, I’ll attempt to “loosen up” and post more often, hoping to do so in a more conversational way.

Thankfully, one of the beautiful gifts writing affords is its ability to give shape to our feelings and help us make peace with troubling emotions.  For me writing is a form of prayer that works its way from my heart through my fingers.

So here is what is on my heart at the moment:


Jim Gallagher looks long at the the body of friend and Christian brother Earl Key in 2010. Less than seven years later, Jim would join Earl in death.

 Two friends and Christian brothers, Jim Gallagher and Larry French, left this world late last year and their deaths continue to trouble me, mostly because I know I could have been a better friend to both.

Larry French


Larry in his mid twenties.


Larry had broad shoulders, large hands, etched and scarred with deep, dark cracks from years of turning wrenches.  He was a big bear with a soft heart, and someone who could spin a tale with the best, often blurring the facts for the sake of the story.  He was my brother-in-law for many years and early in life we were as close as brothers.  I still remember Larry saying, after helping somebody financially, “I take what I need and give what I can.”  For a mechanic who turned wrenches and drove trucks for a living, this was and remains a profound declaration.  But then Larry Dee always possessed a sort of common man’s junkyard wisdom.

Happy-go-lucky on the surface, Larry laughed easily, much like his father.  But also like his father, cared genuinely for others.  What most never saw were the deep wounds he could never escape or completely hide.   Perhaps the deepest was being separated from his three children after his wife left and took the family away decades ago.  For a man who was all about family, the separation nearly killed him.  Even more tragic is his children never knew him or witnessed the gentle giant when he broke down and wept when away from the eyes of the world.   Thankfully, Larry found love again with Sherry, which made his road through life less painful.

I didn’t realize I would miss Larry as much as I do, I guess because we were not as close the past 20 years as we once were.  That was my fault more than his, and it saddens me I didn’t to make more of an attempt to reconcile earlier.  We did draw closer last year when Larry approached me and we apologized to each other.  For that encounter I am forever grateful.

Jim Gallagher


Jim in 2010

I was drawn to Jim Gallagher the first day I met him, the way one feels compassion for a stray or rescued animal, kicked around by life and wearing the scars of too many bad decisions.  He tried to project a tough guy from Philly facade, but all one had to do is listen to him pray to know the tender heart of the invisible person.  Jim, like most of us, had his demons.  One was alcohol, the one that eventually took his life.  On the surface, he seemed able to hold this enemy at bay until his wife, Patty, a sweet, sweet woman with an infectious laugh, died rather suddenly.





She was his joy, his strength, and partner in both fighting his addiction (they met in AA) and in his walk of Christian faith.   Jim’s life spiraled immediately after Patty died and within six months his life was also over.


I failed Jim.  I had intended on several occasions to call him after Patty’s death, but didn’t. Sure, I wrote facebook posts, but such are poor and impersonal substitutes for a phone call or a letter.  I even wrote myself a reminder on a notebook I was using during a Bible class and circled it, yet still allowed the distractions of the week to keep me from calling Jim…until it was too late.

Both Larry and Jim experienced much joy in this life, but sorrow was never far away.

None of us truly or completely know what’s on the other side of this life.   Are Larry, Jim and Patty finally at peace?   Will I see them again?  Only our Creator knows.  But for now, I miss them and wish I could wrap my arms around each and tell them again how much I love and appreciate them and ask their forgiveness for not being a better friend.

But I suspect they know that.

Blessings of second chances

by David LaBelle

About a year ago, I met Dave Agard in a writing circle, made up mostly of military veterans.

From the first meeting, I enjoyed Dave’s thoughtful and often humorous way with words and his tender heart, a heart he guards with a sober outer shell.

A few months ago Dave shared a story he’d written about a man named Mike, one of his employees with a prison record and Chron’s disease. (Dave is co-owner and general manager of Progress Wire Products Company in Cleveland, Ohio.)  His story moved me, as I am sure it did others in the “Circle.”


Dave Agard

I asked Dave if I could share what he had written, then asked if he would connect me with Mike.   (Dave’s story is at the end of this post.)

Mike Rochelle

Mike Rochelle, 40, spent three years in prison for being an accessory to murder.  He was hired by Dave Argard a year and a half later, and has worked for Dave just shy of 9 years.  He talked openly about past mistakes, what it means to have someone believe in him and the gift of a second chance.


Mike Rochelle

“Dave is probably the most reasonable man I have ever met, as far as a boss is concerned,” Mike assures.  “He understands I have health problems, fine.  He doesn’t have a problem with me as long as I take care of myself.  If I get sick, I let him know what is going on.  I get sick every now and then and have to go to the hospital.  Other bosses, if I get sick, I get laid off. I come here and do my best.”

“He tries to help everybody,” he added. “It bothers me that some of my co-workers try to take advantage of that.”

Fifteen years ago, at the age of 25, Mike married Shannon, also 40, after she proposed to him.

Life is not easy since both suffer from medical conditions – he has Chron’s and she is blind, able to see only shadows.   Shannon says she has a disease called neurofibromatosis where tumors press against the optic nerve, causing blindness. In spite of the blindness, she is a picture of thanksgiving and contentment. Even after fifteen years of marriage the couple seems giddy in love.


Shannon and Mike

Though thankful for his job, Mike is driven to become a leader and hopes someday to lead the group of welders.

He rises early and rides his bicycle two miles from his home through the morning darkness to start work by 7 a.m.

“I am trying to become somebody more important here… move up in levels, take on more responsibility.”


DSC_2140A.JPG“Now I am here and Dave is glad I am here,” he assures, his eyes widening behind his safety glasses at his welding work station.

“That’s it, that’s what I am trying to achieve now.  One step at time.  I don’t want to be a pawn on a chess board, he offers, work gloves still on.  I want to actually move up and do something with myself.  Here.  This is the only work I know.  This is my career.  I have been doing this for 20 years.  I am trying to the best I can right here.”

“Nobody wants to come to work and be a pawn on a chessboard the rest of their life,” Mike repeats.


Dave and Mike at work

When I asked Dave, a Vietnam veteran, husband and father, if he could tell me in a sentence why he gives ex-convicts like Mike or those with troubled pasts a second chance, offering them jobs when others shy away from helping, he paused for a long, silent minute, then answered, “I can’t.  It’s just the way I am.”


Later he summed it up when he said, “As a young man, I made many poor choices.  I was fortunate that the consequences of my actions were never as severe as they could have been or should have been. I see this as a blessing and like to help people who made poor choices and received life changing consequences.

Following is the piece Dave shared with the writing Circle:

Just Say His Name

Our office manager, Jeanne, gave me an application and said the guy in the lobby was willing to wait for an interview. The handwriting was barely legible chicken scratch. This is common today as handwriting is not important. I took a quick review of the application. His name was Mike Rochelle. I said his name   then chuckled to myself. I noticed he worked at one of our competitors so he did have some kind of experience working with steel wire. I also noticed he had not worked anywhere in the past three years. We needed people so I thought I’d talk with him. Jeanne brought Mike back to my office. He walked big with shoulders back, erect, and a spring in his step. Bigger than his 5’-11” 135 lb body which looked to be just a couple pounds heavier than an Auschwitz  prisoner.   He had jet black hair, narrow face with sharp pointy features, dark brown eyes with no distinguishable pupils, and prison tattoos on his arms.

My method of interviewing is simple and safe. I ask open-ended questions…Tell me about all the places you have worked. Why did you leave the last place you worked? Tell me about your education and skills. What’s your interests?  For the most part, people like to talk about themselves if someone asks …if someone will listen. Some of the things they won’t talk about are discovered when we get the results of the pre- employment drug test.

Mike talked. I don’t know if you call it a stutter or he just repeated words but he had an excited voice. And, most sentences ended in ya’ know. Example: ‘I,I did have a job at Asset Wire so I, so I know how to use most of the, most of the equipment. Ya know’.   He hasn’t had a job in the past three years because he was in the ‘joint’ as he called it. Here is why. When he was twenty-one, he shared the downstairs of a two family house with two other guys and a girl. Mike described her as a ‘great big fat girl’. The owner of the house lived upstairs. An old alcoholic that had cash. One of the guys and the fat girl went upstairs when the old man was passed out drunk. They put a pillow on his head and she sat on the pillow till he was gone… along with his money. They left him up there to be discovered by a family member a couple days later. The coroner ruled he died of natural causes. He was cremated then disseminated. Three years later the fat girl found Jesus. He told her to confess. She did and implicated all who were in the house. Mike was charged with murder II. His public defender talked him into a plea deal. Man II. He was young and scared so he took the deal. Swears he did not participate and claims he was only guilty of not telling the cops about what happened. I don’t know.

Mike talked about his interests. He always wanted to be a soldier. When he was eighteen he signed up but was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Maybe that is why he looks like he needed a sandwich. Claimed he was a roman soldier in another life. Who knows.

He went on to say he would be a loyal, hard worker if given a chance. I did hire Mike and he has lived up to his promise. Over the past nine years, I got to know Mike much better. He only knows his last foster mother and has no brothers, sisters or relatives he knows of.  He got some broken ribs in a prison fight because he would not submit. The only person in his life is his wife Shannon who is blind. He lost his driver’s license years ago so he rides his bike three miles to and from work every day.  Periodically, his Crohn’s acts up and he’s in the hospital. I think he enjoys the stay as he gets some attention.

His only interest, other than work, is the Roman Military and their battles.  He is a walking text book. He tells me how many men were killed in each battle and the names of the generals. He especially likes to tell me how the Roman army developed the strategy to defeat the mighty Phalanx.  How they used the flexibility of the gladius against the long spears. Sticking the groin area not protected by armor then the enemy would bleed out.  He would demonstrate the ‘sticking’ motion as if he was there fighting in the battle. Maybe he was.

Walking through the shop yesterday, doing my morning rounds, I stopped to say good morning to Mike. “Morning Mike. How’s my small crustacean friend this morning?”  He gives me a big toothless grin. He loves this term of endearment. Something special. One of the few things that is just for him. Now, say his name out loud with me…Mike Rochelle. As you go about your life keep an eye out for sea shells – crustaceans. You’ll see them on bathroom wall paper, in glass jars in children’s rooms, and on the beach.   When you see one, think of Mike Rochelle. As now, we are the keepers of his story.



Pining for the past: film vs digital

by David LaBelle

I think most of us pine for something from our past – people, a car we loved, a pet or even a former self.

Sometimes, we don’t even know what we miss because our lives are so busy, then something triggers a memory, carrying us back through the decades.

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Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

Last week a reporter for the New York Times contacted me asking if I had photos from 35 years ago for a story he was working on.  I found the 8×10 boxes holding the prints but years of humidity had glued most of them together.  Hoping to separate and save as many prints as possible, I soaked them in the kitchen sink, then dried them in the tiny, warm closet that houses our water heater.

Wow, did the scene bring black a flood of memories.

As I looked at the rich tones of the submerged black and white prints and felt the emulsion and the water over my hands, the process carried me back to a lost time.

I realized how much I loved black and white film photography, especially the process of shooting, developing and printing.  And I missed me, the documentary photographer, whose film camera felt as natural in hand as a baseball.

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Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

I never imagined I would ever quit shooting film or making prints.  Yet, sadly, it has been at least 20 years since I last made a print in a darkroom.

A lot of photographers today write about how superior digital is to film, usually citing how much faster and easier it is. No more nasty chemicals or waiting for results, they assure. There are even filters that add grain to create the look of film for those who want it.

There is no debate that digital has transformed photography and made it easier, less expensive, likely safer without the chemicals, and more accessible to the average person.  With it we enjoy amazing benefits – especially speed in capturing, transmitting and reproducing images, and therefore, as a news tool, digital photography is unequalled.   And the higher ISO’s that allow us to see and capture in the dark like nocturnal creatures makes me jealous. I wish I would have had those when I was a daily news photographer.

But digital can never replace the experience film provided any more than microwaved food can replace the aromas, sounds and communion of preparing a slow-cooked meal.

As with most technological gains, something valuable is lost.

In this case, I feel we have compromised quality time.

Like riding a gas-powered vehicle while cutting the grass instead of huffing and puffing behind a push mower, you can cut the lawn a lot quicker and with less effort.  But what is gained in time and ease, is lost in physical activity and connection to the earth.

Similarly, driving or riding in a car is different than walking or riding on the back of a horse. An automobile is faster, but what is gained in speed is lost in connection to our environment.  The horse connects two living beings with earth and sky, while the automobile separates and insulates us from both.

As we have progressed, we have also lost so many sensual experiences.

The computer is another “artificial” layer between me and my images.  With a film camera I feel a closer connection to both the beginning and end of the creation – the photograph.

And I miss the darkroom – the process of developing and printing, of being a craftsman and trying to create in a print representing what I felt when I pressed the shutter.  And being alone in the darkroom with my thoughts or maybe a radio or tape player was soothing and calming, the opposite of sitting for hours in front of a computer screen, which drains my energy and hurts my eyes.  I realize now the process of developing film and making prints gave me much-needed time to process what I had just witnessed and photographed.  The images, once they appeared, helped shape and even clarify what I was feeling.

I miss the sound of the shutter opening and closing and the reassuring, familiar whirring of film being pulled from a cassette across the film plane.

I also miss the strategy of composing, figuring exposure and making images in 36 frames, trying to process, print and even transmit on deadline.

I even miss the smell of film.

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Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

But what I miss most – which ironically is what we tried to gain with digital photography – is quality time, that wonder-filled “latent’ space between the pressing of the shutter release and the birth of the negative or print.  Within that valuable, magical latent time hope is grown and dreams imagined.   In our world of instant gratification, which digital continues to feed, we have traded this deep, valuable experience for the “immediate” image.

I love what digital can do but would gladly trade the speed and convenience of today’s photography for the craftsmanship, community and pace of the past.

But I recognize there is a place for both.









Savoring the past

by David LaBelle

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A portion of my 4th grade class, the summer before Mr. McPerson’s 5th grade class. I am the second to the left on the bottom row, right next to my Creek Road friend, Sandy Sandefur.

He grabbed my arm as I raced through the halls of Oak View Elementary, leaned down and brought his sculpted face so close I could smell his breath.  His eyes burned and the long face contorted, as if in pain.

Mr. McPherson was my favorite teacher and I had never seen him so upset, at least not at me.

But it wasn’t anger.

He was disappointed that one of his best students, a chosen hall monitor, had violated the very rules he was charged to uphold.

This was a serious matter.


Mr. McPherson 2000

As he bent his tall frame over me – other kids in a hurry to play baseball or climb on monkey bars during recess – hurried past, hands stiff by their sides, trying to walk fast without running, without bending their knees.   They looked at me the way one gawks at a speeder pulled over on the side of the highway, thankful it wasn’t them who got nabbed.

My teacher lectured me about citizenship and reminded me I had a responsibility to be a good example to other students.  After all, I had been elected a hall monitor for that month.  I wore a white cloth shoulder belt and safety badge to prove it.

I wanted be tough, act cool in front of other kids, but I felt the tears climbing.  I hated that I had disappointed my favorite teacher.

He wore baggy wool pants, the kind Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck wore in those days, with a belt around wrapped his pretzel-thin waist, the way a rubber band pinches a sheet of waxed paper on a Mason jar lid.  And he didn’t have much of a chest as I remember

This week, while sorting through stacks of files moved from my evacuated campus office, I came upon a hand-written letter from Mr. McPherson, my 5th grade teacher, sent to me while I was photo director at the Ventura County (CA) Star in the year 2000.   I’d read the letter before, when I first received it, but gobbled the lines in a hurry, without tasting the flavor of each word.


I did write him back and thanked him, but realized this week I had never truly appreciated the letter.

This time, sitting alone on my porch, my eyes filled as I considered the care and craftsmanship of each line, each word, and savored each word, each line like marinated mushrooms.   His words were from another time just as he was from another generation – the greatest generation according to Tom Brokaw’s book with the same name.

That he would take time to write such a letter is still humbling.  Hand-written letters are treasures in this electronic age, and I cherish them as if maturing government bonds issued from another time.

Funny, I cannot recall the face of any of my grade school teachers, but Mr. McPherson’s face with the strong jaw, deep set eyes and high cheekbones is as clear in my mind as if I saw him yesterday.  I wish I would have known back then what I know now about my teacher, that he was a wounded war hero.  I don’t remember him ever mentioning it.

I wish he was still alive.  I wish I could see him today and ask him the questions about his life I didn’t know to ask then, and him for what he had done for our country and for me.

And I’d like to tell him though it took me 60 years to understand what he was trying to teach me in that hallway – that citizenship and patriotism are more than putting my hand over my heart during the flag-raising before school.

Finally, I think understand.

His headstone reads:

James Francis McPherson


World War II

Dec 18, 1922

May 23, 2012

B17 Navigator

Purple Heart AM





Life crossings

by David LaBelle

Few events are entirely an experience of joy or grief.  For every deep, dark shadow there is a shaft of golden light somewhere waiting to break through.

Such it is with many life crossings – transitions where relationships change, caterpillars become butterflies or princes become paupers, and where emotions too tangled to separate swirl like anxious water over jagged rocks.  While immersed in striving to achieve goals and meet the demands of life, we seldom appreciate the power of the transition, the metamorphosis until it is staring us directly in the face.

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Graduations can be like this.

Hidden behind the joyous sea of smiling faces, smartly pressed gowns and caps bearing a variety of messages, we cannot see the struggles so many endured to reach this long anticipated day.

I met her last year while she was waiting for a bus in front of our Journalism building.  I forget which one of us was wearing a Dodger’s hat, likely me.   We talked about our favorite team and she asked what classes I taught.

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Emily Wahl

The next semester, the blond-haired, blue-eyed senior showed up in one of my photography classes.

During the following weeks, I learned Emily Wahl was from Pittsburgh and her father had died after her freshman year of college.  He was diagnosed with cancer the day before she left for Kent State and died in June of that summer, three years ago today.

Losing a parent is difficult and painful, as it should be.   But there are times, especially during times of transition or accomplishment, when it seems to hurt more.

In the joy of the celebratory event, I had forgotten this could be a complicated and emotional day for Emily, until I saw the look in her eyes and caught a glimpse of the note painted on her graduation cap as she stood in line to receive her diploma.

“It was an extremely hard day,” the 22-year-old graduate shared.  “Everyone was so happy for me and was congratulating me.  They had no idea how empty I felt inside.  Half of me was so happy and had this great sense of pride and the other half was an empty hole. I was holding back tears the entire time.  I knew that my dad would want me to be happy on that day.  Before he died and I was crying buy his side at the hospital, he said, ‘my last wish is that Emily would stop crying.’ That has stayed with me since that day.  I know he wouldn’t want me to be sad.”

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Emily and her father during her high school prom

For Emily, it was a truly a bittersweet day.   She had accomplished her goal of finishing college and even secured a good job.   She wanted to be strong for her mother, to not break down in a flood of tears.  But watching other students taking pictures with their parents challenged her resolve.

“Seeing everyone taking pictures with their parents was so hard.”

“So many people kept asking me too… ‘Are you going home to live with your parents.?’ I never thought I would live to hate the word, parents.  I cringe every time someone says parents.  I miss saying “my parents.”

As I left the arena, I remembered a similar tough day, almost five decades earlier, when I graduated from high school without my mother, just months after she drowned.  With each life milestone, I think of how much she sacrificed to give me a start in life, and how much I still miss her.

I am confident Emily’s daddy is proud of what his little girl has accomplished and the wonderful person she has become.

I know I am.








Honoring Grandparents

Last winter, a student stood in the hallway outside a classroom crying with a phone to her ear.  I watched from a distance until she finished the conversation, then approached and asked if she needed help.

“My grandma was just rushed to the hospital,” she sobbed.

Wiping her eyes, she added, “She is the closest person in world to me.”

It struck me at that moment how important grandparents are in the lives of so many young people, and how exploring those relationships would be a good project for my students.

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Logan is embraced by Carrie, a fellow photojournalism student, after her presentation. Logan’s grandfather died while she was working on her project.

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Marisa’s mother and grandmother are moved with emotion during her presentation


So this semester – wanting to do one last meaningful project before officially retiring from full-time teaching – I remembered that scene and shaped an assignment which would honor grandparents. It would also encourage students to get to know their grandparents, whether living or passed.

I was blessed to grow up with two sets of grandparents; many did not.   A dear Jewish friend and colleague said she never knew her grandparents, nor did any of her friends, because a generation was extinguished in the Holocaust.

I encouraged students to find and copy old pictures and interview living grandparents or those who knew them. I asked each student to write an open letter to a grandparent or grandparents.

“Tell them what they mean to you,” I suggested.

Some complained they never knew their grandparents.

“Then this will be an opportunity for you to learn more about them,” I assured.


Each student was also asked to create a multimedia or PowerPoint presentation and for some, this would be their first attempt at such a creation. In the end, the unpolished roughness of some pieces let the great beauty of authenticity shine through.

During the course of the project, no less than three of the grandparents passed.  Several students expressed they did not feel they could continue with the assignment.   I encouraged them to press forward and work through emotions, assuring them it was important and possibly therapeutic. Each expressed later, as emotionally difficult as it was, they were thankful they didn’t quit and sharing the project helped them through their grief.

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Emma Jaye begins an emotional presentation

In the end, the project exceeded my hopes.  Several students embraced the assignment like detectives. They learned about grandparents they had never known, and many found and copied old photos and letters.    During a public presentation – where students shared their projects and some of the subjects attended – tears flowed from students and grandparents alike.




Alex’s grandmother reads the letter written to her after the event.


Following are some excerpts from unedited letters:

Dear Grandpa,

I do not know you, and I don’t believe I ever will. This is an understanding that I have grappled with for some time now. As I watch my parents grow older, with wrinkles crinkling around their eyelids like deep-rooted scars, the memory of you expands, if not invades, my mind more and more often. There are no pictures of you to be found in the house. Your name is never even hushed across family lines. In fact, I don’t even know your name. The mystery of you is so pervading that at times I can’t help myself think of you from my bed deep into the night, trying to piece together what I do know well enough to quiet my restless thoughts till the early morning. I wonder if my father, your son, thinks about you too while driving home late from work, hands gripped around the wheel, anxious with the thought of what you were once to him. Did he love you? Did you love him? …

  • Rachel


Dear Grandpa,


Where do I even begin? My love for art, my trials with patience, my strong hands, and over-sized button nose, I have you to thank for. The importance, and value, of perseverance, hard work, and most importantly, family, are all lessons you have instilled in me ever since I can remember, whether you know it or not. I know what you are going through right now is hard, and practically impossible to understand. I am in no way trying to be selfish, but it is really difficult for all of us

  • Liss


Dear Grandma,

… Thank you for the endless afternoons spent babysitting Tyler and I (I know we weren’t always easy), and for all the fresh picked vegetables from your garden. I miss hearing your voice in the choir on Sundays and laughing at your stories of telling the new priest “just the way things are done around here.” Lastly, you and Granma were the best example of true love I have witnessed to date. Even after ten years of her being in a home twenty-five minutes away, you never missed a day of visiting her. I’m sorry I didn’t say all those things that night. I like to think, and hope, that you know just how grateful I was for you.

I am lucky enough to have known you both. I got to live around the corner from you my whole life, stopping by your place after a day at the park or having you up for dinner. I am fortunate to say that I never had to face the harsh reality that is losing a loved one until I was eighteen. Your death taught me a lot. It revealed how very weak and strong I can be at the same time, the frustration of things gone unsaid, and what it truly means to be completely and unabashedly grateful in the present moment. I miss you and love you both more than this letter could ever express.

Your Granddaughter,

  • Danielle


Dear Grandma,

It’s your special boy. Although I’m not really much of a boy anymore, as you can see by my grizzly beard and devilishly handsome good looks.

Just joking of course.

It’s been almost nine years since you left us. You died September 1, 2007 when I was just in 8th grade, but I still miss you. I still miss your smile.

I guess it’s true what they say, though. The ones you love never really leave. I know you didn’t. You are still with us. Not physically on Earth, but in the memories you left behind, and God are there so many.

… I remember when I would come home from school crying because of a bad grade or rough day. I would sit in your chair with you – we were both so thin we could fit in it together – and you would hold me. “Oh honey,” you would say in the sweetest voice with the sweetest intentions. “Everything’s going to be alright,” you would say. I believed you, and suddenly everything was OK.

I remember going to lunch at the local Hardy’s with you and mom. It’s not there anymore, but I remember it. While mom would get the food, you and I would find a table. I would always swing my little feet back and forth and accidentally kick you under the table with my light-up Batman shoes. You would grimace in pain and say ouch, but you hid it well from my mom. You made a game out of just so I wouldn’t get yelled at or in trouble. You were my protector.

I remember when you would make spaghetti for dinner some nights after a long day of school. Mom made it well, but you made it best.

I remember all the things you did for me, and I want to thank for your kind gestures and acts of love. I loved you a bushel and a peck, as you would always tell me. You were too good to me. And I deserved it.


  • Richie


Dear Yiayia,

It’s been just shy of five years and four months since you’ve left. Almost involuntarily and unconsciously I seem to have kept track of the days, months and years.

You were such an integral part of my – and everyone else’s – life, that I didn’t truly understand just how much you were worth until it was too late. I don’t know why it came as a shock to me at how much I missed your presence; after all, you did warn me.

“Just you wait til I’m gone,” you told me. I always shrugged off your words.

When you moved in, I resented the change. And because of that, I took my anger out on the person whom I perceived to be held responsible; you. And for that, I am sorry.

You had no control over what happened. No one asks to be diagnosed with cancer; they just are. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason for who gets it and who doesn’t; they just do.

Sometimes I wish I could go back and change things. The way I acted, the way you acted in response and the nearly six years you lived with us.

I remember how you were always so sure that no one would miss you when you were gone. How wrong you were.

Did you forget the role you played in my young life? The days you spent with me while Mom and Dad were at work?

You taught me how to be a “ young lady.” How to tell the difference between the salad and dinner fork, to lay a napkin in my lap before eating, keep my elbows off the table and legs crossed at the ankle.

I remember afternoons full of cuddles and naps, when my eyes would droop – despite my resistance – and your arms would envelop me in the warmest of hugs. Rocking in the rocking chair, the gentle rhythm put me to sleep until the sound of the school bus going past and Sean coming home from school would wake me up.

But do you know what I miss the most? Your laugh.

Your head thrown back, full-body shaking, cackling laughter that made anyone and everyone near you join in. It was infectious, your laughter. It enhanced your natural light and aura. It made me smile.

You were the sunshine of our family. No one has quite shined today like they did when you were with us. We miss you more than you could ever know. Or maybe you do know, now.

See you soon, but not too soon.


  • Katie


Dear Grandma,

When I first began making this project, I was overwhelmed in the best way possible. My professor asked us to showcase and highlight a couple of things that out grandparents do, and all I could think was, “How am I going to successfully capture 81 years of pure selflessness?” You might laugh that off, but ask anyone else, and they will say the same. Your life has exhibited a true reflection of God’s character, and I would be humbled if His picture for my life looked quite a bit like yours. My admiration for you over the years has truly escalated. I loved watching Full House upstairs with you when I was nine, but man, how much.

… Grandma, thank you for being an example to me in that way – your heart for forgiveness is incomparable. You have been a source of consistent belief that He will move mountains for our family, and it is because of your grip on these promises that I have a firm grip too. I know that your entire life hasn’t been smooth sailing, but you are truly an example of what it means to know that the Lord is steering the skip and we are merely passengers on the life float, hanging on through uncharted waters. There is something so beautiful about that!

  • Kelly


I think you can tell a lot about a person by what they choose to bring up in conversation – things that bother them, things that have happened to them, things that they thought about in the course of their day. You can define my grandmother almost entirely by the things she chose to or chose not to mention.

She mentioned to her kids that no, she was not afraid to pull out a wooden spoon and indeed, she followed up on her promises of an old-fashioned whooping. She mentioned to her kids that her husband was a hardworking man and that sometimes, he got a little angry. She did not mention to her children a reason for a late-night egress from their Cleveland home when her husband shot a hole in the ceiling with a shotgun. Years later, she refused to mention that it even happened at all.

Around the time my grandfather died, about 7 years before I was born, she mentioned to my mother that she did not know how to drive. She mentioned her gratitude for the help my mother offered her – my grandmother had to reinvent her entire life and learn vital skills that had never before been necessary for her to know with a man in the house. She mentioned again and again that she was just fine and that she would always be there to help with raising my then toddler-aged sister. She did not mention the agonizing, resonating emptiness that was left to fill the space that my grandfather used to occupy.

  • When my parents got divorced, she did not mention frustration that accompanied having two children in her household again. She did not mention the agitation or the endless frustration that came with teaching me how to read and tie my shoes. She did not mention how difficult it was to help raise two children while my mom was off at work, just trying to rake in enough money to get back on her feet after a failed marriage and years of physical and emotional abuse. She did not mention that my sister was sneaking out through my bedroom window while I slept soundly, and she did not mention to my mother how she would have to wake up very early in the mornings and drive around the neighborhood while she searched for my sister. She did, however, mention how my sister had neglected to inform her of a volleyball practice and the need for a ride and how she, in her agitation, didn’t notice that she was getting dangerously close to the side of the garage. She mentioned, half laughing and half angry, that she managed to take her driver’s side mirror off. She never missed and opportunity, however, to tell us how proud of us she was; our little nuclear family minus one.
  • As the end of her life drew near, she did not mention the loneliness she felt. She did not mention how painful it was to live in a house so empty that it was draining the contents of her heart and soul to compensate a difference in pressure: her heart, bursting at the seams with love and wisdom, and her home, a polar opposite in its void-like nature. She did not mention how painful it was to look at the photo albums that chronicled the life she had made and the lives she had built, and there was immeasurable agony that accompanied her decision to unpack the contents of the past she left behind and dump them into a garbage bag to be left on the curb, ripped away from her home and her consciousness. It was only one day in June, while I spent my summer at her house so that I could help her pack up her things for a planned move to Nevada, that she finally mentioned her pain to my mom: she called her daughter on the phone one day, and she said, “Gerri, I’m dying.” While she died a week from the day she was admitted to the hospital, her final days weren’t filled with any sort of life-altering meaning. I think this largely lends itself from the fact that every day of her life she managed to pack with immeasurable meaning and love. Actions speak louder than words, and I think while she never missed an opportunity to tell us, she never needed to mention how much she loved us. It was immeasurable.
  • Andrew


Dear PapPap,


You leaving me has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. I used to dream about circumstances like this and now the problem is, is that I don’t get to wake up anymore. Your absence in something I feel everyday and I keep expecting it to hurt less every time it hits me, but it never lessens. It’s still so hard to believe. It’s strange. It’s very strange. How can it be that you’re just not existing in the same world as me anymore? I can’t understand it most of the time, but in the moments that I do, it hurts.

I think about the last time I saw you at home, everyday. It’s always, always on my mind. It’s always replaying and I always try to remember the details just right. I was home from school and you were wearing a red flannel. Mimi ordered pizza from the Pizza Joe’s in Portersville because we all know that they make it the best. Pizza in Kent just isn’t the same so it was a pleasant change. We all had dinner and you fell asleep in your chair afterwards. Mom and Dad were on the couch and McKenna and I looked through old photographs. When you woke up we started teasing one another. You poked my chair with your foot and I looked over and you were smiling with your eyes closed. You loved me so much. That’s something I never have to understand. It’s not strange. I never have to understand the way you loved me unconditionally, its just something that was. When we left that night, I hugged you and Mimi and said goodbye. I didn’t know it then, but that moment had within it, a lot of lasts. It was the last time I saw you at home. It was the last time I saw you standing. When we drove away that night, I was crying in the back seat, but I didn’t know why.

Mimi’s birthday was the following week. I surprised her with a call to wish her happy birthday. She excused herself a moment because she was helping you shave your face. It was the last time I heard your voice over the phone.

The next time I heard about how you were doing, it was Mom telling me that you were back in the hospital. She told me that the family was looking for a nursing home because at that point, it was the safest option for you. That was the first time I broke. I spent a half hour in the bathroom at school hyperventilating. When I came back to my friend’s room, there was no way to explain what had happened to me.

In the month of February, I did a lot of things. To other people, they might seem like small things, but I can assure you they were big moments from me. I was published in the Kent Stater for the first time and then for a couple times after that. I went to Washington D.C. with my photography class. In February, I started imagining my future after college. I was instilled with this new confidence, a feeling that to me, might mean professional success someday. I was so caught up in the possibility of new opportunities and in just trying to find myself as a young adult. I thought I had more time. I thought you were going to be okay because it wasn’t supposed to happen as fast as it did. When I sent Dad pictures of me in front of the Washington Monument, he showed them to you and you told him that I was so brave. I think about you saying that every single day.

When I was finally able to come see you, there were copies of the papers I’d been published in in a chair next to your hospital bed. You were unable to talk much that day, but my heart gave a sigh of relief when you recognized my face as it came through the door. Even when you had forgot the faces you had known for decades, you always found a way to remember me, and that will always make me smile. I don’t understand how you always remembered me, but I guess you don’t always have to understand things in order to love them.

I didn’t see you again until early March, when you had been settled into the nursing home. You were there less than two weeks, but that’s alright because you weren’t happy there. That’s not where you belonged. That afternoon in early March was the last time I saw you and during the visit, you talked a lot about being at work and a red Chevy you’d seen at work that day. You told me and Dad that you had just got done putting away your tools and we listened because we understood. Before we left, I gave you a delicate, little hug and told you that I loved you. Nothing makes me happier than knowing I got the opportunity to tell you one last time. My only regret is that I didn’t get to keep you longer.

I had a lot of trouble sleeping on the night you passed. There was nothing in my dorm room that should have kept me awake, but I woke every few hours anyway. Even if I shouldn’t apologize, I’m still sorry that I couldn’t be there with you when you left. When Mom told me that everyone had been there with you, I instantly wished I had been there too. I know you’re not mad at me over it, I just wanted to tell you anyway.

You’re with me always. Did you know that? When Mimi asked me what I wanted to help remember you by, she looked at me like I was crazy when I told her I wanted rocks. I’m sorry, but I stole back the rocks from your driveway that I gave you all those years ago. Remember how the limestone was stained blue from the fireworks every Fourth of July? I used to come to you because I thought they were rare minerals from the mine and until we started going through things, I never knew that you’d kept the same ones for all these years. Now, I keep them in by backpack. You go everywhere with me.

I  can’t look at birds without thinking of you. This makes me love them even more. The amount of money you’ve invested in birdseed over the decades would pay my college tuition several times over, I’m sure of it. You will be with me every time I see a mockingbird, or hear the call of a Red-Winged blackbird. Every time I take a picture of a hummingbird, I’ll think of waiting patiently for their wings while I’d show what pictures I’ve already taken. The first time we all visited your grave, as we finished The Lord’s Prayer, a lone goose honked in the distance. Was it you? Even if it wasn’t, I won’t be able to hear one without thinking of you, which is very flattering I must say. Who wouldn’t want to be compared to a Canadian Goose? Oh, and did I tell you that some chickadees finally moved into the birdhouse that you and McKenna built several years ago? I think I’ll call them both Harry.

I guess what I’m trying to say through all of this is that I miss you- terribly. There is a great void in my life now and I’ve been trying desperately to fill that with anything I can. Grief is one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. It always hits me in the most unexpected ways. It has a mean way of sneaking up on you that makes you pause and reflect.

More than anything, I’m glad that I knew you. I’m glad that I was able to call you my grandfather and I’m glad I was lucky enough to be loved by you. I got to make you proud in school musicals. You got to see me go to prom and graduate. I gave you the most emotional hug of my life the night before I left for college and here I am, seven months later, pouring my heart out to you. The funny thing is, is that I think we had Pizza Joe’s that night too. We’ve seen a lot together and now I’ll have to see a lot without you, but I know that if I ever need you, you’re just a rock away.

Until I see you again,

  • Logan





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