I’ll fly away

By Dave LaBelle

Dan Ripley in 2015


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.

The Ripley family in 2015

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.”

.Dan, always up for a party.

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.

.Dustin. one week after his brother’s passing.

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.”

Debbie and Dale listen to Dustin talk about his brother.

Debbie fights to control her grief. There is so much to do and the nurse they count on just quit, leaving her with the burden of caring for Dustin while making funeral arrangements.

Though she tries to be strong and not show her worry for Dustin, who has the same disease as Dan did, concern is etched on her face.

“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.”

Dustin with the two dogs. Bandit, 15, is on the right.

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:

You can also contact them: 

The Ripleys

207 East Avenue

Tallmadge, OH 44278

Colette Mynatt: woman of faith

by Dave LaBelle

This week I share with you another amazing woman named Colette Mynatt. Last I heard this witty, feisty and charming woman is now 105 years-old and living in California, likely still blessing all those she comes in contact with. 

She still cooks, cares for herself and lives in the same house on East Brow where she has lived for the past 72 years; the same house where she raised four daughters and cared for her mother four-and-a-half years until she died just short of her 99th birthday.

Lookout Mountain, Tenn, May, 2010-Colette Mynatt. Photo by David LaBelle

At 94, Colette Mynatt is mentally sharper and more physically able than many 30 years her juniors, and until four years ago, could be seen driving her red Nissan pickup truck around the mountain.  But, at 90 she decided to quit driving.

“My driver’s license expired before I did,” she laughs.

Mynatt came to Lookout Mountain just after fifth grade when her father, Lemuel Clayton Smallwood  moved his wife and three children – two girls and a boy – to Bragg Avenue from their farm in the Chattanooga Valley.  According to Mynatt, her father, a construction engineer, built the first paved road on Lookout Mountain, the roads in Fairyland and the Presbyterian Church building on North Bragg, as well as several area bridges.

 In 1937, at the age of 21, she married Henry Grady. They were married 33 years. The well-known criminal lawyer once spent six weeks in the same court room with Jimmy Hoffa when the labor leader’s court venue was changed to Chattanooga.

“They didn’t get along too well,” remembers my Mynatt, referring to her husband and the infamous union leader.”  They were too much alike,” she adds, rolling her eyes

Though Mynatt is clearly not a woman to sit around and pine for the past, she readily admits she misses her second husband, the man she married in 1976.

“It was just so wonderful,” she said, her girlish brown eyes dancing with the memory of Tillman Ellery Mynatt.

“He ran a dental lab in cattle farm, and was a dear man who love the Lord,” Mynatt recalls.

“I ran that man down but it took a while,” she grins.

They married only three years before he passed.

“It was brief, but it was quality. We toward south America.”

Asked if she thought she would marry again, Mynatt quipped, ”No.  Men only want two things – purse or nurse. I don’t have any money, so I’m pretty safe.”

After 32 years, my net who attended GPS studying English and Latin, decided to go back to school and pursue a history degree at Covenant College, which she finished in 1969. It was there she met Claudia Peters, a 17-year-old student, and asked the younger student if she would type her papers for her.  Peters later learned she and her new friend had another connection.

”She prayed for my family, for my three brothers when they were missionaries in Costa Rica before I was born,” says Peters.

The two have been friends for 43 years.  “She is my rock,” insists Peters, now a librarian at Covenant College.

“She is the most important person in my life,” almost tearing at the recognition.  “She is amazing.”

Colette Mynatt feels the increase in population is the biggest change she has seen on the mountain 80 years.

“We lived in the woods and now we are wall to wall houses.”

When the spirited and girlish Mynatt thinks back of growing up on the mountain, she giggles with memories of riding sleds from the water tower down to the base of the mountain.  They would put their sleds on cattle on a cattle catcher on the front of the Incline car. “It only cost 25 cents to ride back then, and ran until 10 p.m.”

“You made your fun then,” she offers.

She remembers the fire department giving them an old hose that was fastened to a tree on the bluff and the boys would swing off it.

Her eyes widen joyfully she recalls the mischievous boys slipping up behind a small street car called “The Dinky” and moving the wire to break the electrical connection.  “The driver would have to get out and put it back to get going again.”

Mynatt recalls riding horses with girlfriends Ann Glass and Susan Chambliss, usually up to Jackson Hill. “Ann rode a white horse named Nell and I rode a big strawberry roan named Dog Allen.  They ruined it (Jackson Hill) by putting Covenant College on it,” she kids.

She remembers Buck Stamps, “who was so good with children.”

 “She remembers miss Frieda Carter’s kindness and the man in Columbus.

”He was a black man who taught who thought he was a train,” she fondly recalls.

We would hear a train whistle in the night, and someone would say here comes Columbus. We liked to hear the train coming down the road at night.  He would stop at our house, one of his station stops.  He endeared himself to us. Oh, he was perfectly harmless.”

The deaths of three young girls – Nan Chamberlain, Charlotte Patton and Mary Smart – in separate incidents still swim in her memory. “I still remember the day they told me Mary Smart fell off the cliff.”

What is the secret of Mynatt’s long life and good health?

Colette is “sandwiched” between an older and “baby” sister – one is 97 the other 90. Her brother, Clayton, died in a car accident when he was 25 years old. “Mentally handicapped, he was the greatest blessing on our family,” she suggested.  ”Having someone like that in the family teaches children to be loving and caring.”

“It doesn’t matter what we eat. I eat bacon and sausage. It doesn’t affect us,” she insists.

“It has something to do with our body chemistry.  My mother used to ask for the fat of the ham and she lived until 99. We live on and on.  It isn’t easy to get out of here,” she kids.

When suggested she might yet live another 20 years,  the witty Mynatt fired, “Oh, shut up. Don’t threaten me.”

 Mynatt, who says she talks with the Lord daily, “Because we are in business together.” A proclaimed Christian, she says her faith is her life. 

“It’s and ugly word these days,  so it is a good one to claim,” she adds.

She doesn’t watch television anymore, and believes the secret to her sharp mind is her daily scripture memorization, a routine she developed at a very young age.

“My time is so short and I have so much to learn,” she smiles.  “I have the most wonderful life …everyday.

Colette Mynatt: A Lookout Mountain Gem

Originally published in the Lookout Mountain Mirror, July, 2010

Another Gem

Today I share the story of wonderful, feisty, witty and given woman named Dorris Chapin Wells, the second of four profiles titled Lookout Mountain Treasures originally published by The Lookout Mountain Mirror in 2010. 

Resting in a chair on a patio adorned with pots of yellow daisies and three hummingbird feeders, her lake blue eyes move over the beautiful Chattanooga valley below as voices rise and swirl about. 

“All aboard track number one,” belts a young man over the loudspeaker.  All aboard!”

Dorris Wells

“That’s the incline,” Dorris Wells, 81, advises. “We are right next to it.”

To Wells – who has lived on Lookout Mountain in one house or another since her parents brought her home from the hospital on a winter day early in December of 1929 – the voices and sounds of the cable-drawn cars are as familiar as the humming of a ceiling fan or purr of a noisy refrigerator.  She and her husband, Ralston, 85, moved in the house on East Brow 30 years ago.

“Here I live right next door to it, and it was my livelihood growing up,” Wells says. “I have the prettiest spot on the mountain, it’s a wonderful place to be and there is not a better view.”

She grins and points across the patio.

“I’ve got a little boy that lives on the backside of the mountain that comes by in his helicopter and just stays here until I come out and wave to him. It’s so cute.” She is referring to Michael Warren. He and his partner take pictures of people in business according to Wells.

Wells adds proudly, “Of course, all the people on the incline wave to me.”

A mischievous grin moves across her face and her lake blue eyes widen.

“There was a hill down by St. Elmo that they had been digging on and getting dirt out of forever. The Wacs (Woman’s Army Corps) and the soldiers would get on the incline in the afternoon and we would say, ‘look, grab him quick, we’re going over the edge, we’re gonna wreck, we’re gonna wreck!’  Well, the WACs (Women Army Corps) and the soldiers would get on the incline in the afternoon and we would say, ‘look, grab him quick, we’re going over the edge, we’re going to wreck, we’re gonna wreck!’ Well, the WACs loved that, they just loved huggin’ those soldiers. We had some WACs that were good kissers,” she adds with a wink. “We had the best time.”

View from her backyard

The Wells’ manicured yard slopes and disappears abruptly over the historical cliffs where Civil War battles were fought a century and a half ago. 

“I fell off that cliff once, about 30 feet, but part of that was rolling,” Wells admits. 

“I had a wonderful garden down under this bluff and I was planting flowers. It was the fourth of July.  Suddenly, I looked up and the heavens were above me and I was on the ground, and nobody was at home,” Wells remembers.

“I had 40 people coming for dinner, so I crawled up and got my neighbor.  My hand was going this way and my arm was going that way and I said, I think I have broken my hand. My neighbor said ‘I think you have, too.’  And, then we had 40 people for dinner that night and it was wonderful.  I didn’t have to give a fork to anybody; everybody had to do their own thing.”

Wells said gardening is the one thing she never grows tired of.  

“I loooove it,” says the woman who belongs to two garden clubs. “I have had a garden ever since I was a child. It is my second favorite love, right behind my children, which are perfect.”  The loving grandmother also thinks her six grandchildren are perfect.

Gardening can also be therapeutic offers Wells.

“If I am mad at Joe, I can pinch his head off in the garden,” she adds with her spirited girlish grin.

“I never eaten a green vegetable, she deadpanned. I have a flower garden.  And I don’t eat healthy.”

Her mother, Dorris Carter, later Chapin, lived just three doors away until her death at 87.  Wells recalls Saturdays as a child of 10 or so, accompanying her mother as she went to sit with aunt Freta Carter.  “We would tell her what we had done, even though she couldn’t talk,” Wells fondly remembers.

Modest and unpretentious, Wells links two of Lookout Mountain’s most famous families – the Carters and the Chapins.   Her uncle, Garnet Carter, started Rock City, developed the Fairyland community and invented the Tom Thumb (miniature) Golf.  Wells’ grandfather built the American National Bank, now Sun Trust.  Her grandfather and father were both presidents of the bank and her husband, Ralston, was a trust officer before his retirement. The youngest of three children, Wells’ brother Edward, (E.Y. Chapin Jr.) lives on the mountain and sister, Lynn, who she says “is the dearest child you’ll ever meet,” lives down in the valley. 

Wells attended Lookout Mountain School, graduated from GPS and then left home for Mt Vernon College in Washington, D.C.  The former GPS May Queen married Ralston Wells on Dec 12,1950. Like Wells’ parents, the couple raised three children, two girls and a boy, on the mountain.  “One lives in North Carolina and two in Atlanta. They could hardly wait to get away.  There wasn’t much to do here. Now, they are all dying to come back.  Chattanooga is really just getting kind of cute.”

Wells admits she had a boy “that was in love with me and use to ride the incline up to visit.”

“You would date boys that lived downtown. We didn’t have cars then.  And, they would ride up on the incline and a bus to your house and you would have a date with them, sitting there in the living room.”

Wells said her fondest memories are of an “unscheduled” childhood.

“School was wonderful!  You got up in the morning.  They drove you to school and said don’t come home until six o’ clock.  We had to walk home and we had to make due until dinner time,” she remembers. “You were free to do what you wanted to do, and we didn’t have my mother picking me up and taking me to dancing,” Wells added.  “It’s wonderful what we lived. We talk about how nice it was not to be so hovered over.”

Asked if she feels we have lost anything in our present society, Wells answers quickly.  “I don’t think we have lost a single thing.”  And then after reflecting a moment adds, “Maybe our freedom.”

Though comfortable and fulfilled, Wells’ life is not without many of the challenges of aging.  She fights to maintain a positive spirit. 

“Do you mind if I grit my teeth a minute,” Wells says regarding a present concern.

She has been unable to garden after falling and breaking her wrist while planting some flowers.

“I have fallen two or three times,” she admits.

Wells laughs, “The children have taken the cars away from me and my husband.”

A member of the Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church for 55 years, 30 as their secretary, Wells says she imagines heaven as a place of “constant peace.”

One of my favorite pictures of Dorris was shot by my wife Erin.

Though she is quick to assert that being raised on Fairy Trail, she has enjoyed a “fairytale life,” Wells’ aging life is not without fears and challenges.

“I worry about my children and grandchildren,” Wells admits.  “And I worry about worrying.” 

Though Wells loves to tease – a comfortable way of masking many real concerns ­­– there is a twinge of sadness in her blue eyes.

“I just want to be content,” she shares. “I have not quite made my peace.”

Beneath the great sense of humor is a deep and introspective soul

A fun, witty and deep soul, Dorris Wells can rest in the recognition she has brought joy and comfort to many lives.

“She’s everything to me, that’s the truth.  Everything!” offered Mary C. “Caroline” Goines, 87, who has worked for the Wells family for 39 years. “She says some of the cutest things and she doesn’t lie.”

Says Wells of Goines, “She’s my best friend.”

“Their home was always a magnet because she understood kids and listened to them,” remembers Bill Chapin, Wells’ nephew, President and CEO of See Rock City Inc.

“We can really tell each other what is on our heart. That will make you a friend even if you are not related.”

Choosing his words carefully, Chapin adds, “The great thing is that we can laugh together and cry together. We have laughed together and cried together.” 

“She was like a mother to me,” he says emotionally. “My dad moved to Florida, Aunt Dossie didn’t.”

After 81 years, what advice would she offer young folks.

“Be honest in everything you do. I didn’t’ do it so good when I was little.

“The world is so small, you go to behave at all times.”

Wells chuckles, “I don’t know much about my life, I have never been interviewed.  I’ve always wanted to be interviewed, but I never have been.”

        Dorris died peacefully at her home, January 5, 2012

A mountain gem

In honor of Women’s History Month, I am posting four stories, one each week, from a series I wrote in 2010 while living on Lookout Mountain.  Each woman profiled was the wife of a prominent husband, yet for the most part, each remained relatively unknown, living in the shadows of their husbands.  The series published by The Lookout Mountain Mirror was titled Mountain Treasures.  I hope you enjoy reading the stories of these amazing woman as much as I enjoyed meeting and writing about them.


Framed by eight rectangle appealing wood, her sculpted face catches the eastern morning light, revealing a picture of strength, elegance and modesty.  Evelyn Chamberlain has lived in this two-story wooden frame house on 224 West Brow for 69 of her 92 years.

”The house has seen a lot of good days and some bad,” offers Chamberlain, choosing her words carefully.  

Married to Hiram Sanborn Chamberlain II for just over six decades before his death 14 years ago, the former Girls Preparatory School graduate and homemaker raised five children, three boys and two girls, and have seen a lot of life pass by this window, and a lot of changes.

“Times are different, life was different when there was less people and less traffic on the mountain,“ offers Chamberlain, more as an observation more as observation then complaint.

“Parents didn’t worry about their children the same way they do now.  There were fewer cars so they could ride their bicycles everywhere.”

And, “electrical things like television and the Internet didn’t exist” when she, her husband and first child moved to 226 West Brow in 1942,” she adds.

Chamberlain said she also remembers the war effort; like many others, she volunteered at the Red Cross.   “But everything changed in the 1960s,” she said.  ”Before then, people were so very patriotic.  Any able-bodied man would be embarrassed not to be in the service.  During the ‘60s, Vietnam, a lot of that changed.

There were other changes.

“Medical science has also changed a lot,” Chamberlain notes. “There was measles chickenpox, scarlet fever… a lot of children died back then,” she remembers. She caught scarlet fever and her 2-year-old brother died from chronic ear infection.

”It isn’t necessary anymore, “Chamberlain says thankfully. ”We didn’t have antibiotics then. He wouldn’t have had to die if we had what we have today.”

Her thoughts carry her back to a frightening time during World War II, many called “polio summer.”  Eyes widening, Chamberlain touches her lips. ”It was everywhere around you, you expected to get polio, “she remembers.

”The doctor said, don’t let the children go swimming.  I was practically scared for them to breathe.”

Chamberlain then tells of a GPS classmate who married a “healthy man, and then he got polio and became an invalid.” 

It was the most wonderful thing when the polio vaccine was created and we went to the school to get vaccinations,” she recalls.

The soft-spoken Chamberlain chooses not to talk much about the family lineage – one of the oldest and storied families in Chattanooga, dating back to the 1800s and Civil War Captain Hiram Sanborn Chamberlain.

”You don’t need to write about that, “she gently scolds.

 “It’s not my family, it was my husband’s family,” she reminds. ”My family are wonderful people, nothing tremendously uncommon about them – just good people.”  

Not one to live in the past, the 92-year-old homemaker, whose quiet an inner strength and outward grace resembles the late Audrey Hepburn, you’re genuinely content with her life.

The best time in my life is everyday,” she humbly suggests. 

 The articulate Chamberlain then adds,” Yes, there have been lots of sad things but all in all, I’m very blessed.”

A reminder of one of those “sad things” is a tiny wooden chair sitting empty below a family of seven black and white portraits next to a silver-gray color television.  The small chair, like much of the house is from another time, a happier time when Chamberlain’s oldest son, Hiram Sanborn Chamberlain 111 sat in it to have a formal portrait made. 

The young man died at age 24.

“It’s not something you get over or ever want to get over,” she quietly offers.  “You have to go on.”

Asked why she has chosen to stay on the mountain, Chamberlain answered, “Where would I go?  I never thought of going anywhere else.  I was a stay-at-home mom; it never occurred to me to be to do anything else.”

And then, quickly adds, lest her words sound offensive, ”But, I marvel at those women who hold down difficult jobs while raising a family.”

She also believes “men do a lot more now to help out at home than they did back when I was raising a family.”

As she aged, Chamberlain said she thought about getting a smaller place like an apartment, but her children protested.  

“Oh, mom, don’t do that,” one would say.  

“It’s the gathering place, Chamberlain admits. “If I was in an apartment, I wouldn’t see them when they visited; there wouldn’t be enough room.”

Chamberlain lived alone after her husband’s death until her retired son and his wife moved in recently to help her.

What advice does someone who has lived nearly a century offer?

“I really believe being judgmental is one of the worst things we do to injure ourselves”, “Chamberlain suggests. “I really try not to be judgmental.  It does so much harm with people, even our children.”

”People say, ‘oh, I wish I would have done this for that differently,’ but they may be too hard on themselves sometimes. But, I think people do the best they can with what they had at the time,

given their environment or health situations. I might do worse if I had to do it all over again,” she smiles.

”Most people do the best that they can at that time,” she repeats. “You have to face up to the things you shouldn’t have done and try to change those things and do the best you can.”

Striving to be an example to her four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Chamberlain also believes “it is very important to think about what you are going to say before you say it. “ 

”A lot of people say ugly things and it’s very hard to undo. You can say, I didn’t mean it, but it’s too late. They never forget; they can’t forget you said it.

“Chamberlain says her life goals are simple: ”I don’t want to be a burden, and just living every day is what I try to do.”

She then added, ”I like to see my grand children grow up and be happy and do well. But, they are in God’s hands. I try to be thankful for what they are no matter what.”

Asked if she was afraid of death, Chamberlain answers softly, ”I believe everybody is.”

“I think I’m blessed with good health. People have situations that caused them to die earlier. But, I think as long as you as you have your health you don’t want to go.”

”There are some things I can do that nobody else can do, like with your family,” she’s adds. 

“If you don’t do it, who can?”

“One of the sad things about living this long is a lot of your friends are gone.”

 She adds, smiling, “But, after all, we have enough people on the planet and we can’t feed all them.”

“I lived a simple life compared to some.”

A stern line moves across her lips and her brows become pointed. “Don’t write a bunch of complementary things about me, “she challenged.  ”Being 92 doesn’t make you wonderful.

Just because people are all doesn’t mean they are great.

In many ways, Chamberlain’s modest house and humble life are not unlike one of her favorite movies: Frank Capra’s classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  ”I love that movie, “she says. ”It’s a way of life.”

“It takes a heat o’ livin in a house t’ make it a home,” she quotes borrowing from a 1916 book and poem titled, “Home” by Edgar Guest.

“I have many wonderful memories of happy times with children and birthday parties,” she says, looking down at the valley from her back porch.  “I lived in a good time,” Chamberlain suggests. I have many, many things to be happy for.”

Evelyn Chamberlain lived in the same house 75 of her 101 years before passing on Dec 15, 2018.

The Waving Man

 I met him eight years ago during a family vacation in Camden, Maine. He was sitting in a motorized wheelchair alongside a highway in front of nursing facility, waving at all who passed.

My curiosity compelled me to stop, turn around and learn more about the man. Kert Ingraham, 82, told me of his youth, adventures and creating several successful businesses. He said he had a son, but his wife had passed. Most of all, he shared how he had found unexpected joy and purpose in filling his days by waving to passing motorists, walkers and joggers. He said he had been waving at folks for nearly a year, and had found it gave him something to look forward to and a way to bring joy to others.

This waving began rather accidentally. Because of a smoking prohibition on the grounds of the nursing facility, Kert drove his motorized wheelchair out near the highway to smoke. Meanwhile, he waved at passing motorists. Soon, what began as a simple kind gesture became a faithful daily ritual he practiced the next five years until his death in December 2016.

Before long, “The Waving Man,” as locals called him, became a friendly fixture—a local, even national celebrity. Singer-songwriter Don McClean wrote a song about Kert titled “The Waving Man,” which he included on his 2018 album, “Botanical Gardens.”

During these anxious and even unkind times of late, I began to think about The Waving Man, and how a simple gesture of kindness and connection meant so much to so many.

“No matter your mood, his simple act of kindness always made your day better,” The Camden Herald wrote upon Kert’s death.

I believe most of us want to do something big—something good—to make the world better. But life teaches us if we slow down and observe, it is often better to contribute a thousand small things than one big one. The way I figure it, The Waving Man raised his hand in kindness at least 75,000 times, which probably equates to nearly as many smiles.

Saying Goodbye to Gus

In his youth, he loved to chase squirrels, cats, UPS and FedEX trucks, and bite water from a hose or moving creek rapids, swelling like a balloon. He attacked garage doors when opening or closing and ran in wild circles barking at thunder during storms.

July, 2014

A member of the family, and the little dog was a grandmother’s present for my son Tucker’s 5th birthday, Gus – who traveled with us on road trips and moves across country – became as much my youngest son Henry’s dog as Tucker’s.  Nobody loves creatures – especially dogs – more than Henry.  His very first sentence was, “I am a dog.”

Learning to walk on a leash
Young Gus loved water
Always ready for an adventure

We almost lost Gus before he was 5. A neighbor’s Great Dane chomped the Jack Russel in the midsection and shook him almost to death.  Gus rebounded and wasn’t afraid of any dog, regardless of size.

One of the boys

Gus loved bath time

But as time does to all living things, the years took their toll. Watching our 15-year-old Jack Russel, lose his personality, his motor skills and control of his bowels was heartbreaking.  Gus was the first dog I have witnessed the cycle of life from puppyhood to old age. 

Gus at about 100 in dog years
Henry says goodbye to Gus before leaving for Oregon

The last months were the hardest.  Suffering from a form of doggie dementia, blind and deaf, he shuffled in circles or stood for long periods of time starring in corners.  He didn’t sleep well.  Neither did my wife nor I. Through the night he paced in circles, his toenails tap-dancing on the kitchen floor.

Finally, the hard day came, when we knew it was time to say goodbye. My wife, Erin, bought a soft blanket to wrap and cuddle Gus on her lap while carrying him into a new, strange environment. When the vet gave him the shot  to put him to sleep forever and Gus gently dropped his head and his little body relaxed in my wife’s comforting arms, we both cried. I thought how no person or dog should die alone.

Erin says goodbye to Gus, our 15-year-old Jack Russell

I awoke at 5 a.m. two days later, sure I heard Gus in the kitchen shaking himself, as he did when he awoke. I was sure I heard the familiar sound of incessant tapdancing of his toenails on the kitchen floor, letting me know he had to go out and soon. I got up silently to avoid waking my wife. Heart pounding, I expected to see Gus. He was gone. I leaned against the sink and wept.

I cried again after calling Henry, who had moved to Oregon, and hearing his whimpers as I told him we put Gus to sleep.

For Tucker and Henry, it was like losing a little brother.

Coming home to a quiet house a few days after Gus was gone, I noticed Erin’s eyes filling.  “I miss Gus,” she confessed.  “He has been my greeter for the past 15 years.”

“I do too,” I confessed. “He was family.”

Gus angered me at times with his untimely incessant barking, but I loved that feisty little Jack Russell Terrier.  He brought much joy to our family for many years.

I kept thinking how I could have and should have been kinder and more patient with him at the end of his life.  I thought about how Henry tenderly held Gus, kissed him and rubbed his tummy, even though his hair was coming out in patches and his odor was gagging.  He even carried the frail dog in his car and drove him places so he could see the outside world.

The ashes of a loyal friend in our living room

A time to fly

by Dave LaBelle

My son Henry and his girlfriend Caroline share a heart for creatures large and small.

This spring Henry rescued a baby rabbit from two evil-looking cats and did his best to clean the little guy’s wounds before the frightened creature disappeared into the bushes near our home.


A day later, he brought home a bird that had fallen or had been pushed from a nest.  He and Caroline searched online for how best to care for what they later learned was a baby Blue Jay.  They fed and cared for the chick and kept him overnight before nailing a small box on the tall tree near where they had found fledgling and placing the chick in it.  Thankfully, a blue jay parent began feeding the youngster and all seemed good, that is until a strong wind and rain storm attacked.  Realizing the torrential storm would likely drown the growing chick, Henry rushed out into the storm late at night and returned with a soaked and shivering bird.  The box was barely hanging from the tree.  They dried the wet bird then fed him, and he spent a second night in Caroline’s room before nailing a dry box to the tree and re-depositing the baby jay.

Baby Jay.jpg

A few days later, Henry and Caroline arrived with yet another fuzzy chick bird, a baby robin they found on the street in downtown Athens.   But this time there was no sign of nest or parent birds.  I tried to warn them that a baby robin needs a lot of worms, and feeding the little fellow until he could fly would be a full-time job.  Not to be put off, they became surrogate parents, spending time with and taking shifts to feed the hungry youngster.  The chirping chick cried to be fed every couple of hours, beginning before dawn.  Since I am an early bird and I could see both Henry and Caroline were growing weary, I offered to take the first feeding shift.  I enjoyed digging worms and filling his little tummy until he closed his eyes with satisfaction and fell asleep.


I loved that little bird.  I felt like a grandparent to him/her.   Though Henry refused to let him be named – assuring me it was wrong to name a wild creature that would be returned to nature – I still called him Bob.


Henry looking

_DSC4877.JPGBefore long, the robin’s feathers came in and the fledgling began sleeping outdoors in trees in our backyard.  I was a nervous wreck and didn’t sleep well, worried one of the many neighborhood cats or an owl would get him.  But each morning before daybreak, Bob would be at the back door chirping to be fed.   Each of us took turns teaching him to find his own worms and not depend on us doing all the work.  He caught on quickly.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle


2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

Then came the day when our little friend was ready to leave home.  Henry and Caroline took my adopted “grandbird” to a location away from town they thought would provide cover, interactions with other birds, and plenty of worms.  I followed with my camera and a heavy heart. I knew it was time for Bob to take flight and be on his own, but I hated seeing him go.

DSC_5164 copy.JPG

I didn’t like it, the place they chose.  There was a trail around the pond and I felt Bob was too trusting and vulnerable here.   But they encouraged him to find a few worms, and even fed him a big, thick, juicy one and said goodbye.  Bob closed his eyes and decided to nap on a branch about 6 feet above the ground.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

But no sooner had we started back down the trail when a big cat came slinking out of the brush, towards where we had left Bob.

“Oh no,” cried Caroline.

“That’s what I feared,” I gently rebuked.

Then a man with a big dog off-leash, sniffing in the brush, appeared.

No more signs needed.

Henry went back up the trail, picked up Bob and we started for a new location.


If there is such a place as a paradise for birds, we found it in our local community garden. Quiet, earthy people lovingly cared for gardens while baby birds – sparrows, wrens, woodpeckers, and mockingbirds – jumped and played, darting and flying clumsily on garden posts.  Without unleashed dogs or hungry cats roaming around, and with plenty of bugs and worms and water, this was bird heaven.  A misty spray from a watering hose caught catching the colors of the morning.

Henry and Caroline said their goodbyes and we watched like proud parents as Bob hopped through the grass and pulled several worms.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

DSC_5214.JPGHenry and Caroline said their goodbyes and we watched like proud parents as Bob hopped through the grass and pulled several worms.



2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

Though it was still hard leaving Bob there as the evening approached, I breathed a sigh of relief like leaving a child with a trusted family member.

_DSC5399.JPGHe would be all right.

The next morning, while the grass was still wet with dew, we drove to the garden to check on our baby.



He saw us and chirped and flew to Henry but was eager to go back to his business. It was clear he was a teenager now, acknowledging us but anxious to be on his own.

We went a couple of days later, just to check on him.  And though Henry and Caroline adamantly insisted I stay away and leave him alone, I still snuck back about a week later.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

My heart sank when I looked over the entire garden and couldn’t find him.  Maybe some critter got him or a hawk?  I whistled but without response.  I admit I got a bit misty.  Then, while leaving, heavy-hearted,  I heard a chirp and saw him in a fenced garden plot.  He saw me and wiggled through the fence mesh and hurried over and sat on my shoe.  I wiped away tears.  Though I wanted to, I didn’t feed him or even pick him up. But I did say hello and tell him how proud of him I was.


I have raised four children and it was hard watching each of them leave the nest and fly into a big, unpredictable world. I know it’s the way it should be, but it is still tough.

2020 ©  Dave LaBelle

Finally, the day came when Bob or “Speckles,” the name some of the local gardeners gave him, left the garden for good.  Where he went and what happened to him, we may never know.   Maybe next Spring he will come back to our backyard and raise a family?  I hope so.  He certainly enriched our lives, our household for several weeks during uncertain times.

A Man for all Ages

Last November my lifelong friend, Rob Stapleton, introduced me to a truly interesting veteran named Ski Kowalewski, who was nearing his 100th birthday.  Following is the story we published in Ruralite Magazine recently.

He laughs easily and often. Quick-witted, intelligent, financially savvy—and with great eyesight, thick hair and his original teeth—Zygmund “Ski” Kowalewski looks decades younger than his 100 years.



Beneath the boyish smile and twinkling eyes reminiscent of Roy Rogers is a war hero and author.

When he was 96, the spirited and decorated World War II veteran wrote and published his first book, “A Sailor’s Life in World War II.”

“When I retired out of the Navy, I wanted to write a book about my Navy career, and that’s what this is,” he says with a smile, pointing to a paperback book.

On the cover is a photograph of a plane crashed in the sea, with Ski swimming away from the sinking bomber.

A Sailor's Life

“I was on four aircraft carriers and served in the Pacific, and we delivered airplanes to Alaska,” Ski says. “I also served on an aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic and we sank a submarine.”

Pageboy murderHe picks up a second book, “The Pageboy Murder,” published two years later.

“I’m in a writing class and this is just a whodunit book,” Ski says.

Ski paid to publish both books and donates all proceeds to nonprofits in Alaska, contributing to the Good Samaritan fund at the Chugiak senior center and the Chugiak food pantry.

Ski—who moved to Alaska in 1967—left his longtime home in Anchorage after his wife died in 2014. He now lives at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center.

Born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1920, Ski enlisted in the U.S. Navy in October 1941, about two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He became a shipboard radio operator, learning to copy Morse code. He was a member of the famous torpedo squadron (VT-8) devastated at the Battle of Midway.


Ski started naval flight training in 1945 and served 10 of his 20 years in the Navy as a pilot. He retired in 1960 at age 40, then joined the Federal Aviation Administration as an airways system inspection pilot, flying to all parts of Alaska for 10 years.

During his military career, Ski survived a number of close calls.

“When flying in the dive bombers, we gunners would ride in the rear seat,” Ski wrote. “Our job was to call out altitudes during the dive. It was exciting, to say the least. I have one memory that stands out. We were attacking a Japanese cruiser. I was firing my 0.50-caliber at them and they were firing at me with 20 millimeters, and one of them hit the airplane and killed the guy on the lower turret. I said I wasn’t scared, but I am going to go down fighting.”

Ski believes he dodged many bullets during the war—mostly by missing assignments on planes where others were killed—but claims he was never really afraid.

“It’s just what you did,” he says. “I am just damn lucky I got through it. We had plane crashes. They were routine. That was standard procedure. I was just damn lucky it wasn’t me. I thought, ‘Today, boy, I dodged a bullet once more,’ after another close call.”



Bob Mrazek, author of “A Dawn Like Thunder: The Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight,” described Ski as “a true American hero, one of a small group of Americans from every part of the country who joined Torpedo Squadron Eight in the early days of the Second World War.”

Ski was recruited to support the Marines fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal at Bloody Ridge. He participated in the burial ceremony at sea of a German submarine captain who had been captured by U.S. naval forces in the North Atlantic.

He says Adm. William Halsey, a fleet admiral in the U.S. Navy during World War ll, was probably the most famous person he met.

“I got a citation from him,” Ski says, noting they were flying out of Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands. “It was just an air medal.”

He is more excited about the time he flew actor William Boyd—better known as Hopalong Cassidy, the cowboy TV and movie star from the 1930s and ’40s—to a Christmas party.

“I had him in the right side of the DC3 and I let him fly it,” Ski says. “He flew it all the way from Palm Springs to San Diego, but then we made the landing because you can’t make a landing without sitting in the cockpit. I made a lot of points with Hopalong Cassidy.”

A positive, pragmatic man, Ski chooses to look to the future rather than wallow in emotions from the past. There is no whining about aches and pains, no worry or dread of aging or dying, just a lot of laughing and planning to live to at least 105—a goal he has set. He reads and writes a lot, and is interested in online global payment systems such as bitcoin.

He says the internet is the greatest change he has seen in 100 years.


The walk

“I think it’s a great thing because it puts the world all together,” Ski says, “but they’ve kinda overdid it, you know, by advertising and stuff now. But I can get on that thing and ask it anything I want.”

“I have some hearing loss from being around all those airplanes,” he admits, noting he logged 13,000 flying hours in 25 different airplanes, a jet and ultralights. “I flew airplanes for 50 years. I loved instrument flying. I like being in there in the weather. There’s nothing like it. It’s exciting.”

He owns two ultralights and drives a Honda Odyssey van.

“I’m a rare bird,” Ski says, followed by his distinctive machine-gun laugh. “You don’t live to be 100 very often.”

Time for reflection




We made eye contact and both smiled as he walked slowly to a pair of headstones in the cemetery. On the way back to his car I engaged him and asked who he came to visit. He shared the graves were those of his wife and one of his sons, who died of cancer. Don, a Korean War Veteran, decided to visit the cemetery after realizing the Memorial Day Parade had been canceled. He smiled and told me he had had a wonderful life and had lived “The American Dream.” 5-25-2020. Memorial Day Athens, Ohio  © Dave LaBelle