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.

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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.

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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

ISTLT USAAC

World War II

Dec 18, 1922

May 23, 2012

B17 Navigator

Purple Heart AM

Husband

Teacher

Fisherman

 

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.

 

 

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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.

Love,

  • 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.

Love,

  • 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

 

Videos:

 

 

For additional videos, here is the link to Kent.wired, our student publications website

http://www.kentwired.com/latest_updates/article_f5ace50a-0ce2-11e6-adbe-4fb56c3c3617.html

 

A clear and caring path

A clear and caring path

by David LaBelle

We hear a lot of grumbling about how the current “Me” generation cares only about self, “selfies,” texting and, well, self. And admittedly as someone who has taught college students for 20 years, sometimes it feels like too many students today lack curiosity and suffer from a disease called apathy.

But last semester, after learning about two of my students on similar missions to bring comfort to young people with cancer, I was reminded how caring and enterprising some of today’s college students can be. Ironically, the two women from different photo classes don’t know each other, though they are immersed in similar causes.

 

Sarah

Sarah Walsh

Let me introduce you first to Sarah Walsh.

Walsh was an 18-year-old college freshman when she met four-year-old Kadie Stonebreaker at a Taylor Swift concert in Cleveland in 2011. Her life changed immediately.

Walsh said she was waiting in the back of the arena, along with 30 or 40 other fans hoping Swift would come out that way, when a little girl approached and said her name was Grace. “She asked if I would play with her,” Walsh remembers.

“I was playing with her when she said, I needed to meet her sister. So she introduced me to Kadie, who had cancer.“

That was in July. One month later Kadie Stonebreaker died.

“I only knew her about a month or so but became really close with her and her family,” Walsh said. “I even went and stayed with the family in Pennsylvania.”

Walsh smiles, her eyes beginning to fill. “I was really touched by Kadie. She wouldn’t let me be sad and always said to put on a happy face.”

Within just a few weeks, the Kent State freshman decided to put her caring into action. To honor Kadie, she started Happy Faces and several other fund-raising campaigns to help children with cancer. Soon, Happy Faces gave birth to another project called #KadieKindness, designed to encourage people to perform random acts of kindness.

 

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Sarah, Liam and Kate

Today, the graduating senior plans to make helping kids with cancer a life-long pursuit. But she in not alone on her mission, she has a helper, a sidekick named Kate.

Walsh, who has only one sibling, an older stepsister, has been a “big sister” to Kate since she was five.

“She’s my little buddy,” insists Walsh.

“Kate helps me with everything. Happy Faces is our special thing. She comes up with ideas even though she is only 12.” Together, the pair brought carloads of gifts to families in Columbus, Akron and Cleveland last Christmas.

When Walsh began four years ago, she sent care packages all over the country. But that soon became “too overwhelming and felt too impersonal,” she said.

The full-time student and president of her sorority realized she had to limit her reach and narrow her focus to kids in Ohio and those on the Pennsylvania border. “I want to meet with the kids and play with them. Less care packages and more fun experiences with the kids – this is a way to promote family bonding and help the kids forget that they are sick for a little while,” she assures.

Walsh said she figures she has helped about 60 kids and their families, all children who have been diagnosed with cancer.

They do things for their siblings as well. “Sometimes the siblings will get pushed aside and have a harder journey than the child with cancer,” Walsh observes. “I try to make sure the siblings are involved in everything.”

The focused senior has it mapped out. “I will have grant proposals and do fund raising. At first I will have to have another job to support myself on top of this but, in time I hope to carve out a salary as well.”

Why does she do this? Why spend countless hours organizing events, connecting on social media, gathering and delivering presents?

“This just happened. I just met this little girl, and once you learn something, you can’t unlearn it. I couldn’t unlearn about all of these horrible things she had been through, and how the government provides less than 4 percent of funding towards childhood cancer.

Walsh is clear about her mission and resolve to dedicate her life to helping.

“If I were diagnosed with cancer, I would rather the funds be going towards a little kid than me because they haven’t got to experience anything that I have. I think that it’s really sad that not a lot of attention is brought to childhood cancer so I wanted to bring some sort of awareness to it and help the families that are going through it.”

“I have always wanted to help people; I have always organized stuff. Even when I was a little kid I did bake sales for a person whose house just burnt down,” Walsh remembers.

“And I have always loved kids. Always. Always. Always. I think I was born to do something with children; I just think that is what my purpose in life is.”

 

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Sarah and Lexi

I meet few people, let alone students, whose eyes see such a clear mission. It is almost intimidating.

And once again, I am reminded of how much I have to learn from those I am blessed to teach.

For more about Sarah Walsh’s mission please check out her Happy Faces Foundation facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/putonyourhappyface/?fref=ts

Groundhog Day: I finally get it

Punxsutawney, PA Feb 2, 2016 © Photos by David LaBelle

 

I finally get it.

After my third trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania – two of them suffering in frigid, near zero temperatures – I finally get it.

I finally understand why thousands throng to a cold hillside called Gobbler’s Knob at 3a.m. and stand shivering for hours to witness a team of grown men dressed in black tuxedos and top hats yank a chubby rodent named Phil from a cage inside a fake burrow.

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After my last visit some 10 years ago, I determined never again to suffer through this dumb American tradition (I only went the second time because I was sure I must have missed something the first time).

But time has a way of deadening the pain and dulling the memory.

Punxsutawney, PA Feb 2, 2016 © Photos by David LaBelle

 

So this year, seeking a visual opportunity for my photojournalism students to leave Kent, Ohio and experience something “different,” I led a small pack back to Punxsutawney.

I’m happy I did.

 

 

 

Listening to the children’s librarian read to busloads of kids on the eve of Groundhog Day carried me back to my grade school days 60 years ago in sunny California when I cut out a groundhog from brown construction paper and carefully fashioned a black top hat for my rodent. Funny how one scene can evoke memories from another.

After sleeping on mats in the community center – thanks to a generous director named Rob – those of us wise enough to sleep, were up by 2:30 a.m.  Soon, we trekked across frozen grass and cold streets (at least it wasn’t snow) to the town square park where each of us paid five dollars to be driven on a school bus about two miles east of town up a tiny hill called Gobbler’s Knob.

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Some of the first to arrive, we beheld bright lights on tall poles that pierced the darkness to illuminate a stage and giant wooden groundhog backdrop.

Soon, musicians played and a group of “event dancers,” along with handfuls of exhibitionist-types were invited to join them on stage. Enterprising folks moved through the crowd hawking T-shirts for ten bucks. Others sold scarfs and hats. Weak coffee in an 8oz Styrofoam cup sold for $2.00.

Wrapped in four layers of clothing like Randy, Ralphie’s kid brother in A Christmas Story, I kept moving, refusing to stand near a big fire or pack into one of the warming tents provided for those wimps unable to weather the cold. Besides, this was one of the warmest groundhog days on record – an unseasonably mild temperature of 22 degrees at dawn.

By 5 a.m. I couldn’t feel my toes. I should have known to double my socks or wear plastic bags on my shoes as some locals advised.

As I shuffled across the frozen ground photographing the experience, I kept asking why?   Why had subjected myself to this torture again? And why did so many people from all over the country flock to this spot to witness a groundhog supposedly prognosticating on the weather.

I just didn’t get it.

Finally, as the big moment many had traveled thousands of miles to witness neared, a woman performed a stirring rendition of our National Anthem, timed perfectly with the dark heavens awakening in pale blue light. An unrehearsed chorus of revelers erupted, chanting “USA! USA! USA!” I felt a wave of pride and patriotism sweep over the crowd and saw in the eyes belonging to a man from upstate New York, a deep and tender expression words would be helpless to describe.

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Then, with a quarter moon still hanging in the cloudless firmament above the silhouetted shapes of tall trees, a whistling missile shot into the winter sky and exploded in brilliant color that rained down on a delighted crowd. It was one of the most magical fireworks shows I have ever seen.

LaBele groundhog08.JPGI couldn’t help but feel patriotic, and It was at that moment, I think, I finally got it. I finally understood this celebration. Chills, literally and figuratively, coursed through my body and made my eyes begin to water.

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By 7:18 am, although my heart was warm, I couldn’t feel my toes or fingers.

Finally, at 7:25 a.m., the furry marmot, which can bite, was hoisted high above the layers of frozen, huffing faces and glowing smartphones. Held in the black-gloved hands of one chosen from the Inner Circle, Phil wore a confident, toothy grin. He seemed to be enjoying the experience. To the delight of the thousands gathered, the “Seer of Seers” declared (through an interpreter of course) that spring was coming, and the crowd of 10,000 plus erupted into cheers and applause.

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Then, as if someone had yelled fire, the herd of young and old – their joyous puffs of breath still hanging in the frigid morning air – turned and raced towards the row of groaning, belching buses waiting to carry them back down the hill to town. They had seen what they came to see, now it was time to get warm.

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Gobbler’s Knob is a magical world, a safe place of make-believe where an immortal rodent (already 130 years-old and who gets a new wife named Phyllis every seven years) can see into the crystal ball of weather and communicate in a language only the president of an elite club can understand.

I even made the AP wire, sharing photo air time with Hillary and Bernie. But the ultimate insult came when a member of the media – a photographer from the Associated Press – photographed me with two of my students but failed to identify us, calling us a “group of tourists.” Ouch.

Phil didn’t see his shadow that morning. Had he waited another 15 minutes for the rising sun to clear the armies of trees, he would have. There wasn’t a cloud for miles. And I must confess I feel a shadow over his forecast as we tremble this week freezing in snow and biting wind. Sure feels like “more” winter to me.

You will get no argument from me that Groundhog Day is indeed the dumbest of all American traditions. But on this cold little hill, above a town called Punxsutawney, it all came together in a crazy crescendo and finally made sense to me.

LaBele groundhog07.JPGThis celebration wasn’t about a weather forecast or even another excuse to party. This was about our collective need to escape an increasingly complex and violent world, where people are paralyzed by fear and gun sales continue to soar.

More importantly, this was about national pride and our freedom to celebrate, even something as bizarre as a clairvoyant rodent forecasting the future.

 

Saying goodbye to Sara

For my final post of 2015 I thought I’d share a reminder of how precious life can be regardless of the body it inhabits.

A member of our family, little Sara, passed away on Christmas Day.

Though Sara was officially my youngest son’s dog, and the little girl tried my patience and caused me to lose a lot of sleep through the years, I still cried silently, as did my wife, when the little dog passed.

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Sara was mischievous, selfish, required a lot of attention, often had an attitude, and continually led Gus, our Jack Russell, into harm’s way with her behavior.  She taught him how to dig under fences and escape yards, to run recklessly through dangerous neighborhoods and across traffic- filled highways looking for handouts or cat food left on back porches.

She could have been a circus dog.  She could stand on her hind legs pawing at the air like a bear when she wanted something.   And she could balance herself on her two front legs when she had to tinkle.  Suffice to say, she had personality.

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Sara, photographed by Erin earlier this year

Henry, who has never met a dog he didn’t love, even annoying ones like Sara, was always quick to defend her actions.   Even after Sara did something destructive, he would hold her beady-eyed face in his hands and say, “Isn’t she cute.  Don’t you just love Sara?”  Henry, now 14, can be impatient with people but has endless patience with dogs. He reminds me to love all animals; even little “needy” alpha dogs who try to control everything and everybody.

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Henry with Sara  (photo by Erin)

Though I often threatened to give high-maintenance Sara to an older woman who would let her jump on her furniture or sleep get in her bed, secretly I liked the annoying little pest.  Often, when I took her out in the morning and fed her while others were sleeping, I patted her, scratched her back and told her I loved her, in spite of her challenging behavior.

Henry took her passing hard.  Sara was his dog, rescued from a nursing home as a puppy in Kentucky when he was about five.   When he realized she was gone, he posted a picture of her on his Instagram page with the note: Rest in Peace.

 

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Sara and Gus from Erin, the dog walker’s view.

I miss the little pest.  And even Gus, who was the recipient of most of her bossiness, misses her and is quietly grieving as dogs often do.

I guess what I’m admitting is I loved the little dog because Henry loved her.  Sara brought him joy and comfort.

Sara, for better or worse, was family.

We will all miss her.

 

 

Partners in Purpose

By David LaBelle

I meet too many people, often late in their lives, who have quit dreaming. Victims of apathy and void of purpose, they sit idly, wasting precious life while bitterly awaiting the shadow of death to crawl over them.

But thankfully, this profession also leads me to vibrant people immersed in altruistic causes that lift them from beds each morning with purpose and a sense of urgency.

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Bill and Gwin Stam are such people, and theirs is a love story worth sharing.

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Bill, 80, and his bride, Gwin, a handful of years behind him, found each other when Gwin, an artist, answered the ad Bill placed to sell a horse, a Paint stallion. Stam, a cowboy and also a gentleman, was hesitant at first to sell a woman the stallion, fearing she might get seriously hurt.

But he soon realized the petite yet feisty woman wasn’t going to be put off.

He also learned Gwin had an uncommon way with animals, especially horses.  She spent years raising orphaned animals for zoos.

Because her money was tight after an unexpected divorce, Bill sold her half ownership in the stallion, which meant the cowboy and the artist were business partners.

They hit it off immediately, realizing how much they had in common.Both are talented artists, Gwin does beautiful bead and leather work, among others things.  Their home feels like a Native American museum full of beautiful items they have made by hand.  Both are lovers of animals, particularly horses.  Both have walked tough life roads lined with many heartaches.  And both have Native American blood flowing in their veins: Bill is Lakota, Gwin is Apache.

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Bill, widowed after his wife died of cancer, was immediately drawn to the strong-spirited woman, who has endured several life-threatening bouts with cancer herself.

He also realized his interest in the beautiful artist was more than financial.

“I was afraid to ask her out, she was too pretty,” he admits.

Within two years, the couple married, and the former cowboy and Marine got to keep the horse and the woman.  They have been married 18 years.

By the way, they still have the stallion.

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Not only did they find love and support in each other’s company, they found a common cause and a mission – to build the only Native American Veterans Memorial in the world.

Both feel it a divine call, something asked of them by the “Creator.”

Creating a lasting memorial that honors the hundreds of silent heroes from the past has become a calling, if not an obsession for both.  Each recognizes they have a small cup of time to complete their dream.  Like two powerful draft horses yoked together to pull a heavy load, each admiringly challenges the other.  Bill is determined to get all the Indian Nations flags and all of the names of the code talkers on plaques before he meets his Creator.

“I thank the Creator,” Bill says, “and I praise the Creator every morning.”

Statue.jpgI love these people.  And watching them stirs my spirit and challenges me to reevaluate how I am using my own precious time.

Like my wife has said, “our subjects are often our greatest teachers.”

Visit the memorial

If you are ever driving from Eugene/Springfield towards Portland on I-5, I suggest you make a small diversion and go see Bill and Gwin and the All Nations Native American Veterans Memorial near Jefferson, Oregon.

You will be received warmly and treated to an education not found in textbooks.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving Day.

Following are links to a story I wrote about the Stams last year and a newly-created facebook page.

https://www.ruralite.org/place-honor/

https://www.facebook.com/allnations.veteransmemorial/

 

 

 

 

 

 

An update on brothers Dan and Dustin Ripley

Last January, I shared the story of two amazing brothers and their loving parents, Dale and Debbie Ripley. After receiving many inquiries about the family, I have decided to post periodic updates.

Dale helping Dan to bed.

Dale helping Dan to bed.

There was a scare last winter for Dan and his family when food became trapped in his throat resulting in a two-day hospital stay.   That ordeal and a long, hard winter making it difficult for the boys to get out was challenging for everyone.

“It is getting harder by the day,” Dale confessed after the scare with Dan.

“The trips to the hospital are becoming more frequent.  We are trying to prepare ourselves,” he says with a combination of anger, worry and gratitude so tangled together they are impossible to separate.

But things are looking up.

Dustin can now see better

Dustin turned 28 in April and was fitted with glasses.  He can now see the television better.

Dustin turned 28 in April and was fitted with glasses so he can now see the television better.

Continued fundraising efforts have netted $25,000 toward the $82,000 goal.

Continued fundraising efforts have netted $25,000 toward the $82,000 goal.

Dale has been able to return to limited construction work.

And Dan celebrated his 30th birthday last week – a monumental milestone for a young man with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  Most with the disease do not live past the age of 20.

With a little help from mom, Dan blows out candles.

With a little help from mom, Dan blows out candles.

Turning 30

“So, how does it feel to be 30?” I asked Dan on this special day.

“Great!” He squawks.

“Uh, you think you might add a little more,” I teased, reminding him that good sports interviews usually require more than one word answers.

“I can’t believe I lived this long, with this disease,” he says, his eyes widening. “I am thankful I lived this long.”

“And I am just grateful for the technology now,” he adds.   “My mom’s brother died when he was 19, 36 years ago in 1979 on December 15th

Debbie nods silently, seeming to remember her brother and think about her boys suffering from the same disease. From his wheelchair, a few feet away, Dustin chimes in, agreeing and expressing his thankfulness for the technology that keep both he and his brother alive, and for his parents and caregivers.

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“Did you do anything special for your birthday? I ask, prior to the Superman cake and ice cream served that evening.

“Yeah, I watched TV.”

“You watch TV everyday,” I say.

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“So did you watch anything special today?”

“Days of Our Lives,” he gurgles.

“You watch soap operas?”

“Yeaaah.”

“How long have you done that?”

“Twenty years, since 1995.”

Again, his mother nods in agreement.  “I guess so, that’s about right.”

Debbie feeds Dan birthday cake and ice cream while Dustin patiently waits his turn.

Debbie feeds Dan birthday cake and ice cream while Dustin patiently waits his turn.

Changing bodies

As the disease progresses, the bodies of both boys continue to change.

I photographed Dan’s twisted body one night as he was being put to bed and showed him the picture.

“What do you feel, when you see yourself?” I asked.

Despite a twisted body, and a hatred for his disease, Dan is positive and thankful .

Despite a twisted body, and a hatred for his disease, Dan is positive and thankful .

“I am amazed how my body looks, how terrible this disease is,” he said.

I also asked Dan if he feels comfortable with me sharing the revealing picture that shows the shape of his deformed body.    He immediately said yes.   He wants people to know about this disease.

As I prepare to leave, I tell Dan I hope I am still around in 30 years so I attend his 60th birthday party.

“I’ll be here,” he chirps confidently.

Then realizing he might have been a bit presumptuous, he calls to me.

“David, God determines how long we will be here.”

Once again, he is right.

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Meanwhile, here is a link to the Ripley’s fundraiser page:
https://www.gofundme.com/RipleyFamily

Also, here is an acclaimed small budget film about another young man with the same disease making a road trip west.

http://nbc4i.com/investigative-story/darius-goes-west-documents-remarkable-journey/

Serendipity or Providence?

by David LaBelle

Many friends claim there are no “coincidences,” that every moment of life is orchestrated by a master choreographer.

I’ve not subscribed to this belief because accepting this would eliminate both my choice in life and responsibility for my actions, as if we are all pawns on earth’s chessboard being moved by a larger hand.  That is not to say I deny our Creator’s involvement in our everyday lives.   On the contrary, I believe God’s presence is constant.

Still, that leaves me without an understanding of certain seemingly impossible events.

Last year, while en route from Cleveland to Seattle to conduct a photography workshop, I experienced one of those serendipitous encounters that defy the odds. It left me wondering if this was an accidental meeting or a providential appointment with a deeper purpose.

Ann Saunders

Ann can’t believe the odds of a stranger on the flight knowing and teaching her former daughter-in-law.

There was one stop on the flight from Ohio to Washington. After the Nashville passengers deplaned, those of us remaining waited in our seats for the Seattle-bound passengers to board.  I was in an aisle seat on an empty row towards the back of the plane, reading C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.

Now, those of you frequent travelers know about holding the hope of some nice, quiet, small, fairly clean person occupying the next seat allowing arm and leg room and a pleasant ride.   Sometimes you avoid making eye contact, especially if the interested party has a half shaved head, a nose ring and wears a “kill the President” T-shirt.   Even worse, they are coughing and sneezing or have a frightened, yapping dog in a carrier.

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This day as the plane filled, I spotted a grandmotherly woman with a man that looked to be her husband, searching for seats together.  I made eye contact and smiled.  She asked if they could sit next to me.

We made small talk, her husband sat closest to me, while she took the window seat. She noticed my camera and excitedly said, “My daughter-in-law is a photographer.”

I shared my current role teaching Photojournalism at Kent State in Ohio.  I told her about conducting a photography seminar in Seattle.  Her eyes became glassy.  “She is a photojournalist, too.   She went to Western,” she added proudly.

“Where does she work?” I asked.

She worked in Nashville and in Bremerton, Washington, the grandmotherly woman advised.

I felt goose bumps crawl up my arms.

“Was her name Lynn?”

Her eyes about leapt from her surprised face.

“Did you know her?” She asked as her eyes began to fill.

“Yes, I was one of her teachers.”

Joe and Ann Saunders

Ann and Joe Saunders on the flight to Seattle to visit Martin.

She reached over and grabbed her husband’s forearm.

“ Joe, he knew Lynn.  He was one of her teachers.”

I have also met your son, Martin, too,” I shared.  “Did he stay in Washington or return to Nashville?

“He knows Martin, too.” She said in disbelief.

“My wife worked with Lynn in Bremerton,” I explained

“We are on the way to visit Martin now, to help him.  We are meeting our daughter at the airport in Seattle.  We go each year,” she explained.

I shared I had talked briefly about Lynn and another WKU grad, Mark Gruber, during closing remarks for a print exhibition at Western Kentucky the previous October.

“I can’t believe you knew Lynn and were one of her teachers,” the woman said again, wiping her teary eyes.

Ann Saunders

Lynn Delaney Saunders

Lynn Delaney Saunders

I met Lynn Delaney Saunders in the late 80’s while teaching at Western Kentucky University.   By then she had worked as a photographer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center but was determined to pursue newspaper work.  Lynn went back to school for a second degree in Photojournalism.  She ended up working for newspapers in Florida and Tennessee before ending her career at the Bremerton Sun in Washington.

Lynn’s road was never easy.   She suffered several operations, including one to remove a brain tumor that left her beautiful face scarred and her balance compromised.  Because of her limited mobility and continued medical problems, most of us felt Lynn was chasing an unrealistic, if not impossible dream.  The life of a photojournalist was far too demanding.

She proved us wrong.

As if her role as a mother of a teenage son and wife to a man with limited mobility wasn’t tough enough. Her husband Martin was paralyzed in a construction accident in 1990.   Had it not been for his brother Bill hurrying to his rescue and uncovering his face so he could breathe in the collapsed ditch, Martin would have surely perished.

Lynn never took life for granted and shared with my wife the awareness that each day could be her last.   Her body continued to produce tumors.  She kept her closets organized so she would not be remembered as a slob and people would not be burdened with going through her belongings if she died suddenly.

In 1995 Lynn chronicled a young woman’s last year of life, a single mother of six with breast cancer.  The two became friends and Lynn was at the woman’s bedside when she died.

Four years later Lynn’s own life ended when her car struck the center support of an overpass.  She was only 46

As hard as Lynn’s life was at times, she was a picture of gratitude.  I never saw any self-pity and she didn’t allow her numerous hurdles to become obstacles to keep her from doing what she loved.   After struggling to keep the pace as a shooting photojournalist, she finally found true peace in her profession as a picture editor for The Bremerton Sun.

I still wonder about the meaning of the unlikely encounter with Lynn’s in-laws.   Maybe time will reveal a deeper purpose?

Since I haven’t been able to let it go, I decided it was worth sharing.

Jacob’s Ladder

By David LaBelle

Last week, I met an interesting man who found purpose and meaning for his life through an uncomplicated routine of service and acceptance.

Sixty-five-year-old Jacob Jones wakes before dawn, rolls his wheelchair out of the enclosed patio he currently calls home and boards two city buses each morning leading him to an asphalt parking lot behind Starbucks in Midtown Nashville.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Jones arrives early in the morning.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Armed with a jar filled with salted peanuts bought in bulk and bags of discarded baked goods gleaned from restaurant trash bins, he wheels to his regular spot, arriving just after 6am. Soon, the still landscape comes alive.   Squirrels inch down from nearby trees and flocks of birds, waiting on wires, descend for a morning meal.

“When I began four years ago, there were 6 squirrels that showed up, now there are about 60. And 500 birds turned to 10,000,” he laughs.

Jones began this routine over four years ago after literally falling off a train near Nashville.   Originally from Cleveland, the cross-country traveler said he rode boxcars coast to coast. Then one fateful day, he recounts, “I got up and it was early in the morning and I went to the door to take a wiz. And sure enough the train lunged around a corner and I fell out of the door. Yeah, so I fell off the train and couldn’t get back on and had to walk 10 miles into town, once I stopped somebody and found out where I was. I have been here ever since. “

“But it is a blessing from the Lord, “ he insists.

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Jacob Jones, 65.

Jones accepts donations and tips to buy food for his little friends, mostly salted peanuts, and gathers discarded bread products from nearby establishments.   He buys only salted peanuts in bulk then fills the jar he carries. “That way they get the salt they need,” he beams.

“Knowing that my little birds and squirrels are waiting on me, that gets me up in the morning,” Jones says with a smile stretching across his bearded and weathered face.

Besides feeding “God’s creatures”, Jones, who claims he is a cousin of the famous retired Dallas Cowboys’ football star “Too Tall” Jones, also directs traffic, watches out for seedy characters and helps limit the mischief in nearby parking lots.

“It’s a great arrangement,” he assures. “I watch out for the cars, make sure people don’t break in or steal and they let me gather tips to feed my birds and squirrels and get bus fare back home.”   He proudly wears an official badge claiming it was a gift from Vanderbilt Hospital.  “It cost them one-hundred dollars to make,” he assures, “The cop shop, they made the badge.”

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Squirrels and birds enjoy a morning feast.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Since embracing a nomadic life at the young age of 15, the self-proclaimed world traveler is now mostly confined to a wheelchair. He says he only can stand and walk a few steps with the aid of a cane, after slipping on the ice two years back and breaking his leg in several places.

“After two operations, I am lucky they didn’t just cut it off and give up on it. I’m just lucky what little bit I can do. That’s a blessing,” he assures. “And it’s a good thing they haven’t chopped it off yet. I could imagine trying to walk with only one leg; it would be a hopping situation,” he laughs.

A generous friend, a widower, allows Jones to sleep in his enclosed patio in exchange for watching over his place.   He says there is even a wheelchair ramp the man’s deceased wife once used.

“It’s a blessing”, Jones insists. “I even have electricity so I can use a heater in the winter and a box fan in the summer heat. Yes, it’s a blessing.” he smiles.

Jacob Jones is nothing if not thankful and appreciative.   He believes, “everything is a blessing from the Lord.”   And much like the creatures he feeds daily, his is a modest life dependent on the “The Lord” and the goodness of friends and strangers.

“We are all the Lord’s creatures,” he smiles.

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Few of us, if any, know where our life road will lead. We have youthful dreams – professional aspirations that seldom turn out the way we imagine. Jones says his dreams started at the age of 12. “I wanted to start my own business, so at the age of 13, I started a private contracting company. But not just in any area, in Millionaire’s Row, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Yeah, I got a lot of contracts doing the landscaping on their lots, big lots. I had been learning how to do that since the age of nine. I stayed there until I was 15 when I started traveling around the world and ended up over in Europe. I started my own photography studios at the age of 16.”

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Today, Jacob has more focused and much simpler, yet profound dreams. “My dreams now are to walk closer and closer and closer to God everyday. Yeah, that’s a blessing.   Because I know one day I see him again, meet him again. When death comes for me, I will meet him again. And I want to be right with Him when I am standing before Him because you don’t want to be wrong with Him. I mean the whole universe moved to obey his command when he sent me back.”

When asked what he meant about being “sent back”, Jacob, like a great narrator from a Disney movie, rewinds to the story of the day he died.

The way Jones tells it, he was on vacation while working with Gulf Oil in Houston, Texas in 1979, when a decision to sleep on the beach in Galveston after a day of fishing would alter his life forever. Because it was Spring Break and all of the motels were filled with students, he couldn’t find a room.

“It can be warm in the day but at nights sheets of ice can form,” Jones remembers. “Unfortunately, it was one of those nights and I died of exposure. The police found me and I had been dead over an hour, no heartbeat, no pulse, no respitory [sic]; I passed on. And the doctors had been there and already certified me DOA. And they took my shoe off and put a tag on my toe. So I was basically waiting on an undertaker to zip me up in a body bag and take me away from the beach. But meanwhile, during that hour I was traveling through that tunnel of light everyone talks about.   And as I get closer to the end of the tunnel of light, all peace that surpasses all understanding overcame me. And I was feeling better and better the closer I got to that light at the end of the tunnel. And the light at the end of that tunnel, that’s God’s glory shining through. There was over 100,000 of us that had died that night; we were all traveling through that tunnel of light.   And just as I got ready to step out of the end, God spoke to me: It’s not yet your time. And I looked up and I said, Oh God. I recognized who He was; His voice filled the entire universe. And as soon as that last word was uttered out of his mouth, I jumped.   And I jumped and I was back in my body. The whole universe rushed to obey His very command. And in less than four seconds He singled me out and sent me back.   And it took me 30 years of traveling around this earth to find another He had sent back, so He doesn’t do that very often.”

When he “came back,” Jones claims his body was made new, renewed. All of those pains from former injuries were gone.

That event changed not only his life, but also his outlook. “I was a drinker back in the 70’s. I gave it up. Yeah, it wasn’t good for my health and it wasn’t good for my thinking abilities either.”

Jones smiles broadly and casts his eyes toward the heavens. “I can’t complain at all; anything the Lord gives me is a blessin’. He has been watching out for me since I died. All kind of good things have happened since he sent me back. I know he’s been watching out for me.”

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John lends Jacob his umbrella while he repairs his friend’s leaking one.

Jacob was the first person John met, besides his housemates, when he moved to Nashville two years ago and they have been friends ever since. John, whose wife is a divinity student, stops by at least twice each week to give Jacob the weather report, which earned him the nickname of The Weather Man. Even on his birthday, John stops to warn his friend, “I looked at Weather.com and there is red over all of Tennessee.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

“Oh, that’s not good,” Jones smiles. But once the downpour begins, he maintains his post for several hours.

The 44-year-old printmaker says he admires Jones.   “Jacob has such a positive personality. Practically every single day I see him, he asks what’s going on, and as I  am walking away, he always says, ‘have a blessed day.’ He has a spirit of thankfulness and gratitude, never negativity, never feeling sorry for himself for anything. You know he’s out here even if it’s about to flood. He sees what’s positive.”

John adds, “Jacob is the one in March who clued me in on what’s going on about this scammer who robs people. I went to the Vanderbilt Police and talked to them in April, and they said Jacob was their eyes and ears out back. They know who he is and appreciate what he does.”   And Jones appreciates what his friend does for him.  “When my wheelchair broke down, he came down and repaired it for me. And he’s letting me use his umbrella while he patches mine. Yes, it’s a blessin’.”

Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle

Like the birds and squirrels in his care, Jones is dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers.

I asked this man with the smiling eyes and an unusually calm spirit of gratitude why

he continues to rise so early and ride two buses just to feed birds and squirrels and watch over parking lots?His eyes twinkle with genuine care. “It’s a blessing,” he nods. “And we are all God’s creatures. It gives me purpose and a sense of peace on this planet. I try to be a blessing to all. “

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Nashville, TN, July 2, 2015 -Jacob Stone, 65.  ©Photos by David LaBelle