What love looks like

By David LaBelle


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Husband and wife

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“She is my audio descriptive,” Champ laughs.


The traveling couple on their way to Rome.

His joy and optimism are infectious and humbling.

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

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

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


“Smile,” he says.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


When friends leave us

When friends leave us

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

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

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

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


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

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

Larry French


Larry in his mid twenties.


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

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

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

Jim Gallagher


Jim in 2010

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





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


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

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

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

But I suspect they know that.

Blessings of second chances

by David LaBelle

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

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

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


Dave Agard

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

Mike Rochelle

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


Mike Rochelle

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

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

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

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


Shannon and Mike

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

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

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


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

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

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


Dave and Mike at work

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


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

Following is the piece Dave shared with the writing Circle:

Just Say His Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Pining for the past: film vs digital

by David LaBelle

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

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

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Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

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

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

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

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

As with most technological gains, something valuable is lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I even miss the smell of film.

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Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

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

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

But I recognize there is a place for both.









Savoring the past

by David LaBelle

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

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

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

But it wasn’t anger.

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

This was a serious matter.


Mr. McPherson 2000

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, I think understand.

His headstone reads:

James Francis McPherson


World War II

Dec 18, 1922

May 23, 2012

B17 Navigator

Purple Heart AM





Life crossings

by David LaBelle

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

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

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Graduations can be like this.

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

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

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Emily Wahl

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

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

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

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

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

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Emily and her father during her high school prom

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

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

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

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

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

I know I am.








Honoring Grandparents

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Some complained they never knew their grandparents.

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


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

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

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Emma Jaye begins an emotional presentation

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




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


Following are some excerpts from unedited letters:

Dear Grandpa,

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

  • Rachel


Dear Grandpa,


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

  • Liss


Dear Grandma,

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

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

Your Granddaughter,

  • Danielle


Dear Grandma,

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

Just joking of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Richie


Dear Yiayia,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you soon, but not too soon.


  • Katie


Dear Grandma,

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

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

  • Kelly


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

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

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

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


Dear PapPap,


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until I see you again,

  • Logan





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



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 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.


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.


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.



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.