No rock will out-praise this miracle child – Part 1

Lennox has the buttery voice for which Jamaicans are known. His singing voice is even smoother. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he arrived in Rockford, Ill. at the age of 16. But that is his story:

“Was food an adjustment?” I asked. We were at Garrett’s in Rockford, where my amazing puff pastry of apricots and brie   4cb55219-3805-46b2-bc0c-c3325de15c89was served with diced tomatoes and watercress. Lennox enjoyed his small chicken Caesar salad.

“I remember my first weeks here,” he said. “I was not able to eat. I just never had an appetite. I was afraid I was not going to keep it down. It was so bad the doctors put me on Ensure.”

Unknown-2    His diet in Jamaica was mostly rice and flour dumplings.

“Lots of fruits and vegetables?” I asked, imagining Caribbean bounty.

Unknown-3   “You just pick it off the tree–mangoes, plantains, whatever you want, pick it fresh.” he said.

Lennox and his family also ate fried plantains and dumplings for breakfast and salted codfish with ackee.

“They take dried, salted codfish,” explained, “and boil out as much salt as they can, then cut it and fry it with ackee. It looks like scrambled eggs. There is nothing like that here. It is Jamaica’s national fruit.”  images-1

Lennox grew up with his mother, two siblings and a stepfather. They lived in a one-room house of boards, with an outhouse bathroom and a shack at the back for a kitchen.

“What is your earliest memory of music?” I asked, know music is his passion.

“My grandma always sang.” His house was next to hers. “If I lay on my grandma’s roof, I could stretch across to my mom’s roof,” he pictured.

“I’m five feet, five inches tall. I remember my grandma, a dynamic woman of God, would get up on Sunday mornings and warm her voice to lead the singing for church.”

Unknown-5   Jamaican Christians believe God’s gift of music is for praise, and they don’t sing secular songs.

“My mom sang a little bit; so did my aunt,” he said.   Unknown-6

“They would get together and sing beautiful three-part harmonies. I was blind, so I would listen. Listening was my way of seeing the world. I always wanted to copy what I heard. There is no hymn in the book that I don’t know.”

Unknown-7   Lennox’s mother contracted measles during a hospital stay when she was seven months pregnant with him. In 1978, Jamaican law required abortion if the pregnancy was endangered in a manner where the baby could be deformed or brain-damaged. But, the doctors didn’t find out about her case. His grandmother instructed her daughter not to tell or complain. “‘I’ll go home and talk to God,’” he related what his grandmother said.

“My grandma prayed…with the neighbors.”

Born December 24, 1978, it was soon clear that Lennox was blind and had glaucoma. When he was six, the doctors at Kingston’s university hospital wanted to explore to see if there was anything they could learn. His mother was apprehensive.

“My grandma said, ‘What worse could they do? He’s already blind. You let them go. We’ll talk to God about it. God’s not through with him yet.’ A few months later, I started to see. To this day, with all the modern technology and medicine, there is no cure for glaucoma. I know it was the prayers.”

His sight returned gradually.

“It was interesting. I was behind with my eyes connecting images to my brain. I had to re-learn to look at something instead of feeling for it…going to a door, knowing I should turn the handle, I would still feel for the handle…trying to teach my mind how to see, recognize and respond.”

Doctors recommended enrollment at the Salvation Army School for the Blind. They expected his blindness to return in a few years. At the boarding school, he was away from family and friends. But during chapel, he heard the piano each day.  Unknown-8

“The auditorium for chapel is very sacred,” Lennox said.

“Ladies don’t go in there without their heads covered. When there was no chapel, it was off limits for children. But, in the evening, I would go to the chapel, break in, find my way to the stage and punch out notes that I had heard. The piano was covered by a big tarp. I had really bad asthma, but I would go under the tarp, play a few notes, come out and breathe, get under, play a few notes, come out, until I started to put a song together, playing what I had heard.”

The principal heard him, pulled him out, gave him a spanking, but told Lennox he was to play in the Sunday service the next week. Lennox was 13.

“He sort of encouraged you,” I laughed.

“Reprimanded, then encouraged,” he corrected.

“I learned Braille, how to use a cane, to be an independent blind individual. My mom and I were best friends. She felt bad that I was blind, so she overprotected me. Being at the school was difficult for her and for me. But she knew it was best. If I was blind at 12, there would be no future if I wasn’t learning the skills I needed.”

But at 12, 13, 14, 15, Lennox was seeing better than before, beating the odds.

“My grandmother would say I was a miracle and that to whom much is given, much is expected.

“There was a church in my yard. They were always inviting me to do this and that. I wanted to do my own thing.”

images-2   One summer, his mother insisted he go to Bible camp. Lennox refused. He explained, “I had a hard time…I loved Jamaican reggae music, forbidden music.”

His mother washed and ironed, and packed his things the night before camp. She said, “I know God is in control. You’re going to go,” he recalled.

“It was probably 400 Jamaican dollars for the week. She only had 200.” That morning a knock on the door brought her answer.

“A lady with an envelope said, ‘Please give this to your mother.’” Sister Brown felt God leading her to give them $500.

“I was kicking and screaming, and got on the bus,” he said.

“It was horrible. But when I got there, I realized for the first time in my life that to whom much given, much is expected. god has given me a lot. I heard about the greatness and goodness of God, how He is intimately acquainted with our ways, and has a plan for us…that we go through circumstances to experience the best life possible. We have to yield…follow whatever it costs us.”

01b094854f8342f362b22012dda26c90   Music spoke to Lennox, one lyric in particular: I’m born again to win, the work has been completed, the Devil is defeated, no more will I be cheated, ‘cause I’m born again to win.

“Because I am a miracle child,” he said.

“You felt victory in that song,” I echoed.

“Oh, yes!”

(This story originally appeared in my May, 2007, in my Lunch with Marjorie column in The Rock River Times.)

Career change, gumbo and Cordon Bleu

Choices. Choosing Tim Scholten for my first Lunch with Marjorie (first published in 2002) was simple. He is the most naturally funny guy I know. My husband agreed. He’s funny.

But when talking with Tim about his decision to switch from a dream career in broadcasting to selling radio advertising, Tim turned serious.

We paused to tackle the Rockton Inn lunch menu, a clear dilemma for Tim.   Unknown

“It’s a dead heat between navy bean and seafood gumbo in my world today,” Tim’s blue eyes sough help from me.

“Gumbo? Good? Bad?”

“The gumbo’s great, very New Orleans,” I assured.

“I’m on it. Sold!” he proclaimed.

“Sandwich?” I asked.

“Man oh man, a lot of good things to eat. The chicken Cordon bleu special, and yet the barbecue sandwich is also tempting.”

He opted for the Cordon Bleu; I had the Oriental chicken salad.

Growing up in Beloit, Wis,, Tim’s teens were filled with sports, cello and plays. He loved performing. “Unknown-1

I was at Startlight (Theatre) in the mid-‘7os. I did Music Man with Jodi Benson, who went on to be The Little Mermaid.

Unknown-2   Jodi Benson! I was impressed.

Tim wasn’t.

“She was in the chorus. She was nothing, and I was nothing. We were nothing together, and it was fun.”

The year Elvis died, 1977, Tim went off to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, to major in radio and television.

“I had a fantastic advisor there,” he remembered.

“A guy named Jim Duncan, and he sold it for me. All those years, he was the voice of the Drake Relays, America’s athletic classic.” Unknown-3

Des Moines broadcasting began for Tim with weekly co-hosting stints at KRNT, reporting campus news. Then he became head statistician for The Drake Sports Network.

“That was wonderful, he said. “I would copy down all the statistics during all home Drake men’s basketball and football games. And both sports were Division 1. And he would look at my stats, and he would check with me, and I wouldn’t really say anything at all, but we became a linked unit, and a guy named Larry Morgan, who is now the voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes on television.”

Tim had the sports bug, the news bug.

Post college, his career began at Beloit’s radio station, 1380 WBEL, on air as The Jock. He left to co-anchor the now defunct Beloit Cable News.

“Then my friend, Jerry Huffman, made it possible for me to work for WREX-TV,” Tim explained. Tim became the first Rock County reporter in 1983.

“I was kind of an experimental guinea pig there,” he said.

“They sent me out with my inferior equipment, but I did have my own station vehicle. And, I would take it back to my apartment every night, wake up early in the morning and they’d say: ‘OK, you need to go out, cover it, take pictures.’

images    We worked till 6:30pm most nights, editing what I had shot, writing what I had shot, and producing the stories. That’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in the media.”

A few bumps and station changes moved Tim to news reporter for WIFR-TV.

Spring 1987, Tim married Lisa Johnson, and made a dramatic career change. I realized his gumbo-navy bean struggle was somewhat thornier than the decision to leave broadcasting.

“Was it an emotional decision?” I asked.

“Yes, but Marjorie, I can tell you that reason in five words: Fourteen thousand dollars a year.”

He couldn’t support his family on that salary. Lisa was a dental assistant. She was the breadwinner in the soon-to-be-family.

“She was out-earning me,” he said.

“A little bruising to the ego? Hard to give up celebrity status?”

“A little bit. But that doesn’t put food on the table. I doubled my income with the stroke of a pen.”

“Regrets?”

Cordon Bleu. He liked it.   Unknown-5

“Gumbo?” “It’s a spicy, hard-hitting gumbo. I’ll make it through,” he said.

“It’s all part of the culinary experience.”

“Career choice? Are you satisfied with your accomplishments?”

“So many people answer that question the wrong way: It’s my Beamer, my Lexus, my yacht, my getaway place,” Tim explained.

“Wro-o-ng! It’s your kids!” He added, “I’ve seen it backfiring for others. The guys on the second, third, fourth marriages, scrambling to find out what it is when all the while, it’s right in front of them.”

Tim’s choices clearly had brought him joy. He gets animated talking about coaching youth baseball in his hometown, and spending time with his sons, who both also have the sports bug.  Unknown-4

Tim still does some creative commercials, voice-overs. But he is primarily a father, a people-person.

“I don’t live to work,” he shared. “I work to live. You reap what you sow. That’s the total philosophy. Life’s a trade-out.”

A modern man in an ancient city – Part 2

As we talked more about modern and ancient Rome, the birds in the hotel courtyard were chirping so loudly that conversation was a bit difficult.

“I don’t sense a lot of crime in Rome,” I said, even though I had noticed that the hotel neighborhood had a lot of graffiti on the buildings.  th

“No, thank God,” Carlo said. “The crime we have is only the pickpockets, the Gypsies.”

“We had a man aggressively trying to put flowers in our hands at the Trevi Fountain,” I told him. “He wanted to sell you flowers.”

“Do you have some thoughts on Pope John Paul II,” I asked, switching to a more serious subject.    th-1

“This pope was very loved. He was very long in power, and also he was a pope that historically lived in a very important period of time.”

“What about the new pope?” I asked, referring to Pope Benedict, the one we had seen early in his papacy at the Vatican on this 2005 trip.

th-2

“It’s too early to tell. Really we had hoped that after a Polish pope, they were going to elect an Italian one.”

“I was surprised to see they elected a German pope,” I agreed.

“Being in Rome, living in Rome, we have a lot of advantage, because the church is bringing a lot of people to the city. But the Catholic Church is influencing the Italian politics. the previous pope was a person. adorable, but he wasn’t open to the changes in the life in the world. One of the reasons why they elected this German, is because he was a person who was (continuing) the policy of the previous pope. It’s a regressive situation in my opinion. We are going back to the medieval.”

“Is that oppressive?”

“Oppressive, correct. When the church is interfering with Italian politicians, it is…”

“Medieval,” I understand.  Pope Benedict XVI Names Six New Saints In Canonisation Ceremony At St. Peter's Square

“OK you understand,” he said. “The last thing I want to tell you: Do you know how powerful the Catholic Church is? Do you think they have a lot of money? Do you think they are rich? Do you know that money is power? It happens everywhere. Money can make a war to start or finish the same year. The Catholic Church is powerful because they have money, and so they guide the choice of the governor. I have opinions about politicians in Italy that I don’t like to repeat. I feel that we do not live in a democracy in this country. How can it be a democracy with 27 parties? It cannot be a democracy with 1200 delegates. It cannot be a democracy,” he said. “I want to say, our country could be more progressive. Because progress is life, is freedom.”    th-4

“What would that mean for you?” I asked.

“That I consider myself to be a free person. As i am now, I’m not, because there are a lot of rules and regulations that keep the Italian industry and people like me down.”

“So the decisions you have to make are controlled?”

“Yes, too much control, too much control. When they have 27 parties, each one has a little bit of power. Before you get the final decision, you’ve got to have him, him, and him and that. Before they give the permit, you can die.”

“That is frustrating,” I said.

“Oh, yes, I am sure that if I were in America, I could have done a lot more.” “Did you ever consider that?”

“I’m Italian, you see. My heart is here. When I was abroad, I was dying to come back to my city.”

“You have been to America?”   Unknown

“I’ve been to New York and to Orlando.”

“What were your impressions?”

“New York is like Rome 2000 years ago. Because of the technology and art that is there.”

“Ancient Rome was very sophisticated,” I affirmed.

“If you compare the time when old Rome was in power, you can see that the majority of the people lived in houses made with wood, but in Rome (itself) people lived in houses made of marble.”

“Is Rome still very cultural?”

“Not like it was before. It is a place where people should come, because everybody should see how clever and how important the Romans were. If you want to see tracks of history, you must come here. If you want to look at the inventive architecture, you should go see the Pantheon with the round ceiling built 2000 years ago, without technology that you have today. That is why it is important for everyone to come to see our country. We have a little bit remaining (but) not too much from the Roman Empire…the ruins…the Coliseum, the Forum and other things. To me now, America is like the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. All roads should lead you there.”  th-5

“Do you like Americans to come here?”

“Oh yes, I like American people.”

 

(Published first in The Rock River Times column, Lunch with Marjorie, in August, 2005). Since then, after Pope Benedict resigned in 2013, Pope Francis, an Argentinian, was elected to the Roman office.   th-3

A modern man in an ancient city

Breakfast on the patio of Hotel Donatello was fairly ordinary for Rome: lattes, croissants, brioche, served with peach or strawberry preserves or honey. But, Carlo Prete, our hotel owner, adjusts to please palates not used to the strong, thick espresso of Europe.

th-2

“I think everybody, if they go to another country, likes to see how they live and eat,” Carlo told me. “We are trying to fix an average, with the quality of the Italian way, This coffee is an Italian coffee, but made for…we drink a small cup, very concentrated. If you drink this little cup, you are not satisfied (he referred to us Americans). In the morning, we only have coffee and a croissant, and we go. The maximum is a cappuccino, not a big meal.”

“I love to cook Italian food,” I beamed.

2631759-Donatello-Hotel-Rome-Hotel-Exterior-2-DEF

2631759-Donatello-Hotel-Rome-Guest-Room-3-DEF

“Ooh, very good. I should come and cook the spaghetti for you, and you will see the difference. Ha, ha, ha.”

“I would love that,” I said, sensing his doubting my skills with pasta.

“Most depends on how you cook the spaghetti. Normally you (again he means you Americans) tend to overcook the spaghetti.”

“Mine is al dente,” I defended.

“Oh, no, not the way…I don’t know. We don’t add salt to sauce. We put salt in the water and then boil the spaghetti. We don’t overcook the spaghetti,” he emphasized again.

“
Fresh tomato is good, and fresh mozzarella.”Carlo advised.

“I do that,” I said.

“Oh, molto buono!” Carlo has been in the hotel business for almost 30 years.

“My father sent me abroad to England, and to Holland, France, Germany to learn the (hotel) skills. I worked at big, multi-national hotels. Then I came back to Rome and started this little place. My wife and I started buying a little flat on the ground, then another one, and another one, and now we have the entire building.”

The courtyard’s green shutters made the red geraniums vibrant. A fountain arcing its water was refreshing background against the sun-drenched peach plaster walls. The four-story hotel feels like a home. It is a home. Carlo is remodeling, adding 18 rooms to the existing 22.  2631759-Donatello-Hotel-Rome-Hotel-Exterior-3-DEF

“This is an old building–more than 100 years old. When they built it, lifts were not a priority.” he explained. “Rooms with facilities were not a priority. We had to transform it. So we are doing a lift on the other side. New rooms with all the modern accessories, like smoke detectors, televisions, and mini-bars, all controlled by computers. When you work in buildings like this, it is always very, very difficult, because you see, the ceilings are not flat. They used bricks one against another to keep the ceiling standing. If you take one brick away, because you have to make a hole for the elevator, or to change a section…”

“It all collapses?” I gasped.

“Yes, you’ve got to be very careful. That is why we are working very closely with engineering teams. But it is coming out very well.”

Carlo’s wife Patrizia, and his sons, Mauro and Paolo, also work in the hotel.

“Will they do the business some day?”

“Hopefully. I tried toteach them that in order to become free, they should see what is happening…out of Italy. So Paolo went to England. Mauro went to France, and spent a couple of years there. Mauro is leaving now for England and is going to be there for some time. So they will learn a different style of living, and of course, the language, which is very important. They will be more skilled in the job they want to do.

“They are very cosmopolitan,” I said.

“Yes, they should be like that. If they like to continue this job, I will be very pleased. Otherwise, they will have the strength to do whatever they like.”

“You’re open to them doing something different?”

“Oh yes.”

“You won’t be sad if they don’t do this?” I probed.

“Oh, no, no, no.”

“You seem like a strong man, but you allow for strength in your wife and sons.”

“Well, the children had time to become strong. We had to do a lot of battles before they became confident of themselves.”

“But you let them do that.”

“Yes, I do. Sometimes I am suffering because I see that they have been injured.”

“The parent thing.”

“Yes. Sometimes we have…fights with them, and they accuse me of not letting them be free. I will do the father job, and they will do the job of the children.”

“We imagine that in the Italian family, the father rules.” I said.  th-1

“No, no, since the Roman Empire, the women have the power. Always,” he said. “Behind the man, there was always a strong woman.”

“You don’t hear about that.” “It is true, oh, si.”

…to be continued

 

Kids and Music: It all started with Hail to the Chief

Nola teaches middle school music. She’s come full circle. She teaches where she went to middle school.

“I’m about fourth generation Roscoe person,” she told me. The cappuccino machine at Meg’s Daily Grind was loud this Saturday, but the aroma was heavenly.  Unknown-5

I’ve known Nola for more than a decade. She was our church organist. And even though we had become fast friends, I had never really quizzed her about her love for music.

Unknown-4“When I was a preschooler, there was a piano in my folks’ garage–an old upright.  I would go out there and make up songs. There was a funeral for…JFK…then the inauguration for Johnson. They were playing Hail to the Chief over and over.“   Unknown-6

So I went out and played Hail to the Chief. That was my first tune. I was playing by ear.”

Her parents listened to the church organist, Florence Sugars, who told them, “‘Get the kid piano lessons, and get the piano tune so you don’t ruin her ear. You want her listening to things that are in tune.’”

Unknown-7“Thank you Mom,” Nola smiled. “I don’t think I would have gone as far as I did without the encouragement of my mom, and without the encouragement of our church.”

“Did they upgrade your piano as you progressed?” I asked.

“I had my first lesson during the week. We went out on the weekend and bought a piano.

“Of course I could only play my two greatest hits: Hail to the Chief and Blowin’ in the Wind, my special with two hands. I had made up accompaniment with a harmony part with my left hand for Blowin’ in the Wind because that was on the radio all the time (then).”

“Sounds like you were a close family.”

“They were very supportive…always interested in finding music for me. By the same token, I kind of monopolized the piano away from my sisters. If they had any ability, I was too selfish. I wasn’t able to share.”

“You were the oldest?”  Unknown-8

“And I was very bossy to them in high school.”

Meg’s cappuccino started roaring again. I wanted a refill.

Nola decided to become a high school band director.

“Teaching kids is a big responsibility,” I commented.

“And, I think it was really big. I’ve had adults come back to tell me, when they’re at conferences about their kids–they have all this baggage about some teacher who told them they couldn’t sing when they were little. I don’t think some teachers realize that if you’re so picky, like I was to my sisters, you can hurt people more than you know.I couldn’t think of anything else I was interested enough in pursuing.  I’ve had many, many adults, especially men, say, ‘My teacher said I couldn’t sing, and I never sang again.’”  music-match-play_ball-baseball-baseball_matches-the_star_spangled_banner-dre0035l.jpg

“But you encourage your students.”

“That’s what I hope.”

“How did you start playing the organ?”

“We had an organ at church…I really didn’t like the sound of…didn’t even have it played at my wedding. I went to Arizona…visited Organ Stop Pizza. They had a Wurlitzer organ connected to a grand piano…a train, car horns, and cymbals…everything you could think of. You could sit and eat pizza, and this person would play the organ. We were just thrilled. We bought all of their records. It was hilarious. After the Arizona trip…I found out I liked the sound of the instrument itself because it was a pipe organ. “All I had ever heard was electronic organs. Hearing a pipe organ doing the Bach Minor Toccata, da-na-na,” she mimicked the scary movie sound, “it’s not going inspire you unless you want to be creepy on Halloween.”  51avUayhsnL._SY300_

We talked about budget cuts that cut music from the curriculum.

“It’s like cutting out a part of my heart. I don’t know enough about politics to be able to fix it, so it just aches. There are so many studies…about the brain. It is just not an option. Listening to music, playing…performing music…helps your brain. Doing music, you’re actually increasing neuron-pathways.”

“Some people say music doesn’t do much for them,” I prodded. Unknown-9

“If you turned all the music off their TVs…just had words, and if you turned off their movies and just had action, and had only news on the radio and didn’t have the music, didn’t have music when you’re getting ready in the morning, when you’re cleaning the garage, when you want to exercise, I think then you would realize that something is missing.”

Becoming an American

I learned how to spell and pronounce Sonephet Vongprasearth’s name while opening a bank account where she was helping me bridge the gap for my daughter’s banking while she was away at school. Sonephet is from Laos, but she grew up in the Midwest, and has lived here for almost 25 years.

My first question for her: Is there a Laotian restaurant in Rockford, Ill.? She affirmed. And, always important: “Do you eat there?”

“Yeah, uh-huh, they’re family owned,” she replied. But she chose Thai for our lunch, because it was close to the bank.

“Do you eat Asian cuisine at home?” I asked.

“Not every day, but whenever I can.”

She likes fried noodles, and let me know that Laotian food is mostly stir fry and soups.

“Are you into organic food?” I asked.

“I know what it is, but don’t know what is organic.”

I proceeded to educate this petite, young woman, who can probably eat fried foods with no repercussions. Life isn’t fair. She gets the beautiful skin, hair and propensity to thinness. But she ordered a roasted chicken sandwich with American cheese.

“Do you relate to women who are always thinking about weight?”

“I don’t really have that problem. In Laos, they’re really active. They have to be. They walk all the time, because they’re poor and don’t have cars. You’re lucky if you have a bicycle.”

“You’re naturally thin. How tall are you?” She giggles, “I’m five feet.”

She goes on to describe one of her favorite foods–Laotian barbecue, oyster sauce, fish, sauce, MSG, and Hoisin.”  Unknown-1

 

 

“Do you remember coming to America?”

“We started on a boat. Then flew here on an airplane.”

“Were you refugees?”

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“The whole thing started because we had to escape from the Communists. My dad was a mayor in Laos. He didn’t like what they were telling him to do, so he left, and didn’t tell anybody.

My mom didn’t know. The Communists came to our house and asked, ‘Where is your husband?’ I was about five years old then. My father escaped and finally my mo got into contact with him. Somehow we met in Thailand, across the water. My father had a friend, maybe his best friend. We had to kind of escape too, so the Communists wouldn’t know where we were going. We crossed in the middle of the night, probably about an hour–it wasn’t too far. We got on a boat, and my mom’s friends made us kind of jump, almost half way, because they didn’t want to get caught also.  images-1

My mom begged them, ‘Please, I’ll swim and the two boys will swim, but the three girls, you have to get them to shore.  Others were there too. They had to jump.”

Her brown eyes widened as she continued: “My mom, this is a really good story, had to actually save a pregnant woman because she was jumping and drowning. My mom got her and brought her back.”

“Scary stuff,” I said.

“Oh yeah. You had no choice. Either you do it, or you die.”

We drew a map of Southeast Asia on our napkins. “My father was working with an American when he was a mayor. Your weren’t allowed to associate with any if you’re a Communist. I don’t know what happened, but he felt endangered.”

The family landed in California and then went to Brookfield, Wis.

“Our sponsors were a group of nuns who took us in. They had a huge mansion, a convent.” We paused when our food arrived. But, I wanted more about these sponsors, nuns.

“Were you Catholic?”

“I was going to be. I went to a private Catholic school until high school. But at baptizing time, I asked the nun and she said ‘No, you need to find your way, find what you are going to do in life.’’’

“And, now?” “I believe that there is one God, a universal God. The difference is the language barrier. It’s how everyone explains it.  Unknown-3

I go to a Buddhist temple, but only to special events. People have to follow those rules. I don’t think it’s necessary.” She paused. “Americans take a lot of things (for granted).

I went back to Laos in 1996. There’s so much going on. I’m very fortunate from my parents…for them bringing me here, letting me learn the American culture, and my own. I feel very lucky. We have both lives. We go back to Laos and see this whole different culture. Then coming back to America, it’s just like, Wow!”

(This story was first published in The Rock River Times, in April and May in 2005)

“How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Freeport?”

“How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Freeport?” I could’t help but remember the lyrics from Judy Garland’s 1942 song from the film, For Me and My Gal. 

Unknown

“I grew up on a dairy farm on the northwest corner of Illinois between two small towns, Warren and Winslow. I have seven brothers and sisters, including an identical twin, all born in the 1950s. Every 10 years, we have a party. We had a 30-something party when we were 30. Then ten years later, we had a 40-something party. There are a few months when all the brothers and sisters are the same decade. That includes in-laws.”

They wait for the youngest to turn the next decade’s age and then have the party.

We were lunching at the organic foods cafe, Halsa, on Riverside Avenue in Rockford. It seemed right to talk to a farmer’s daughter in a natural foods place.  (Unfortunately that gem of a restaurant didn’t get enough support from the Rockford folks, and closed shortly after our luncheon.)

“Growing up on a farm, we didn’t see our classmates every day like kids nowadays do,”Janet continued. “We grew up with each other, so we were pretty close. We played softball in the backyard. You know, when there are eight of you, you’ve got almost enough for a softball team.”  Unknown-5

“And what about chores?” I chimed in.

“Well, just being on the farm, my dad always said, “I’m not a city slicker. We didn’t run to town just to see friends. We were three miles from a small town, six miles from school. Warren. In the summertime, we’d go to Monroe, 25 miles away. I remember trips to the dentist.”   Unknown-1

“This was a special occasion?”

“For us it was. Monroe’s such a neat town, built on The Square. If we were good, and didn’t have cavities, got a free ice cream cone around the corner. the dentist gave us a gift certificate for the ice cream at Ruf Confectionery. It’s still open. The dentist’s office was upstairs and had a nice view of the whole square.” (A Trip Advisor reviews states that if all towns were like Monroe, no one would live in the city.)

“Other excursions?”

“We made an annual trip to pick out materials for summer 4-H projects.

Janet’s 4-H projects were mostly cooking for the Jo Davies County Fair.

“I was baking bread and pies when I was 10. We did sewing and flower arranging. Muy sisters and I did mostly the food things. In addition to 4-H, we got into making money at an early age. We would bake cookies or rolls and would enter the fair.”  Unknown-3

“Did you win?”

“Yeah, till we were 14.” she smiles. “We made a haul. When we turned 14, we had to compete with the adults. There weren’t many 12-year-olds baking bread, making all the stuff we did.”

She left the farm to study foods and nutrition at the University of Illinois.

“My food interests never changed. I worked for a food manufacturer for more than 20 years–high end groceries, gourmet foods. Do you know Spike O’Dell from WGN (the Chicago news radio station, were he was a broadcaster until 2008)?

Spike had Barry Levenson from the Mustard Museum (Mt. Horeb, Wisc.) on his radio show. Spike said, ‘I ought to have my own mustard.’ He wanted it to first be sweet and then sneak up on you and bite you in the butt,” Jan said. “I was working to private label mustard, and suggested to Barry we could make the mustard in Freeport.”  RIGHT_museumexterior

Jan got a chemist to develop a formula, which she presented to Barry, and Barry presented it to Spike.

“It was called Bite Your Butt Mustard. It became very popular. We thought it would probably sell about 5,000 jars. The neat thing, for every jar sold, $1 went to the Neediest Kid’s Fund. We were raising a lot of money–more than $1 million. Stores started selling it in Rockford and Spike made appearances that drew crowds. He would autograph the jars of mustard and people would stand inline for the length of the (store) aisle.”

“Do you miss the farm?”

“I like living in the city, because I work a lot. It was great to grow up there, but I think I’d kind of get bored now.”

“You’re competitive.”

“Very competitive. I think my brothers and sisters were always betting on something. We ‘d bet bottles of pop on baseball games. I’m a Packers fan in Freeport. It’s probably 60:40 there, Bears to Packers.”

“You like winners.”

She laughs: “Well, I followed them through their bad years too. I like the Dodgers.”    Unknown-4

“You’re allowed to like a California team?” I needled.

“I wouldn’t wear a Dodgers T-Shirt to a Cubs game,” she smiled.

 

 

Protecting people, remembering why

Trooper Mark Nytco was standing in line at a coffee shop when I realized I had not interviewed a policeman and needed to do so. After obtaining permission from his captain, we agreed to meet at a favorite Mexican restaurant, Alvarez.  1375642_529961663748425_107114062_n

I ordered pork tacos, Mark was decisive: chicken fajitas.

He is just as confident about performing his duties as an Illinois State policeman. This tall, fair, handsome man has serious eyes with a steadying effect.  images

“When you stop people, are they respectful?” I began.

“Yes, very seldom do I have any problems with people.”

“Are you aggressive?”

“When I have to0 be. You have to know what you are dealing with. I do not take any disrespect from people. I am respectful to them. If they cross the line, then all bets are off.”

“What’s the most fulfilling crime-stopping you do?”

“It’s hard to tell, because it’s pretty much every day. Whether you stop a person with a gun in their car or whether you stop a drug dealer with a large amount of narcotics. Who knows? You think, well, maybe you saved something today from using the stuff.”

“Do you get involved with their families?”  Unknown

“Sometimes I probe, try to find out their background, what kind of person they are, what kind of home they come from. Sometimes it is shocking when you call a parent:

‘Can I call your mom to pick you up?’ They say, ‘OK, go ahead, she won’t care.’ The parent often says, ‘Can’t you charge him with something so you can keep him overnight in jail?’ I look at this kid and think, no wonder this kid is here on the street.”

“What’s the solution?” I ask.

“It all boils down to family life.”

Mark knows about family. He was 16 when he arrived in Chicago on a September Thursday in 1974.

“I was born in Poland about 80 kilometers east of Krakow. I was brought up under communism, but at home, I knew better than what the officials at school said. Parents and grandparents told me different.  data=VLHX1wd2Cgu8wR6jwyh-km8JBWAkEzU4,VG857Eg-k9KYTzCWUSnCnFuZmK1ZNhnDmeGeom7DBrFxYDE69zf6ZIS-Ob7IwPV5X7s4abxfuwoYgrPOUKusdI-OADc_kAcpnLC3MN0K3_w9fPpu_qjR7gibCGoKAM73Rlx_u5rRMDgjzBD9iilSYbqZIWG5T05jfJe_wxxe2nJBvFJ6WG6s8BwK-7GXsiAFZaHdp3U

Mexican guitar music filled Alvarez’s small dining area, but I was captivated by the Polish accent, the surprising story unfolding. He paused briefly for a bite of sizzling chicken or bell pepper, but he was intent on continuing. He had important things to say.

“When I was in school, I listened to the version of history that this teacher had, totally opposite with what my parents and grandparents taught me, or what they went through. For instance, my grandfather was part of the underground. Fought the Nazis,” he explained.

“After the Polish army fell in World War II, when the Nazis invaded Poland, a lot of officers got captured by communist Russians. About 10,000 were executed by Stalin. My grandfather was able to escape, but somehow the Gestapo found out about their organization. Under some kind of torture, they were able to get all the n ames of all the conspirators from this one person, and overnight they rounded up 236 of them, including my grandfather. They arrested him and eventually transported them to Auschwitz. A few months later, my grandfather was executed there, in Cell Block 13.”

He broke through to say, “I don’t know if you have ever visited Auschwitz, but you should. I think everybody should.”

“How did that change you? I asked.

“When you’re  kid, you think everything is beautiful. Then you listen to adults–not reading a  book or watching a movie. I had an eyewitness.”

His aunt survived three concentration camps.

“What they did to them every day, how they made them stand out in 10 below zero, in an outfit like P.J.’s and wooden shoes. Made them stand there for 10 hours at a time. And they didn’t care if they dropped dead. You were basically to die. They didn’t care. I realized how evil people can be to one another.

“This has affected how you do your job?”

“I understand when I come across a lot of people, and there are more and more people who are from former communist countries. I can understand why they’re so distrusting of police, because I can still remember what the police over there were like.”

“You can be more forgiving?”

“Yes. I can relate to them. I know why they are like that, because their life over there was hell. The policing there wasn’t to protect them, but to keep them in line.”

“Here you’re the good guy,” I said.

He smiled. “Yeah, I like to think so. And, this job doesn’t pay much. You have to love this  job; you have to sacrifice; but that’s where dedication comes in. You have to remember why you took this job.”

 

A heart for Community and Starlight Theatre

Mike Webb was one of only four graduate students to earn an M.F.A. in directing from Michigan State–too tough for most. They had recruited him at Milwaukee Repertory and wanted a stage manager with experience. Mike wanted a graduate degree in directing.

So Frank Rutledge, Chairman of the program at Michigan State, said, “Nobody’s completed it in 14 years, but you’re welcome to try.”

Mike has never avoided a challenge, evident since 1085 when he became head of theatre at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill.

Mike and I lunched at Mary’s Market Bistro on Perryville in Rockford. I was late, so Mike had eaten. Too bad. I love Mary’s. But I grabbed a juice and got right to our chat.  Starlight_1

“There’s been a lot of press about Starlight Theatre,” I began, knowing that back then this landmark in architecture and Rockford theatre was making news in the post-September 11 depression, felt heavily in Rockford.

“There’s always a little jealousy,” he said. “Starlight couldn’t have been done anywhere else int he world, because of the people who came into the project, when they came into it, and how it was going to be done. The community needed a shot in the arm, something to believe in. Basically, what happened, the building was named for Bengt Sjostrom. He had passed away back in 1983. they went to the brothers and said, “we don’t want your money; we just want your expertise. They built the original seating bowl for nothing.”

“It’s about community.” I echoed.”

“It’s a 100 percent about community. The reason everybody got involved. We were ahead of the curve on technology. I called Jeanne Gang, such a cool architect (and) said it would be really nice if we could open the roof. She had friends. She was in New York and went to Tim Macfarlane, the famous London architect.,” he explained.

Starlight_3

“I just wanted a roof over the audience. I didn’t want to have to stress over rain anymore. Time did a pencil sketch, showing how it could work, but told her, ‘You won’t be able to afford me.’ He didn’t take a fee.”

“You evoke heart from people,” I said.

“I gave up so much for this: time, energy. I didn’t get extra money for this. You think $12 million is a lot of money. It’s not a lot of money when you look what we got out of it.”

Mike searched for the right words. When they were shoring up the roof, there was a problem. They sent it to Tim.

“He said, ‘I made a mistake. Don’t worry about it. I’ll make this right. I’ll take care of the whole thing.’”

Sjostrom shored up the roof; Macfarlane paid the bill.

“It was a huge bill, out of his own pocket, and he didn’t take a fee in the first place. That’s the story! That should be celebrated, triumphed!”

One school day, there were people in the building.

“I walk out and it’s Tim, in from London. He said, ‘Are you happy?’ I said, I’m thrilled. He said, ‘It’s beautiful.’”

Tears welled up in Mike’s eyes because of this man who had given so much and on top of it gave even more.

“Is your life about Starlight?”

“Yes, and family. I’ll give casting priority to somebody whose parent wants to be in a show with a child who has a dream of performing. Putting family into a positive thing that’s not watching television. Creating something to give back to the community is really important.

“I bought a rock. It’s right as you walk in the main door. In each tier are the names of the people who poured their heart and soul into Starlight. As people came into the project, key people, their names went in. In the bottom bracket are the workers who gave so much of themselves. For example, Joe Maring (Schoenings), had been working hard on painting, getting the colors right. The weather wasn’t cooperating. I was walking with him and he said, ‘I’m going to be able to tell my grandchildren that I helped with this building.’ I said, Joe, I can do you one better. Come here.

I pointed to the rock, and all the sudden he sees his name, and tears were coming down his face. It was real important to thank these people.”

Mike continued, “In the middle of construction, Sjostrom wanted rocks from the original buildings. Now, ever single one of those guys who never went to live theatre at all are buying season tickets. Not only that, they’ve become donors. These are the coolest people on the entire planet, giving money to a theatre they believe in.

I can die a happy person, because that is exactly what I’m all about–giving people’s lives meaning.”

Revisiting the Golden Island

Tony Ernandez’s award-winning pizza at Lisa’s Pizza in Janesville, Wis., has spanned three decades, but Tony is about more than pizza.

“At 16, were you thinking about owning a restaurant?” I asked.

“It was the easy thing to make it a going concern. It’s a dream,” he said. “It’s like, watta gotta lose? Am I right?” he added with his stereotypical Italian hand gestures.

“I found something that really got me moving, and the more I do it, the more I wish I would be younger, because you get more experienced. I wouldn’t do anything that much different, but I would do more things, because I would be more energetic.”

We were lunching at South Beloit’s Ramada Cattails Restaurant.

“I’m gonna have the salad,” he said. “Something simple.” He ordered their seafood Louie with creamy dill dressing. I decided on bronzed salmon served on a bed of spinach.

Tony’s mother was born in Beloit, Wis., moving to Sicily when she was about ten.   Unknown

“Grandpa decided to go back because of his health. He worked for Fairbanks. He had a problem with his lungs. The doctor said the only way to get out of it was to go where there’s a lot of fresh air.”

So Tony was born in Petrosino, Trapani, a Sicilian province. His after-school days in the Mediterranean were spent helping his father in the vineyards and orchards.

“When you hit twelve, you have a job,” he explained. I got my own motorcycle by twelve, MV, 50 cc’s. It’s a beautiful vehicle for everybody,” he smiled. “That’s the way they can go real cheap, city to city, if they have a job, because they don’t make an arm and a leg as money.”

Recollecting Sicily brought light to Tony’s dark eyes.

Unknown
an annual event in Sicily

“Your family made tomato sauce?” I prodded.

“Yes, we did that.Every year. One does one thing, the other one helps Mom. That’s the way it’s done. The mother organizes. Usually we are all together. Father, he is the one who provided the whole thing. We helped him pick the tomatoes and bring them home. Then you boil it, and then you have the machine by hand, and then you make the sauce, olive oil, and salt. You cook them, then;put it in 2-liter jars, and then you seal them. you make enough to last you all winter–60, 80, a 100, depending on how many you want. In the summer, you live by salad, almost every day. What we are missing here is a lot of fresh produce. It’s not the old days. Now we eat with chemical fertilizers,” he sighed.

“Sicily’s produce is very popular, known as the best around–oranges, lemons, because there is so much sun. Every day you have fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. The clime is fantastic; it’s not real big, but it’s so loaded with sun. It’s called the Gold Island.”    Unknown-1

It’s unfair, but my greens at the Ramada paled as I imagined sun-drenched Sicily’s deep greens, compared to his iceberg lettuce and limp field greens.

Tony struggled too with the comparison. “This shrimp, this is in a can, and it tastes funny,” he said. He’s a restauranteur.

Tony’s mother moved her family back to Beloit, a few years after his father died. Tony was 21.

“It seems you’d want to stay there with the beautiful climate, fresh air, the fresh produce. Why here?” I asked.

“It’s everybody’s dream to work if I could make more money. That’s the key. It’s like any other country. There’s better opportunity in America than there is over there.”

“You could go in the winter,” I suggested.

“Even if I could, I wouldn’t,” he explained. “Restaurants are like babies.”

“That’s why you don’t leave?”

“You’re right, a 100 percent right,” he said. “Most of the failures, the restaurants are not taken care of right.”

Tony loves America and his work. This isn’t his second choice.

“That’s my priority. It’s the food. That’s life,” he said.

Our server brought over a dessert tray.

“Do  you want dessert, “ I asked, looking at the cake on the tray.

“No,” he said. “You know why? I had a piece of zucchini bread we made three days ago. It’s fantastic–got nuts in it. So I’m thinkin’ when I go home, I’m gonna have a piece with an espress coffee,” his musical accent emerging again.

“Oh that sounds good,” our server said, unmistakably thinking more zucchini bread than cake.

Tony reached for the check.

“No,” I said.

“You sure they’re buying,” he said, referring to my newspaper (where this story appeared originally). “You don’t lie to me?”

I laughed. This beefy body builder was ready to fight for the check.

“This is Lunch with Marjorie,” I affirmed. “Tony, it’s my job.”

He acquiesced, reluctantly. It was hard for him to let a woman pay for lunch.