More or Less: Remembering seven people who made me smile

I used to chuckle when somebody would say to me, “Your (South Bend Tribune) column is the first thing I read right after the obituaries.” OK, and often I would be behind the comics, too.

But the obits? That was first? Well, I’m at the age that I now do that, too. So I had a lot of catching up to do when my wife and I came back from Arizona after 10 weeks away.

Although no close friends had died (I would have already known about that), I was saddened to read about the passing of too many people I had liked and respected. Some of them I didn’t know that well; all of them made an impression on me.

Here are seven of them:

Flora Lee, 104 — Yeah, 104. A native of China, Flora was a bigger-than-life figure at the Sanctuary at St. Paul’s when I was out there several times a month a decade ago.

She grew up near the Yangtze River and when she and her husband James were starting their family, World War II broke out. “We had to hide from the Japanese,” she told me for a story I was writing about her. “”There was little to eat and I taught at a bamboo school on a mountaintop.”

They immigrated to the United States in 1949 and all four of their children earned post-graduate degrees. Flora received her master’s in library sciences but they moved several times for James’ job as a biochemist. “James reminded me of the Chinese saying, ‘When you marry a rooster, you must follow a rooster,’” she had said with a smile.

She had countless talents — calligraphy, haiku and painting to mention a few. “‘Just Keep Moving’ was the words she lived by. She did just that for more than a century.

Jim Langford, 84 — Jim was one of the biggest Chicago Cubs fans I ever knew. He even wrote five books on them.  He was in the book publishing business and was the director of the Notre Dame Press for 25 years at his alma mater.

I had forgotten that Jim had been a priest for seven years before being granted a dispensation from the Vatican. He was a man in full — a highly-ranked tennis player when he was younger, an author, a Hesburgh Lecturer and a co-founder of a day camp in Lakeville, “There Are Children Here,” that served thousands of inner-city children.

His ex-wife Jill published my first book of columns and he remained good friends with her over the years — sharing two adopted children. His longtime partner, Nimbi Cushing, is also a friend of mine.

I think I need to get out his memoir, “The Times in My Life,” and read it again.

Alex Gerenscer, 72 — Alex and I were trustees together at the old Memorial Presbyterian Church. Owner of his own well service company, he could fix just about anything.

I remember being on top of the church’s storage garage while helping him put on a new roof. While my main mission was trying not to fall off, Alex moved around as effortlessly as a second-story cat burglar.

He was quiet and built a little like Ichabod Crane — his sisters Judy and Janet had the more effervescent personalities — but he was a man you could always count on.

Paula Heiser, 76 — Paula was one of my wife’s teaching mentors when my wife returned to the classroom after a 10-year absence. Paula was loud and enthusiastic and motherly and kind.

She was the kind of teacher who all parents would want their kids to have. She lived and breathed education.  Paula was named Teacher of the Year at both Jefferson and Wilson schools in South Bend during her 35-year career and later served as president of the St. Joseph County Retired Teachers Association.

Paula never met anyone she didn’t encourage or like — except maybe the geese who would invade the privacy of her garden and pond in her backyard.

Dave Towner, 93 — Dave was one of four Towner brothers, including his older brother Bob who was the most wonderful guy I ever worked with at the Tribune. I didn’t know Dave nearly as well but he also was a great community guy like Bob.

An Army veteran and a pillar at Christ the King Church, he had one of the toughest duties I could ever imagine. He would run the Knights of Columbus smokers set up for raucous (and largely out-of-town) Notre Dame football fans the Friday nights before home games. They were a tough crowd and I probably ticked Dave off when I passed on talking to them when I was sports editor.

A longtime employee at Reinke Construction, Dave and his wife Doris had seven kids. Besides his wife, he leaves behind two of my favorite people — sister Judy, who was married to my workmate Forrest “Woody” Miller, and Mary Towner, Bob’s widow.

Neil McLaughlin, 84 — A down-the-street neighbor for several years, Neil taught and coached football at seven different schools, including South Bend LaSalle and Niles. He was a football historian extraordinaire and loved the kids he coached.

He loved Notre Dame, too. A 1960 grad, he always flew his alma mater’s flag in the fall. He could talk a little — or a lot — about almost anything and it was always great to see Neil and another neighbor, Ed Wray, in one of their lively conversations down the block.

Neil also had a deep appreciation for the West and he and wife Shirley lived in  St. George, Utah, and Broomfield, Colorado, for a while. They eventually came back to where he made his mark — and so many friends

Joe DeKever, 78, — Joe was Mr. Mishawaka, in my opinion. If you wanted to know anything about the history or citizens of the Princess City,  he or his son Pete were your go-to guys.

According to his obituary, Joe lived in Mishawaka for all but one month of his life — only a brief stay in a River Park apartment after he first married his wife Mary Ann breaking his string. And in his last days, he made arrangements with Memorial Hospital to be transported to the Center for Hospice in Mishawaka so he could die in his beloved hometown.

Joe was a banker — starting at the Mishawaka Building & Loan as a teller (like George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life”) while still in high school. He moved up the ladder to vice-president at what eventually became Mutual Bank during his 44-year career. He also served on the Common Council, library board and the board of directors of the Mishawaka Historical Museum.

But so many of us knew him for his “Joe’s Jottings” columns in the Mishawaka Enterprise and Penny Saver. He often kept us honest at the Tribune and was a tremendous sports fan — going to 60 Indianapolis 500s, several Olympic Games and probably thousands of other sporting events.

Most of all, he was a Caveman and Mishawakan through and through.