Detroit as I Once Knew It: The Ultimate Retail Experience

Yesterday, we went Christmas shopping after a wonderful brunch with friends in Campus Martius. We laughed at how different Detroit is since we first moved back here in 2012.

Back then, as friends and family asked us about our big move from a typical suburban home in Ann Arbor to an artist’s loft above a Cuban restaurant in the center of downtown Detroit, I kept tempering the tendencies to elevate expectations about Detroit. We were interested in a new adventure for sure, but we’ve been burned about Detroit’s renaissance multiple times in the past.

I’m a native Detroiter, born on Detroit’s east side in a neighborhood now known as the Delta Zone by Detroit’s police. That’s because typically don’t patrol my old stomping grounds without a flak jacket and full protection. My grandmother was murdered in this city. I’m one of those Detroiter’s who didn’t stick around for the sequel. I left the city behind after that dark chapter and had it been downtown in years until we boldly decided to move back here after both our sons were launched.

Detroit is a study in how much things change and invariably stay the same.

There’s a cool area with art and summer speakeasies behind the library street lofts and Vicente’s Cuban restaurant now. It’s known as the Belt. The Z parking garage frames the space now, festooned with large graffiti murals from some of the best graffiti artists including Shepard Fairey (who did the iconic Obama graphic). Five years ago when we were moving into our Library Loft above the restaurant overlooking the Skillman Business Library, I had to stand vigil over the moving van after stopping several neighborhood drifters from pilfering through Kay’s collection of homemade Christmas ornaments.

“You’ll know Detroit is permanently changing for the better when people return to shop. And for me, that means having more than a wig shop, a bail bondsman and a licqor store on Woodward Avenue.”

Most detroiters  don’t realize that Woodward Avenue was THE ultimate shopping experience , culminating with the oldhudsonMy first year back in Detroit



Faith in a larger God

Indulge me a longer meditation on the eve of the thanksgiving holiday. My friend Penny Bailer and I went to see Boy Erased this weekend. I highly recommend it. Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Joel Edgerton and Lucas Hedges are all superb.

But the story begs a larger question: How does our faith guide us? What does our faith require us to embrace, and reject? 

And what’s the connection with the message of Boy Erased with that of our own faith? 

I don’t ever reflect on my religious faith publicly because my own journey has been circuitous at best: raised Roman Catholic, prepared for conversion to Judaism and then shortly afterward married a Protestant. Hardly the path to recommend for others. Yet each time, at each on-ramp, everything made sense. The truths that had brought me to a new place seemed in fact not to contradict what I had previously held as true. Rather, they seemed to build on what I had previously learned and believed. I’ve never rejected one core series of beliefs and values, but simply tried to add to them through authentic experience. The end result is a faith in a larger more all encompassing God, a God capable of embracing multiple truths simultaneously. 

They say that once you are a Catholic, always a Catholic (thanks Mom and dad!). But I’ve also learned that once a Jew, always Jewish (thank you Adina!) And not surprisingly, once a Christian, always ( thanks Kay!) And then it follows, once Muslim always One with Islam (shokran Ahlam and Nader).

In truth, my faith has been inspired by tireless observance. And most of this observance has come in the company of those who seem to have a good sense of how we follow a righteous path. So at turns I’ve discovered I’m a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jew.  At least to the extent that I open my arms to the faith in God they embrace. 

For me it has been to follow in the steps of God. Not to become spiritually weak or wish washy. Failing God’s direct presence, I’ve relied instead on her foot soldiers who’ve helped me stay on the right path even as I have more than occasionally strayed. My dad used to always say, follow the “real deal.” 

There are numerous “real deals” out there in faiths of all sorts and sizes. That is because the universe arcs toward goodness and is populated with many good people of different faiths. This has made it easy for me to find a place in many temples over the years (mercifully without their roofs falling in). In Europe, in a nod to my mom and grandmothers, I never pass a church without lighting a candle. Whenever I visit Adina, I always try to make it for Shabbat, and kiddish.  And whenever celebrating with Ahlam and Nader, and their family, I always remember our first Mansef. 

Traditions and faith bind us, not a numb fealty to following certain carefully confined truths. 

So what do you say, when your adult child comes home with an epiphany about who they really are? In Boy Erased we find ourselves pained as we see a family not brought together by faith but torn asunder. 

It’s easy to knock the Moral Majority, the religious right, those with faith traditions different than our own. But I realized I’m not going to do that.  It seems to me that instead, what these experiences show us is that we must simply aspire to a faith in a larger God. 

A God who created each and every unique one of us. God created the Muslims, the Jews, the Gays, the LGBTQs, the immigrants, the Republicans, Democrats and anarchists. Given the problems of this earth that’s a good thing.  Because we can be thankful for… 

A God who is not simply male in form.

A God who is embracing of all faiths.

A God who rejects simplistic gender identity.

And rather a God who embraces the full flair and fauna of the human race created for this earth.

A God who laughs at the idea that there is “one true faith” because this leads to lesser faiths and notions of a lesser god.

I believe in a God who looks and acts like my grandma Vicki; who is slow to anger; is accepting of others, especially those least similar to us; is merciful to all; revels in the uniqueness and differentness of others; seeks not to be high brow or high-minded or superior in outlook. Who finds the grace and goodness in others. Who manages resistance without rancor but rather with grace and goodwill. 

We are not children of a lesser god, but rather the disciples of a larger more embracing faith. 


For this I am thankful.

Toward a better Fan Management Program at the University of Michigan

After witnessing the fan experience at Penn State earlier this season, I vowed to be a better sport. Nittany Lions fans were so unbelievably gracious to a person. They welcomed us to Beaver Stadium, and then wished us well for the drive home after the game.  Several years back, we experienced the same class treatment at Notre Dame.  When I wrote to the Notre Dame Alumni Association about that experience, they invited me back to a late season game as a guest in their press box.  We can do a much better job at Michigan. We need a fan management protocol that honors the best traditions of what we sing about as “the leaders and best.” I took my 14 year old “little brother” Reynard to the Cincinnati game, and just cringed when I heard some of the unsportsmanlike chants.  Really??!!!
We don’t need to boo the band or opposing players as their names are announced or they come onto the field, we need better chants than “you suck,” and we certainly don’t need to boo our own quarterback! Important to remember it’s only a football game, even when it’s Michigan-Ohio State, and these 20+ year old student athletes will be defined by their Michigan experience well beyond their time on the football field.
With this in mind, I reached out to Michigan’s quarterback, John O’Korn after the Ohio State game on Saturday, and received a nice response.
On Sun, Nov 26, 2017 at 9:17 PM Stefanski, Ronald <> wrote:
By way of an introduction, I am a Michigan alum, class of 82’ and I’ve been a season ticket holder since 1978. I’m also friends with Gail Perry Mason and her son Dexter, with whom your interned last summer. Dexter speaks highly of you, and shared your email address.
After we returned home from the game, Dexter was sharing with us what a stand up guy you are— bright, talented, well spoken and ambitious. He’s says we will probably see you on a ballot somewhere in the future. You also happen to be a gifted football player and over 100K fans watched you play your heart out yesterday against Ohio State.
Two life lessons were validated during four quarters of football yesterday. The first is that the game’s outcome is never decided by one player. While you’re a stand up guy to say it was all on you (the mark of a true Michigan man), in fact you kept us in the hunt throughout much of that game. That’s something the final score doesn’t reflect. It takes a team to win, and it also takes a team when we come up short.
Secondly, the other life lesson perhaps even more significant is that most of us won’t be defined in life solely by our college experience. That’s because most of us don’t have a lick of the talent you brought to collegiate sports. It’s also because there is so much more to your college experience than sports. I’m not just saying this because I’ve never been an athlete— and can’t imagine life at the division 1 level of play.
I was an English major, and co-founded a newspaper during my years at UM, the Michigan Review. Nowadays, if I were to mention that I started a radical conservative newspaper on the campus of the University of Michigan it’s simply a source of good natured ribbing (if not mild embarrassment) so I’ve learned to downplay that! Not an entirely apt analogy, but you get my point. Most of us hope our biggest college moments don’t completely define us later on.
About 6 years ago I had the chance to meet a former Michigan quarterback, Bob Chappuis, who was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, for his role on the national championship team of 1947. His football career was not what he remembered most about his time at Michigan years later. He remembered the Ugolini family who harbored him from the Nazis when his bomber was shot down during World War II after his college career was interrupted. He remembered their bravery. His greatest pride was getting an education at Michigan under those circumstances, and later having a successful career and family.
The biggest takeaway from yesterday wasn’t the final score, but the heart and soul you put into the effort. That’s the kind of effort that defines the much heralded phrase “true Michigan man.”
The Wolverine faithful are not disappointed in you—rather we all stand cheering, waiting to hear about your next big win off the field, or where ever a bright future takes you. We have 100% faith it will be as spectacular as many of your previous best efforts.
Go blue!
Ron Stefanski
LSA class of 1982

From: John O’Korn <>
Date: November 27, 2017 at 10:33:31 PM EST
To: “Stefanski, Ronald” <>
Subject: Re: An earnest John O’Korn fan letter from a friend of Dexter Mason

Thank you for the kind words, Ron. Forever Go Blue!


I was happy to hear from so many friends that feel similarly.  It’s easy, as we all know, to get caught up in the hype of our most heated rivalries.  But not at the expense of allowing football to be its best, which is teaching our students the real value in being great athletes and great sports as well.  Thanks in part to our friend Jennifer Maisch who works with Amy Chappius, grandson of Bob, who shared my tribute with her dad and family.  The real value in being part of a community of 100,000+ fans is the opportunity to contemplate and experience connections with so many others.

I love my nieces to pieces: Now get to work!



This is a letter to my many mighty nieces, those related by biology and those with whom I share some other cosmic connection:

I’ve seen your posts and understand how crushing it is to witness morning in America today. It’s hard not to feel it personally and deeply as a body blow, a sucker punch, a disturbing red flag. But saner times will prevail. Our democracy spoke and what it reminded us is that everyone gets a voice in it, even those with whom we disagree or take issue. We will need to figure out how to bring those clearly disenfranchised with everything back into our fold. We are stronger together and we need to find the way forward together.

On this day, when we could be thinking darker thoughts, I’m looking at your writing and your work at school and in your far flung jobs and adventures this fall, and this collective caring has become my inspiration. This is my fallback from despair. I know with strong aspiring women like you and the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, nieces, sisters, friends and cousins who inspire you, and whom I publicly applaud and adore, the world and our country will get it right yet.

You will no doubt get right back to work, and this is what buoys me today. You will press ahead fearless and determined. They will never see the quit in you. I suspect today will have changed you profoundly. You will no doubt step back and ask some important questions. How do we figure this out? How do we move forward? How do we get the civility and compromise back into the collective discourse and conversation?

How do we bring others in without leaving anyone out?

As parents there are certain times when we can’t protect you from bad stuff happening and the bad guys from winning one. But we have prepared you for those times, confident you will stand tall and prevail in ways we never contemplated. You are brave, you are smart, you are strong. And crafty!

It’s your turn now. Thank God for that. BTW, I’m pretty sure She’s listening today!

To Better times ahead! Thank you Rosie for your spirited response. Yes you are my favorite, just as every other niece is too! But you’re the one who brought me to tears.

From Rosie… Rome after the election


This morning I woke up in Italy to many texts, notifications and news of the results of the election. I thought today would be the end to what seems to have been a nightmare of campaigning and politics. Instead I cried tears of shock, tears of fear, and tears for so many of the people I love and who are close to me.

My heart reaches out to all those in the LGBT, Muslim, black, Latino and female community.
I’m passing on this letter to all of you, from my uncle Ron, someone who has never wavered in his faith in me and the things I am capable of.

Thank you Uncle Ron for reminding us that at the end of the day we are stronger together. At the end of the day we will never quit. At the end of the day love will always overcome hate.




Toward our better political nature

I guess when I talk to friends and colleagues and family, I haven’t found too many people who are aligned on just one side of the political  aisle. I hear things like I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative, for example. So it shouldn’t strike anyone as too unusual that I’ve turned views politically. Several times actually over the course of my life. When I was in seventh grade I was a political junkie and followed the Watergate Chronicles with rapt attention. I couldn’t believe each new headline as the reach of the investigation got closer and closer to Nixon, the president himself. When All the President’s Men came out I was thunderstruck. That was a time when if you said you were a republican most people actually heard the word “crook.”

My parents and grandparents and everyone I knew growing up was a card carrying Union member and lifelong Democrat. It would have been inconceivable to my grandma that I even considered voting for a Republican. But then as I headed off to college, my AP history teacher Jerry Tewmey sat me down and told me the purpose of going off to college was to separate yourself from your past and create your own identity, you know, construct your own independent point of view. I remember him saying, if you come home from college and show up at the Christmas table and don’t find anything about the dinner conversation objectionable, then you’re failing at school.

Of course, coming home to a loud, boisterous and ethnic family always insured that someone was spouting off about something that would raise a few eyebrows. I could almost hear one of my aunts admonishing us, “Now we don’t need that kind of talk at the dinner table.”

When I headed off to college, I spun toward the right. I was swept up in the Reagan revolution on campuses across the country during the 80’s election. It started after a campaign event for Perry Bullard who was our Democratic Congressman. It was hard for me to take him seriously on issues, when he was doing pot in his campaign office. I was really turned off by that (I know I was such an innocent nerd back then!) Then there was something excessive about the union talk going around at the time– pressing for a 4 day work week, always looking for more perks without necessarily offering more. And then, my high school best friend and I were now roommates up at Michigan.  Gilbert and I worked summer shifts at Quality Metalcraft, an automotive parts manufacturer. To be honest, there was something not altogether pleasant about union life on the shop floor. Like the guys setting up a makeshift gambling parlor in the back so they could play cards after stocking up enough parts on the line to make quota for the day. Or the intimidation practiced on one of the Probies (those with fewer than 90 days were probationary employees and not as yet afforded the union’s protections.) whenever they showed up to a shift just a tad bit too enthusiastic for the work. He found his tires slashed. It was episodes like this that got me thinking more about individual responsibility. And then of course there was also Ayn Rand. And Russell Kirk. He boiled it down simply for me: Conservatism is the negation of ideology. Sounded about right to me at the time.

Yes, maybe there was something worthwhile in the conservative cause.

But it’s years later now, and time to be asking: So how did that turn out for you?

Blessings out of the Dark Corners

image.jpegWe are often faced with dark signs and ominous foreboding. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find blessings in the sometimes dark corners and turns of fate.

My grandma Vicki would have been 111 today. In the 25 years she’s been gone, in the century after Vicki, I often think about her and am asked: what do I most miss about her?

There are dozens of things really, like the way she spoke plainly with her strong Polish accent; the extraordinary thrift she exercised in combing yard sales, flea markets and Salvation Army shops for the largest collection of house dresses imaginable; the way she judiciously followed the advice of Angie, Phyllis and Stella, her lady friends, her “komushkas” as she called them from the VFW women’s auxiliary; the way she found it impossible to cook for less than 50, and the plastic bags she kept in her black rhinestone purse for leftovers and a safe haven for her “store teeth” when her gums needed a rest; her ability to live a just life jointly governed by a strong catholic faith and tempered by the advice of tarot cards, fortune tellers in Hamtramck and her gaggle of komuschkas. I miss having someone in my life who never advanced past the 6th grade but had the wisdom and insight of an angel; who laughed easily and often and unabashedly at herself. We can’t ever lose the resolve to laugh often and at our selves.

I miss excursions to her house with my pal Gilbert where we went shopping in Hamtramck, had dinner at Pollonia’s and watched Lawrence Welk reruns together afterwards.

And I miss pulling up to her house on Eastburn and seeing her standing there in her house dress and apron waiting for me, calling me her favorite, her heart of gold grandson, her Jack of all trades as she pulled out her list of errands and household projects. I adore my wife and many women in my life because I learned what it was like to be adored from her.

But I most miss what it would have been like for Will and Dan to have known her, to witness her unabashed adoration firsthand. That would have been spectacular.

I miss the innocent view of the world I held in her company accompanied by the naïveté that anyone would wish to do her harm. In the end, when she was felled by hate even as she lifted up so many in love, she continues to remind us in the aftermath of her murder that love still wins out. Still.

In the absence of such innocence, we can’t simply move to a harsher view of the world. We cannot accept brutes or bullies now. We must replace innocence with vigilance. We can’t pine for a world as it once was, or as we might have perceived it to be. The world is never so simple.

Vicki was killed because there is evil in the world as we know it. We can’t account for it, explain it, much less accept or account for it. The world is occasionally gripped by strong, dark forces. But we must be seekers, looking always for the blessings out in the shadows and dark corners.

Rather than fall prey to their grasp, we can press ahead mightily. We can hug our loved ones tighter, look to those less fortunate and offer a hand up. We can buttress evil with goodness. And we can live as if our lives depended upon doing some good in the world that would make us worthy of her pride in us.

I’m thankful this thanksgiving that I had the chance to be loved so completely, that I got it clear in my head what that felt like, so I can do a decent job each day honoring that. I’m thankful not that the world has been handed to us a better place, god if it only were! but that we have the chance, armed with our hearts and our health, to make it better for others.

This thanksgiving I hope you’re blessed with the embrace of loved ones, the smile and sticky hands of children, the off key singing of an elder relative, the pass of a favorite plate, and the anticipation of your favorite dessert.

Out in the shadows past the bright lights, at the end of the meal, may your joy be abundant and your heart full.

I Love Lucy Reruns: Season 1: Pretty in Pink


Some Important Reasons Why We Need “I Love Lucy” Back in Reruns

As one of Lucy’s godchildren Ronnie, Uncle Vic and Aunt Lucy took their role as my godparents so seriously throughout my life after my mother Gerry passed away when I was still in high school. VJ and his brothers asked me to share a few reflections in celebration of Aunt Lucy’s amazing life that I’m quite sure many of you share in common with me.

For those old enough to remember the “I Love Lucy” TV series, I kinda feel like we have our own version of the “I Love Lucy” show. Aunt Lucy was no red headed comic, and let’s face it.  Uncle Vic at 81 is way more charming and better looking than Desi Arnaz! This last episode proved to be both a shocker and a real tear jerker for all of us. We never expected Lucy to be gone at the end of the show. We certainly saw hints of her illness in earlier episodes leading up to this moment. But Lucy’s sparkle, her strength, her radiant vitality had us convinced the end was far off into the distant future.

For Aunt Lucy, being a lifelong nurse was more than a career choice, or a vocation. It was her passion, her calling.  She was always taking our temperature and nursing all of our hurts over the years.  She was the strongest woman we ever knew. The thing about her was she had absolutely no whine, and just so much fight in her.

And what about that smile of hers??! Absolutely glamorous.

She took on all comers with that fabulous smile of hers.  If we were directing an episode of our own I Love Lucy, I’m sure all of us would have quite a few things in common on the set. Lucy would emerge in each episode center stage as our iconic star with her characteristic stunning black hair, coiffed to perfection, clad in a striking pink ensemble, offset by her signature red lipstick and makeup flawless as ever. The set would boast extraordinary quantities of Italian and Polish food. Dozens upon dozens of grandchildren and cousins would be running around with an endless arsenal of footballs, basketballs, hockey sticks, skates and weapons-grade squirt guns. The audience would watch her in absolute awe as she navigated various plates of hot food, crying infants in need of bottles, burping or diapers, conveniently sidestepping high octane grandsons immediately underfoot and an architectural display of delectable homemade desserts she couldn’t wait to tell us all about on the table behind her.  Anyone standing around on the set who was idle or complaining would be sent off to the store to get ice. Lucy would tell us all about the food, starting with dessert first, of course.  “This cassata cake was made by the same guy that bakes for Madonna. You need to try it, it’s so delicious!”

In our version of “I Love Lucy” all the women have starring roles, starting with her sister Toni, and then Lynn and Denise, Mya and Zoey, Lindsay and Emily. Every woman on set would be pretty in pink. Lucy reminds us that strong women are both smart and beautiful as well. And Aunt Lucy reminds us what Uncle Vic learned long ago.  That all stand up guys are ultimately redeemed in life by the women who love them.  We must all find redemption in this thought.

Over the past 50+ years I’ve watched a lot of our own version of “I Love Lucy” episodes, some numerous times. For the life of me I never saw one episode where cancer wins. Cancer never gets the best of Lucy. It just didn’t happen that way. Not in one single solitary episode. Her family and friends get the best of her.

Many of you have seen these episodes too— the ones where Aunt Lucy is hugging Tom, Toni and Sal, bundled up in 5 layers of clothes outside “the Beast” motorhome at Lion’s pre-game tailgates in the Eastern market pushing meatballs and mostacelli, or at swim parties at VJs making sure everyone had a drink or dessert. As I look thru decades of family photographs with VJ, Mark and Dean, along with their kids and her abundant loving extended family— we see the same thing, again and again.

There’s a new episode in recent years that follows I love Lucy. It’s a reality show refereed by her son Dean featuring Mikee and Joey, the reality show comics that come on each week after each episode of I love Lucy.

In these episodes, Lucy is smiling, delighted to see everyone. She is mesmerizing in every moment, radiant and healthy and so grateful to be in the center of her family’s life. She is brimming with a hug and has a Kleenex ready to wipe the smudge of lipstick off their cheeks just as she gets ready to kiss them. And then we see Mikee and Joey’s live action version of whack-a-mole where they use their hockey sticks as hammers and Drew and Braden are running around pushing prince William in his stroller as the fast moving moles in this live-action version of the game. Every kid adores Aunt Lucy because she knew how to let them be kids, running around, making messes. She had their absolute adoration because each and every one of them was her absolute favorite.

We remember Lucy at every turn in life right there in the middle of one of these scenes. At first communions, and confirmations. At my own wedding in Ohio, when she first saw my bride Kay she said, “she reminds me so much of your mom.” She saw the resemblance that drew me into lifelong love and marriage. She had a way of pointing us in the right direction. It was the same way she described Lynn and Denise with similar admiration.

I think “I Love Lucy” turns out to be my aunt’s way of seeing the best in each and every one of us. Isn’t it true? We always looked and felt better when she was around. We know better than to whine, whimper or waver when she’s around. I’m convinced this is what Aunt Lucy wants us to remember most right now.

I remember last summer at uncle Vic’s 80th birthday. Aunt Lucy was whirling around in the 95-degree heat making us all sweat just watching her, taking special care to make sure the cassata cake for uncle Vic was properly chilled, as he puts down his cigar and invites everyone into a prayer of thanks. She taught us that the family that prays and plays together, stays together. And is amazing together. A biological connection to aunt Lucy and Uncle Vic was completely unnecessary and irrelevant. Everyone was family and everyone was her favorite. Aunt Lucy took the obligations of being an aunt, sister, mother, grandmother, great grandmother and godmother to heart, and oh so seriously.

So when the “best of the I Love Lucy” show is viewed in the days and weeks ahead, I predict the rest of the world will come to know what we’ve long known about Lucy:

That aunt Lucy actually invented the kids table where messes and noise don’t matter; that she invented the utensil that starts out as a spoon and morphs into your very own fork when you turn 7 years old; that her own cookbook never had a recipe for spaghetti sauce that served under 50 people; that it was in fact Aunt Lucy that asked Facebook to launch the “love” button on Facebook, the one with the red heart.

There are several rumors however that I can’t confirm; that a commemorative pink LOVE button is planned for Facebook next year; that Ford Motor is bringing back the pink T-Bird in 2017 on her birthday. There remain multiple rumors of a new app in the Apple store where you press a button and it automatically gives you every kid’s birthday, communion, confirmation, and the daily scores on all their personal sports on that particular day so you can automatically be the first to post and shine about them to everyone.

So what do we do now?

Our faith reminds us that Aunt Lucy’s smile never fades; that any pain she felt is forever gone. As her adoring son Mark reminded me, She won the battle. She beat death and crushed cancer. Like any champion athlete, she simply retired to the sidelines to invite newcomers into the sport. In her physical absence, we need to simply look to our own “I Love Lucy” reruns, the ones with her doting forever smile. Our consolation is this simple image of her in repose, smiling in an everlasting state of grace.

Lucy taught us that the only way to prepare for death was to ignore it, to focus completely on living. Because the art of living well is a faith based, live action reality show at its best.  So maybe we have done enough thinking about her death for the past few days. Maybe that part is over and done. Our faith sends us off to watch all the “I Love Lucy” reruns, again and again, bearing witness to her life, and taking something new and significant from each episode unfolding: the joy, the laughter, the warmth, the smiles, the strength, the humor and grace that Lucy uniquely brought to each and every live episode.

As a comfort to us on this day, let’s plan on watching our own “I Love Lucy” reruns forever together. God bless us all! We Love Lucy.



imageAnton and Erika Herovitsch during our reunion in Itter, Tirol in 2014

Sometimes you have to ask yourself. How exactly does the world work? It’s big and complex and humbling in its magnificence. But I’m not always sure how its supposed to work. Most of us probably feel this way sometimes, if not most times. Whenever I reflect on this, I remember the world works in harmony by virtue of the following:

  1. The presence of miracles in daily ordinary life, happening before our eyes often without us even noticing or paying close attention.
    The recognition that the world is actually small when we are connected with the people who inhabit it.
  2. The presence of the Divine is abundant in certain special people on the planet who look out for us, guarding us against peril and pointing us to goodness and light. When we first meet them, we know they are somehow different.
  3. The presence and energy of love makes sense of all this as part of a grander design, given freely, at times randomly, but reverently and purposefully so as to move the world toward magnificence.
  4. At the end of the day, all we have is each other and our stories. When I think back to a time in my life when chaos reigned, I now see my life as a story told in a different light. It’s clear that things happen as they should and for good reason. Always. And when it’s not entirely certain this is the case, it’s because we don’t have the complete picture yet in total focus. So we keep asking and seeking.


When I was a junior in high school, my parents were both highly invested in my success. My mother, in particular, was really pushing me to excel in school. She installed corkboard on a wall in the kitchen, which she devoted to every report card and honor award my siblings and I received at school, so everyone who came over could see it in plain view. These are my kids. This is where their success begins out in the open for everyone to see.

She definitely had her sights on me, and wanted me to go to college. So whenever I was approached by my guidance counselor about signing up for ROTC, my mother would call the school. My son is not going to enlist, he’s going to college! And when he talked about the finances of college, because he knew there were five at home, she blew off his concerns and continued to press me. She kept saying to me, if you get the right grades, you will get into a great school, and somehow we will find a way.

That fall as I was completing my applications, our community announced plans to expand our Sister Cities exchange program in Tirol Austria. The prior year, in 1976, our town celebrated the bi-centennial by hosting a group of Austrians to stay among local host families. Our neighbor Mary Cote hosted one young couple, and when I went over to cut Mary’s grass that summer, she invited me over to meet them and practice my German. Anton and Erika Herovitsch were a lovely couple, both educators. Anton was a school administrator and Erika taught at the elementary school. They were encouraged to know some Americans were actually learning German in school– in their travels, they often found themselves clarifying for Americans that Austrians didn’t speak English as their primary language, and didn’t have any kangaroos. That was actually Australia. Moments like this make clear the importance of increasing global awareness. I’m not sure things are much different forty years later! We can know each other and understand each other better for sure by participating more broadly in the world. That much is unchanged and ever certain.

That fall, our community announced a program to select two students, a male and female, for a study abroad program in Tirol Austria. My mother encouraged me to apply (actually insisted when I really stop and think about it). She was at Hutzel Hospital in Detroit at the time, battling cancer. She thought it would be a terrific experience for me, and would help my chances for college admission. Secretly, she also knew deep down I needed some kind of larger experience to break me out of my introverted shell.

In the blink of an eye, sadly, my mother passed away that Christmas. So when I learned in February that I was selected for the program, I was in a complete quandary. I wasn’t entirely ecstatic. Did I really want to leave my family at this time, and go abroad 7,000 miles away to be in a foreign country with no one I really knew? My father never had any doubts. He insisted that this was an important opportunity, that it could be a critical addition to my college applications, and so I made arrangements to leave right after school ended.

As the time for my trip approached, I kept inquiring about my host family. This was in the days long before the Internet and Skype and I wanted simply to write them a letter and introduce myself. But nothing. I was told details would be forthcoming. The week before our trip, Manfred Heuser, my high school German teacher and the director of the exchange program, called my father to tell him the family that had intended to host me had decided at the last minute to back out. Manfred went on to say, he didn’t think this was a big problem, and he would find another family once we were touring with our group in Austria.

As a 17 year old, my doubts were building. I wasn’t sure this was the adventure I had signed up for! My father prodded me to stay the course, and shared that he had decided to visit me in Austria in late summer to check on me. That was a pretty big deal considering I had 4 other siblings at home. Knowing this, I decided to press ahead.

The prospect of finding a host family proved difficult in the three weeks we were touring Austria and Western Germany. On the night before our tour group was returning to America, Manfred approached me with a new plan. “I know this isn’t what we intended, but we are pretty confident we can line up a host family by the time school begins in 3 months. In the meantime, we can arrange for you to stay in a Youth Hostel for the rest of the summer. ”

I had, however, reached my 17 year old limit. This didn’t feel like what I had signed up for. I wasn’t sure about staying in a youth hostel alone with a two year command of German, and no one I knew. I went back to him the next day, and asked him if I could return home with the touring group instead. I was pretty sure my adventure abroad was over.

Manfred was clearly disappointed but understood. The next evening he took our touring group on its last excursion at Gasthof Roessl in the nearby town of Itter. As we were sitting down for dinner, a couple approached our table: “Ronnie Aus Amerika! Gruess Gott!”

How was it even possible that 7,000 miles from home I would run into someone who actually knew me??! It was Anton and Erika Herovitsch, Mary Cote’s Sister city visitors from the previous year! Manfred approached them about our touring group, and by the end of the evening came back to me with a new development. Anton and Erika had agreed to serve as my host family. Gottseidank!

I would like to say this was a storybook ending to my adventure — and it is– but it’s really a story that continues to unfold. Not surprisingly, I had the adventure of a lifetime with the Herovitsch family that year. Their three children– Marcus, Danielle and Christopher (“Stoffi”) became constant companions at school, and it was as if I had been adopted into an entirely new family half way across the world. Erika planned many of our weekends with hiking trips and excursions to all the surrounding towns in Tirol. Serene and idyllic towns like Kufstein, Woergl, Hopfgarten, Kitzbuhel and St. Johann.

I would also like to say that we kept up with each other perfectly in the 35 years that have since past, and in many ways we have, but life also happened along the way. Marcus came to spend the following summer with my family in Michigan. My father bought a motorhome earlier that year, and we travelled to California and Mexico with Marcus, a companion student from Austria, my siblings, my grandma Vicki and our terrier Popeye. Yes, Marcus had an exciting but entirely different adventure in the states, barreling across America camping out in close proximity with 8 other people and a dog. And yes, in many ways his adventure with my family does bear striking similarities to the trip chronicled in Chevy Chase’s Family Vacation movie! But that’s another story!

Danielle visited us in America on two occasions, and was on hand for our wedding in 1986 in Ohio. At other times though, our friendship has gone temporarily dormant owing simply to the sheer reality of raising our families and living different lives Galway across the globe. What I can’t really begin to explain, however, is how it came to pass that I never made it back to Austria in all our years of marriage and travel? This is a huge question given my extraordinary passion for Austria, and my deep love for its food, culture and history, as well as my charmed view of life there from the extraordinary time I had spent with the Herovitsch’s. I guess there is really only one answer. Life happens. After Kay and I married, we travelled on to see other places, other parts of the world. But Facebook re-connected all of us again in 2007, and we began planning a reunion.

In 2014, 37 years after my magical year with the Herovitsch Family, Kay and I returned to Itter. While I diligently practiced my German in the weeks leading up to the trip, one linguistic anxiety remained. How would I express real gratitude in a language over which I only have partial command? How would I express to Anton and Erika how they had literally changed the course of my life? How would I convey to them exactly what it meant to me that they took me into their home that summer and made me a part of their family? How would I share with Anton and Erika all the amazing life that had happened in the course of almost 40 years since we had seen each other? And how would I explain that in many ways, I didn’t ever really believe our friendship is a coincidence, but part of a larger more providential plan?

How did I find Erika in my life, to fill a maternal void literally months after my mother had passed?

Our reunion in Itter was unbelievable. I knew we were up for an incredible adventure when Anton first invited us on Facebook: “We would like you and your family to return to Austria. And when you come to Tirol, you must not reserve a hotel. We have your old bedroom prepared and waiting for you!”

Everyone of the Herovitsch children, and many of their children came in for our reunion. Erika cooked, remembering my favorite foods as if she had prepared them for me the previous Sunday.

Our language differences, and linguistic fluency point to something truly amazing. In life and in love there is a language that surpasses our own meager understanding. As we spent time together with Anton and Erika, the number of family connections unfolded. Not only had my life in Tirol with them inspired me to pursue a career in education instead of the law. I had also married into a family of educators just like them. David, my father in law and Anton, both retired administrators, spend their time now studying and performing classical music. When I spoke with Anton our first day, I explained that I wasn’t sure I had the presence of mind at 17 to express the sheer love and gratitude I have for him and Erika and their family. He replied: “You know we knew that, even back then. I remember one day, you had left your room a mess and Erika scolded you when you came home from school. The next day you left gymnasium at recess and went to the store to pick her up some chocolates and write an apology. Do you remember this? We do, and we knew then how you felt about being with us.”

When you think of Anton, think Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music– striking resemblance. Both are extremely accomplished, renaissance men of the arts and music, at times reserved and quite serious, ever punctual, but with an abiding integrity and extraordinary love of Austria and family. We made a pact that fall in Tirol in 2014, and vowed we wouldn’t let more that 2 or 3 years go by without seeing each other again on one continent or the other. With our two families and extended family on both continents, we agreed we have ample opportunities to connect again and more often.

We are keeping this promise. The youngest Herovitsch, Chris, and his wife Hazel visited America last fall, and we enjoyed another amazing Herovitsch reunion in Boston. Another story for another time. This week Kay and I are returning to Europe, first to spend a week in England with Chris and Hazel and their family, and then another week with Anton and Erika, and Marcus and Danielle and their families.

When I think about how it came to pass that I would come to meet this family, at such an unusual time in my life, half way across the world, and kindle a lifelong friendship, it is humbling. Our friendship is a reminder that the world is both vast and small, and smaller still when we connect with each other. When I shared with Erika that I was at a loss to explain my absence from Austria for over 35 years, she understood as only an extraordinary mother can. She shared with me, “When we were raising our children we recognized Itter was a small place. There are only 1,500 people in this town. And so after we moved here, Anton and I went out into the world, and travelled broadly, and encouraged our children to do the same. In doing so, Christopher went off to England to study and found a wife and ultimately moved there with his own family. Marcus and Danielle and their families have had these experiences as well. But we always remind them, this is ultimately the place to which you return. Itter is your home, and you always come back home. We knew this was true for you too, Ronnie. We always knew you would find your way back here.”

At one point, I asked David how all these experiences and coincidences should be taken as a whole. There were so many of them that had both brought and kept us close over many years after a nearly chance, random encounter. David has a Ph.D. In philosophy and logic. He answered my question with a question: “Isn’t that what faith is all about? Faith is intended to provide an explanation, and a foundation for understanding when the mere facts fail us.”

With that, I left the Herovitsch’s that day, promising to return again soon. I live the most blessed life imaginable, because today, once again, we are returning home.