If death teaches us about life, we’ve had our share of lessons this week.
The week has been littered with somber news.
Before heading out to Lenox vs. Mount Ayr basketball Tuesday night, I made a stop at Pearson Family Funeral Service.
It was the visitation for Ellen Lang, who gave 33 years of service to this organization in the production department. For 13 of those years I worked alongside her as she “pasted up” the sports pages based on the “dummy sheet” I provided her, back in the stone age before electronic page composition.
More on Ellen later, because her service record at the News Advertiser is truly noteworthy.
When I arrived in Mount Ayr Tuesday night, football co-coach and athletic director Delwyn Showalter was sharing stories from coaching clinics where the late Norm Parker of the Iowa staff had appeared. We were saddened to hear of his recent passing, because he was truly a candid character who could tell a story — much like former ISU basketball coach Johnny Orr, who we just lost a couple of weeks ago.
So, I got back from Mount Ayr and put in a late night with sports editor Scott Vicker. We had both been on the road and had a lot of work to accomplish to produce Wednesday’s sports section.
Finally, as I sat at home in front of my laptop at about 2:30 a.m., finishing the next day’s practice plan for my middle school team, I got a text message from Scott that punched me right in the gut.
“Just saw on Facebook Louis Cruz’s daughter must have passed away.”
That was tough news to digest.
Less than two years ago, I had visited the Cruz family in Orient for an article portraying the tremendous support that had arisen on their behalf after 14-year-old Brittany felt a knot in her thigh while practicing for the Orient-Macksburg dance team.
As it turned out, it was a tumor and she began waging a battle, through numerous trips to Iowa City, against a soft tissue cancer rare in children — high-grade differentiated sarcoma.
Just months earlier, Louis had coached the O-M baseball team to its first state-tournament appearance. He was also elected mayor of Orient through write-in ballots. A Chicago native, he had met his wife Susan while a baseball player at Southwestern Community College.
I interviewed Brittany and other family members that day in the Cruz home, and I thought I was writing a tale of a courageous battle that appeared to have a light at the end of the tunnel. They seemed encouraged about the prospects of treating this diagnosis and returning to an active high school life.
But through experiences in my own family, I know the nasty, dark turns cancer can take you through on the road toward recovery. It didn’t turn out like any of us had hoped.
Sometimes the most memorable athletic careers are the ones you never get to write about. That’s how I look at Brittany, the daughter of a baseball coach who was destined to be a softball standout. She was athletic, bright and energetic. A great friend to many, and obviously a beloved daughter and sister.
I now coach girls who are about the age that Brittany was when she was diagnosed. So, I took great pains at Wednesday’s practice to appreciate the smiles on these young athletes’ faces as they enjoyed their time together in the gym.
It also made me want to reach out to my own kids. Because, if there was ever a lesson in remembering how precious their lives are, it’s news like this. I’ve known too many people who have lost a child, and yet I still have no comprehension of the pain they must bear.
On Facebook, I encouraged parents to give their children an extra hug that night. I wish I could have done the same.
Then Wednesday morning I woke up and discovered the sudden death of 43-year-old ISU defensive line coach Curtis Bray.
Former ISU assistant Ryan McKim of Creston, now on the Oklahoma staff, posted comments on Facebook about what a great guy Bray was during their time together in Ames. A coach he would emulate on and off the field.
Bray, married with two children, died during his morning workout. Again, a reminder to take nothing for granted.
When I moved to town in the mid-1980s, I soon became familiar with what was the golden age of Creston girls athletics. Creston teams had been to the girls state basketball tournament shortly before I arrived. Then I covered their march to the state volleyball tournament. Track and softball also flourished.
At Tuesday’s visitation for Ellen Lang, I was reunited with some of those people. Linnea (Lang) Julian, now of Lee’s Summit, Mo., was one of the stars of that state volleyball team. One of her teammates was current CHS coach Polly (Gammell) Luther.
Working alongside Linnea’s mother at the paper, we often talked about each other’s kids. I told Ellen I enjoyed watching her daughter’s teams play. I heard stories about her son Doug winning back-to-back 400-meter state titles under coach Dick Skarda.
She, likewise, couldn’t wait to hold our first baby when I brought Brett to the office. He’s now 28.
She also patched together my sports page when I had to leave early one morning three years later for the birth of our second son, Keith.
Like Cruz, Ellen battled cancer in her final years. Another longtime CNA employee, Connie White, now living in Texas, said Ellen was helpful as she also was diagnosed with cancer last July.
“I have had surgery and am now doing chemo and radiation treatments,” Connie told me this week. “Ellen has been a strong helper through these past six or seven months and I would not have made it this far without her support. She was a remarkable lady and I will miss her terribly.”
Arvid Huisman, former CNA publisher, echoed many of the same comments about Lang when informed of the news this week.
There aren’t many of us left at the paper who worked with Ellen, whose service time was 1965 (at the former location on Maple Street) to 1998. I think maybe Dorine Peterson, Lori Fletcher, Mary Brunner, Stephani Finley, Debbie Linderman and myself might be it.
There are far too many former co-workers who shared time with Ellen to list here. But looking back, we did some pretty good stuff.
After Stephani retires later this month, everyone left in the newsroom will be young enough to be my kid. And to think, when I arrived in 1984 and met Ellen, I was the 27-year-old “rookie” of the newsroom. Geez, how did this happen?
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