family, tradition, generations“Wow, are those smiles identical, or what?!” That simple comment on a Facebook post of a picture of my grandson Jordan and I on his first birthday  immediately reminded me of a song from the 90’s by Push Down & Turn, the king of local bar bands during that time. Their song “Faces” by Sam King, always struck a chord with me. It still brings chills when I hear it. In it, Sam recounts his memories and feelings  surrounding the recent passing of his father.

I see that face sometimes in the the mirror
And I wonder, will I ever be like him

Because his face, I will always see,
He is a part of me
The part that keeps me alive
Is where he will always be.

I will see his face again someday in my children
I hope I can save them from his fate.

I will see his face again someday in heaven
I hope I’ll be ready when my time comes

Because his face, I will always see,
He is a part of me
The part that keeps me alive
Is where he will always be.

Copyright Push Down & Turn
Copyright Spring Street Records, Inc.

While the song is bittersweet, it got me thinking. I have been blessed with two wonderful sons. In turn, they have blessed my wife and I with four (thus far) fantastic grandchildren. What things, other than a killer smile, will they take from me? What physical traits will we share? What lessons will be passed on? What memories will we share? What habits and idiosyncrasies will handed down, intentionally or not?

family, tradition, generationsLast summer, while preparing for a family cookout at Whitetail Meadow, I was setting the fire in the firepit. My grandson Braxton was busy playing in the yard, running from one adventure to the next. As I broke sticks for kindling, he stopped to watch me intently. (Braxton LOVES to play with sticks). Soon, without any prompting from me, he was picking up sticks and “helping me” stack them in the firepit. Will he learn to love the outdoors as I do from me? His father has always been a hard worker, will that trait pass down to our Braxton?

Just a few weeks ago, our grandson Jordan was spending the night with us. I took the opportunity to read him a bedtime story. The one I chose? Why, “Gus and Me” by Keith Richards, of course! What? You didn’t know rock’s premiere guitarist has written a children’s story? The book, written for his own grandchildren, is a story of his grandfather “Gus”, the bond they shared, and the gift of a guitar thatfamily, tradition, generations would forever shape Keith’s life. Will Jordan learn to love music and enjoy the “classics” (like Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and more) through a bedtime story and a connection with his grandpa? His father loves music and had a career of his own writing songs from his heart, will that trait pass down to our Jordan?

What lessons have I learned from my dad? Honestly, there is not room here to recount them all. Recently, he and I were talking about my last blog post, “Shadows of Days Gone By”. He told me how much he enjoyed my writing. “You must have gotten that from your mother,” he told me.  You see mom published two books and numerous magazine articles during her “second career”, the first one being raising four kids. “Dad, that may be…partially…I think a lot came from you too!” Dad had been a Baptist minister and throughout his career had written thousands of sermons (“Dad Paddles the #RooseveltRiver”). “I think my writing and my speaking came from BOTH you and mom”.

I don’t remember much about either of my granddads. Grandpa Williams, the original Donut Man, I know through his donuts and stories from my mom. They lived in Wisconsin so we only got to see them a couple times a year. Whether he ever knew it or not, I think my love for tradition came from him. My Grandpa Ton, passed away before I really had the chance to know him. I know he was a hard working man. He spent many years working in the gold mines in South Dakota. I think he would be proud of the hard work I have done around Whitetail Meadow in the last few years.

family, tradition, generationsAs an amateur genealogist, I have spent hours assembling our family history (to give credit, by Aunt Betty did most of the work, I was just a very lucky recipient of some of her files).  When my Granny Ton passed away, I was blessed to receive her journals and many of her old photographs. The Facebook comment also reminded me of one of the photos of her parents, Aloisia and Franz Hickey. Every time I look at that picture, I see my dad in the face and eyes of his Grandma Aloisia. To me it is striking!

The more I study my ancestors, the more like “real people” they become. At some generation, they become themselves, not their relation to me. It’s Aloisia and Franz, not Great Grandma and Grandpa…or Sydney, Carrie, Elisha, Martin, George, Jan, and Dirk. What parts of me are parts of them? I wonder.  Did they ever wonder about me and what I would be?

As I end this post, my grandson Braxton is waking up in the next room. Spring is here, the sun is warm once again. We are going out to play. What lessons will he learn today? What lessons will he teach today? I can’t wait to discover them!

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It was a drive I had made countless times in my life, though it had been a few yefamily, Green Lake, memoriesars since I had visited. For me it had long been hallowed ground. Turning into the entrance brought back the same feeling…the feeling of entering a different place; the feeling of familiarity; the feeling of leaving the hustle and bustle behind (oddly enough, it is the same feeling I now get when I descend into the valley in which we live). This trip was different though, this trip had a purpose. Our family was gathering, my siblings, our kids, my nephews, our kid’s-kids. We were gathering from hundreds of miles away. We were gathering to celebrate my sister’s wedding. We were gathering to scatter my mother’s ashes along the lake shore she loved so.

Green Lake, is a conference area located in Central Wisconsin, located on the shores of Green Lake, near the town of the same name.  It’s official name is Green Lake Conference Center (we knew it as The American Baptist Assembly Grounds), to us, it was just Green Lake. As we drove down the main road, through the dappled sunlight, many of the changes since our last visit several years ago became apparent. Later, as we walked around the grounds, familiar spots seemed like shadows of days gone by.

family, Green Lake, memoriesMy brothers and sister and I grew up here, spending every summer vacation for years with our parents. We didn’t know until many years later the only reason we could even afford to stay at Green Lake was that my dad was actually working at the conferences. We were oblivious! In our younger days, we would spend our mornings (and parts of the afternoon) in the children’s programs, graduating from “door to door” each year. (Think vacation bible school with each age group in a different house, with a different color door). The afternoon’s activities included swimming, hiking, crafts and sports.

Even before we came as children, mom and dad were coming to Green Lake. Recently, I found a wood-burning project dad had made in 1945 while at Green Lake. He would have been 15. I wonder, was he actually at Green Lake when World War II came to an end? Why did they come to these grounds? Because their parents came to these grounds.

In the 60’s and early 70’s, Green Lake was a different place. It was bustling with activity. Hundreds of visitors each week. The front gate was manned by a guard, only allowing in the registered conference attendees, those there to play golf on the championship golf course, employees and a handful of folks that lived on the grounds. As children, it was safe for us to roam across the entire place. At night, our favorite activity was “deer hunting”. This involved piling four kids into a car, keeping them quiet, as my dad drove slowly through the overgrown gravel roads deep in the woods looking for deer. We would keep track each night of how many we, Green Lake, memories

As we grew older, we were able to explore more and more of the grounds on our own. As the years went by, my older brother and sister got summer jobs, graduated high school and no longer vacationed with us. My younger brother and I continued to anticipate our annual excursions. Together we explored, roamed the grounds, made friends with other kids attending (especially, the cute girls-made it to second base for the first time at the top of one of the water towers on the property!), and wreacked the typical havoc of two teenage boys.

Somewhere during this time, we got word they we adding an additional 9 holes to the golf course. You see the conference center was struggling to make ends meet and the revenue generated by the course was key to keeping it afloat. Not being a golfer at the time, we were devastated! How many acres of our beautiful woods would be devoured by 9 holes of golf? Gone was Quarry Road, gone was Tower Road. All for a stupid game?

Fast forward a few years, we were now grown, married, and had kids of our own. Being a young financially struggling family, we could not afford to go on vacation. When my parents invited us to join them at Green Lake for a week, we jumped at the chance. Soon, the annual trek was reignited. Each year mom and dad, all the siblings and their families would descend upon the hallowed grounds. At first, we all stayed in the same house. As our families grew, some of us would rent cabins, or stay in the camp grounds, but we would always spend time together throughout the week hiking, running, eating, and playing games.

family, Green Lake, memoriesMom would relish in the game of posing the JT and Brad’s stuffed animals while they were at the Children’s Center. It became quite a game to guess what Mimi had done with them now as we walked back to the cabin. That Pooh had many great adventures: playing board games, washing dishes, grilling out, watching TV, and playing tennis!

During this time, we were to learn some well-kept secrets of parenthood (JT, Brad, Jeff, Ross and Kyle you cannot read this part until YOU visit Green Lake with YOUR children, so just skip to the next paragraph). Secret #1 – Vacationing at a locale with a Children’s Center with lots of activities for kids ROCKS for the parents too! Parental down time! Secret #2 – When hunting for deer, it is not necessary to be as quiet as church mice, but how else are you going to get four kids to stay quiet for an hour?

We also discovered another secret – town! Yes, there was life away from the conference center. Before long, our annual treks had to include a meal or two at the Goose Blind Bar and Grill and Pizza Hut. We also included tours of the Rippin’ Good Cookies factory, the Amish bakeries and the various antique shops in the area. Who knew?!!?

Green Lake announced plans to, once again, expand the Golf Course. We were disappointed to hear more of our dear woodlands would be plowed under, however, since I had taken up the game and Brad was learning to play as well, we were excited (with a tinge of guilt) to play the new nine. Soon, “The Woodlands” would become our favorite of the two courses on the grounds.

By now, life had changed yet again and the annual trek fell by the wayside. Green Lake, always living from “paycheck to paycheck” was experiencing financially tough times. They began family, Green Lake, memoriesto sell more and more lots to private owners. It seems lake front property could garner a very high price! Our parents were now retired and spent three months a year volunteering at the Conference Center. They purchased a modest mobile home and leased a spot in one of the mobile home parks on the property. Carmen and I made it point to drive up to visit, if even for a long weekend, many summers while they were there. For a time, we had a motor home (Clark, that there is an RRRR.V.!) and we would stay “right next door” in the extended lot they had leased.

As mom and dad grew older, they decided to give up the trailer at Green Lake and sell it. During our final trip to visit, we learned the Conference Center was selling off the largest section of woodlands yet to a developer who would be building million dollar homes on the property, even the east gate would be removed to allow the homeowners easier access to the grounds and their homes.

Shadows of days gone by…memories of simpler times…a lifetime (five lifetimes actually) of memories. There are still parts of the grounds that remain. The grand hotel, Roger Williams Inn; Judson Tower standing guard; the boat house with it’s marina and docks; some of the cabins and houses; all can still be found. Call it the world we live in today, call it progress, call it competition for our attention and entertainment, call it what you will. I found myself saddened to walk the grounds and see the shadows. Much of what I remembered is “just ‘living memory’ that sadly no longer exists”.


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A Guest Post by Jill Renee (Ton) Stollenwerk

It was the Saturday before Christmas. Carmen and I had just collapsed on the couch in front of a roaring fire. We had just celebrated Christmas with our two-year old Grandson Braxton, our son JT, and our parents. We had “just settled down for a long winter’s nap”, when just to my left there arose such a clatter…ok, it was my cell phone vibrating to  alert me to a text message. It was from my sister, Jill.

Text Exchange









Text Exchange 2









Within moments, my phone rang (or rather vibrated).

The Story of Jill and The Little Black Lamb

As I entered the Christmas season this year, I became keenly aware of my mother’s absence. She passed away in July, 2013, but this year I have missed her anew so much.  Mom was the tapestry of Christmas as I grew up and even as I was an adult with children.  Mary Ellen, Mom, Mimi brought Christmas to life for her family and friends. She could do Santa magic, holding on to the Sear’s Christmas catalogue until after Thanksgiving for her children to dream Santa dreams that she knew they couldn’t afford. Yet, observing her, you knew how strongly she embraced the Christmas story of Jesus coming into the world.

I was a PK, preacher’s kid, and was used to our family life reflecting the liturgy of the time of year.  I didn’t appreciate as a child the impact our family rituals would have on me.  This year, I have been looking for Mom.  I wanted to experience her in the ornaments she and Dad had given us kid through the years.  Dating back to 1973, they had given me an ornament each year, in keeping with the tradition given by Mom’s parents.

My precious ornaments had been packed away for several years.  Many circumstances in my life kept them from view until this year when my boxes had been moved to my new home.  I unpacked the boxes of ornaments, hungry for a glimpse of my mother.  I reminisced childhood Christmas memories with my new husband.  One strong memory was how my mother pulled four active children together many evenings during advent each year.  Somehow she managed to slow us down enough to light the advent candles, read a scripture, read a story and perhaps even sing a song together.  My initial memories of those times were how we kids fought over the honor of lighting a candle or reading a passage.  My memory now is of a very patient mother who was determined to bring the light of Jesus’ birth to her children.  And she did.

I continued my search for my mother this Christmas.  I wanted so badly to touch her, feel her, and embrace her.  I thought about all the stories she read to us each year.  “The Gift of the Magi”, “The Other Wiseman”, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and “The Little Black Lamb”.  My favorite for some reason was “The Little Black Lamb”.  I remembered vividly sitting by my mother as she read the story and I looked at the drawings in the book. It was a very simple story. I poked around my saved books and found all of the stories, given to me by my parents in the early 70’s.  All except “The Little Black Lamb”.  As if on a mission, I went to Google to find that story.  And I found it finally.  Somebody had typed it up and posted it to their blog.  No credits were given to the author, which I thought was sad. (for the record, the author is Emily S. McCracken).Scan10094

But I had my story and that brought me closer to Mom.  Later that day I went out to our garage to put on my boots for a trek to check on the horses and peacocks with my husband.  On a table next to my chair was a stack of books.  Oh yes, these were the children’s books I had told my husband could go to Goodwill, because we had no little ones around.  He had wisely saved them in hopes I would send them to my grandson, Ben, in Florida.  I picked up one of the books and opened it.  It opened to the story of “The Little Black Lamb”!  This was my mother’s book that she read to me and my brothers.  The pictures were exactly as I remembered.  How could I have had that book in my possession and forgotten how important it was?  I heard my mother as clear as a bell saying, “Why are you looking for me?  I have been here all along.  You just had to see me.”

I was choking back the tears as I climbed the stairs to the office to call my dad and share with him.  There was no answer on his cell phone, so I called the house phone.  The answering machine picked up my call and I heard my mother’s voice over the phone. Her sweet voice recorded long before the stroke that destroyed her voice and took her life.  I called my brother, Jeff, because I knew he would understand. I wanted to connect with my mom this Christmas and, oh my, I did.  My mother was a gift at that time I needed it most. Isn’t that kind of the way it is with God?  “I am here.  Why are you looking for me?  I have been here all along.”

Jill’s gift was “finding” our mother…my gift was sharing the moment with my sister.

 (The Donut Hole referenced by Jill’s text was a post in this blog).

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It was mid-November. It was a day of firsts. First time to ever attend a Catholic Funeral Mass. First time to be given an Easter Egg at a funeral service of any kind. First time ever seeing someone hand out money at a funeral. First time seeing someone deliver a eulogy while wearing rabbit ears. And, first time taking a photo during a funeral service (hey, if you saw someone delivering a eulogy while wearing rabbit ears, you would have taken a photo too!).

I knew the service was going to be different before I even arrived. This was, after all the funeral for my my dear friend’s mother…just 15 months after my own mother’s passing. I wasn’t confident I would even be able to make it through. But, I had to make it through…for him.

As the service began, I was initially struck by how little I knew about my friend of twenty years. Were these things I knew and and forgotten? Were these things that went in one ear and out the other? Or were these things I never knew in the first place? I seemed to remember he had siblings. Did I remember there was one brother and one sister? I seemed to remember his father had passed many years before. Did I remember he was paraplegic?  Some friend I was.

One by one family members and friends made their way to the front of the church. As they spoke a picture was painted, a picture of a mother, a friend, a teacher, a devoted parishioner. There was the daughter who spoke of a mother who taught her what it means to be a lady; the son who read the story of his mother’s life in her own words from a letter discovered among her belongings; the lifelong friend who spoke of schoolmates who had been best friends and co-workers for a lifetime. And then…and then there was my friend.

family, friendship, Dennis Cuffel“OK, everyone we are going to play a game! Everyone has to listen, and there are going to be rules!,” he shouted as he approached the microphone…wearing pink rabbit ears. He then told the story of the infamous “Cuffel Easter Egg Hunt”. He started by asking who had even heard of the Egg Hunt. Of the 90+ people there, most everyone raised their hand. “Who has participated in the Easter Egg Hunt?” Very few hands were lowered.

He went on to explain the rules of the Hunt. There were 92 eggs hidden (90 this year and 2 left over from last year that were never found). Inside each egg was, not candy, but a number. After all the eggs had been found, his mom would call out numbers.

“Number 1, who has number 1? You get a nickle.”

“Number 2, who has number 2? You get a dollar.”

“Number 3, who has number 3? You get a ‘Happy Easter’.”

This would continue until all 92 numbers had been called. Prizes ranged from 5 cents to twenty dollars to a “Happy Easter” greeting.

“Ok,” my friend continued, “when you came in you were given an egg. Everyone stand up and open your egg. Ok, if you have numbers 1 – 3, sit down and have a Happy Easter. If you have 5 – 39, sit down and…Happy Easter.” He continued until three people remained standing. “Who has number 40 (her year of birth)? You get five dollars.” He walked out into the church and handed the woman a five dollar bill. “Who has number 74 (her age at death)?” You get ten dollars.” Finally, “who has number 4 (her treasured grandchildren)? You get $20.”

He then went on to talk of his mother. The lessons he learned from her, her love of games. He talked of her spirituality, her unconditional love,  her compassion for others, her selflessness. As I sat there, I realized I knew more about my friend’s family than I thought.

Mrs. Cuffel, I never knew you, we never met. I have known your son for over twenty years. After having attended the celebration of your life,  after hearing the stories, sharing in the laughs, the smiles and the tears, I realized, through your son, I DO know you. You raised a wonderful family. You raised a wonderful man. Spiritual, compassionate, a great friend. You should be proud.

Dennis, I love you brother. Have a Happy Easter!

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family, history, World War I, Veteran's DayHe was exhausted. Just nine short months ago he stood at the train depot in Grand Rapids, Wisconsin. A young man of 19, ready to join the war and give the Kaizer his due. Now he crouched in a trench surrounded by the smell of death just outside Soisson, France. Mortar fire exploded around him. He had already held too many friends as they died. The Germans had taken the city. The Americans were there to take it back.

That afternoon, like so many others the last few weeks, over what passed for a meal, he reached in his knapsack and pulled out a small envelope. Inside the envelope was a book. A handwritten book. A book written by his sweet Mary, the girl back home. In the book were pictures of friends, family and familiar places. His hands shook as he turned the pages remembering secrets shared with his beloved. What’s that? Orders from Command? Advance on the city? Quickly, he kissed the book, slide it carefully back in its envelope and tucked it in his knapsack.

Over the next few days the fighting was intense. The Germans were falling back. This city was ours! With hardly a moment’s rest they took control, pushing the front lines. All this fighting, all this death for a few hundred meters of gain. Finally, a moment of respite. He reached inside his knapsack longing to stare at her face. But wait…where is it? Desperately, he dumped his knapsack on the ground. The meager supplies scattered in the mud. No envelope. No book.
-Summer, 1918
A year later, the war was over, the soldiers mustered out and returned home. The postman walks his route. He delivers a lone letter, addressed to young Mary, the school teacher, postmarked New York. Mary was curious. Since her Hal returned six weeks ago from defeating Germany, she rarely received a post. She tore open the envelope to find a letter…and a book…a handwritten book…a book lost somewhere along the front, near Soisson, France.  Tears streamed down her cheeks, she could hardly call Hal’s name. Thinking something was horribly wrong, Hal raced to her side. Seeing the book, her took her in his arms and held her tight.
-Summer, 1919

Eighty five years later, I sat just off the main square of Soisson, waiting. Waiting until my mother would be awake back in the history, leadership, family, world war Istates. Finally, it would be 7AM back home. My dad answered. Hi dad, can I talk to mom? Hello? Hi, mom, can you guess where I am? No….where are you? Mom, I am sitting at a restaurant in Soisson. Like her mother 85 years prior, she started to cry. She could hardly call my dad’s name. Gene, Jeff is in Soisson. Soisson? What’s he doing in Soisson? The book, Gene, the book. Dad’s book from the war.

Dad got on the other phone as I told them about my excursion. I had been traveling back and forth to France for the last several years for my job. This trip required that I stay over a weekend. So, rather than being a tourist around Paris, I rented a car and headed north. I had heard the story of the book for years. My grandfather was a Doughboy in World War I, The Great War. My grandmother had sent him the handmade scrapbook to help get him (and her) through the time apart. Somewhere in battle he lost the book. A Sargeant Doss from New York found the book and carried it all the way home with him. Within days after arriving back in the states he sent it to my grandmother stating “I can write about only hoping to get an answer some time in the future pertaining to young man as I don’t know where he got through this awful worlds (sic) war.” I wanted to follow in his steps.

Soisson Memorial 4 - EditedSo, after getting lost trying to leave Charles DeGaulle Airport, getting stuck while a peloton from a local bike race had the road closed, dropping my cell phone (and my safety net) in the middle of a highway while crossing to a military cemetery and having it hit by a motorcyclist, I was finally in Soisson. I wandered throughout the city. It was a beautiful summer day, a group of men were playing Pétanque in the park, women bustled in and out of the shops. No one gave notice to American snapping photos of the monuments. That afternoon I stood at the Oise-Aisne American Memorial, among its 6,000 crosses, so many crosses. So many names. So many stories.Soisson Memorial 6 - Edited

Later, after getting lost again. Later, back at my hotel. Later, after learning “Ne pas retirer le disque du lecteur” on the dashboard of my rental car meant there was a Nav system (NOW they tell me!). I thought about that young couple, about their love, about their sacrifice. I thought about the thousands of men, the thousands of women who sacrifice. It is not only the dead who sacrifice. Anyone who serves gives of them self. Anyone who loves those that serve give of themselves. We can never repay our debt to those who sacrifice for us. Today is Veteran’s Day…Armistice Day. On the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the 11th month there shall be peace. Take some time today to remember those who sacrificed. Take some time to say thank you to those you know who have sacrificed.

Greg Friend, thank you!
Jason Matthews, thank you!
Tommy Brinkman, thank you!
Nick Justice, thank you!

To all who have served or are serving, thank you for your sacrifice!

Author’s Note: The Donut Man was a Doughboy – Many who know me and those that read Rivers of Thought know of my annual “day of remembrance” of my grandfather, who I knew as “The Donut Man”. Through this handwritten book, I have come to know him as a Doughboy, as well.

leadership, family, history, World War I, Veterans Day

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business, leadershipThinking back, I am not sure what I expected. I had been asked to represent the executive staff by speaking at the graduation ceremonies for one of our high schools (didn’t know Goodwill Indy had high schools, did you?). I was flattered to have been asked, but really had no idea what to say. This was not an ordinary high school, this was a school for adults who had dropped out for one reason or another, but who now wanted to come back and complete their high school diploma, not just earn a G.E.D. I would be speaking at The Excel Center – Anderson. What could I possibly say that would be meaningful to them? Would their families come to watch? My own graduation was over 35 years ago, what connection would I have to them? I didn’t realize I was about to be blown away!

I arrived early (wouldn’t want to be late) so I sat in my car and worked a bit (OK, I read email, but hey that IS my work!). I was stunned, as car after car pulled into the lot. I walked inside to find the place packed with friends and family. The students were busy putting on the caps and gowns. I was immediately struck by their genuine excitement (some nervous excitement maybe), their closeness to each other, and their closeness to the faculty. The mood was one of celebration and it was contagious!

I donned my robe and took my place next to the school’s director (principal) as we processed in. As the graduates walked down the aisles (making a pass down each aisle so friends and family could see their graduate) the excitement built as cameras (ok cell phones) flashed.  Sitting in the front on the stage, I could see the faces of husbands, wives, parents and children of the graduates, already I was choking back tears.

Three graduates had been selected to speak. I can’t begin to do their stories justice. One was a woman who had dropped out twenty-three years prior. She wanted to come back, now years later, to get her diploma to be a role model for her kids. Another was a young man who had struggled in traditional school and had been tagged “special needs”. He was now graduating with several certifications and heading off to college. The third was a young lady whose best friend had been murdered, the depression and confusion this brought into her life destroyed her high school career. She had come back to earn her diploma to honor her friend. Amazing stories! My guess is, the other 53 graduates’ stories were just as amazing!

You can read their stories hear: Laura, Isaac, Sarah.

How could I possibly follow THAT? A few days before the event, I had come to the realization (kind of a duh moment) that no one was there to hear me speak. They were all there for them, for the graduates. Keep it short, keep it simple.

I am truly honored to be here tonight representing the Goodwill family on such a special occasion. We, your friends and family, your teachers and faculty, and Anderson community leaders are here to celebrate with you.

To the community leaders of Anderson, I want to say thank you. Thank you for the partnership and the vision that lead to the opening of the Anderson Excel Center just two short years ago. Your support of the Excel Center has enabled them, the third graduating class, to achieve what otherwise might have been un-achievable.

To the teachers and administrators, I want to say thank you. Thank you for the dedication and caring that enabled you to teach, inspire and change lives. What you do is incredibly difficult, and yet so incredibly important. I and the rest of the 3,000 employees of Goodwill are honored to be your colleagues.  Your work here has been nothing short of amazing.

To the friends and families of our graduates who are here tonight, I want to say thank you. Thank you for being here to celebrate with your graduate. Thank you for the support you have shown as they attended classes, did homework, and studied. I am sure it was not always easy, nor convenient. They are here in front of you today due in part to your support.

To the graduates, I want to say thank you. Thank you for allowing us to join in your celebration. Your lives have been forever changed. Each of you has a story, a story of roadblocks and obstacles. But tonight, you have added a chapter to that story, a chapter of perseverance, of fortitude, of overcoming those roadblocks and obstacles. Whether your next step is a career, or you plan to go on to college, you have accomplished something tremendous. You can say, proudly, “I am a graduate! Thank you for sharing your story with us, thank you for sharing your moment with us. Thank you for changing our lives as well.

 As each student received their diploma, I had the honor of shaking their hand. Each one of them looked me in the eye, business, leadershipproudly. As I congratulated each of them, tears continued to well up. This is why we do what we do, this is why I do what I do, for those 56 new high school graduates that are ready to take on the world!

To see pictures of that night at The Excel Center – Anderson, or the other Excel Center graduations check out the photo album. To learn more about The Excel Centers visit our website at: The Excel Center.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

history, leadershipI pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

How many times have you said it? Hundreds? Thousands? 31 simple words. We repeat them as a matter of rote. How many times have we really thought about these words and what they mean?

I recently had the deep honor to attend the Naturalization Oath Ceremony. My friend Muhammad Maaita was taking the Oath along with 60 other proud soon to be Americans. They came from dozens of different countries, from all over the globe, but they all shared to common desire to become US Citizens, they had met the requirements of residency (most, like Muhammad, five years), they had passed the English test exhibiting the ability to read, write and speak English, they had passed the civics exam showing an understanding of US history, our form of government and the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. They gathered today to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.

leadership, history, patriotism

Muhammad Maaita

If they were all half excited as Muhammad, this group of new Americans will be a model for groups to come. The smile on his face was contagious!

As we sat there watching the ceremony unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder, how many of us who have been born into citizenship could pass the tests? English? Ok, maybe most of us. But, Civics? I don’t know about you, but I hated Civics class in high school (funny from a guy that grew up to love Lewis and Clark and other figures from US History). Could you pass it? Take the practice test. I double dog dare you (and post your score)…I missed FOUR!!! Pretty lame!

OK…assume you passed all the requirements…now raise your right hand and repeat after me…

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Hmmm….140 words. 140 words vs. 31 words. Read them again…go ahead, I’ll wait…….Wow! What a difference THAT would make, if we ALL had to take this oath and if we ALL had to live by this oath.

Many peoples, many religions, formalize the Rite of Passage, or the Coming of Age, that time when we move from childhood to adulthood. The forms and ceremonies differ dramatically, but they all symbolize the same three stages: withdrawing or separation from the current state, transition between states, and finally re-incorporation into the community. You could say the college experience embodies these three phases: the student leaves home (separation), studies and learns (transition) and finally graduates and heads out on a career (re-incorporation).

Here, within the Native American cultures that lived the lands hundreds of years ago this rite of passage was vitally important, many times signified by the person taking a new name, an outward symbol that they were not the same person as before.

The Oath of Naturalization follows the same three phases. Once expressed, the individual is incorporated into the body of citizens of the United States. What if we ALL had to pass the tests? What if we ALL had to take the Oath? What if we ALL followed this rite of passage? I believe we would be a stronger people, a stronger country, a more bonded people.

Witnessing this event, made me proud to be an American, made me proud of Muhammad and his rite of passage, and made me proud to be Muhammad’s friend.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

Christmas came and went. The Journey to Christmas is complete for another year. Before we move on and focus on 2014, I want to relate one more story in the Maranatha saga. As you know it started with the faint memory of a song in Maranatha, in this way, our Lord comes, continued with the discovery My Mother was a Jesus Freak, and the deeply personal The Donut Hole. The final chapter actually occurred the Sunday before Christmas.

A week or so before Christmas, I learned that my father had also written a blog post for the church’s advent devotional (as a retired Baptist minister he was probably much more qualified to write a devotional than yours truly). In a lot of ways, my dad is a very private person so reading his thoughts and feelings on his journey to his first Christmas without mom was very touching (though I have to admit, it DID take me back to the days of sitting in the rock hard pews and listening to him preach). It was especially poignant to read him share his memories of the Maranatha advent tradition. Now, I don’t if my earlier inquiries about the song sparked the memory for him or if it was one of those coincidences of life that had us both write about the same memory, probably doesn’t really matter. What I do know is that we HAD to do it. We HAD to pay him a visit and “Maranatha him”. (You can find his post “Christmas Comes Whether We are Ready or NOT!” It’s the second one on the page)

I sent an email to all my siblings and all the grandkids asking them if they would be willing to join Carmen and I. All the ones in town agreed. Knowing that NONE of us could sing and that NONE of us even knew the tune to sing, I asked a friend of mine to record a track for us so we could sing along.

There we were, Sunday morning December 22nd, 8:45 AM, 35 degrees, and rain/sleet. Three generations gathered at Hoosier Village outside his door. We rang the bell (ok, multiple times, in the annoying way my brother and my oldest son do, just so he would know it was family). Soon the door opened, and there was my dad, in a t-shirt and skivvies (glad it WAS family, though I could hear my granddaughter exclaim “He’s in his underwear!”). Undeterred, we broke out in the absolute worst rendition of Maranatha that the world has ever heard (The track was perfect, it was us that stunk, seems like only a handful of us practiced or even listened to the track beforehand). By the time we were done, dad was in tears (not sure if it was the emotion of the moment or our singing), we all gave him a hug, wished him Merry Christmas, and sang “We You a Merry Christmas” as we gave him the gift of Stollen and left.

We later heard that when he arrived at church that morning he was “happier than he had been in some time” and was bursting with excitement as he recounted the story (and just to be clear, he was fully dressed by then).  I think of all the gifts given, or received, THAT was the most special of all.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, find me on Twitter (@jtongici), or connect with me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

Snow gently falling – Check
Deer feeding at the feeders – Check
Squirrels frolicking in the snow – Check
Christmas music on the stereo – Check
Ingredients at the ready – Check
Donut Man Apron donned – Check
100 Year Old Donut Machine pre-heated – Check

Wait…something is missing. There is an empty stool this Christmas

If I were Dickens, I would have had the Ghost of Christmas Future foreshadow the empty stool by the fire when I wrote Do This in Remembrance of Me last year, but alas, Dickens I am not.

Someone is missing. There is a hole in my heart this Christmas…Mary Ellen Ton 1933-1980-2013


If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

My mother was a closet Jesus Freak!

Who knew!??! Do you remember that group of hippies in the early seventies? OK, if you are too young to remember the early 70’s, look it up! Instead of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, they were all about Jesus, God and rock ‘n roll. My mom had to be one of them, the coincidences are just too many. This will be a long story, but, allow me to explain…

I received an email a couple weeks ago from a dear friend, asking me in short, to write a devotional for an Advent Devotional Blog he was putting together (A devotional? Me? OK, quit laughing). He suggested I could use a previous blog post I had written about our Christmas Donut tradition, “Do This in Remembrance of Me”. I could update it with my thoughts of how the tradition might be different this year after mom’s passing.

Coincidence Number 1: I explained to him I was already thinking of writing a post for my blog about a tradition we had when I was a kid so his timing was perfect. Believe it or not, mom and dad would get us up early on a Sunday morning (remember, my dad was the minister) before church each of the four Sundays of Advent so we could go carol (unannounced) for a family in the church and give them a gift. No, I am not kidding. For the full story check out  “Maranatha, in this way, our Lord comes”. My friend thought that sounded like a great idea.

My quest began. Quite honestly, the only thing I could remember was the chorus of the song we would sing, “Maranatha, maranatha, maranatha, Our Lord Come”. I needed more. I sent a note to my three siblings asking for their memories. Unfortunately, they remembered less than I did!

I turned to the internet to try to find the song itself, which is where I hit Coincidence Number 2, or rather it hit me. Family, Tradition, ChristmasAfter, reading the Wikipedia entry for “Maranatha”, I was intrigued to learn that Maranatha! Records was one of the first Christian rock record labels and part of the Jesus People movement. Returning to the Google search list, I clicked on the next entry, when WHAM! There on the page was a photo of a 1971 Time Magazine cover. The cover was a pixelated rendering of Jesus. The SAME pixelated rendering of Jesus that hung as a poster in my bedroom for years when I was a teenager. I even have a picture in a box someplace of myself sitting in front of that poster.

The website described the Jesus People movement. In some circles they were referred to as Jesus Freaks. A label that was mean to be pejorative, but was later adopted by the movement itself. The movement had its roots in Berkeley, California. Further down on the page were some references to some of the founding musicians. In a minor coincidence (call it 2.5) , one of the artists listed was Larry Norman. At one point, I had all of his albums (for you youngsters those were 12 inch vinyl disks that had music on them). His logo eerily resembles my favorite rock band’s logo (an open mouth with a tongue hanging out…his has crosses on it though 🙂 ).

Larry NormanRolling StonesThinking I was getting close the song lyrics, I went to the website for Maranatha! Records and found the track listing for the first album produced. It was a collection of artists. There on the listing, was a song called “Maranatha”. Underscoring the fact that you can find anything on the internet, I found a recording of the song. BUUUUUZZZZZZZZ! Wrong song.

Dismayed, I called dad to see if he could shed any light. Coincidence Number 3: Yes, he remembered. In fact, every Advent since 1972, my mom would pull the song lyrics out of her Advent folder, and the two of them would sing it during their daily devotional (they always did know how to party)! He was sure he could find it. I learned more about our Advent caroling from dad as well, but that is a different post. My younger brother was flying in for a visit from Dallas, so, I gave him the assignment of digging through mom’s folders and finding the song.

In the meantime, I had lunch with the same dear friend who asked me to do the devotional in the first place. Coincidence Number 4: He and his wife were the first family we caroled to way back in 1972! As we talked, he remembered the gifts we gave them. One of them was a banner (my mom was the banner making queen back in the day). The banner simply said “Maranatha!”. I remembered that banner! It had a flying dove, carrying an olive branch in its beak! Coincidence Number 5: THE LOGO FOR MARANATHA! RECORDS WAS A FLYING DOVE WITH AN OLIVE BRANCH IN ITS BEAK!

A few days later I received an email from my brother. He found the song! He sent me a scanned copy. I was ready! I knew I could get somewhere now! Armed with the true title “Come, Our Lord” and the composer, John Harrell, and the Copyright of John and Mary Harrell 1966. I went back to the internet. First the song…”BUUUUUZZZZZZZZ”!…you CAN’T find everything on the internet. A search on John Harrell also was fruitless…who knew there were so many people named John Harrell. OK, let’s try “John and Mary Harrell”. Boom BABY! There was a link to the online catalogue for the University of California and there I found Coincidence Number 6. John was an episcopalian minister and had donated a collection of the audio visual materials that he and Mary had developed over their lifetimes. Guess where John was in ministry in the late 60’s and the 70’s…Berkeley, California. For those of you not paying attention…that is where the Jesus Freak movement had its roots.

Man, if Mom was not a Jesus Freak, she was at least following the movement!

A day or two later, I received an email from my brother. Actually, it was a group email to all of the siblings, apologizing that it appeared the website he had chosen to host all of the family photos from Mom’s collection he was scanning did not allow downloads. What the heck does THIS have to do with the story, you ask? Patience, my dear reader, patience. I could not believe there was an online photo store that did not allow authorized users to download photos…especially, Flickr. I jumped over to a new tab went to Flickr, found my brothers share and promptly downloaded a picture.

Humph! I knew it would work. About that time, I noticed an album titled “Jeff’s Box”. I had to take a moment and browse. I learned that not only were there photos, there were other documents. My commencement program from my high school graduation, my grade report from first semester of college (was THAT ever embarrassing to see!), the program from my wedding to Carmen, and Coincidence Number 7. It was a scan of an article from the Newsette, the newsletter of the American Baptist Youth of Indiana. I was editor (which meant I wrote a lot of the articles) in the early 70’s. The title was “Very Special Gifts”. It talked about receiving a gift from my Mom on each Sunday of Advent! This had to be Christmas 1974. The gifts were meaningful, but it was the note she wrote on the first Sunday that caught my attention. “May your journey to Christmas be as this candle’s flame and as warm as its glow. Maranatha!”. THIS is where the second part of the tradition started…giving meaningful gifts and a note and each Sunday of the Advent season!

Whether my Mom was a Jesus Freak or not, doesn’t really matter. What DOES matter I was reminded of next. The morning my Mom passed away, that same dear friend was by her side with the rest of the family. Taking some time of quiet reflection, he walked into their bedroom and began to look at the picture collage they had by the by the bed. Pictures of family, very old pictures of a young couple in love, but what was in the center is what caught his attention. It was a typewritten page with the words from a hymn, “Find Us Faithful”. It struck him so much, he read it at Mom’s Celebration Service. I barely heard the words. And yet, months later, in an email I was reminded and my journey of discovery was complete, or is it just starting?

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone,
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind,
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find.

Words and Music: Jon Mohr / Copyright 1988 Birdwing Music/Jonathan Mark Music

 If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.