As we move through life, we encounter people who leave indelible impressions on us in all sorts of ways.
Some provide wisdom and guidance, others offer support and encouragement. Then there are those who simply serve as shining examples of how to lead a good and noble life. And along the way, we pick up memories and stories about these people that we recall and retell to whoever will listen.
Unfortunately, as work and family and a billion other things swallow us up, we forget about some of these people; they continue to influence us silently, but our acknowledgments of them drift to a whisper. It isn’t until they are gone that we again celebrate how they influenced us and why the memory of them makes us smile.
Friday afternoon, I caught a Facebook post from a couple of my former co-workers in Rockford, Ill. On Thursday — Independence Day — one of the classiest ladies I have ever had the privilege of meeting passed away. And while the news brought true sadness, it also brought back fond memories and thoughts of baklava. Lots of baklava.
Leona Carlson was the society columnist at the Rockford Register-Star, although if she heard you refer to her as a “society columnist” she would recoil a bit, because she saw her work as telling stories about local people who were building and supporting their community. As reporter Brian Leaf wrote, “As a columnist, she monitored the pulse of local culture and championed the arts.”
Leona worked at the Register-Star for 44 years, retiring in 1990. When my wife, Melany, and I lived there, we would have dinner with our friends, Shari and Keith Grace, almost weekly, and Leona occasionally would join us.
“She would never, ever hesitate to make a connection with somebody,” Keith told me Friday as we reminisced about our friend. “It wasn’t always for a story … She just was eager to meet anybody and everybody.”
One of Keith’s favorite memories of Leona centers on a trip they took to Chicago to cover a fashion show. Keith was taking photos and Leona was writing about the new lines. The show went on forever, and when it finally was over, Keith had to make a break for the restroom. He ended up standing next to actor Brian Dennehy.
When Keith met up with Leona, he told her about seeing Dennehy; she had no idea who he was, but said they needed to strike up a conversation with him.
“She walks right up to him and she says, ‘Hi, Mr. Dennehy, Leona Carlson. Personally, I’m not familiar with your work, but Keith here is a real big fan of yours,’ ” Keith said. “And she proceeded to have this great conversation with him.”
That encounter and others with Leona encouraged Keith to be more forward in approaching people, getting to know them and letting them know more about him.
Leona was a string bean of a woman but she did have a sweet tooth. One evening we were talking about desserts and she told us about going to GreekFest in Chicago and having some extraordinary baklava. She liked it so much she bought eight pieces to take home. The thing is, they didn’t survive the journey — she ate all eight pieces on the 90-minute drive. My teeth hurt just thinking about that. And any time Greek food or baklava is mentioned, Melany or I will always ask if the other wants eight pieces of baklava. It’s silly, but it stands as a reminder of a great lady who lived life well.
Leona was 88 and had Alzheimer’s disease. Her daughter, Chris Chapman, told Leaf that it was “fitting she died on the Fourth of July” because that was Leona’s favorite holiday.
“I have to believe that the fireworks tonight (Thursday) were for her,” Chapman told Leaf.
We all have people like Leona in our lives, people who we admired, who inspired us and who provided us with meaningful stories that we share at every opportunity. While their lessons are personal for us, sharing those stories helps carry on the importance of their lives.