To write this story about 10 people who died in greater Lansing this year, I looked at every daily obituary for 2011. Why? Shawn Riley, father of Aaron Riley, the 21-year-old MSU student who drowned in July, said it perfectly: “It’s a shame we don’t know more about our fellow people.” A representative sample was impossible, but I wanted a variety of life stories, I would only talk with people who wanted to talk, and I would not mention golf once, just out of contrariness. Those were the only rules. Some people shared the circumstances of their loved one’s death in detail; others didn’t even want the cause known. Their privacy was respected. If there is any lesson to be drawn from one full year of death, here is the best I can come up with: Love people, listen to them, and take good care of them, yourself included, while they are still around. Then go back for extra. You won’t regret it.
Theodore Terzian Sr. woke up worried on Sept. 30.
That night, the Detroit Tigers were facing the New York Yankees in a crucial playoff game. What if he couldn’t find the game on TV? His son’s Comcast had so many channels.
Terzian, 84, had lived happily with his son, daughter-in-law and two grandkids at their home in Lansing for several years. “My wife got along with him better than me,” Ted Jr. recalled.
Ted Jr. assured his dad they would find the big game that night and went off to work. Ted Sr. cooked eggs for the boys, wrote up a list of things to pick up at Sam’s Club, put on his jacket, went to the garage and fell dead of a massive stroke.
“The kids in the neighborhood called him Grandpa Ted,” Terzian said. “You couldn’t find anybody that didn’t like him.”
Terzian, a native of Highland Park, went to Boston University upon his return from World War II duty in the Pacific theater. His suite mate at Boston was a young theology student named Martin Luther King Jr.
“He told me the university considered him a minority student from Detroit, being Armenian, and put him the same suite with King,” Ted Jr. said.
All Terzian remembered about King was that he was quiet. Both were in their early 20s.
While King stayed in Boston to become Dr. King, Terzian made his way to Detroit, took over his grandfather’s wholesaling business, moved it to the middle of the state and renamed it the Lansing Candy and Cigar Co., where he ran it for 40 years. When bigger companies muscled in, Terzian and his wife, Paula, retired to run the Paramount News magazine stand in the downtown Knapp’s Building.
As a kid, Ted Jr. worked after school and summers in the candy and tobacco warehouse on 1133 May St., between Oakland and Saginaw streets On his first day, he turned black from hefting 20-pound bags of charcoal, but now he’s glad of every minute he spent with his dad.
“He had no meanness in him,” Ted Jr. said. “He used to tell us that if anybody ever made you mad, kill ‘em with kindness.”
And look — a thousand blossoms with the day
Woke — and a thousand scatter’d into clay.
George Petrides loved nature, even as a Boy Scout. In the U.S. Navy during World War II, he taught pilots how to deal with jungle snakes and insects in case they were shot down in the Pacific. He came to MSU in 1950 to teach in the Zoology Department and, soon after, in a brand new department: Fisheries and Wildlife.
Petrides studied big game in Kenya and Uganda for two years. He brought his family to live for a year in the heart of Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. Elephants munched their thatch roof at night and trampled the garden.
“It was a very lovely, incredible experience,” his daughter, Olivia Petrides said. “He hunted, and did all those manly things. He was an adventurous spirit.”
Petrides worked on projects all over the world, including bird studies in Antarctica and wildlife management in Afghanistan. His MSU grad students are running national parks in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
George and his wife, Miriam, squeezed the maximum out of life and then squeezed more in retirement. They lived together 55 years at Orchard Hill, their 80-acre farm in Williamston, where Miriam turned the garden into a work of art.
After 70 years of marriage, they died 11 days apart. Miriam, 97, died Oct. 29. George, 95, died Nov. 9.
But still the vine the ancient ruby yields,
And still a garden by the water blows.
Aaron Gregory Riley, 21, knew that swimming and epilepsy do not mix, but his mode of life was to dive into everything, water included.
“Aaron was aware that he was on a different time line than the rest of us,” his father, Shawn Riley, said.'
Aaron, an Okemos High and MSU student, skinny dipped in Swedish rivers, fished the Great Lakes, rafted down the Snake River in Wyoming. He went climbing in the Alps, the Andes and the Rockies, skied black diamond slopes from Colorado to Italy. He played violin with the Okemos High School Orchestra in Viennese cathedrals, ate and drank and romanced and argued without letup. His professors at MSU marveled at his energy and intelligence.
“Most people didn’t know he had epilepsy,” Shawn said.
Every year, doctors would adjust Aaron’s medications, but the seizures never stopped.
On July 9, Aaron jumped into Pennsylvania’s Raystown Reservoir for a swim, had a seizure and drowned. He died with an epilepsy awareness bracelet on his wrist that read “Out of the Shadows.”
“The easy course would have been to retreat, stay home, live a simpler, safer life,” Shawn said. “He chose to step out.”
Many of Aaron’s teachers and classmates told his parents they’ve been inspired to do more and to live more intensely. Over 150 people have donated to his scholarship fund. “How much more could a parent want, than to hear that about their kid?” Shawn said.
At Mississippi College in 1973, Rufus D. Gladney and his future wife, Evelyn, were part of the first group of 40 African Americans to integrate the private southern Baptist school. Two years ago, Gladney took over as board chairman of the Uplift Our Youth Foundation, a 9-year-old group that raises money for agencies that help at-risk youth.
The organization’s founder, Larry Leatherwood, wanted to step aside and “bring a younger person who could take it to the next level.”
“He was on his way to doing that,” Leatherwood said.
But Gladney, 55, died Aug. 31.
In Lansing, Gladney’s ascent was swift and sure. He worked his way up from janitor at Consumers Energy in 1978 to vice president of energy operations shortly before in May 2010, with a list of responsibilities that would fill the rest of this page. He was a family man, chairman of the Deacon Board at Friendship Baptist Church, and community sports coach.
“Rufus was a low-key person, more a thinker than a talker,” Leatherwood said. “Whenever he talked, it was with meaning.”
His reputation made him a sterling fundraiser, even after his death. This fall, Consumers Energy and its employees raised close to $15,000 for Uplift Our Youth, in Gladney’s honor.
Ah, make the most of what ye yet may spend,
Before we too into the dust descend.
People put their trust in Mel Dravenstatt long before he became Lansing’s “Mr. Holy Cross,” maintenance man and jack-of-all-trades at Holy Cross Church on Lansing’s west side. In 1943, young U.S. Army MP Dravenstatt was picked to be General Douglas MacArthur’s bodyguard and chauffeur.
“[MacArthur] was very demanding, but my dad learned quickly how he wanted him to handle things,” Jim Dravenstatt said. “He molded into that job and impressed him enough to stay in the position for about two years.”
Dravenstatt was especially good at keeping Army trucks rolling. After the war, he worked for Howard Sober Inc., the trucking giant that hauled Lansing-made cars around the country. But he found his true calling at Holy Cross, where he maintained the school, church, rectory, cars and buses for 34 years and helped hundreds of neighbors in need of a handyman.
“He never said no, and a lot of people called on him,” Jim said. Dravenstatt’s mechanical skills were so esteemed that Mayor Gerald Graves invited him to serve on the Lansing Planning Commission. When a caller was needed for a square dance at the church, Dravenstatt would call his friend, Gov. G. Mennen Williams. “Soapy” would oblige while Dravenstatt and his wife, Shirley, burned up the dance floor.
As a youngster, Jim helped his dad at the church, especially after an assistant was laid off.
“I’d help him shovel the snow off the church steps for 6:30 mass,” he recalled. Father taught son a lot of skills, from auto mechanics to welding to charity work, that stand him in good stead.
“I love following in his footsteps,” Jim said. On Sunday, Jim raised a Christmas glass of wine without a clink from his dad for the first time. Melvin E. Dravenstatt died Jan. 30 at 88.
The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.
Sally Holliday used to say it was Christmas every day to work in the Book Burrow, a subterranean labyrinth of used books sold to raise money for the downtown Capital Area District Library.
Holliday, 65, passed away April 5 after running the Book Burrow for six years. Her successor in the job, Patricia York, called her “as much a landmark of Lansing as the Capitol building.”
Before she came to the Book Burrow, Holliday had 30 years of retail bookselling behind her, starting at Waldenbooks in the 1970s, but the library’s browsing dungeon, with its tens of thousands of volumes, was the perfect habitat for her. She organized the books meticulously but creatively. The 1950s paperback rack belonged in a museum. Co-workers and Book Burrow habitu's treasured her strong, colorful personality. “She collected experiences and was learned in ways far beyond book learning,” librarian and Lansing history expert David Votta said. She was an animal trainer, massage therapist, and artist. Most of all, she loved the Book Burrow’s egalitarian spread of knowledge via cheap books and had little respect for class or rank.
One afternoon, Votta ambled downstairs and saw Holliday break off a conversation with a group of adult customers to talk with a 4-year-old girl. “She bent over, listened intently and treated her as an equal because the girl had something real to say versus the mundane chatter of the adults,” Votta said.
In early 1996, two African-American men died in police custody in Lansing. Tension ratcheted between the police and the black community. Wilson Henry Caldwell, a passionate civil rights leader and respected local businessman, had just become president of the local NAACP. Caldwell turned out to be the right man in the right place.
Caldwell, 64, died Dec. 10.
Lynn Jondahl, who represented East Lansing and the Meridian Township area in the state Legislature for 22 years, was serving in the house when Caldwell took charge of the NAACP in 1991.
“He was an easy person for us to go to with problems,” Jondahl said. “He was a master of sitting down with people who were feeling victimized by decisions and bringing them together with community leaders. He bridged the gap.”
The formula of confrontation and respect served Caldwell well on his talk radio show on WJIM AM in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “You had to be prepared when you talked with him,” Jondahl said.
Larry Leatherwood, a close friend for decades, said Caldwell’s contributions to the community went largely unnoticed. “You heard that expression, ‘You get your flowers before you go?’” Leatherwood asked. “He didn’t get them.”
In July 2011, Rick Tumanis had high hopes for the on-and-off computer business he owned with a longtime friend and business partner, Gregg Seelhoff.
Tumanis went to his retail day job Thursday, July 28, thinking of the time he could devote himself completely to his first love, creating art for computer games. When the shift was over, he went home and got into bed. He never woke up.
“He didn’t know he was sick,” Seelhoff said. “He died from coronary disease.”
Tumanis would have been 55 on Dec. 30.
When they worked together at Quest Software in Lansing in 1988, Tumanis was the “pixel pusher” (artist) and Seelhoff was the “code monkey” (programmer). They became close friends.
“He was one of the most intelligent people I ever met,” Seelhoff said. They talked so much over the years that Seelhoff got a headset attachment for his phone. “I’d sit and hold the handset up for so long it started to hurt,” he said.
Tumanis also poured his energy into the pulsating electronic music he created at home. He was in a local band called Idle Hands, and collaborated with his friend, a mysterious theremin player named Wolf, in a band called Mutually Assured Destruction.
For the Microsoft Plus game pack, Tumanis created tropical backgrounds and card-playing avatars with loads of personality. (You can play poker as a Clint Eastwood-ish guy with a poncho.) He also created the art for “Pretty Good Solitaire,” one of the top-selling shareware Solitaire games of all time.
“He could put the pixels in the right way and it would look like a little elfin adventurer,” Seelhoff said.
But Tumanis only wrote music for himself. “Music was the one place he wouldn’t compromise,” Seelhoff said. “He wouldn’t let a client tell him, ‘more drums’ or ‘more bass.’ He wouldn’t get into that position.”
Both partners felt their most creative years were ahead, until July. “We were talking about making our business full time again, doing the stuff we like, and suddenly he’s not there,” Seelhoff said.
One thing is certain, that life flies.
Beatrice Richards retired as a Lansing elementary school librarian more than 30 years ago, but as recently as last year, graying former students would spot her and say hello.
Richards, who died March 29 at age 99, had plenty of admirers, including several of the children's authors whose books she read to Lansing kids.
One correspondent sent a framed picture of himself, taken by Richards, with a poem: “It’s always been my fervent wish/to be framed by Bea of Lansing Mich.” The frame-ee was Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, a Dartmouth buddy of Richards’ brother-in-law.
Richards’ daughter, Susan Brewster, recalled visits to La Jolla, Calif., where her uncle and Geisel lived across the street from each other. “Mother and he struck up a friendship,” Brewster said. “They would write each other and he would send her little books.”
One year, mother and daughter went to the Bologna Book Festival with children’s author Tomie DePaola. “She liked to just take off and do something that sounded fun, but it was usually related to children or education,” Brewster said.
Richards traveled a lot — she was among the first educators invited to the former Soviet Union and China — but she was a Lansing lady through and through. She grew up on Ottawa Street and rode the streetcar down Michigan Avenue to MSU. (Her father, Thomas O’Brien, was elected mayor of Lansing in November 1940, but died before he could take office.)
Brewster considered her mom her best friend.
“We lived close by and I saw her every day,” Brewster said. “She was sweet and kind. If people were gossiping she just ignored it.”
In 1969, Winston Wilkinson was teaching philosophy at Harpur College in upstate New York. A smart, fiery woman with flowing black hair was one of his students. The course was in aesthetics.
“He was the only teacher to give me a ‘B’ that semester,” Carolyn Wilkinson recalled. She was annoyed and intrigued.
“We started going together six hours after the grades were in,” Carolyn said.
By Oct. 30, Wilkinson, now a retired MSU philosophy professor, had been in the hospital for two months, fighting cancer. He was 70 years old. He and Carolyn had been married 42 years.
“He wanted to live for me,” Carolyn said.
When Winston got pneumonia, it was clear he would not go home. He asked for his ventilator to be removed. Five people sat vigil for two days.
“He felt he had done the things he wanted to do,” Carolyn said. “He had been a poet, a world traveler, a philosopher.”
In his earlier years, Wilkinson lectured while walking back and forth in front of the students, smoking cigarettes and tossing them out the window. He was a tough, funny, conscientious prof, with a special interest in existentialism.
Wilkinson found grading the only torturous part of his job. When friends came to visit, they would usually find him in the basement, bent dutifully over piles of half-baked student philosophy. When he retired in 2006 after 37 years at MSU, Carolyn and his friends threw him a bash they called “Professor Wilkinson Grades His Last Paper.” At the party, Winston’s friend, singer/songwriter Joel Mabus, wrote him a tune that only used the notes A, B, C, D and F.
In retirement, Wilkinson dived into books he always wanted to read and hung with the other three members of the Merleau-Ponty Society, dedicated to a French philosopher you wouldn’t expect to get his own society, however small, in East Lansing. Within a few years, serious health problems began to close in.
On Oct. 30, Winston closed his eyes and seemed to withdraw. At 3 a.m. Oct. 31, Carolyn sent everybody home. When they came back at 9 a.m., he opened his eyes.
“He was just delighted to see us,” Carolyn said. “After that, he actively began to die. You can do that. It took maybe an hour.”
Someone broke away from the deathbed vigil to find a computer and download Wilkinson’s favorite poem, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” an 11th-century Persian poem about life’s fleeting joys and the source of the verses sprinkled throughout this story.
Carolyn read the brief book to Win as he died.
There was a door to which I found no key:
There was a veil past which I could not see:
Some little talk awhile of thee and me
There seem’d — and then no more of thee and me.