Editor’s note: For the past five posts, I’ve been writing about C. Clyde Squires’ five stages of love, in honor of my great grandparents, Amand and Estelle Fey. On last Monday I covered Mother Love. Wednesday, I wrote about Puppy Love, Friday was Accepted Love, Monday I featured Binding Love and, today, I am honoring
Jerry Van Handel covered a lot of ground during his award-winning 35-year career as a photojournalist for WLUK TV, FOX 11, but his favorite miles were the ones he shared with his wife Lori.
They called them “Remmer Rides” because they acted as a remedy for whatever difficulties might pop up and they became mainstays of Jerry and Lori’s 31-year marriage.
“We would just hop in the car and go,” Lori said. “We had great conversations in the car. We laughed a lot. We didn’t go anywhere in particular. Jerry would show me places he did live shots about, or just some things in the community he wanted me to see, or something he was excited about that he wanted to share with me.”
The “Remmer Rides” continued, but became a little more difficult and a lot more poignant following Jerry’s stunning, initial diagnosis of ALS on May 30, 2019 and devastating confirmation in August.
“We were blindsided and heartbroken,” Lori said. “We just couldn’t believe it. We honestly thought he had a pinched nerve. There was no family history at all. Jerry was a very healthy, very active man.”
Also known as Lou Gehring’s Disease, ALS is a brutal disease that can progress very swiftly as it snatches away a person’s ability to walk, then talk, then swallow, then breathe.
“The scary thing is ALS can happen to any person at anytime,” Lori said. “It does not distinguish between gender or race. More than 90 percent of diagnoses are sporadic with no family history. People are diagnosed everyday all around the world with this life stealing disease.”
Together with their family and friends, Jerry and Lori tried everything they could to battle back. They consulted experts, sought second and third opinions, researched, followed protocol and prayed.
“We prayed to God and to the saints. We prayed to everybody for Jerry,” Lori said. “Through this journey we also went to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. We went to healing services at our church, St. Pius X. We did a lot of other spiritual things as well.”
Incomprehensibly, despite all their exhaustive efforts, Jerry died on Feb. 6, just six months after his confirming diagnosis.
“I miss him every second,” Lori said. “I love him so much. It’s a big hole. He was my rock. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
The most difficult aspect of our humanity is that we are finite, the most beautiful is that we are loved forever.
Jerry left an admirable legacy of love through his work and in his family. He and Lori raised their sons Nate and Adam, and daughter Melanie to be kind, strong active members of their community.
“One of the last things he said to me was ‘When neither one of us is here anymore our greatest legacy is that we raised three good people together,” Lori said.
They also shared a particularly touching love story, nudged along by fate, an encouraging news director and a distracting flock of ducks.
Back in 1986, then a college junior, Lori initially turned down a volunteer internship offer by WLUK’s Bill Kiefer in favor of a paid internship at the Green Bay Press Gazette. The following year, she contacted him and asked if she could take him up on his offer, but at the Valley Bureau because her mother was sick and she needed to help care for her. He agreed to that, as long as she spent her spring break in the Green Bay newsroom. Then she could spend the rest of her internship working out of the Valley Bureau.
“And who was working in the Valley Bureau at the time? Jerry,” Lori said. “I never would have met him if I had accepted the internship offer the first time.”
Their relationship progressed swiftly. They had their first date on March 19 and then, on August 30, Jerry took Lori to Menomonee Park.
“He had planned a really special day,” she said. “We took a boat ride and he’d brought a loaf of bread so I could feed the ducks. We were sitting under a willow tree and I was really enjoying feeding those ducks. He would start to say something and I’d say, ‘Oh, hey look at that one coming in!’. He kept starting to say the same thing and I kept admiring those ducks. Then, he wisely waited for me to finish the loaf and he started again and I sort of began to realize what was happening. He finally finished what he was trying to say and he gave me my ring and it has always been a special memory for us.”
This past October, for their 31st anniversary, Jerry asked Lori to drive him down to that park, a far more difficult but equally meaningful trip.
“I got him in the car and I was driving and he was crying and I said, ‘Jerry we don’t have to do this.’ and he said, ‘Yes, we do.’ So, we went to Oshkosh and we went to all of our places and we parked the car by the place he asked me to marry him.”
In life, Jerry enjoyed an uncanny sense of direction. “He could find a postage stamp in Timbuktu and not use a GPS,” Lori said. He used to take Lori on dry runs to places they knew she might have trouble locating, so she could find her way there on her own the next day.
In his final hours as they sat in an ICU unit and she held his hand, Lori reversed the roles and helped guide him home.
“It was just him and me,” she said. “Through tears, I held his hand. I thanked him for being my husband and for being such a great dad and for our life together. I promised him I’d take care of our kids. I told him I loved him a million times. In 15 minutes he was gone. Now I have to try to find my way without him. I know he’s always with me though because his memory is alive in my heart.”
And, here’s the thing about beautiful love stories:
They live on, thanks to the generous people who share them.