-From “A Gift,” by Lansing poet Robert Rentschler, who died Sept. 1.
It wasn’t hard to gather 10 Lansing-area people who died in 2012 into this year-end bouquet. Only three rules were needed. First, I only picked interesting people, which was no problem, because everyone is. Second, I wanted a variety of lives, not just the prominent or powerful. Death generously obliged. I hope the reader will forgive a third rule, which might seem arbitrary. After plowing through thousands of obituaries, I resolved not to permit a single mention of golf, whether on Earth or in heaven. It was the hardest rule to follow, but I stuck to it.
(April 3, 1927-Sept. 1, 2012)
Dignity was not a priority for Robert Rentschler. In February, the MSU professor and longtime Lansing poet dealt with looming health problems in typical form. He appeared at a Creole Gallery poetry recital in a hospital gown, holding what appeared to be a urine sample. (Nobody cared to verify.) Depending on where you sat that night, the loosely clothed poet revealed more than his soul.
“He wasn’t afraid to show his bare ass,” fellow poet Sam Mills said. Another Lansing poet, Ruelaine Stokes, said Rentschler “was just thumbing his nose at death and sickness and age.” In early summer, a persistent sore throat was diagnosed as fast-spreading cancer, and by September he was dead at 85.
Stokes organized countless readings with Rentschler and other area poets, going back to the 1970s. The scene changed over the years, but Rentschler was always there, at the old coffee house poetry series at Hearthstone Bakery on the east side, at open mic nights at Hobie’s in East Lansing, and at many readings at the Creole. “He could be incredibly moving when he read,” Stokes said. “He would dress as Walt Whitman or other poets and become them.” Rentschler’s own poetry was often political, but with a lemon twist of wit: “I give all my loose change to the braless revolution.” Haikus were a favorite form: “The ducks are back/they’re sizing up the pond/for sex.” In a poem called “Fun With Dick and Jane,” a sixth grade teacher shows his class how to make a pipe bomb. A helpful list of “new words” follows the poem: “Beard, ponytail, wild look.”
“As a poet, he was pretty fearless,” Mills said. “His humor could be dark or startling, but always with a lot of heart.”
At Edgewood United Church in East Lansing, Rentschler dragged everyone named Robert into a performing group called The Bobs. They danced “Swan Lake” as “Bob Lake,” with Rentschler as lead ballerina. He was also member of a clown troupe, under the name Bibity Bob. (“A clown is a poet who is also an orangutan,” he wrote.) The humor helped him cope with personal tragedy: a daughter, Carol, died of AIDS, and his wife, Marilyn, died of Alzheimer’s. Later in life, Rentschler re-connected with a high school sweetheart and they did a lot of traveling together. “I dig girls in granny glasses/their hair combed sometime yesterday,” he wrote in a late poem. “He was having a great time,” Mills recalled. The program for Rentschler’s “black-clothing-optional” memorial service at Edgewood bore his favorite motto: “Do something intentionally foolish every day.”
Helen P. Shepherd
(June 2, 1927-Sept. 18, 2012)
Helen Shepherd poured at least 5 million cups of coffee in her 45-year run as a waitress, mostly in North Lansing, and that is a conservative estimate. Shepherd grew up in north Lansing and lived there most of her life. She started waitressing in her teens. Her son, Paul Allen, said she never wanted to do anything else. She worked at long-vanished joints like The Eat Shop and Bill’s Lunch, both in the heart of what is now Old Town, and The Clock (now Gregory’s Bar). “She outlasted all of them,” Allen said. Instead of using names, she called everyone “honey,” “babe” or “sweetheart.” “When you ordered something, she didn’t just walk from the table to the kitchen,” Allen said. “It was almost like a trot.” Shepherd went through three husbands, two of them named Bob, and a long-term boyfriend. “It was a rough life,” Allen said, “but my mom definitely loved life. If she was broke, she’d borrow a dollar to give it to a perfect stranger.” Money was tight when the kids were young, but she always gave them a choice at Christmas: one big thing or a lot of little things. One year, all three of her kids got Chicago skates. “Those weren’t cheap,” Allen said. “They were 40 bucks a pair 40 years ago.”
Shepherd didn’t smoke, but she was a fanatical collector of “Marlboro Miles,” a popular proof-of-purchase promotion that ran for decades. She would stop the car and pick up a Marlboro package in the middle of the road to get the five miles on the side of the box. “She had to cut them up so perfect and paper clip them together, 100 miles in a stack,” Allen said. When she had enough miles to cash in for merchandise, she took orders from friends and proudly handed out the gifts.
Shepherd’s last waitress gig was at Don’s Windmill Truck Stop near Dimondale. Her son tried in vain to get her to slow down. “Ma, the floor is damp in spots,” he told her. “They want their coffee, but they don’t expect you to run.”
In the late 1980s, she finally retired to a recliner, “The Young and the Restless” and WWE Wrestling. She died suddenly, probably from a blood clot in her lung, Sept. 18 at 85.
Shepherd was the kind of waitress who customers followed from restaurant to restaurant — and beyond. At her funeral, Allen watched a “little old man” totter to the casket, tears in his eyes, and touch his mother’s hand. Nobody in the family recognized him. Gazing at the casket, the man apologized that his wife was in the hospital and couldn’t come. “He was a customer at Don’s,” Allen said.
Genevieve “Gen” Parker
(Jan. 2, 1919-June 6, 2012)
About two years ago, Paula Stone and her 93-year-old mother, Genevieve “Gen” Parker, were taking a joyride around the Michigan State University campus. As they drove by Campbell Hall, where Parker was a student in the early 1940s, Parker tossed off a tidbit of information that was new to her daughter.
“Did I ever tell you about the time Eleanor Roosevelt visited my room?” she asked.
“I almost drove off the road,” Stone said.
Parker, a teacher, died June 6 at 93.
On a 1941 visit to the MSU campus, the First Lady decided to see what the women’s dorms were like. The house mother at Campbell Hall chose Parker’s room.
“She knew how to act,” Stone said of her mother. “And her room was always immaculate and beautifully decorated.”
Parker told Stone she was impressed by Mrs. Roosevelt’s hands. “If you look at her official portrait in the White House, it features her hands, which were very expressive when she spoke,” Stone said. Stone had occasion to see that White House portrait as Michigan’s first lady. She was married to former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard from 1966 to 1987 — not that her mother was impressed.
“The governor’s residence was too modern and she didn’t like the way it was decorated,” Stone said. In Blanchard’s time, it was full of Chinese screens and urns, the last thing she would have chosen for herself. Nor was Parker much impressed that her son-in-law was governor. “She didn’t think much of politicians,” Stone said.
When Gen Parker was 6 years old, her father died from tuberculosis he had contracted fighting in France during World War I. Mother and daughter suddenly had to fend for themselves. “She grew up to be very sensible, practical and self-sufficient,” Stone said. Parker was married to her high school sweetheart, William, for 64 years. She interrupted her teaching career for a while when her kids were young, but wasn’t thrilled about it. “She didn’t like staying home,” Stone said. “She made it clear to me that she liked working.” She impressed the rule of self-reliance on her daughter.
Parker taught for many years at Clarkston Junior High School, teaching geography, science and home economics in 7th and 8th grade. “Your mother’s hard,” the kids told Paula, who was also a student there, but avoided her mother’s classes. Bill and Gen Parker moved to Lansing in 1992 to be closer to family. Though retired, they both volunteered at Ingham Regional Medical Center and maintained a lively social whirl. “She was a very strong feminist, although she never called herself that,” Stone said. “She was a such a remarkable person, but she didn’t think of herself that way at all.”
Rawle Irvine Hollingsworth
(June 17, 1956-Feb. 29, 2012)
Rawle Hollingsworth wasn’t a household name, but he was a world changer. He found new ways to synthesize complex chemicals needed to manufacture life-saving drugs, had a killer smile, and, yes, even developed a new generation of rocket fuel. He held over 50 U.S. and international patents. Everyone who knew him — including his wife, Saleela — speaks of him with awe. “Every now and again, you have a life that shows up, and is a force to be reckoned with,” Saleela said. “He was super-brilliant and so kind.” After giving a course lecture at MSU Feb. 29, Hollingsworth collapsed in the hallway near his office, was rushed to Sparrow Hospital and died the same day, at age 55, from pulmonary emboli in both lungs.
“He had no idea it was coming,” Saleela said.
MSU microbiology prof Frank Dazzo recruited Hollingsworth to MSU and became a close friend.
“He did the impossible in pharmaceutical chemistry,” Dazzo said. “He revolutionized the field.” Hollingsworth met Saleela while they both were studying in grad school in Jamaica. He came from Barbados; she was from India. They came to MSU in 1983 to work in Dazzo’s lab, and were married soon after. “I’m amazed that one person could know so much,” Saleela said. He even studied women’s fashions and designed Saleela’s clothes in Jamaica, where material was cheap. Later, he loved to share erudite in-jokes with their precocious kids, Nisha and Akhil, and wait good-naturedly for the humor to dawn on Mom. He listened avidly to music, from Motown to Tom Waits to Sufjan Stevens to Debussy, and painted landscapes from photos he took. A large canvas he painted of a sunset over the Red Cedar River hangs in their house.
It’s impossible to stuff Hollingsworth’s vast scientific legacy in nutshell. Dazzo said he found new and better ways to synthesize key compounds that are used “by the trainload” in the pharmaceutical industry, at doubled efficiency. “Cholesterol, diabetes, Alzheimer’s — you name it, he was involved in researching it,” Dazzo said. He was also an entrepreneur, starting up two research companies at the Michigan Biotechnology Institute in Lansing. Alone, Dazzo said, Hollingsworth did things that larger teams of better-equipped researchers couldn’t do. He got many offers to work elsewhere, including MIT and Harvard, but liked MSU and his friends here.
Hollingsworth took time to enjoy pop culture gems like “SpongeBob” and “Breaking Bad” (about a chemistry teacher who cooks illegal drugs) but he pushed himself hard. After dinner parties with colleagues, he would go back to the lab, alone, to resume work. Saleela cherishes the memory of a family trip to Malta in 2000. “It was so peaceful,” she said. “He had time to just sit with us and talk.” When Nisha went to college to study chemistry at Columbia University, they talked every night on the phone, about science, music and fashion. “He was interested in everything,” Nisha said. “I couldn’t ask for a more remarkable father.” Saleela speculated, with bittersweet irony, whether Rawle somehow managed to pick Feb. 29 to die. For one thing, she said, February is Black History Month, and she is proud to commend her husband to history. “But he’s also one of those people who didn’t want to be in the limelight,” she said. “Even his death — it’s every four years, really.”
Charles “Chuck” Baryames
(Feb. 14, 1921-Aug. 1, 2012)
The life of Chuck Baryames followed the classic GI arc: shine shoes, defeat the Axis, marry one gal for life and build the world we live in. Lansing’s dry-cleaning king was born in Chicago, where his father, Art Sr., owned a pool hall, and moved to Lansing as a toddler. (When Art Sr. got pneumonia, the doctors told him to get out of the pool hall.) In the 1920s and 1930s, Chuck grew up working at his dad’s next business, the National Hat Shop and Newsstand at the corner of Washtenaw Street and Washington Square in downtown Lansing. There was a shoeshine stand, a soda fountain and a newsstand. Hats were blocked and suits were pressed. Chuck gladly worked on Christmas for the big tips.
Baryames went to MSU as an ROTC student in 1939. His graduation class trip was a ticket to the biggest marine invasion in history. As Army artillery field commander, he trundled onto Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, the day after D-Day. A sniper shot him in the arm during a tank battle at St. Lo, France, four days later, but he quickly rejoined the 29th Division and rolled into Germany.
Back in Lansing, he opened a bar with his brother, but didn’t like the business, so they opened the first dry cleaning outlet in Lansing, downtown. He married Rosalie in 1950; they were married until his death. The family and dry cleaning business grew to five kids and 19 stores. Early on, a competitor opened a dry cleaner next door to the main office on South Cedar Street. “My dad drove him out of business in a year,” daughter Katina said proudly. “He wasn’t ruthless, but he was competitive.”
As Chuck slowed down, Art took over the cleaning business and Katina took over the tux shops. Katina said her dad had a “special respect” for women in the business world and encouraged all four of his daughters to pursue careers. As Chuck delegated more work, he found time for sailing, skiing, tennis, plays and symphonies, and a lot of travel. He wasn’t interested in Ugly American package tours. He intensely studied places like Russia and the Nile Valley and made out his own itinerary. When the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Baryames went anyway. He took the family to Tunisia to visit ancient Coptic Christian churches. “He was very respectful of the cultures, religions and peoples of the world,” Katina recalled. Later, Baryames savored that golden phase of GI life where the castle was finished and he could unwind after 5 with a newspaper and Scotch. In 1995, Art took his dad to the 50th anniversary of D-Day at the state Capitol. Needless to say, the uniform was clean. “It still fit,” Art said.
Hazel A. Trebilcock
(July 31, 1911-June 11, 2012)
Hazel Trebilcock owed her first teaching job in Lansing to a rule most people would now consider outrageous: She subbed for a woman who was fired for getting married. Hazel was herself married at the time, but the appointment was considered temporary. Soon after, the district’s policy of hiring only unmarried women was lifted and Hazel became the first permanent married teacher in Lansing — or so she told her niece. Trebilcock died June 11 at 100 years old, with her niece, Delorus Burton, by her side. “I’m not going to be an old lady anymore,” she told Burton the day before.
Trebilcock grew up on a farm near the tiny town of Ralph, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. As toddlers, she and her sister would walk under the mules and buckle the harnesses from below. Each afternoon, she walked back to the family farm from the town’s one-room schoolhouse and tutored her Slovenian immigrant parents in English — her first teaching gig. Before she was 18, she had a teaching certificate from Michigan Normal School, now Northern Michigan University in Marquette. She moved to Lansing in the late 1920s when her new husband, Fred, got a job at the REO automobile factory.
When a student had a birthday, she loved to put on vivid red lipstick and give students an indelible kiss on the cheek.
In the mid-1950s, she gave her 6th grade Everett High School students the assignment of writing to their favorite authors. All of them, including “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote back. (“You know the stories happened a long time ago and we are all old people now,” Wilder wrote.) Burton found the letters in Aunt Hazel’s basement and donated them to the Capital Area District Library. (You can view the scans at www.cadl.org/answers/local-history). Later in her career, she became principal of Bingham Elementary, where she would summon unruly kids to the nurse’s office and order them to lay on the floor for 15 minutes. They usually fell asleep for an hour and returned to class refreshed. Aside from visits to the U.P., Fred didn’t like to go far from their little bungalow on Teel Avenue on Lansing’s south side. Hazel played along with that until her husband died in 1977. At 76, Hazel went on a binge of exploration. She went to China, Greece, Egypt, the Falkland Islands, Antarctica. She cruised up the Amazon and hopped a mail boat through the fjords of Norway. After that, there was bridge, needlepoint and 30 years of volunteer work at the Sparrow Hospital Gift Shop. She had a seizure at 93, moved to an assisted living facility, and moved to a nursing home three years ago as the odometer neared 100. “I think it was a goal,” Burton said. “When she reached that goal, she won.”
(April 24, 1923-Oct. 5, 2012)
J.D. Washburn spent a lot of his time reading the sky, scanning cloud formations and checking the barometer. A farmer’s fortune is written in the sky in an invisible and elusive hand. Washburn, who died Oct. 5 at 89, never had a TV. He spent Sundays writing letters to friends and evenings visiting neighbors and elderly shut-ins near his five farms in St. Johns, building up enough good will to draw a thousand people to his funeral. “He was slow to speak and slow to judge,” his daughter, Rita, recalled. In the 1930s, Washburn went to 10 schools in 11 years, following his truck-driver dad as he scrabbled for work in northern Michigan. He quit school and found work in Detroit to help the family, but couldn’t stay on the sidelines of World War II and enlisted in the Air Force in 1942. (During basic training in Atlantic City, his outfit was told to break cadence and walk out of step to protect the Boardwalk.) He survived 52 missions in the South Pacific as navigator, a hellish crucible that strengthened his religious faith. For the rest of his life, he read little but the Bible and World War II histories. After the war, he headed to Lansing to be near his sister and ended up marrying her best friend, Nellie. At the wedding, bubbles poured out of the organ at Duplain Church of Christ near St. John’s. They were married 66 years. Washburn started with 80 acres and expanded over the years, but hedged his bets with Mother Nature by keeping a job at the John Bean Co., a hulking pump factory that still dominates Lansing’s near south side. The cash crops were navy beans, light and dark kidney beans, corn, wheat and soy. Two sons, Kam and Dan, and two daughters, Rita and Dee, helped on the farm. Rita raked hay, but the privilege of plowing was left to her sister. Washburn was proud of his now-antique John Deere A tractor (the first model with rubber tires) and John Deere B, with hand crank and hand clutch. “He’d open up the field and let her plow,” Rita, the hay raker, said without evident rancor. Before mechanization, the whole family was drafted to pull weeds from the bean fields. “A lot of people would think that’s a drag, but it wasn’t,” Rita said. They would race to finish their rows and feast like oxen afterwards. Washburn didn’t show much emotion, but he loved it when Rita made him pecan pie. “Always take advantage of free food from the kids,” he would say. “He was comfortable to be around,” Rita said. “Some people keep you guessing, but you knew where he stood with him.”
(July 30, 1915-Jan. 10, 2012)
More than once, during Julia Laycock’s last autumn, her son, Michael, caught her raking leaves in the front yard. She waved off his offers of help until her health finally failed and she died Jan. 10 at 96. “She was neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist,” Michael said. “She wasn’t a famous person, just a person who got through life.” Julia, daughter of ramrod-tough Mexican migrant workers, lived alone for decades in a small house in the Hosmer neighborhood. She owned her house and proudly supported herself with cheap food gleaned on daily walks to the Family Dollar on East Michigan Avenue. She got her work ethic from her father, Gregorio Medina of Catorce, Mexico. Five months after Julia was born in July 1915, Medina took his young family across the border to Texas. There, Gregorio literally broke his back in the mines, ending up in traction for 44 days. In 1942, Gregorio took his family to St. Johns to work the sugar beet fields around Lansing with other migrant workers. In the 1940s and 1950s, Laycock worked as a maid at Lansing’s premier Hotel Roosevelt. She had a husband back then, Waldo Laycock, who drank too much and beat her. “There were some really tough times there,” Michael said. When Waldo threw Julia down a flight of stairs, she divorced him and was cured of marriage for life. Later, Julia made up beds at Sparrow Hospital, walking to work in all weather. She walked downtown to shop and never got a driver’s license. By the mid-1970s, she had enough to pay off the mortgage on her own house. After she died, her kids found trunks full of cash in her house. “She was very independent,” Michael said. “I visited her at least once a week, but it was pretty much, ‘Don’t bug me, I’m fine, I don’t need your help.’” When she was mugged in front of her house, she shrugged it off and kept on walking the neighborhood, carrying a tiny coin purse. Once Michael took her on an ill-fated trip to Meijer. She scrutinized every product and price in the cereal aisle for a half hour. “She didn’t buy a thing,” Michael said. “The deals weren’t good enough.”
Spanish-language TV was Julia’s biggest indulgence. Her only fear was that some day she would be deported to Mexico. In her 90s, she insisted that a visiting nurse sign a paper promising she could stay in the United States.
Lacking a car, she didn’t travel much. Years ago, one of Julia’s boyfriends drove Julia and Michael to the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, where a huge rock juts out of the Straits. “She got up on that rock and looked over at the bridge and the lake,” Michael said. “It was one of the few times I’ve seen her really, really happy.”
(1939-June 21, 2012)
Lansing’s hungry theater community subsisted for decades on food supplied by actress Marilyn Steegstra, but actor/director Ken Beachler declined to stand for an ovation. Beachler lumped Steegstra’s baked goods with her prop making skills. “She made cookies that looked like cookies but didn’t taste like cookies,” he said. That kind of backstage backbiting, taken beyond the grave, can only mean love. Steegstra, who died June 21 at age 73, never married and had no children, but her extended theater family ran well into the hundreds. The actress, producer and jill-of-all-trades held a day gig as English teacher at Lansing Eastern High School for 39 years, but her life was the theater. She started out as a versatile leading actress in dramas, comedies and musicals, eased into character roles with the passing years, and never stopped finding ways to be indispensible. As late as 2010, she spent hundreds of hours fielding reservations for Riverwalk Theatre manager Mike Syracuse. “She worked constantly and the woman never was paid anything,” Syracuse marveled. Younger audiences know Steegstra from her later, broader roles, especially in children’s shows, but Beachler knew Steegstra from her high school years in Grand Rapids. By the time Beachler started working at the Okemos Barn Theater in the late 1960s, Steegstra had moved to Lansing to go to MSU and never left the area. “We were lucky,” Beachler said. One of Beachler’s first shows as director was Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” with Steegstra in the lead role of husband-killing Regina. Later, she played poet Dylan Thomas’ American girlfriend in Sidney Michaels’ “Dylan.” “She was not broad in those shows,” Beachler said. Longtime director and Riverwalk mainstay Bill Helder was floored by Steegstra’s intensity in “Foxes.” “You can’t get much more evil than that,” he said. Steegstra also made properties (including stage food) for Beachler and other directors many times, and planned to do the props for Riverwalk’s “Fortinbras” in Fall 2010 before falling ill and bowing out.
Steegstra performed in countless children’s shows and directed many others, especially as she aged out of leading lady range. The multigenerational experience of theater gave her a rich family life. Her roles as The Cookie Witch and the Bake Sale Witch played to her other famous skill as nightly bringer of treats. The curious thing, Syracuse said, is that Steegstra never ate them herself — to stay trim, he guessed, and perhaps get the drop on her fellow actresses at the next casting call.
Cameron “Big Perm” Doyle
(Aug. 9, 1977-June 2, 2012)
Lansing hip-hop artist Cameron “Big Perm” Doyle was intimate with loss. His best friend, Ygnacio “Notch” Bermudez, was shot and killed outside The Loft nightclub in fall 2011. Perm was a formidable battle rapper in an art that demands ready bluff, but it took him several months to process Notch’s death in his lyrics. “I seen people heartbroken before, but that really broke Perm’s heart,” Doyle’s friend, Lansing promoter SINcere, recalled. When Perm finally released his tribute, “Gone,” in late April, he dedicated the song to “anybody that lost somebody” and dropped the bravado. In a spoken intro, he asked for Notch’s (and the listener’s) patience: “I miss you/Took me a little bit of time before I figured out how I wanted to do this/and I still ain’t sure if I got it right/But I know everybody going to understand/this shit from the heart.” He rapped out his grief for his friend over a haunting question-and-answer melody that closed at the end of each line like a moth’s wings. “I can’t believe it went down like that/Just wish that I could have had you back,” goes the chorus. SINcere was struck with Big Perm’s unusual presence at a show in 1997, when it was still rare to hear live hip-hop in Lansing: “He was a big guy, but not only that. His overall talent, his music, you could feel it.” Doyle came to Lansing from Louisiana as a teenager, started rhyming with a karaoke machine and was invited to rap at house parties as his reputation spread. (A high school friend thought he looked like Big Perm, from the 1995 Ice Cube film “Friday.” The name stuck, although Doyle said it wouldn’t have been his first choice.) After putting out his first mix tape in 2005, Perm climbed to the top of the Lansing rap scene, opening for superstar Ludacris at the Common Ground Music Festival and starting his own company. He wasn’t the kind of performer who pulled the steps away as he went upward. “I think nobody put more people on stage around here,” SINcere said.
On June 2, less than two months after recording his tribute to “Notch,” Big Perm had a sudden stroke and was rushed to Sparrow Hospital. Most of the Lansing hip-hop scene gathered in the hall, including SINcere. “I was there when they took him off life support,” he said. “It was really, really difficult.” Big Perm was 34 years old.
“This is my life and everything ain’t all good
Give my last dime to bring him back, I know we all would
It’s nothing different than what’s going on in y’all hood
And that’s a damn shame, just know that I feel your pain.”
-from “Gone” by Big Perm