December 26, 1986

In September of this year, and as the first of a two-part post, I wrote “You didn’t do them any favors.” As a prelude to that earlier post, I added: “This will be a post in two parts. This is the first part. I hope I have the courage to write the second. If I do, the second part will appear on December 26.” Here is that second installment. It will make much more sense if you read the first.


I had been selected to become a United States Magistrate Judge in November of 1986. Judge Ross, and my law partners, worked hard to make that happen. My wife, Verdella, was overjoyed at the prospect of living in Omaha. We would move into our new home some 225 miles to the east of Lexington in early January, and the kids, Marne, 14, Lisa 11, and Keller, 6, would start school.

Verdella was my high school sweetheart. She was tall, like daughter Lisa. While not exactly beautiful, Verdella was striking in the way stately blue-eyed German girls are striking. Everyone loved her. She was kind, funny, and the life of the party. She taught high school kids drama and French. Despite the fact that her father had been raised in Franklin, Nebraska, Verdella grew up down the street from me in Maumee, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. Her father, Bill, had died in May of 1986 after a long and distinguished career as a surgeon.

Mark called me, and said he was out of prison. He asked whether he could come over. On the evening of December 26, 1986, Mark arrived. At six-foot three, he was as muscular and good looking as ever. Verdella fixed a crab and cream cheese snack, and the three of us talked while Marne and Lisa watched TV in the other room. Keller was asleep in his room. The Christmas tree shone brightly. It was a happy time.

Mark was great. Eight years in prison had not harmed him. In fact, he seemed more centered and at peace than at anytime I had seen him before. He spoke excitedly about moving to a southern state with his parents where they would raise cattle on a new farm. He was excited.

After about an hour, Verdella walked into the kitchen to get something. I don’t recall what it was. Pretty soon, I heard a crash. Mark and I ran to the kitchen. Verdella was laying flat on the ground. Her eyes were rolled up in her head, and she had lost control of her bladder. Marne came running in as I tried to administer CPR. I think I told her to call 911. Mark stood there feeling, I am sure, quite helpless. I told him to leave. Having just been paroled, I didn’t want to cause him complications when the police showed up.

The fire department and police arrived rapidly. Lexington is a very small town. I remember one of the volunteer firemen, who I knew very well. He was trying to keep his facial features neutral, but I saw it in his eyes. The rescue squad took her to the hospital that was only a mile or so away. The guys on the rescue squad asked me to drive myself. I am pretty sure they did not want me to see what they would be doing on the ride to the hospital. A neighbor came to look after the kids. Doctor Joe, our family doc and good friend, met me in the emergency room. He had tears in his eyes. Verdella was dead. She had just turned 40.

I learned later, after the autopsy, that Verdella died of idiopathic myocarditis–an inflammation of the heart muscle of unknown origin but frequently caused by a viral infection like the common cold. Patients who are hit with this illness are often asymptomatic. That was the case with Verdella.

What happened during the following days is all a blur. Verdella’s mom, Merle, and her sisters from Ohio quickly arranged to fly to Omaha on December 27. One of my pilot friends agreed to take his light twin-engine airplane to pick them up and bring them to Lexington. My dear friend, Pat, came over from Kearney and sat with me deep into the night. I called a clinical psychologist, who was a client, and asked for his advice about telling Keller the next morning. Like the psychologist predicted, when I told Keller, using very simple words, there wasn’t much of a reaction. I held him on my lap for a few moments, and then put him down. He sat on the floor and played with his trucks. I think I saw a tear.

We held a memorial service in Lexington for Verdella in the protestant church we had attended in the past. I remember dear Marne acting like a perfect little adult, greeting people and doing exactly what her mother would have done. Little Lisa, who still hates public attention, shrunk into the shadows. The four of us–the kids and me–saw Verdella’s body one more time at the funeral home. It was excruciating.

The seven of us–the kids, Verdella’s two sisters, her mom and I–flew back to Toledo. Verdella’s body followed. She was to be buried next to her father. The funeral was set for January 2, 1987. We were all staying at Merle’s home. On New Year’s eve, Kip, my brother came to see me. We talked quietly, and I told him I was not feeling well. So, he left. I had an awful pain in the stomach. I tried to lie down, but the pain got worse.

Eventually, I got up, and spoke quietly to Brad, my brother-in-law. I asked him to take me to the hospital. By then, I could not sit up straight. By the time we made it to the emergency room, I was beginning to go into shock. The last thing I remember is being wheeled down a long corridor with a nurse trying but failing to intubate me as I vomited.

I awoke late in the afternoon on New Years in what I seem to remember as a dazzling white room. The children were standing next to the bed. I learned that I had been operated on by Bill’s former medical partner. A stomach ulcer had ruptured and the contents of the stomach had spilled into the abdominal cavity. The rupture was about the size of a quarter, and it looked to Bill’s partner to be cancerous. As it turned out, there was no cancer. The hole had been caused by taking too many over the counter medications (Excedrin Extra Strength and aspirin) for migraine headaches.

About four days into my hospital stay, Judge Ross called me. He had Judge Beam on the line with him. Judge Beam was then Chief Judge of the District of Nebraska, and would soon be elevated to his present position as judge on the Court of Appeals. Judge Ross made it clear to me that I must come to Omaha, and that I must not allow Verdella’s death to interfere with the new job. He was gentle and kind but insistent. Judge Beam was supportive too. I took their advice.

I was far too weak and sick to attend the funeral. The children buried their mother without me. I learned later that the wind chill was fierce. You have not experienced cold until you have felt in your bones sub-zero temperatures driven by a wind coming off Lake Erie in January.

Eight days after my operation, I was released from the hospital. I was confined to Merle’s home for another week. Then, Merle, the kids and I flew back to Omaha, picked up my station wagon and drove back to Lexington. I was very weak. I had lost a lot of weight. With the help of great friends in Lexington, we packed our things, saw the moving van off,* and drove to Omaha to begin our new lives.

A few days later, I began the new job. I remember barely be able to lug my briefcase into the federal building on the first day of work. I especially remember feeling completely alone. I was 40 years old and the line for “marital status” on the employment papers said “widower.”

What about Mark? I never saw him again. But, I did learn that Mark was subsequently involved in a horrific automobile accident down south. Tragically, it left him paralyzed.

Verdella’s words still linger. Despite my overly earnest representation of Mark, I hadn’t done anyone any favors.


*As only little boys can do, Keller got friendly with one of the rough guys on the moving van. The fellow had a pocket knife that fascinated Keller because it looked like the moving van. The guy gave Keller the knife. It is pictured below. Joan, my dear wife since 1992 and the only mother Keller has really known, keeps the knife on the window-sill next to the kitchen sink. That way, Keller can’t miss it when he visits from Australia or other far off places. It is an odd but important reminder of his past.

photo (3)

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