by Doug Koempel | 1/31/17
My best friend died yesterday.
I feel compelled to write a little bit about her, but where do I start? Maybe start with some adjectives: loyal, caring, supportive, humble, devout, thoughtful, empathetic, gentle, kind . . . Pam Stinogel of Milford, Iowa was all these . . . and more.
Talk to anyone who knew her, and you'd hear these descriptors over and over again.
But how do I sum up a friendship that lasted some 30+ years in just a few words? Any words I might write will seem so insignificant, so insufficient. But I need to somehow pay homage to this wonderful lady, this perfect friend!
Let's back up and start at the beginning - well, at least at the beginning of Pam's and my association.
It was sometime in the early 1980s (Pam could have told you the exact year, month and day of the week - she had an uncanny knack for names and dates.) On a whim Pam and her old skating partner Lynn Wee popped in to Crescent Beach Resort on Lake Okoboji to catch the Memory Brothers' first couple of sets.
Lynn had gotten to know me when he'd help engineer our first album in 1979 at Iowa Great Lakes Recording Studio in Milford, Iowa.
Over the years I've heard Pam repeatedly retell the story of her first encounter with the Memory Brothers, and I should know it by heart; but the part that sticks with me was: "After hearing them, we were hooked!"
In those days we played 6 nights a week for 11 weeks straight each summer at Crescent Beach Resort on Lake Okoboji. And after that first visit, Pam soon became a regular - sitting with her friends Jon and Lois Rute, Keith and Beryl Marra (with their kids Rory & Reeann) along with Beryl's parents, Bonnie and Gayle Raymond.
Through these dances, it wasn't long before Pam met and started chumming around with our most-notorious fan, Nellie Kern of Algona, Iowa. Nellie was 43 years Pam's senior, but the two of them immediately clicked and made for a formidable pair - both of whom were beloved by all our followers.
Those two ladies would round up carloads of fans and travel all over the state to attend Memory Brothers' shows. You'd never know when and where Pam and Nellie's entourage would show up.
FAN CLUB PRESIDENT
Sometime in the middle '80s, I recruited Pam to head our fan club. She wasn't certain at first that she could handle it; but with her exceptional people skills, she ended up doing a wonderful job of building membership, putting out a monthly newsletter, maintaining the mailing list and organizing fan club picnics. And she soon became known as our "fearless leader" - a moniker that stuck indefinitely.
The annual fan club picnics she organized at Horseshoe Bend in Milford and Call State Park in Algona were legendary. Folks from as far as Sioux Falls, SD; Iowa City, IA; Cedar Rapids, IA; Eau Claire, WI; Mankato; MN and Waterloo, IA would flock to northwest Iowa to attend these weekend bashes.
The picnics would last all day, and then the guests would head to the venue - be it Crescent Beach Resort on Lake Okoboji or Charlies in Algona to dance the night away!
The fan club hit its zenith during those years that Pam was at the helm.
I was always teasing Pam from the stage - which she loved. And for some reason, one night I dedicated the old Statler Brothers' tune, "Bed Of Roses" to her. The song starts out:
"She was called a scarlet woman by the people, who would go to church but left me in the street . . ."
It just so happened that that very same night her minister, Pastor Leonard Root, was sitting in the audience. Needless to say the very demure Pam suffered a tinge of embarrassment when that phrase "scarlet woman" was directed towards her with her minister sitting just a few feet away!
Pastor Root good-naturedly chided Pam afterwards saying that he'd never been aware of this side of Pam. And soon this song became her song - I almost always sent it out to her when she was in the audience. And in my mind's eye, I can still see how her face flushed each time I'd announce that dedication from the stage!
OUR FEARLESS LEADER
Pam embraced her role as the official ambassador for the Memory Brothers. Our fearless leader was the go-to person for anyone who needed to know when and where we were performing in the area. She shamelessly plugged us whenever the opportunity arose:
"Excuse me ma'am, but have you ever heard the Memory Brothers?"
She often confided in me, "I hope people don't get tired of hearing me talk about the Memory Brothers!"
Pam - born in 1951 - remained single all her life. Her priorities were (in this order): God, family, work and eventually the Memory Brothers. She worked tirelessly in the Materials Management department at the Spencer Hospital for 42 ½ years. Her boss there was David Hodges whom she simply adored. I believe when she retired from there in 2012 due to health issues, she was the longest-serving staff member employed by the hospital.
A person whom she also placed on a pedestal was brother Jack, an emergency physician in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He was her younger brother to whom she was the quintessential big sister during their early years growing up in Milford. But in these later years, the roles reversed a bit; and Jack had become her chief advisor and confidante - helping her with everything from day-to-day concerns around the house to financial tips to health-related concerns. Over and over during our many phone conversations, Pam would say,
"I'll have to run that past Jack", or "Jack says . . ."
Oh yes, there were the health issues - lots of them. Pam would grapple with poor health over the years - bad knees, diabetes, a couple of strokes, cancer and most-recently seizures.
The diagnosis of uterine cancer came on December 1, 2011 - literally weeks after Pam had lost her younger sister, Mary, to a similar type of cancer. To say Pam was devastated by the terrible news would be an understatement. I can still hear her trembling voice on my answering machine:
"Doug this is Pam. I've got the doctor's report. Can you give me a call? It's not good. I have cancer . . ."
She valiantly endured a grueling, 11-month course of chemo and radiation - 6 chemo treatments and 28 radiation treatments at the Spencer Hospital followed by 3 final radiation treatments in Sioux Falls, SD. The last treatment was on November 11, 2012 - exactly 11 months after her diagnosis.
Earlier that year on July 21, we'd held a benefit for Pam to help with some of the expenses not covered by her insurance. There was a huge turnout and an outpouring of affection from friends, family, local businesses and even a few strangers. We estimated that more than 400 folks packed into the Milford Community Center to give Pam their love and support.
It was a happy day when eventually Pam heard those three, beautiful words, "You're cancer free!" Nevertheless, she would continue to touch base with her oncologist in Sioux Falls on a regular basis for necessary check ups. All of which would turn out good.
With all that cancer stuff in the rearview mirror, she began to experience blackouts and related falls. This was thought to be unrelated to the cancer but rather a delayed consequence from two strokes she'd had just prior to the cancer ordeal.
Pam would awaken on the bedroom floor only to find herself lying in small puddle of blood with a gouge in her forehead - not remembering what had happened or how long she'd been there. Or she'd be seated in her favorite chair unresponsive when friends would call on her. After a quick trip to the emergency room each of those occasions, she'd always come around and be perfectly fine for weeks and weeks until a similar incident would occur.
This past year her local doctor put her on anti-seizure meds and restricted her driving for 6 months. During this time she was seizure-free and just recently had returned to driving.
A SUNNY DISPOSITION
I've mentioned these health issues (and there were more not addressed here) to highlight that, although Pam was burdened by poor health, you'd never know it by talking with her. She had a way of downplaying her trials and tribulations by always shifting the topic towards you, e.g., "How've you been feeling?", "How're the nieces?", "How're the kitties?", etc.
She was a lady of great faith who devoutly attended church each Sunday. She'd read her devotions and study her bible lessons on a daily basis. Her faith extended beyond the platitudes, as she would visit the sick and elderly. It was not uncommon for her to send out a dozen cards a day to those suffering from illness or loss.
I remember Pam had befriended an elderly lady, Letitia Lawson, who lived around the block from her. I'd hear Pam talk about Letitia - about reading to this elderly lady whose eyesight was failing. One day Pam said, "Would you like to meet Letitia?" I said, "Sure." So we took a stroll around the block to this small, white house. Pam walked right in and announced, "Letitia, you have company."
Soon I saw this diminutive lady slowly emerge from her kitchen - pushing a walker in front of her. She couldn't have been more than four and a half feet tall - her walker seemed as big as she was. She was 111 years old at the time and still living by herself. She would live one more year before passing away at the ripe old age of 112!
On that first of several visits that Pam and I paid to Letitia, Letitia entertained us for a good hour with jokes and stories of long ago. Her mind was sharp as a tack, and I could see why Pam was so fond of this delightful lady.
Pretty soon Letitia stopped talking and sat quiet for several seconds. Pam finally said, "What're you thinking about, Letitia?" After a short pause, Letitia replied pensively, "Oh, I've got some 2nd graders coming to visit tomorrow. I've got to think of some good stories to amuse them." Pam and I both burst out in laughter at the thought of this 111-year-old lady anticipating her next gig in the midst of entertaining us!
Pam never forgot Letitia, and she would frequently reminisce about Letitia in our many phone conversations. Pam might mention Letitia's strong faith or refer to something Letitia had written in one of her (Letitia's) annual Christmas letters. (I'd read a couple of those newsletters, and they were unbelievably eloquent.)
I don't remember exactly when I started giving Pam a daily phone call. I know it was sometime during her cancer ordeal. Then it was to check up on how she was tolerating the chemo and/or how she was feeling in general.
The phone calls continued long after she wrapped up that unpleasant chapter in her life. I'd call her usually on my way to a gig or when I'd have a late-afternoon break. We'd chat for 15-20 minutes - sometimes much longer.
Not much usually changes in the course of a day, so our chats typically consisted of light banter - usually me chattering nonsense and/or teasing her and she responding in like. I think much of her life was spent with serious concerns, so these daily diversions gave her the opportunity to disengage and be silly for a few minutes.
We'd also talk about folks she'd run in to here and there - old fans of the Memory Brothers whom I didn't get to see anymore. She'd update me as to who was sick, who had died and what various Lakes-area folks were up to.
As I'd mentioned earlier, she had a remarkable ability to remember names, faces and birthdays. So we'd recall folks who used to come to the dances - she'd name someone, and then I'd try to come up with the names of the people they'd come with. If I couldn't think of a name, she most-certainly would come up with it.
And she would remind me that my sister and brother-in-law were having an anniversary or that one of my band members was having a birthday. She knew the birthdays and anniversaries of all the Lennon Sisters (her 2nd favorite music group) and all their anniversary dates!
I know she looked forward to our chats (as I did.) And she'd lay a tongue-in-cheek guilt trip on me if I'd miss a day or two.
Pam was not afraid of dying. Her strong faith assured her that when this earthly life was through, she'd be reunited with her mom, dad and sister embraced forever in the arms of her eternal Father.
I think she knew in her heart that her days were coming to a close; because during the last few years, she seemed to be continually downsizing - giving away her possessions, simplifying her life.
In our more-recent conversations, the topic of death came up again and again. And she spoke frequently of her mom, dad and sister Mary. I knew the thought of dying was always close to the surface.
THE FINAL WEEK
So what finally happened this last week? How did the end come so quickly - so seemingly unexpected? Well, I'm not sure anyone knows exactly happened. But sometime late Tuesday night, she fell in her home; and her Lifeline alerted the rescue unit. They rushed her down to the Spencer Hospital where she was unresponsive and put on life support.
The next day she was transported to Sioux Falls where her condition waxed and waned. One day she would show a slight improvement followed the next day by a precipitous drop in blood pressure. She showed signs of a systemic infection and kidney failure.
One of her doctors postulated that possibly an infection had started in her gall bladder, and it had rapidly spread throughout her system. They considered possibly putting her on dialysis.
Jack diligently kept in touch with me via regular phone updates, but he remained realistic throughout the ordeal, repeatedly maintaining: "Doug, I don't think she's going to survive this."
On Sunday afternoon in the Sioux Falls hospital, Pam was removed from the ventilator, and had quality time with her family including Leah, Pam's beloved niece (Jack and Kim's daughter.) Jack explained:
"Pam was fully oriented all Sunday and Monday morning until she went into a coma about noon. She was still telling me where things were at home, not to forget Lennon Sisters' tickets, funeral plans, and upcoming appointments."
As the afternoon progressed, her condition significantly deteriorated; and she died at 2:45 PM.
Who knows what mysteries await beyond this life on earth. For Pam whose belief in God and heaven was ardent and steadfast, there was no question. On the other side, she inhabits a healthy, vibrant body and walks down a golden path - flanked on one side by her sister Mary and on the other by her mom and dad.
And I can see her pausing to ask a heavenly passerby, "Excuse me sir, but have you ever heard of the Memory Brothers?"