When tragedy strikes, communities respond

Ohio's Amish country, Holmes Co. OH
Even a peaceful scene in Amish country can become tragic.

Tragedy. It’s bound to invade our lives, often when we least expect it. Too often, it happens more than once in our lifespan.

Unfortunately, we likely have all seen our fair share of tragedy. Calamity merely is part of life. That doesn’t make it any easier to accept.

I’ve seen and experienced a lot of tragic incidents in my life as a member of volunteer fire and rescue squads. Often I knew people involved in the emergency incidents. That’s not surprising when you live most of your life in a close-knit, rural community.

Sometimes tragic national news hits close to home, too. The recent fatal shooting of Dean Beachy and his son Steve is proof of that. Naturally, people were shocked and horrified at the senseless killings.

Their lives are a huge loss to the family and the many, many people they touched. My wife knew the family well, having taught Steve’s three older brothers.

Ohio's Amish country, Holmes Co. OH
An hour after a tornado damaged this farm building, neighbors came to repair its roof.

Most likely, we each could create a long list of personal tragedies that have significantly impacted our lives. Mine would have to start even before I was born.

My great grandfather was killed in an auto accident involving a drunk driver. The crash critically injured my father and his only brother a block from their home. My uncle’s traumatic head injuries caused lifelong, family-wide ramifications.

My mother’s father was electrocuted six months before I was born. I am sure you have a comparable list of interpersonal human misfortune.

We learn life lessons from tragedies. One is when disaster strikes, people respond. That’s the way community works. What affects one family affects us all to varying degrees.

My wife and I experienced and witnessed positive responses many times over our four decades of living in Holmes County, Ohio. When bad things happen to good people, others want to help. So they do. They bring food, share tears, hugs, and sit quietly with the victims’ family.

Some tragedies happen suddenly, like the Beachy shootings, a traffic crash or a house fire. Others happen gradually and last over an extended time. Likely, we have all known someone diagnosed with a terminal illness.

In either situation, shock, denial, anger, fear, and blame all surface in the face of loss. Often those emotions occur at different times for different family members. Heartache knows no boundaries. To be there is what really matters to the hurting individuals.

Ohio's Amish country, Holmes Co. OH
Barn fire.

As an EMT, I once responded to a drowning call at an Amish farm. The toddler was dead by the time we arrived in the country setting. Still, all the first responders wanted to do something. We comforted the grieving family as best we could.

With the corner’s approval, I carried the youngster’s body to the ambulance where family, friends, and neighbors filed through saying their goodbyes. It was the Amish way, and the officials in charge wanted to respect that.

Regardless of the type of tragedy, whether sudden or lengthy, no one is immune. As human beings, we can choose to offer whatever we can or to ignore the situation.

Those who chose the former realize that in giving there is receiving. In caring, appreciation is returned. In listening, genuine sharing occurs. With your presence, acceptance and understanding slowly unfold.

Human beings have a responsibility to one another, to be kind, to be generous, to be available, to help, to be respectful. There is no better time to express those gifts than when tragedy strikes.

It’s not merely the way a community responds. It is the way a caring community thrives.

Ohio's Amish county, Holmes Co. OH
This Amish barn raising occurred less than a month after the farmer’s barn burned.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019

Reflections on life and death

braided stream
Capon Run.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I have a lot of time to think as I drive between our Ohio home and Harrisonburg, Virginia where our daughter and her family live. This trip was no different.

Thanks to superhighways, the folded, old age mountain ridges and their accompanying deep gorges and valleys flipped by like shuffled decks of cards. The leaves of their mixed hardwoods already blushed tinges of autumn’s arrival.

I thought about the lone, purple cottonwood leaf our six-year-old granddaughter plucked from a quiet mountain brook just a couple of days previous. She and I had spent an hour or more exploring, talking, questioning, and enjoying each other’s company in the shallow of a peaceful braided stream.

girl in stream
Pointing the way.
I found Maren’s inquisitiveness as inspiring as our rural, mystical surroundings. Our interactive discussion included but was not limited to geology, theology, erosion, evolution, earthquakes, gravity, rock formations, and bird migration.

I don’t know who was more perplexed, me with Maren’s significant, thoughtful questions or Maren with my confounding answers. Trooper that she is, Maren didn’t seem deterred. In fact, one response only led to another question, and another and another.

I had the time of my life, sitting on these ancient limestone outcroppings, their striations complementing their angular positioning. Maren graciously accepted my academic explanation of how they came to be standing on edge after having once been the bottom of oceans eons ago.

She’d continue her inquiry while simultaneously balancing along the exposed rock layers like a ballerina on a precipice. Patches of the early evening sky filtered through the broken canopy of the maples, oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods that lined the rocky banks of Capon Run. Despite the string of scorching days, the stream’s clear, quiet waters were cold.

We watched water striders break the stillness of the mirrored surface as the spider-like insects foraged. Then came the leaf, a rich, royal burgundy that caught the quick girl’s eye.

Maren snatched it from its slow journey downstream, held it up, and asked what kind of leaf it was. I found its parent tree upstream and pointed it out to her. She nodded and released the leaf back to the placid water.

braided stream, West Virigina
Where we sat.
I remember remarking to Maren how different that lone leaf was in color compared to the thousands of green ones that still quaked on the massive branches in the afternoon’s warm breeze.

Maren liked that leaf, and so did I. I thought she’d keep it for its rarity. Instead, she let it go, enchanted with its slow twirling atop the crystal water, its impressive ability to avoid the creek bed’s rocks and sticks.

I thought about that leaf, those moments with Maren again as I joined a congregate of others to celebrate and mourn the death of my wife’s cousin. As loving words poured out for Pam, it hit me that she had a lot in common with that glorious leaf.

She, too, had lived a royal, purposeful life for her family, friends, and those whom she served as teacher, principal, and play director. For all who knew and loved her, Pam had fallen much too soon from the tree of life.

My wife and I are grateful for the creativity and joy our grandchildren bring to life. We are equally appreciative, like so many others, of Pam’s leadership and devotion to family, faith, and community.

Just like Maren’s mauve leaf, we had to let Pam go, too. Joyfully her journey ended more blissfully than that serene mountain stream setting.

potted flowers
For Pam.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Living core values is just good business

rural view, farmstead, Holmes Co. OH
A rural view.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My late friend, Perry Reese, Jr., knew a good thing when he saw it. Perry could read people like a newspaper. Best known as Coach, Perry scrutinized his surroundings similarly.

That fact was one of the main reasons the talented and demanding teacher and coach loved living here. It was not easy for a single, black, Catholic man to reside and work amid the world’s largest Amish and Mennonite population. But he did for several successful years until his untimely death in 2000.

Coach Reese
Perry Reese, Jr.
Perry thrived here as a winning coach and as an asset to the entire area. Why? He embraced the same core values as those revered by local folks. Work ethic, faith, community, and family together formed his life foundation.

Paramount to making Perry’s basketball team, players had to demonstrate a strong work ethic. The same characteristic holds for area businesses, too. Honing that esteemed value keeps the local economy healthy and stable, better than state and national averages.

Perry was a very private person, including practicing his faith. But there was no question as to where Perry stood, and he impressed that on his players.

St. Genevieve parish, Holmes Co. OH
St. Genevieve Cemetery and Parish.
It’s fair to say that local businesses attempt to model that approach with their products, services, employees and customers. The goal: actions match beliefs.

Perry loved the community, and for the most part, the community charitably returned the affection. He knew the importance of positive interactions and interpersonal relationships.

It takes determined effort to work together for the common good in a close-knit community. Though not perfect, this area shines in this regard.

Individuals, groups, clubs, churches and foundations regularly join forces with businesses to assist in time of need. Share-A-Christmas and the new county fairgrounds are two examples that come to mind. Add in the multitude of benefit auctions for individuals and service organizations, the commitment to community speaks for itself.

Despite his singleness, Perry placed enormous significance on the importance of family. In fact, he considered his players his family, and many considered him a father figure.

The fact that so many local businesses are family-owned and operated mirrors that concept. Family is everything here. Any and every good excuse is used to gather the family together any time of year.

Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, even solemn holy days like Old Christmas and Ascension Day, families assemble to share and commune. That’s not to say some good old-fashioned ribbing and recreation won’t also ensue.

family, friends, gathering
Gathering of family and friends.
In that same vein, businesses also reward their employees with family days like picnics, destination trips for the entire family, and financial bonuses. After all, a son or daughter might just be part of the next generation of employees.

All that said, it doesn’t mean that businesses and owners set themselves on a higher plane than elsewhere. Nor does it mean mistakes don’t happen. They do. But incorporating these four essential core values creates productive consistency in both corporate and individual lives.

Another admirable quality, humility, ties these four values together for individuals and businesses alike. Perry Reese, Jr. successfully used that important attribute to bind his teams together as one, just as businesses strive to keep their faithful employees.

These four fundamental principles have been time-honored traditions in Holmes Co., Ohio. In truth, they are revered universal values that transcend any and all geographical, social, political, gender, religious or cultural boundaries.

Friend to many, Perry Reese, Jr. was a gem of a guy, who humbly modeled the community’s core values. To do so was simply smart business.

Amish church gathering, Amish buggies
Church gathering.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

A commitment to community

fullyinvolvedbybrucestambaugh
Fire fully involved the barn in minutes.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The middle-aged man sat in the van watching what he really wanted to do. His physically weak condition didn’t allow him to help rebuild the barn that had burned a month earlier.

I knew this man, and knew his heart was with these good people, people from across the community who came together to help resurrect the barn. My friend’s presence moved me as much as the corporate act of mutual aid that we witnessed.

Though he couldn’t help, my friend wanted to be there for support, for community, to keep the connection with his people. His presence was his help. Everyone knew about the fire that had destroyed the old bank barn. There was nothing firefighters could do that night other than to protect the adjacent buildings, which they did successfully.

Only three days before the barn raising, the clarion call went out, one phone message to another, for help. The result was a swarm of activity that began at sunrise and lasted until the job was nearly completed. This was not only how the community worked. It was the community.

barnraisingbybrucestambaugh
Three hours after the work had begun the barn was fully framed.

My friend knew this. He viewed his vicarious participation as imperative.

He didn’t need to tell me this of course. In our decades of living here in this place, we knew the unwritten, modest code of conduct. When your neighbors need help, help them.

It is the way this community operates, has operated, will operate. It is who we are and how we survive. Without one another, we are nothing. No man is an island indeed.

Old Order and New Order Amish worked side-by-side, hammer by hammer, board by board, with one another. Conservative Mennonites, Mennonites, and probably a few Baptists and Presbyterians were in the mix, too. All hands were on deck, no membership cards needed.

One man served as the coordinator for constructing the structure back into a barn. One body, estimated at about 300 men, women and children, made it happen. The process was beautiful to behold, a community in action.

With the foundation and floor previously completed, the framing of the barn began before sunup. By 8 a.m., the trusses were already being set. No orders needed to be barked. Spontaneous crews simply flowed in precision without cue, and the building arose. It was mind-boggling, astounding and inspiring.

Bearded men, clean-shaven men and teenage boys, proving themselves worthy, massed over the 50 by 60 foot frame. Seated on church benches, youngsters and women, their bonnets bleached whiter by the day’s brightness, watched and waited their turn.

By noon, the siding and roof were nearly completed. Hearty meals of homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and plenty of side dishes and luscious desserts refueled the crews for the afternoon.

Even the weather cooperated for stepping casually across the peek of the roof. Clear blue sky, no wind to sway the balance, no humidity to dehydrate efficient work all made for perfect construction conditions.

In practicality, such a coordinated effort helped cut the cost of rebuilding for the owner. In a broader sense, such a coordinated effort reaffirmed that in a cooperative community no tragedy is too great to overcome.

Though he couldn’t help lift a board, my friend participated in this most sacred and iconic act. To the passersby who stopped to take photographs, it was a special treat to behold.

For those who knew what really transpired, like my friend, it was much more than a delight. It was communion.

newbarnbybrucestambaugh
By evening work on the main barn had been completed.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

A fire in the neighborhood

barnfirebybrucestambaugh
This was the first picture that I took of the barn fire shortly before 10:30 p.m. on August 12, 2013

By Bruce Stambaugh

We had just turned out the lights for the night in anticipation of a really good night’s sleep when we heard the sirens. With the windows open on this warm and wonderful August evening, the sirens grew louder as they quickly approached.

I headed to the dining room to look north out the windows. Above the stand of giant field corn an eerie dancing orange glow lit up the night sky. We had a big fire somewhere in the neighborhood.

I got dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed my cameras and headed to the garage. In the meantime, my wife had ventured out into the front yard. She reported back that it was either our friend’s excavating business or the neighbor’s barn that was burning.

Once the parade of responding fire vehicles passed by, I pulled my car onto the road and quickly saw that indeed it was our neighbor’s barn. It was fully involved in flames. Only the sheet metal roof remained, held up by the century old timber frame, dark against the constantly changing fiery kaleidoscope that was quickly consuming its host.

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With the barn that far gone, the firefighters executed their only logical option. They concentrated their hoses on protecting the other exposures situated around the old bank barn. Soon long streams of water played back and forth dousing the rooftops, cooling them from the ferocious temperatures generated by the destructive flames.

My first instinct was to see what I could do to help directly at the scene. Knowing I’d only be in the way, I instead pulled into my excavator friend’s parking lot, focused my cameras and started snapping.

I wasn’t alone. Scores of others joined me. Tractors, vans, cars, pickups and bicycles filled the parking lot. Most spectators, like me, were lined along the wire fence that separated a farm field from the parking lot a football field from the blaze.

I photographed the various stages of the fire. Just 11 minutes after I had taken the first picture, the roof succumbed to the inferno. Embers of burning debris cascaded high into the dark sky, carried aloft by a steady south wind.

With the barn completely collapsed, I walked down the road to console the owners and to talk with firefighters that I knew. I was amazed at both their numbers and their efficiency.

Normally, rural areas are hurting for volunteer firefighters. This night, so many men and women in turn out gear or auxiliary smocks had responded to the alarm that they had to take turns spraying water or offering food and drink. The response for this emergency was tremendous. It was an impressive display of community service.

In addition, a gallery of onlookers congregated close to the old farmhouse. Most were family, friends and neighbors who had come to see if they could help in any way. Many had arrived before the first fire engine.

burninghaybybrucestambaugh
In less than an hour, the bank barn was reduced to burning hay inside of charred basement walls.

I took a few more photographs and spoke with the owners. Everyone was fine. No animals had been harmed, and most of the equipment had been removed from the barn just that day. The only losses were the barn, its storehouse of hay, and personal cultivated memories. Amish church insurance would compensate for the material losses of the accidental fire. The origin of the fire was either from wet hay or sparks from an unattended burn pile several feet west of the barn.

I was sad for my neighbors, but heartened by the many people who came to help. A crisis can test the mettle of a community. This August night, its people showed their stuff.

smolderingruinsbybrucestambaugh
The clean up began the next day amid the ruins of the smoldering barn.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Robbers can’t steal the most valuable treasures

amishcountrybybrucestambaugh
I drove by this Amish produce farm on the way to and from the pharmacy.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I happened into the local pharmacy mid-morning to purchase a few items I needed. It turned out to be much more than a routine shopping trip into town.

The clerk at the checkout counter was a former student in one of the buildings where I had been principal. Normally, upbeat and cheery, I mentioned that she seemed a bit down about something. The young woman replied that the store had been robbed of drugs the previous evening, and that she was still a little jittery from the experience.

I expressed my regrets and sadness to her. I told her that my own parents and my wife’s parents had each had been robbed. In the aftermath, they felt violated, insecure and wary. The young woman said she felt the same.

Just then another employee arrived and joined the conversation. She, too, had a school connection. She was an employee, and I had her son as a student.

feelingsafebybrucestambaugh
The scene reflects the lifestyle in Amish country. Though crimes do occur from time to time, the perpetrators are usually caught and convicted.

The women told me that law enforcement officials had arrived quickly, and through the help of witnesses and their police dog, the alleged perpetrator had been caught.

Still, I could see the fear in their eyes and hear the quiver in their voices. At that point, another customer arrived at the checkout counter. Yes, she, too, was another former student.

Grandma and grandson.
Grandma and grandson.
I recognized her and her freckles, but had to ask her name. I told Heidi she hadn’t changed, and she said I hadn’t either. I told her to get her glasses checked, and we all laughed.

Given the circumstances and the setting, it was fun just to share a bit of laughter. The kibitzing we did back and forth helped them forget the robbery.

We are fortunate to live in a community where criminal acts are the exception and not the rule. Like my friends at the drug store, we are all connected one way or another.

I think this familiarity with one another develops a certain resiliency with folks. My neighbor’s business was broken into. Another neighbor had a valuable deer stolen. Local banks have been robbed, and on and on it goes. Fortunately, these various incidences happened over a long period of time.

There are times when the thoughtless desperation of others interrupts our normal life. And yet, a new day dawns and we go on with our everyday business, trusting, hoping, and praying that all will go well.

newfriendsbybrucestambaugh
Smiles are generally the rule in any Holmes Co. business.

When you live in a community where many people know one another through friendship, work, church, school, neighbors or are related, you tend to feel safe. You also feel connected.

A friend of mine, long since gone, once hosted her grandchildren who lived in a metropolitan area in another state. When it got dark, one of the grandchildren asked if she was going to close the drapes since people passing along the busy highway could see in.

grandsonbybrucestambaugh
Grandson
Her reply to the simple question was a life lesson for her grandchild.

“We leave the curtains open,” the grandmother said, “so that people can see us. That way they will know we are all right.”

There are times when others will take advantage of us for such thinking. But if that happens, friends, neighbors, coworkers, relatives and former students will help us in our time of need.

Sometimes that help simply comes in the form of a little spontaneous laughter that helps keep us connected to one another. In the case of my friends at the pharmacy, the smiles and the laughs in the face of fear were treasures no robber could steal.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

The extraordinary benefits of a beneficial Saturday

sunrisebybrucestambaugh
Benefit Saturday began with a beautiful sunrise.

By Bruce Stambaugh

This was to be benefit Saturday for my wife and I. I simply couldn’t have projected just how beneficial it would end up being.

Before dawn a delightful aroma wafted across the landscape from the Amish farmstead behind our rural Millersburg, Ohio home. A congregation of people was barbequing chicken on portable grill wagons. A generator cast a harsh, artificial light upon the busy group, creating predawn silhouettes.

The benefit barbeque was for a couple that needed financial assistance due to extreme medical bills. She had cancer, twice. He had had surgery that kept him off of work for six months. To help out, we ordered six quarters of chicken to be picked up after 11 a.m.

mongolianhutbybrucestambaugh
A Mongolian hut is called a ger. (Photo by Kim Kellogg)
That was but one of three different fundraisers in which we participated that day. The first began at 7 a.m. with sausage, ham and pancakes. My wife ate the meat. I ate the pancakes. The breakfast was held to raise money for a mission project in Mongolia. An authentic, completely furnished Mongolian ger, a felt lined hut, had been erected in the church fellowship hall for all to inspect.

As tasty as the food was, the fellowship that buzzed around our table was even better. We reminisced with old friends about how our lives had intersected during the ups and downs of life. Breakfast doesn’t usually come with dessert, but that’s what this conversation ended up being.

Though the chicken cooking was literally in our back yard, we had to pick up our order at a residence a mile up the road. For lunch, Neva and I each downed a quarter of the flavorful hinkel, as the Amish refer to it. We enjoyed the chicken so much I returned to buy more, only to be told that they only had enough to fill the presale orders.

barbequingchickenbybrucestambaugh
Our Amish neighbors hosted the grilling of the barbequed chicken.

I drove back my neighbors’ long graveled lane to where the chicken was being grilled. I got the same answer there, but discovered the full measure of devotion of this gracious act of charity.

More than 80 friends, family and extended family members gathered to do the chicken. A total of four tons or nearly 8,500 quarters of chicken had been barbequed to sell on behalf of this family in need. The charcoal was lit at 5 a.m. The grilling began at 6 a.m. and finished up at 2 p.m. It was an all day deal.

From the looks on the workers faces, they were both elated at the success of their selfless efforts and fatigued from their long hours of hanging around the smoky grill pits. A total of 36 Amish churches helped sell the chicken, and they indeed sold it all. They may have barbequed lots of chicken, but in the process they also cooked up a liberal batch of compassion.

honeytownbybrucestambaugh
The band, Honeytown, performed at a local coffee shop to help raise money for our church youth group.

In the evening, Neva and I headed into town for a concert by a renowned, local quartet. Honeytown sang and played as a fundraiser for our church youth group. The kids were raising funds to attend a church wide conference in Arizona this summer. Only Mennonites would hold a gathering in the desert in July.

Each of these three benefits had a specific purpose, and each achieved success. Love comes in many shapes, sizes, and means, pancakes, barbequed chicken, and inspirational song among them. Though independent of one another, a common purpose and generous acts of human kindness bound the benefits as one.

We had been thrice blessed. Beneath an umbrella of golden sun and cloudless coral sky, this benefit Saturday had truly been extraordinary.

© Bruce Stambaugh