Remembering Leo and Giving Thanks

leoI have always loved the Thanksgiving holiday. In fact of all the holidays, it’s my favorite. For me, Thanksgiving has been a time for family, food, and football. Sometimes we would play American  touch-football but more often than not my family played the other “football.” A game played with a round ball and two goals. Any number of players would do. No weather or excuse could stop the annual Thanksgiving “football” match. At Christmas, the same rules applied for the “Santa Cup.”

As I have gotten older, Thanksgiving now consists of a drive out to Eureka, Missouri, to Kevin and Kimberly’s horse ranch for a fantastic turkey dinner prepared by multiple family members including my sisters, nieces, nephews and  brother-in-law. Everybody brings something and it comes together successfully with more food than anyone can eat or take home in their pockets. There is still time for football. But these days, I watch more than I play; I hope for a good NFL game on television.

This coming Thanksgiving and Christmas to follow will be different this year. Members of the Dunn’s, Robinson’s, Politte’s and the Shasserre’s will celebrate the family holidays without our friend, my brother-in-law, Leo Politte, Jr.

Leo died September 17, 2013. He and his wife Mary have a home in Frontenac, Missouri and a second home in Blue Hill, Maine. The past several years they would spend equal time in both. Though I’m pretty sure Leo enjoyed Maine the best.

He was born in Washington, MO. on November 2, 1940 to Margaret and Leo Sr. So his death comes just short of his seventy-third birthday. Leo loved Thanksgiving too–all of the family gatherings, good food (lots of it) and a glass or two of wine or his favorite bottled beer.

Leo was not a football fan. Nor was he a fan of most any sport played by professionals and watched on television. In fact, his interest in sports watched on television was near “zero.” And his tolerance level for those of us who watched sports on television was less than zero. But, I loved him anyway.

Instead, Leo was all about “doing” not watching. He believed in playing the game just for the fun of it. He only kept score because everyone else did. He loved volleyball, especially beach volleyball. He loved hiking, camping, canoeing and sailing. Just about anything that could be done in a river, lake or ocean Leo had done it or was planning to do it. And if you wanted to head to the mountains or even a small hill somewhere near or far Leo would be the first to say “yes, when do we leave?”

Leo may have been the most generous person that I have ever met. That’s why remembering him fondly in the month that he was born and in the month of the Thanksgiving holiday is so appropriate.

In bible parables, Jesus talks often about the importance of being a good neighbor. Leo was a good neighbor. If you needed help of any kind he was the first to volunteer. The gift of one’s personal time and attention is the greatest gift of all. It was a gift that Leo gave freely and frequently.

Shortly after Leo and I first met, he helped me to find a summer job at State Hospital. I was a Psychology major at Southeast Missouri State College. I needed a job and without asking for help Leo went out and found it for me. He repaired my cars and those of all family and friends at his backyard “shady tree” garage. He helped me move from house to house on many occasion. He was constantly giving me other things, like a canoe for our lake house or a bench table because he thought it would look good facing the lake and the fire pit. His generosity, and Mary’s as well, continued until his death. More about that later in this letter.

Leo was a “neat guy,” as his nephew, David Politte put it in an email message sent to Mary and her three sons, Mark, PJ, and Luke, the day Leo died. The email message read as follows: “Kim and I express our condolences on Leo’s passing. I know that’s what folks customarily say and I’ve said it many times, but when I thought more about it I realized I’m not really sure what ‘condolences’ means. So, I looked it up. According to Webster, ‘condolences’ is an expression of sympathy with another in sorrow or grief.

So, does that word really fit? Certainly, it is sad that Leo will no longer be with us here on earth. But, maybe it is more fitting to give congratulations and to be happy because Mary-you were married to, and you guys were raised by-such a neat guy. You all are very lucky. With three boys of our own, I have always admired the way he (and you too, Mary) raised your three boys.

I have tried to look up to him for inspiration. From my perspective, he always seemed to have the right combination of discipline, leader, counselor, friend, and comedian which caused his boys to grow up in his image and become the good people they are today.

Perhaps, saying we will ‘celebrate’ his life on the 28th (the day of his funeral mass at All Saints) also sounds like a cliché’ but to me it really is more fitting than the cliché of expressing ‘condolences’. Kim and the boys and I look forward to seeing you then.”

I was honored that day, being asked to give the eulogy. From the pulpit I commented to David, who was in the church, that his email message was exactly right. Because Leo’s way of life, his way of doing is to be remembered. His values are to be honored. His love of being with friends and giving back to others is what giving thanks is all about. His grateful nature and loving smile we will all remember.

Leo planned his funeral mass details. He wanted all in attendance to celebrate his life and to comfort his wife. He wanted all to gather as family and friends to share our stories. To smile, to laugh, embrace with gusto just as Leo laughed, smiled and embraced.

I knew Leo for 47 years. My memory of him and the recall of stories are many. But, there is one story that I must tell just because to me it is a priceless memory. Leo Politte had a reputation for traveling the back roads. In fact, often times he would leave the main highway to explore a road less traveled.    

This particular story begins almost twenty years ago when Leo’s oldest son, Mark and Samantha were married. Their wedding was in a small town in the State of Connecticut. Following the wedding Sandy and I joined Mary and Leo for a road trip up to Montreal and Quebec, Canada. Our plan was to drive to Boston, then head up the coast to Rockport MA. Then, we drove up to Merrimack NH to visit an old friend.

The next day we headed off to Quebec via New Hampshire with a path set to cross Maine. We were supposed to be traveling north, then northwest but never south or southeast.

If you have ever traveled by car with Leo you know he had a tendency to get side tracked occasionally or should I say, frequently. Along the way we stopped every two hours or less. We stopped for garage sales, flea markets, interesting road signs, and historical markers. We stopped for breakfast, for lunch; and of course, we had many stops for Mother Nature. We stopped, I kid you not, for every information center in every city along the route.

At some point along the trip Leo decided to get off the highways to drive through small towns. Then, it happened. Leo came across a road he couldn’t resist. The sign read– Logger road (a place where only loggers were supposed to go).

We headed up the logger dirt road surrounded only by trees. In the middle of nowhere Maine we see a marker… Appalachia Trial.

So, what do you do if you are Leo Politte? Or, any Politte for that matter. You get out of the car and you hike the Appalachia Trail. One hour up the mountain trail and MARY says, LEO, it’s time to turn around. One hour we hike back. By the time we load the car and continue our journey the day is turning to dusk. We have nowhere to stay.

We ended our day in Moose River, Maine. Look it up! It’s in the middle of NOWHERE, MAINE. There was one place in Moose River for lodging and one restaurant to buy a meal. Fortunately, we ended the day with a good meal and a clean bed. Leo was lucky that way.

This past January Leo was given the news. His doctor told him that the cancer had spread. He had weeks to live. Weeks, not months……Leo responded to that news by living each day pretty much as he lived each day before the diagnosis. His daily routine was unchanged as long as he had the energy. He spoke with gratitude about his life. He spoke about his blessings, his good fortune. He spoke with pride about his three boys and the great women who had entered their lives. He was grateful for his grandchildren. And, he talked with affection about his life lived with his best friend and loving wife, Mary.

He faced death with a smile, a good sense of humor and a generous amount of time for anyone in his path. Leo’s entire life, it seems to me, has been spent in service to others. His work life before retirement was spent working for the State of Missouri with mentally challenged clients. In his retirement days, he enjoyed his volunteer activities serving the Saint Vincent DePaul Society, working at the Missouri Transportation Train Museum, and then, ironically, working in both Missouri and Maine as a volunteer for Hospice patients.

Leo’s last eight months were spent in a courageous battle against a formidable disease. In the end, cancer was the cause of death. But, cancer didn’t deter the spirit within. Cancer didn’t stop Leo’s generosity. And, it certainly didn’t stop that big smile and loving hug that he gave to each of us in greetings.

Every person who knew Leo Politte will have fond memories that will never pass. We will remember family visits to the farm in Washington MO., Sunday drives to Alton to see the Eagles fly, short trips to site-see or for a hike. We will remember longer trips driving from Washington DC down the east coast all the way to Amelia Island, one day traveling only 100 miles in seven hours, because of all the interesting stops that Leo just couldn’t resist.

We will remember the trip to the Bad Lands in South Dakota, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming, the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Glacier National Park in Montana. We will remember the Dunn family gathering in Blue Hill Maine, the cruise trip and snorkeling in the Cayman Islands and Kelly’s wedding day on Guemes Island. For all of the Politte’s, the Robinson’s, the Dunn’s and the Shasserre’s, we will always remember Perdido Key, Florida because it was there, that we all bonded as family. Again, through the invitation and generosity of Leo and Mary Politte.

The day before Leo’s funeral I came across this quote. “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Leo chose the latter. Leo A. Politte Jr. was a great person and a great friend. He was a great husband and a great dad. He set the bar high. He offered himself generously as a way of life not as though the act of giving was an intrusion, but rather an opportunity.

This Thanksgiving holiday, Sandy and I will honor the lessons from Leo’s life by making a donation to Well Spring Journey Project, a 501c3 nonprofit agency established in 2011 by Kelly Sontheimer and Pat Kerber. It was Kelly who came to Leo’s bedside every week to offer comfort-oriented massage therapy for both Leo and Mary. This tender care helped to reduce pain, anxiety, sleeplessness, nausea and fatigue. Mary and Leo looked forward to Kelly’s visit with great appreciation. Kelly offers this service to others facing a cancer diagnosis or other life threatening illnesses. Often times she offers this valued service for “free-no charge.”

If you would like to make a donation you can do so by sending a check to Wellspring Journey Project, in honor of Leo Politte, 3284 Taylor Avenue, Bridgeton, MO 63044. Or, you can go their website at

Final thought, another Einstein quote, “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” Rest in peace, Leo.