Saturday, December 31, 2011

Community Spotlight: Chiara’s Quiet Grace Gazebo, ‘Where trouble melts like lemon drops’

By Matt Marn

Published by the Rockford Squire, December 29, 2011

What began in tragedy for a Rockford family soon grew into a life-affirming memorial. Now the city can remember young Chiara Howard’s selfless nature and warm smile for generations to come.

Chiara’s Quiet Grace Gazebo was built to honor the life and memory of Chiara, who drowned in Lake Michigan in July 2008. The gazebo, which sits on the campus of Roguewood Elementary School, was dedicated with a ceremony held last month.

“It’s not time to be licking wounds, but time to celebrate her life, and be inspired,” said Carrie Wysong, Chiara’s mother.

The gazebo has eight windows, each representing one of Chiara’s strongest virtues: humbleness, sincerity, joyful, compassionate, considerate, loving, creativity and kindness.

Wayne Visbeen of Visbeen Associates came up with this preliminary sketch of the gazebo after sitting down and talking with Chiara’s mother Carrie.

Wysong said the landscape around the gazebo was planned by a professor and a student at Calvin College. She said all plants and flowers in the surrounding area are native to Michigan, and there will also be a garden for butterflies—a sign of new life.

“Classes in Roguewood and other schools can learn about plants and wildlife, and all of it is specifically designed towards Chiara and her love of learning,” Wysong said. “I feel what really matters in life are the simple things. The gazebo has no bells and whistles, no neon lights. It’s just simple. That’s Chiara.”

Wayne Visbeen of Visbeen Associates was the designer and architect of the gazebo. Visbeen said, while he didn’t know Chiara, Wysong came to him and told him the story of her daughter’s passing.

“She knew we create a lot of things based on people’s emotions,” Visbeen said. “We just started sketching and drawing. There were a lot of ideas with windows and stained glass that really harkened back to her daughter. I sat down with her and came up with some original sketches, and created the vision that everybody could draw onto.”

Wysong said as people enjoy this gazebo, she hopes they are encouraged to remember and be thankful for who and what they have.

“I hope more people can come here and meet. When I see kids in the gazebo, playing or reading to each other… words cannot express the relief and gratitude I felt,” said Wysong. “Chiara’s third out of four kids. Right from birth, she loved to smile and smile back. She gave tight hugs, and her smile brightened the room. Right then, we knew she was special.”

Wysong said Chiara spent five years going through school with the same classmates, and she always was thinking of others.

“Whether it was flowers or a picture she drew or baking cookies to take to a friend’s house, it was rare for Chiara not to feel moved to help,” she said. “When you lose someone, you realize how much of an impact they had on your life. How kind, loving, caring they were. Chiara was that comforting, selfless child.”

Wysong said, soon after the tragedy, friends and family members surrounded the family. In the days that followed, there was a lot of talk about Chiara’s purity and grace, and how quiet she was in her kindness.

“That’s how we came up with the phrase, ‘Chiara’s Quiet Grace,’” she said.

The road to the finished gazebo was not an easy one. Wysong ran into roadblocks coming up with the funding required by the deadline.

“We had a benefit in the first year,” she said. “I thought that would take care of it, but we didn’t even come close. It took close to two years to get full approval from the school board. Then the people in the community and the church, and local businesses stepped forward. People had read stories in the papers about Chiara, and they helped out.”

At one point, Wysong said it was looking as if they would have money enough for a scholarship, but not for completion of the gazebo.

“To be honest, I find the gazebo being built much more comforting,” she said. “Every piece of it is tailor-made to her and her artwork and spirit.”

Mike Cuneo, assistant superintendent of finance for Rockford Public Schools, said Wysong did a wonderful job planning the project.

“I never met Chiara, but my kids went through Roguewood,” Cuneo said. “I know the family, and Carrie. The passion she had for the project showed in the results. Any time you can achieve a goal like that, it’s really fulfilling. It was a big group, but she spearheaded it and saw it through. We are all very appreciative of the gift given to the school.”

Now completed, Wysong says the gazebo is meant to be a happy memorial.

“We have a grave site for Chiara, but this gazebo is about life, a celebration,” she said. “Life is for the living. Be in the moment, enjoy who and what you have. Focus on the present and the future, not the past.”

As Chiara was very active in sports and other activities, Wysong also said she is planning to start Chiara’s Quiet Grace Foundation, a fund to help students participate in activities they may not otherwise.

“The foundation will be to give kids an opportunity to participate in sports, or art or music,” she said. “This will let them be on the basketball team, or to get that guitar. This will help kids find their place, their joy; to be who they can be.”

The quote atop the gazebo reads, “Where trouble melts like lemon drops,” a line from the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as performed by Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. Wysong said the family got his CD when they were in Hawaii together, and after Chiara’s passing, they found the song once more.

“It has gotten us through,” she said. “It’s her song.”

Now, Wysong said she has made it her mission not only to educate others on water safety, but to honor Chiara’s warmth and kindness.

“She’s very passionate,” said Cuneo of Wysong. “It’s very important with something like this; you need a champion to continue on. She’ll really work hard to keep the memory alive.”

Wysong realizes that in time, Chiara may not be remembered as quickly. But the most important thing, she said, was the message Chiara still can teach us all.

“People don’t know how another person’s day is,” Wysong said. “Maybe they had a bad day… It can do so much to just smile. You have to look at the good, the positive. Cherish what you have.”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jamming, learning, teaching – the music never stops for Glendale’s Tom Mein

By Matt Marn

Also posted on

Not a day that goes by when Glendale guitarist Tom Mein doesn’t work the strings. He would go crazy without it. In 34 years, the longest he has ever gone without playing was four days… his first honeymoon.

As far back as Mein can remember he has been attracted to the guitar. But what really did it for him was listening to Jimi Hendrix work his magic.

“I was a teen, and he was like the first guitar hero,” Mein said. “I used to draw pictures in my notebooks about guitars. I bugged my parents for one, and they got me a classical guitar. When I was 16, I saved up and bought my own electric.”

He took a few lessons, but had no formal music education growing up.

“I didn’t want to ‘learn,’ just wanted to play,” Mein said. “Most of what I learned was in the west suburbs of Detroit. A lot of my friends learned and had guitars, too. We didn’t have a guitar class in high school, so we all just jammed and learned from each other. That’s how I learned, that and by reading.”

Music was not Mein’s profession at first, but he moved out west to start fresh. His goal was to become a studio guitar player. He didn’t know where he was going to wind up, but Phoenix was close to Los
Angeles, so he stopped here. He got a job in printing, and played gigs with local bands on weekends.

“I worked night jobs to earn money, and squeezed bands in when I could,” he said. “I hated it. That’s when I decided, ‘I’m going to do what I want to do.’ I decided to earn money doing music… and I fell in love with it.”

Since then he has performed in countless bands, including rockabilly group ’56, as well as the Next Band, which leads open mike night, “Tuesday Bluesday," where musicians of all styles are welcome to bring their instruments and share the stage in an evening jam session.

“We just go with it,” Mein said of sharing the stage. “That’s how I grew up. I have a good ear because of that. I hear a song, and I play it. For me, the most fun thing is playing with others and improvising. That’s why Next is a blast, especially with good players. I live for that stuff.”

As if his schedule was not quite full enough, he also began teaching guitar students from out of his own home. He currently instructs over 20 students.

“I love teaching kids, seeing them learn and grow,” Mein said. “The more I got into it, the more I became absorbed by it. I have been teaching since 1993, it will be 19 years this year. It’s different than school teaching – I don’t see my students for just one year, and then they graduate and move on to the next thing. They come to my house; they are like a part of the family. And sometimes, you have moments where they get it, when you see the light bulb go off in their heads. That’s what it’s all about.”

Mein recalled one of his past students, Tyler Barkley, who was auditioning for a student jazz program, Young Sounds of Arizona. A difficult program to be accepted into, it all but guarantees a college scholarship, Mein said. He helped Barkley practice his pieces, and Barkley was accepted into the program.

“Just being able to help him was huge for me,” Mein said. “I might have been more thrilled than him – I was telling all my friends. He did the work, but it was just nice being a part of that.

Mein is currently attending classes at Glendale Community College, working toward a degree in music education, with which he hopes to teach guitar in the classroom. He is taking a variety of classes, including a Jazz Combo class, complete with recitals.

“Sometimes, I still get butterflies,” he said. “I play 200 gigs a year plus, but in the recital for my class at GCC, I get more butterflies than any other gig. We played three songs, played them out as a small group. We played well, but I was more nervous than any other time.

With his full schedule of gigs, students and classes, he keeps in mind why he takes these extra classes: the extra students he can reach, as well as the consistency of a school teaching role.

“I’ve always got ten things going at once,” he said. “It keeps me busy. I have to, because the last three years have been steady, but you have no gigs for a month and you don’t eat. I’ve been working out of my house for years; it would be nice to have security. Every steady gig, no matter how steady it is, every gig comes to an end.”

As well as the list of gigs on his schedule, Mein also sees the genre of jazz as a changing field.

“Jazz used to be what rock is now, they didn’t teach it in schools,” he said. “You had to get a classical music education, and then apply it to jazz. These jazz musicians, they learned and created as they went along. Now there are very few jazz artists who did not take classes on it in school. There used to be only a few schools, now it is widely academic.”

Mein said it is important to have a formal education in music, but also to have real-world experience.

“It depends on what you do, what music you want to play, as for which is more important,” he said. “Most musicians are schooled. I’m not, but I’m going back. I can see a different side of the issue. Obviously there’s a lot of value in formal learning, too, or I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Formally educated or self-taught, the one certainty with Mein is he does what he loves for a living.

And he’ll keep doing it as long as he can.

“It’s kind of weird, I was backed into this life,” he said. “I’m not really a religious person, but fate forced me into it. My printing business went down the tubes. I did more and more gigs, and was exhausted and could barely make it, but I was happy. It felt great. And the whole teaching thing, I love that, too. And if I can get a day teaching job, that’s great. Les Paul played gigs until the week he died at 94. That’ll be me, and I’ll be a happy man.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Community Spotlight: Rockford runner set to pound the pavement straight to MSU to raise awareness for U.S. troops

By Matt Marn, published in the Rockford Squire

Rockford resident Tim Klaes has a vast running background, including many Relay for Life teams in Rockford and the local Early Bird Running Club. Not to mention, he has run eight marathons in the past, including more than one stint in the Boston Marathon. But the run he will undertake Saturday, October 15 will be the longest distance he has tackled in his life.

Klaes is running from Forest Hills Foods in Cascade all the way to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, a distance of around 100 Kilometers, or 62 miles. For those who are keeping track, that’s over two full marathon lengths. Straight.

Klaes plans to make this run to East Lansing with a friend with whom he has ran and trained in the past. His friend is running for another cause, but when Klaes made the decision to run this vast distance, he knew he wanted to do it for more than just his health. He wanted to run for a cause that held a special place in his heart.

“As soon as I looked into the Wounded Warrior Project, I knew that’s what I wanted to support,” Klaes said. “Wounded Warriors gives opportunities for soldiers to stay active.”

From running and athletics to hunting and more, Klaes said the Wounded Warrior Project helps injured service members continue to do what makes them happy and be successful, including business mentoring.

“They want to provide these veterans with as many opportunities as possible,” he said. “I see that as a great cause, if I can use my talents to raise money and awareness to help, that’s great. I can run, and I can use that to help. It makes absolute sense.”

The Wounded Warriors Project states on their website that their mission is to honor and empower wounded warriors, and their vision is to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded warriors in this nation’s history. To Klaes, that is a purpose well worth running for.

“People come home, they have left a lot there, for us,” he said. “They gave their leg or their arm… We owe it to them to make them as whole as we can, whatever that means.”

Klaes said regardless of politics or how you feel about the war, it comes down to appreciating what our military forces and personnel are doing.

“People deploy, the family watches and walks away… How do you do that? I have a family and I can’t imagine that,” he said.

That family of Klaes’ is very proud of him and how hard he is working for something he cares about.

“I am so proud of Tim,” said Klaes’ wife, Kim. “As a family we really care a lot about this cause. Bottom line, he lives in a time of war where the draft never called him to step up, as his father and grandfathers, and yours and mine were, but he truly respects what he can do on a Saturday, because of our U.S. troops.”

Kim said her husband knows of no better way to honor those in the armed forces then to run a distance most people would never attempt in their life.

“This run is putting a toll on his body to help carry those that daily put a toll on their own for our freedom, leaving their kids and spouses for us,” Kim said. “That is freedom. That is giving back.”

Klaes said yes, there are times when the fatigue and mental stress grow overwhelming, but he said there is no way he is stopping yet.

“You’ve got it in your head, ‘I’m not stopping. I’m going to finish this,’” he said. “There are days you don’t want to go out and do it, but you always feel better when you do it. It can apply to a lot of situations in life. The battle is greatly mental. Your body is going to hurt no matter what, just finish what you started. People are a lot more capable of finishing what they set out to do than they expect.”