In March 2020, we received an email from our editors that we needed to stay out of the office for two days due to this thing called the coronavirus.
That was 21 months ago and we haven’t returned to the office. I have turned our formal dining room into my office that I share with our dog, Abe, his food and water bowls and tub of toys.
Despite the odd work environment, we have to cover the stories that our readers count on. For me, that means writing more about individuals than issues. I love writing about people, everyday day. They say everyone has a story and I enjoy being the one telling their stories.
So here are my “10 Most Intriguing People” of 2021, listed in alphabetical order:
Pete Ehrlich: ‘Total gratitude to God’
What a way for Pete Ehrlich to go out as a coach and a person.
Ehrlich, the head boys volleyball coach at Fenwick High School, led the Falcons to their second state championship.
“Total gratitude to God for blessing me with the energy and strength to make it through the whole season,” the fifth-year coach told me.
Before the season started, Ehrlich, 59, diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, two years ago, considered stepping away from the game. His ALS had progressed and Ehrlich wasn’t sure if he’d have the stamina.
But those closest to him — his wife and children and his Fenwick family — convinced him to return in hopes of winning the school’s second state Division II Ohio High School Boys Volleyball Association title and first since 2013.
So Fenwick dedicated the season to Ehrlich. The motto was #PlayForPete.
The Falcons disposed of Olentangy 25-22, 25-18, 25-16 to win state at Pickerington Central High School.
“Incredible support,” said Ehrlich, who also praised the work of his two assistant coaches, Tina Gustely and Dave Reed. “No matter what adversity you have, no matter how hard life is, God is still good.”
On Oct. 26, Ehrlich died.
Kelly Huntey: ‘This is light at the end of the tunnel’
Kelly Huntey, 54, an oncology nurse at Atrium Medical Center’s outpatient infusion treatment center, started getting breast exams 19 years go and there was no reason to believe the result of this mammogram would be alarming.
But the mammogram in late March showed a spot on her right breast. The Monroe resident has fibrocystic breast disease so she was used to having cysts and calcium deposits show up on her mammograms.
She immediately had a breast biopsy that confirmed she had ductal carcinoma in situ, meaning cancer cells were lining the milk ducts of her right breast, although they hadn’t spread into surrounding tissue.
Huntey’s breast surgical oncologist, Dr. Selyne Samuel, presented two clear options: have a lumpectomy and follow-up radiation therapy to prevent the cancer from coming back, or have a mastectomy to remove breast tissue in one or both breasts, with no follow-up radiation or chemotherapy.
She knew that due to her very dense breast tissue and grade of her cancer, a lumpectomy would mean twice-a-year monitoring of her remaining breast tissue, which she thought would heighten her own fears of a cancer recurrence.
She chose a double mastectomy in early June and the persistent fibrocystic pain has disappeared.
“It wasn’t a hard decision for me,” she said while sitting in the courtyard at Atrium Medical Center.
Five weeks after surgery, Huntey returned to the outpatient infusion treatment center where she has worked for five years. She thanked all her co-workers for their support during her diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
“Happy as a clam” is how she described her life. “You can come out the other end. There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Johnson brothers: ‘Gave me a new beginning’
Thirty years ago, Arthur Johnson, then 25, was suffering from renal failure and his brother, four years older, was serving in the U.S. Navy in California. He returned to Middletown on emergency leave and was tested to see if he was a possible kidney donor.
U.D. Johnson was more than potential.
He was perfect.
When his blood work came back, the doctors said the brothers could have been identical twins.
Johnson said his brother never hesitated to donate one of his kidneys.
“He gave up his career to take care of me,” Johnson said. “There never was a shadow of doubt what he’d do.”
The elder Johnson said doctors wanted him to wait two days to think about his decision.
“Let’s go,” he told the doctors. “Let’s get it done.”
He called donating a kidney to his brother “a no brainer.”
So on Nov. 20, 1991, the organ transplant took place at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati.
“It’s a blessing for me,” the younger Johnson said. “It allowed me to start my life over. Gave me a new beginning. I’m truly blessed to have a brother to care that much to do that.”
U.D. Johnson, 59, a 1980 Middletown High School graduate, left the Navy after 10 years. He was a captain at the Warren Correctional Institution for 27 years and has served as bailiff in Middletown Municipal Court for two years.
Arthur Johnson, 55, a 1984 Middletown High School graduate, has worked at Molson Coors in Trenton for 11 years.
Austin Osner: ‘Wanted the same expectations as someone with two arms’
Austin Osner is impressive on and off the mat.
The 16-year-old from Fairfield won a gold medal at the AAU Taekwondo National Championships at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas after winning a bronze medal at the Pan Am Paralympic Games in Mexico.
He hopes to make the U.S. National Paralympic team and compete against the world at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris or the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles.
Austin was born without a right arm due to amniotic band syndrome.
“You just expect 10 fingers, 10 toes,” said his mother, Kristin McGinn. “It was a little shocking, upsetting.”
Austin sounds older than his age. Maybe it’s the world travel, the upbringing or the mental preparation it takes to compete at an international level.
When he was in kindergarten, he realized he was made different than the other kids.
“You put the puzzles together and know you’re not quite the same,” he said. “I never knew why. Why was I different? But my family and friends supported me. I never wanted to be treated different. I wanted the same expectations as someone with two arms.”
Jamie Patterson: ‘I could never find my passion, my purpose’
After closely following the George Floyd case and the protests that followed, it was refreshing to talk to Jamie Patterson, a rookie Middletown police officer who entered law enforcement to serve her community.
“Policing gets such a bad rap,” said Patterson, 28. “I wanted to change someone’s opinion on policing. I’m a huge believer in the Lord. I asked, ‘What am I supposed to do? Why did You put me here on Earth?’ Everything since then has been a straight path. I just had to find it.”
After graduating from Middletown High School in 2010, Patterson studied criminal justice at Miami University, then dropped out. Then she took classes at Clark State and withdrew three credits shy of earning her kinesiology degree.
“I could never find my passion, my purpose,” she said.
Then on May 25, one of the darkest days in U.S. police history, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and three other officers responded to a call that Floyd, a 46-yearold Black man, had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
Cell phone video showed Chauvin pinning Floyd to the pavement with a knee for more than nine minutes. A Minneapolis jury, after deliberating for 10 hours over two days, found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison.
Patterson, like the rest of us, watched the disturbing cell phone video of the arrest that sparked protests around the country.
She knows there are risks associated with being a police officer. Especially now.
When she gets up, she prays. When she gets home, she prays.
“I don’t know who has a gun, who has things in their mind to ambush police,” she said. “I don’t know. Going home is a good day to me.”
Bob Schul: ‘I didn’t know if I’d live another day’
When Robert “Bob” Schul was born in 1937, he was diagnosed with asthma, a condition that worsened in the summer due to the pollen on his family’s farm in West Milton.
“I didn’t think I’d make it,” Schul said. “There were some bad times. I didn’t know if I’d live another day.”
That asthmatic little boy turned into a world-class athlete who became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in the 5,000 meters at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Schul, 83, has lived at Bickford of Middletown, an assisted living and memory care facility on Union Road, since last year. He moved to be closer to his brother, David, who lives in Middletown, while his older brother, Norman lives in South Carolina.
The facility hosted an Olympic party in honor of Shul, who won gold in the same city as this year’s Olympics. Schul talked about his childhood on the farm and his rise to Olympic glory.
“That’s really hard to do,” he said when asked to recall the 1964 Olympics. “A lot of that is gone for one reason or another.”
As he talked about his parents never missing one of his races, tears filled his eyes. He grabbed a paper towel out of his sweatpants and dabbed at the tears.
When the interview was over, Schul posed near the gazebo wearing the blue blazer he received for being a gold medalist. It fit the same as it did nearly six decades ago.
Porter Sowards: ‘We have to wait for answers’
It was a Friday night and Nick Graham, a Journal-News photographer, was supposed to shoot a high school football playoff game at Princeton High School.
We both stayed at an earlier assignment longer than expected.
“I’m glad I did,” Graham told me. “I can shoot football anytime.”
We would have missed a memorable evening.
We were introduced to Porter Sowards, 10, his parents, Zach and Amy Sowards, and Tim O’Sullivan, a Purple Heart recipient, and Joey Arielle, who volunteered their time to dress up as Star Wars characters and surprise Porter, who has brain cancer.
Three characters from Star Wars — C3PO, Chewbacca and R2D2 — performed a surprise visit with Porter and his sister, Lola, 8, students at Middletown Christian School.
For about 15 minutes, as Porter asked C3PO questions and hugged Chewbacca and R2D2, he was just a kid living out a fantasy as his LEGO characters came to life.
“For all he’s going through, this provides hope that everything is going to be OK,” his mother said while standing outside. “It’s just a blessing. I believe in God and I believe God is sending things like this to Porter to help with healing.”
Porter, a fifth-grader, was diagnosed with brain cancer on Sept. 17 after a CAT scan performed at Children’s Hospital Liberty Campus detected a tangerine size tumor. He was flown to Children’s Cincinnati for two surgeries for the aggressive cancer. He’s receiving chemotherapy.
His mother was asked what lessons she has learned: “To be patient. We have to wait for answers, wait for all the test results. That’s not easy as a parent.”
Duane Sparks: ‘He doesn’t know a stranger’
I had to be there when the Fairfield community thanked Duane Sparks, a client with Butler County Board of Developmental Disabilities, for his service at Skyline Chili on Hicks Boulevard.
I wasn’t alone. Longtime Skyline customers, co-workers, neighbors, Fairfield firefighters and the mayor showed up to celebrate Sparks’ retirement after 35 years as dishwasher, busboy, and greeter at the Butler County chili parlor.
Sherry Dillon, community services director for the Butler County Board of Developmental Disabilities, said in her 20 years with the organization she could only think of a few clients who worked as long as Sparks.
“A pretty amazing feat” is how Dillon described his work history at Skyline. “He has a great sense of humor. He doesn’t know a stranger. Everybody who comes in the door knows him.”
Skyline owners, Dennis and Robin Kurlas, hosted an open house for Sparks, 53, whom they hired when he was 18. They presented him with a 35-year pin.
Dennis Kurlas said Sparks was the ideal employee because he never missed a day of work unless it was to play in a softball tournament or vacation with his mother, Jean.
“Pure innocence,” Kurlas said when asked about Sparks. “He lived in the moment and we forget the importance of that sometimes.”
Lawrence ‘Slim’ Williams: ‘He believed in this community’
I wish I had the chance to meet Lawrence “Slim” Williams.
For three years, Christine Birhanzl and Williams took bologna sandwiches to the streets and fed the needy every Sunday in Hamilton. Those sandwiches opened doors for Birhanzl and Williams and allowed them to assist the homeless and addicts.
“He believed in this community,” Birhanzl said of Williams. “He believed in recovery. He believed in second chances.”
That’s because Williams was born and raised in Hamilton, became addicted to drugs and needed second chances. When he talked, he spoke from experience.
Then on July 9, 2018, while receiving his three-times-a-week dialysis treatments at Mercy Health-Fairfield Hospital, Williams died in the chair.
Williams, a father of nine, was 63.
Birhanzl continued the bologna sandwich mission she started with Williams. Then she expanded the outreach and named it Saving Lives in Ministry (SLIM). A four-foot park bench was dedicated this year at New Life Mission, 415 Henry St.