The Packers’ good luck charm

For three decades, Jane has been going to Packers games. She grew up in Kenosha and from the time she turned 16 she drove every year to a game. And every year – EVERY YEAR – the team won.

“Thirty years, 30 games, 30 wins,” she says.

Jane now lives in Florida with her husband, Lenny. They still come to Wisconsin every year for a Packers game. And they always stay at the Pfister Hotel. I met her during her most recent visit at the Pfister’s Lobby Bar.

“I have a long history of memories at the Pfister. I started coming here with my parents as a kid. We’d drive to Milwaukee for a show at The Rep and always stop here,” she says.

Jane grew up in a family with six children in a “castle house.” She was born after three brothers, but her love for football came from within herself – not from them. Jane comes from a long line of female fans, including her grandmother who told stories of sitting on her grandfather’s shoulders at the old City Stadium – the Packers’ home field from 1925 to 1956 – before there were seats for spectators.

She also realized early on that her outward passion for the game was not shared by all.

“I went to my first sleepover at Ellen Perry’s house in fourth grade. We watched a football game with her family – the Packers were playing the Bears – and whenever the Packer got a first down I would scream my head off, jump up and down. Ellen’s family just looked at me like I was nuts. Later I told my parents about this, and my mom said, ‘you know, Jane, not everyone reacts that way to football.’ I was floored,” says Jane.

Jane has had the same license plate “PCKRS1” for many years and brought an expired one to Brett Favre’s Steakhouse in Green Bay. The manager thanked her for it, but the next year when she and Lenny returned to the restaurant, it was not hanging with the other plates. So they asked the manager where it was.

“Brett told us he wanted it in his special showcase (in a special room at the restaurant),” says Jane, beaming.

Her thoughts on the controversial Favre?

“I love Brett Favre. I look at him for his work. What happened in his personal life … whatever. I grew up rooting for a first down – not even a touchdown – and then Brett came into our lives and gave us so much,” she says. “He has a great body of work and that’s all I respect.”

Jane then shares that she works in the health care industry and it all comes full circle.

“You’re a healer! No wonder the team wins every game when you’re there,” I say.

Jane raises her drink. “Go Packers,” she says.

The next day, Jane attended her 31st Packers game. And the Packers beat the Cleveland Browns, 31-13.

Of course they did.

Chef knows

Last week, I interviewed the Pfister’s executive chef, Brian Frakes. He told me a number of interesting things and I sampled a lot of fantastic food (the lemon garlic hummus is criminally delish!), but the nugget that I took away from our conversation – and will never forget – was how he moved back to Milwaukee.

Frakes grew up in Milwaukee, but when he was 12 his dad got a job in Florida and so his family moved. Frakes went to college and started his career in Florida and later relocated to Los Angeles to work at another prestigious hotel.

Meanwhile, his parents had moved back to Brew City and Frakes often said he, too, would return under one condition: if he could be the executive chef at the Pfister Hotel.

Frakes was attracted to The Pfister’s history, commitment to quality and clear vision of the future.

“The Pfister is the Waldorf Astoria of the Midwest,” he says.

In 2006, Frakes was offered his dream job as the Pfister head chef. So he moved back to Milwaukee.

And he created incredible food. And he fell in love. And eventually he had two daughters.

“It was a cool way to move back home,” he says.

To want something very specific and then for the opportunity to arise is a mix of vision, determination and magic. To say “I want that” isn’t something everyone can do because the universe isn’t always a giver and it is much easier to settle into whatever comes down the pike than to have a very specific goal. Because one will be disappointed if it doesn’t work out.

But when you follow your path, it’s the best chance of finding that thing called happiness, which some refer to as one’s True North.

For Frakes, it was By Way Of The Pfister.

 

Mixing it up with a marathon runner

Jen is an avid runner who lives in Chicago, but when it comes to marathon running, she comes to Milwaukee. I met her in the Lobby Bar the night before her second time running Milwaukee’s Lakefront Marathon.

Jen lived in Milwaukee from the time she was 12 years old through college – she graduated from UWM – but this is not why she returns to Brew City for long, group runs.

“I prefer the Lakefront Marathon because it’s small and downhill at the end,” she says, then takes a sip of seltzer water fresh from the bar “gun” in the Pfister’s Lobby Bar.

The Lakefront Marathon, which took place on Sunday, Oct. 6, was Jen’s fifth marathon. She also ran a marathon in Madison and two in Pittsburgh and, as already mentioned, once in Milwaukee before.

So is there anything crazy or special she has to do before or during a run? Like, does she have to run backwards for the first quarter mile or wear special socks?

“In general, I’m light on superstition, but I usually eat chicken noodle soup in a bread bowl from Panera the day or night before a marathon,” she says. “It’s salty, carb-filled and easy on the tummy.”

“Only from Panera?” I ask.

“Well, usually. Because they have a bread bowl,” she says, kindly leaving the “duh” tone out of her voice.

She says she always wears the same black hat when running, but that’s more of a habit than a superstition.

“I’m pretty loyal to that hat, though. There is only one Running Hat,” she says.

Then she blows my mind by saying she never listens to music when she runs.

“Never. Mostly because I usually run really early in the morning when it’s still dark and so staying alert is really important,” she says.

“But isn’t that insanely boring?” I ask.

“No,” she says, laughing. “It’s my rich, internal life.”

“Apparently, I don’t have one of those,” I tell her, shuddering at the thought of running miles and miles and miles without a single tune.

Jen goes on to explain that most of her life is spent in extroverted situations and, at root, she is an introvert. Running allows her to celebrate her introvert-ness.

I ask her if she wants to do the Iron Woman someday.

“I did a triathlon last year, but I’m not a check-things-off-of-my-list kind of person,” she says.

Does she have one of those popular 26.2 stickers in her car window?

“No, I’m not a rah-rah kind of person, either,” she says.

Finally, a question I’ve never asked in 12 years of reporting: Has running ever made her throw up?

“Luckily, no,” she says. “And I hope I’m not jinxing myself.”

The next day, I texted Jen to find out how the marathon went. She reported that she finished in 4:03:44 which was her new personal best.

“Must have been the magic Pfister water,” she texted.

“Because it is raining”

Most of the time, tadalafil the people I meet at the Pfister Hotel are there due to foreign travel or to attend a sporting event or because a friend or  family member is getting married. Last week, no rx I met a couple who were at the hotel – specifically in the Lobby Bar – for a reason I had never heard before during my five-month stint as Narrator.

“We are here because it is raining,” said the man.

“Because it is raining?” I repeated.

“Yes. We were right out there (points to the street visible from the window) and it started to rain and she said, ‘we need to get out of this rain.’ She was freaking out because she has ironed hair or something. And so I said, ‘let’s go get coffee.’ So then I whipped out my phone and looked up Four Square what was the closest place that might have good coffee and here we are,” he said.

“He doesn’t understand this,” she said, touching her hair.

“Oh, I get it,” I said. “Rain makes hair frizzy. It makes my hair frizzy.”

“Exactly,” she said.

“Have you ever been here?” I asked them.

“No. Not to the hotel or to Milwaukee. We’re here on a day trip,” he said, sipping the coffee.

“Good coffee?” I asked.

He nodded as if to say it was good. Not the best he’s ever had. But good.

“Are you from a place with really good coffee?” I asked.

They laugh.

“We’re from Costa Rica,” she said.

“Well, OK! You are definitely from a place with good coffee,” I said.

“Have you ever been there?” she asked.

“No. But I have been to Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala,” I said.

“You went to Nicaragua but not Costa Rica? That’s within driving distance from Costa Rica – the most beautiful country in Central America,” she said.

“I went to Nicaragua to visit a friend in the Peace Corps. But I want to go back, to Costa Rica, someday,” I said.

“Don’t go from April to November though,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s the rainy season,” she said. “Your hair will get frizzy.”

 

 

 

Surviving the government shutdown

When Washington D.C. residents Mary Jo and Buzz booked their trip to Milwaukee earlier this year to attend their niece’s wedding, look they had no idea that they would travel under such bizarre and complicated circumstances.

“We’re waiting to find out if he has a job when we get back,” says Mary Jo a few minutes after we met in the Lobby Bar.

Buzz, an employee of the U.S. State Department since 1975, was unsure about the future of his job due to the government shutdown.

“Everything does not shut down at once. It happens in stages. With us, they are trying to stretch it out and keep people earning salaries, but we just don’t know,” says Buzz. “They are really doing their best, but the information is contradictory. A lot of ‘yes, no, maybe.’ Right now, you just can’t plan ahead. You can’t count on anything.”

Buzz was scheduled to take a trip to the United Nations on Sunday, but at the time of our interview on Friday had no idea if he’d be going or not.

“We have an extra suitcase in the car, but we don’t know if he’s going. Or if he’s getting paid anymore,” says Mary Jo.

The irony of the situation is that Buzz originally took off Friday as a vacation day to travel to Milwaukee for the wedding. Of course he had no idea when he requested the vacation day that he would have the day “off” anyway.

“If this goes on for too long, there will be impact,” says Buzz. “She’s a retired school teacher. I guess she’s just going to have to keep me.”

Mary Jo laughs.

“I’ll keep him. I told him he can use this time to ‘try out’ retirement,” she says.

Then she gets a little more serious.

“It’s unnerving. But we have never been to Milwaukee before. We are attending a beautiful wedding tomorrow. We are in this lovely hotel. We just decided no matter what, we are going to have a good time,” she says.

His shocking story sparks inspiration

Ranachith “Ronnie” Yimsut is a genocide survivor, an orphan and a refugee. He is also a brother, husband, father, architect, author, teacher and social justice activist.

But more than anything, Ronnie is an inspiration.

I met Ronnie in the Cafe at the Pfister and I don’t think I have ever said fewer words during an interview. All I could do was listen, nod and occasionally fight back a tear.

Ronnie was born in Cambodia during the early years of the Vietnam War. When the Khmer Rouge moved in, 12-year-old Ronnie and his family were forced into work camps.

Ronnie suffered two years of hard labor, starvation and warfare. He was the only survivor of a Killing Fields attack in December 1977 where he lost nine of his 12 family members, including his parents.

After fleeing the site on foot, Ronnie eventually reached Thailand where he was jailed. He was later moved to a “holding center” where he learned how to plant and harvest crops. He was finally able to eat more food, but still only weighed 80 pounds at the age of 16.

Eventually, news crews began to appear at the center and Ronnie told his traumatic story and showed his scars to the world. When a distant aunt, who worked for Voice of America in Washington, D.C., saw that he was still alive, she sponsored his emigration.

So Ronnie, believing at the time he was the sole survivor in his family, came to the United States just before his 17th birthday. He enrolled at a high school in Washington, D.C. and later finished up in Portland, Ore. He then got a degree in architecture from the University of Oregon.

While in college, Ronnie learned his oldest brother and sister had survived and were in a refugee camp in Thailand with their families.

“Overnight, I had 13 mouths to support,” he says.

For five years, Ronnie sent money to them while working two or three jobs and going to school full time. He also took out loans to help them and eventually move them to the United States.

Five years ago, Ronnie relocated to Milwaukee to accept a job as a senior landscape architect for the USDA Forest Service. He brought his wife and two children, now adults, with him.

But this is only two-thirds of Ronnie’s story. One-third of his life is dedicated to activism and giving back to his homeland.

In 1993, Ronnie envisioned a school that would train and empower rural villagers to live sustainable lives. Eventually, he designed and built Bakong Technical College in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where he is now the non-paid chairman of the board.

The college trains men and women a variety of skills including language, carpentry, construction, masonry, hospitality, food science, small engine repair, bicycle repair, clothing making and more. The students are also taught about the tourist industry.

Ronnie has written numerous books, including his most recent book, “Facing the Khmer Rouge: A Cambodian Journey.” He is also a human rights activist and has frequent speaking engagements about genocide.

When he paused to take a sip of his drink and a bite of his sandwich, I was speechless, humbled, inspired. I cannot imagine experiencing so much violence and hardship and culture shock and to come out of it so strong and smart and committed – without debilitating anger, without hate.

“I shouldn’t be here,” said Ronnie, whose given name, “Ranachith,” means “undefeated warrior” in Sanskrit. “But I am. And so, I am making the most of my life.”

Update: Ronnie also took some time to speak with Artist-in-Residence, Stephanie Barenz during his visit to The Pfister. Stephanie has since created a painting inspired by his story.

Making waves at the Pfister

When I found out I was named the new Pfister Narrator last April, I was super excited and couldn’t wait to share the news with my family. When I did, my 11-year-old son Kai River immediately asked, “Does the Pfister have a pool?”

I told them, yes, there was a pool on the 23rd floor. On his first visit to the hotel, he asked to see it. My partner showed it to him through the window in the locked door. From that point on, about every second or third or fourth day, Kai has asked if he could swim in the Pfister’s pool.

“Someday,” I said.

When my son was much younger, I called him “pescadito,” which means “little fish” in Spanish. He loved taking baths and wanted to stay in the tub for hours, filling and dumping containers with water, trying to sink rubber ducks. He later adored his swimming lessons and to this day, wants to swim at the Y more than anything else.

The really interesting part of this for me is that my water lover has such a “watery” name. “Kai” means “sea” in Hawaiian and his second first name, “River,” is obviously a water name, too.

I adopted my son from Guatemala when he was nine months old, and after I named him, I learned his birth mother’s name was “Marina,” another water name.

He has water in his bones. Water in his heart.

And now, so do I, even though I’ve never been much of a swimmmer. I get cold easily and I wear contacts which means I either take them out and am blind or I leave them in and risk losing one to the bottom of the lake, river, ocean, reservoir or pool. I do, however, love looking at Lake Michigan and spend a lot of time there, thinking or grieving or celebrating. “The lake listens,” I always tell people.

Last weekend, my son’s dream came true and he got to swim in the Pfister’s pool during our overnight stay at the hotel. I am so grateful to the Pfister for allowing my family to have this experience.

The pool is surrounded by glass and the view of the city, much like the view at Blu, is spectacular. It was a sunny, clear day and we could see for miles. My partner, a photographer, snapped photos madly.

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But Kai River didn’t notice the view. Instead, he swam away, into a merman’s world. He was simply too immersed to notice the view, too busy diving for a rubber band, splashing his siblings and yelling, “cannonball!” before plunging beneath the shimmering blue surface.

This reminded me of conversations I’ve had with Pfister artist-in-residence Stephanie Barenz about the concept of “home.” This is a reoccurring theme in her art because for her, and others who live in different cities or countries during their lives, “home” sometimes becomes difficult to pinpoint.

Over the years, I have worried that my son, torn from his birth place and birth family, would question the true location of his home someday. But that afternoon, while watching him paddle and dive, I felt a momentary sense of peace wash over me.

Maybe his home is in the water.

 

 

 

Rekindling at the Pfister

Sometimes, buy it takes a while to get it right.

My own life taught me this. It wasn’t until I was 35 that I started living life authentically – the way that was best for me despite judgments of others.

And lo and behold, try in being true to me, I found someone who is more in tune with me than anyone has ever been.

Speaking of being in tune, musicians Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash experienced this, too. Their 35-year marriage is one of the greatest love stories ever told and both of them were wed prior – Johnny once and June twice.

Sometimes, it takes a while to get it right.

Sarah and Don get this, too. I met them a couple of Fridays ago at the Lobby Bar. They were on their way to a Brewers game and stopped in for a drink.

“The Pfister has always been our favorite hotel and our go-to spot if we’re going out,” says Sarah. “We usually start the evening or end the evening here.”

And then we started to talk in an honest way that only people who are comfortable with their stories can do.

They told me they were together years ago. And then they were apart. And then, after a nine-year separation, they decided to meet again. At the Pfister.

Sarah was sitting in the exact same spot as she was that night, and she and Don looked at each other and they instantly reconnected.

“I swear the earth stopped moving for 30 seconds,” says Sarah.

“Age gives you perspective,” says Don. “It boils down to who you want to spend your life with.”

The couple was married in 2010.

Since then, they have built a mutually-satisfying life together based on work, living in Downtown Milwaukee and accessing the city’s many offerings from sporting events to lakefront festivals, many of which they walk to.

“When you have lived through enough of life’s events, you find out things about yourself, and you realize the more you make yourself happy, the better it is for everyone around you,” says Sarah.

I think of Robert Browning’s words: Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be / The last of life, for which the first was made.

Yes, sometimes, it takes a while to get it right.

Oh, the people you meet when riding the elevator all evening

Sometimes I like to play a little game in my life called “Crazy Person.” A couple of months ago I played this game and interviewed the Pfister lion. Then I played a round last Friday night and rode the hotel elevators for a couple of hours, drugstore asking anyone who got on or off where they were from and what brought them to the Pfister.

To slightly lessen the weirdness, I brought my Narrator sign with me so people knew I really was employed by the Pfister and not just a nosy whack job. I also took my partner, Royal. He contributes all of the photos for my blog and is totally not a Crazy Person – just a really good sport.

So here’s how it all went down: anytime a person or people got on the elevator, I asked them what floor they were going to, then pressed the button or swiped their room key and told them what I was up to.

“Hi, my name is Molly and I am the Pfister writer-in-residence (pointing to sign) and I write a blog for the hotel. Tonight I am riding the elevator just for fun and asking people where they are from and why they are at the Pfister.”

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Maybe it’s because they were trapped with me in a small space for at least a few floors, but everyone talked to me. Everyone.

People definitely reacted differently, though. Some laughed. Some looked at me rather perplexed. One woman apologized (I don’t know why) and another clapped her hands and said, “Oh, this is fantastic!”

More than anything, it was a fascinating study of humans on elevators. It’s already kind of an uncomfortable experience being in a confined space with strangers, much less directly addressed and asked personal questions.

Depending on what floor they were going to, the amount of time we had on the elevator together varied. This added to the challenge of it.

Sometimes I only had a couple of floors to blurt out my spiel and get information from the guest. Sometimes there was enough time to really engage, for instance, if the ride was from the 23rd floor all the way down to the lobby. (I was glad to have a few extra floors of chat time when three women and I realized we all graduated from the same high school, 34 years apart.)

I found this experience to be therapeutic for my slightly claustrophobic self and I enjoyed it so much that I plan to ride the ‘vators at least one more time during my tenure – which was recently extended from November 1, 2013 to May 1, 2014. Next time, Artist in Residence Stephanie Barenz is going on a “ride along” with us.

I recorded all of the mini conversations on my iPhone and here they are transcribed. Going up!

Renee (from Pontiac, Michigan): “Blake Shelton concert! Can’t you tell by our boots?”

Richard (from Toronto): “This is good. You have me while I’m sober. Any other ride that would not be the case. I’m here for my cousin’s 50th birthday party.”

Jim (from St. Louis): “My wife, Mary Kay, and I were just on Mackinac Island and this is the halfway point home. It was wonderful there. If you ever get to go, do it. You really step back in time. There aren’t any vehicles allowed on the island. And now we’re here because we figured there are worse places to stop off.”

Brad (from Milwaukee): “I work at Blu. So I’m going to work.”

Jan (From Milwaukee): “I’m taking my friend to Blu. She’s from Kansas. This is my place to take out-of-town guests. Especially when the sun is setting.”

Ray (from Virginia): “We’re going to the Packers game tomorrow. Going to see the Brewers tonight. Hope you’re not still here at 1 a.m. It might not be pretty.”

Bob (from Connecticut): “I’m here for Al’s Run. It’s my 21st race.”

Kim (from Milwaukee): “I work at Marquette. I’m here for the auction.”

Matthew (from Milwaukee): “Wait, what are you doing again? You’re a writer? I have a whole book for you. You need to write about me. How much time do you have? I swear to God, I will come back and find you.”

Mike (from Chicago): “Taking friends from Louisville to Blu. Best view of Milwaukee. We love this place.”

Alexis and Sarah (from Oshkosh and Appleton): “We’re here for a music therapy workshop at the Conservatory of Music.”

Bob (from Milwaukee): “Having dinner at Mason Street Grill after a long day of Board of Directors’ meetings.”

Stephanie (from Colombus): “Here for the Reds game.” (Points to shirt.)

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Anne Marie and Fred (from Madison): “We’re celebrating our anniversary. 10 years. We’re our way to Milwaukee Chop House. We guessed online – hope it’s good.”

Heather and Adam (from Milwaukee): “We’re getting married here, November 10th, on the 7th floor. And then we’re having our reception at Blu.”

Wendy (from Milwaukee): “We’re going to Blake Shelton tonight at the Bradley Center. Two years ago we decided to come here as a Christmas present. It took us this long to book it. But here we are!”

Jill (from Chicago): “Why are we here? Why not? OK, we’re seeing Kathy Griffin.”

Geralyn and Greg (from Illinois): “We’re here for our 28th anniversary.”

Emily (from Chicago): “We’re staying at the InterContinental and they said we could come here to swim.”

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Sherri (from Racine): “Oh, I saw you on the website. Did you write a book?”

Tish (from Minneapolis): “My cousin, Sylvia, is from Cornwell, England, and I brought her here eight years ago. So I brought her here to do it again.”

Dave (from Ohio): “Redskins game. Sorry.”

Edna (from Ontario): “We saw a writeup on the art museum in our Ontario newspaper and we said, ‘We have to go to Milwaukee!’ So we drove here. We’re retired. We love historic hotels. We love taking trips. Enjoy your trip in the elevator.”

 

Newlyweds at 90

Sure, lots of brides and grooms stay at the Pfister Hotel, but as 90-year-old newlyweds, Ernie and Harriet are quite special.

Their unique situation was apparent to their families who lovingly helped plan their wedding – and it was also recognized by every guest in the Lobby Lounge on Saturday night. When the couple rolled through with “just married” signs on the back of their wheelchairs, the 20-plus guests in the lounge gave them a standing ovation.

“It was quite a reception,” says Jennifer, who is married to Harriet’s son, Jay.

The wedding took place on Saturday afternoon at a local church. Twenty-five guests, all family, attended and Ernie’s two great grandchildren, ages 8 and 10, were ring bearers.

Harriet, who kept her last name, wore a light green suit and jacket with a matching blouse.

“I bought a pair of new shoes and a brand new purse,” she says.

At the last minute, Harriet realized her shoes were not very comfortable and so Ernie suggested they run out to Kohl’s for a new pair.

“I wanted her to have the right shoes,” says Ernie, who was decked out in black pants, a herringbone suit coat and a very pale yellow shirt for the nuptials.

After the ceremony – which according to Harriet was “wonderful” – they had a dinner at the Open Flame in Hales Corners. The couple feasted on ribs and their guests ordered ribs, chicken or salmon.

Then, they went to the Pfister for a three-night honeymoon. When asked why they chose the Pfister, Ernie chuckled.

“Actually, I wanted to go to Vegas,” he says.

Ernie has been to Las Vegas three times and wanted to take Harriet there to see a show, but their children were concerned about their safety and suggested the Pfister instead.

Harriet’s son, Jay, comes to Milwaukee from Minneapolis about once a month to visit his mother and always stays at the Pfister. Ernie and Harriet met at an assisted living facility in Hales Corners called Harmony.

Ernie was married for 65 years to a woman named Audrey. They raised three daughters. For the last 18 years of their marriage, Audrey suffered from Alzheimer’s.

“Ernie’s wife was very sick. He took very good care of her for 18 years. Cooking, washing clothes, taking care of the house. All while working two jobs. He is a very nice man,” says Harriet.

Harriet was married to John, who passed away in 2001, for 51 years. The couple had two sons.

Neither expected to fall in love again.

“It’s a miracle,” says Harriet.

For Ernie, it was love at first sight. Harriet became smitten after Ernie appeared at her door singing “happy birthday” to her.

Some of the other ladies at Harmony expressed their romance envy to Harriet.

“They come up to me and say, ‘How did you do that? We’ve been trying to find somebody ourselves for a long time,’” she says, then, looking at Ernie, “I guess I just meet the right people.”

Ernie and Harriet are the first married couple to live at Harmony. In order to accommodate their bond, the facility – which does not have double rooms – agreed to let them use one room as their bedroom and the other, across the hall, as a living room.

“Our days go by so fast and we just enjoy being together,” says Ernie.

The couple shares a love for gardening and are the only members of Harmony’s gardening club. Ernie says they left a sink filled with ripe tomatoes and will have even more when they return to the facility after their honeymoon.

He then told a story about the time Harriet playfully sprayed him with the hose and got him soaking wet.

“Luckily I dry off pretty quick,” he says.

Ernie and Harriet also like to watch sports together. Harriet never cared much about sports before meeting Ernie, but she knew it was something he enjoyed.

“So I learned about them quickly,” she says.

“Now, she’s the one who says ‘let’s watch the Brewers game,'” says Ernie, patting her arm. “I’m just so happy we’re together.”