2005: Alana Baranick, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland
Award for Obituary Writing
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Obituary writing

Alana Baranick

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Patty Crites

Spencer Township - Patty Crites' prize-winning rabbits were known for their long floppy ears, luxurious coats and unscheduled public demonstrations of bunny-birth.

The 63-year-old grandmother, who died of complications from congestive heart failure and other health problems Oct. 27, raised droopy-eared English lops and other breeds at Pat's Bunny Farm in Spencer Township for 30 years.

She showed her best bunnies at rabbit-club events and county fairs throughout Ohio.

At a few Medina County Fair rabbit contests, Crites entered pregnant rabbits who ended up giving birth before the judging began.

"She didn't realize how far along they were," said her friend Renee Burns. "People loved it, to see these little tiny pink things coming out."

Crites had as many as 250 rabbits at one time, and every one of them had a name.

"She read a lot of novels," said her daughter Regina Manos. "Every time she saw a good name, she'd write it down."

She also raised ferrets and Peruvian guinea pigs. Over the years, she had a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and a de-scented skunk as house pets. She kept a goat, ponies, horses, dogs and cats. She took care of two crows, Igor and J.J., a pig named Peggy and her nine piglets.

Crites also had an African parrot and cockatiels. Her part-time jobs at a veterinarian's office in Litchfield and at a pet shop in Ashland yielded opportunities to adopt even more exotic animals.

"We almost ended up with a tiger," said her husband of 32 years, Jim. "One time she tried to bring home an African anteater. She went to an auction in Wooster and brought an emu home. The only thing she never brought home was a monkey."

Crites, the daughter of a steel-hauling truck driver, was born Patricia Ann Fetzer at Berea Hospital. She started bringing stray animals home while growing up on Worthington Avenue near West 117th Street in Cleveland.

The location of her childhood home made Crites a city girl, but Crites really was a country girl at heart.

"We always used to go out to see my grandmother on the farm in Medina," said her younger sister, Beverly Magyar. "We weren't surprised when she started her bunny farm. She had trophies and all kinds of ribbons she'd won over the years. The hardest thing was for her to sell her rabbits when she was so sick."

Crites had three children - Brian Gerrick, Scott Gerrick and Regina - with her first husband, whom she married and divorced twice.

"They had some problems and were trying to patch things up," her sister said. "It didn't work. When I got married she said, 'Didn't you learn anything?' "

After her second divorce, she met Jim Crites, who also was divorced and had kids. They moved from Lakewood to a 17-acre farm in Spencer Township in the early 1970s.

Patty, her husband and her kids engaged in 18th-century re-enactments, where participants slept outdoors, wore pioneer garb, shot muzzle-loaders and paddled canoes.

"On all the campouts and everything, Patty always came out looking beautiful with perfect makeup on and never got dirty like the rest of us," said re-enactor Bob Wulff.

When she was younger, Crites hunted bear in Canada and deer in southern Ohio with her husband. She even went on rabbit hunts.

The only thing she ever shot was a fox.

But she was not averse to butchering the animals she raised - including bunnies that weren't suitable for show or too old or unattractive to be sold as pets - and cooking the meat for her family. The practice is common among rabbit breeders and farm folk.

"At rabbit shows, they'll have bunny-on-a-bun, creamed rabbit or barbecued rabbit," said Burns, a fellow bunny breeder. "How many animals can you raise and eat your mistakes?"

Crites grossed out her sister's kids one Easter when she tried serving them rabbit for dinner.

"They just thought that was amazing," her sister said. "You never knew what you were going to get on the holidays."

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George Kossoff

George Kossoff

June 12, 1912 - June 13, 2004

Youngstown native, son of Russian immigrants.

B'nai B'rith Youth Organization volunteer.

Told his three daughters: It's just as easy to marry a rich man as it is to marry a poor man.

Mayfield Heights - Of the many jobs George Kossoff held in his life, none satisfied his soul more than selling orthopedic shoes.


In the 1950s, he fitted customers who hobbled into the Cleveland Orthopedic store with shoes that could help them walk straighter and with less pain. Kossoff, who died June 13 at 92, spent evenings at nursing homes, measuring the feet of clients who couldn't get to the store.

"He was just pleased to be able to be helpful," said Bob Levine, a family friend. "I don't know whether he made any money on it, but he got psychic income. He made people feel good about themselves."

Kossoff had genuine empathy for folks with foot problems. He walked in pain since the 1930s, when he was pinned against the metal gate of an elevator by a pallet of boxes while working as a stockboy.

"He injured his leg," said his wife, Millie. "The doctor said he'd never walk."

Although drab, clunky, specially-fitted shoes could ease his pain, Kossoff preferred to wear colorful Italian-made patent-leather dress shoes.

"At one time, he was a very spiffy dresser," said his daughter, Claire Nash. "He got a little less discriminating about mixing plaids and stripes toward the end, but he did like to look sharp."

Kossoff couldn't wear classy clothes while pumping gas, cleaning car windshields and changing tires at the Rockwell Service Station at East 12th Street and Rockwell Avenue, which he co-owned in the late 1930s.

"He hated that job," Millie said. "It was tough, dirty ... When he came home, the kids were sleeping already. He didn't want to get near anyone until he took a shower."

Working conditions were better in the 1940s, when he owned Komar Sales and Service. He sold car accessories and such varying products as candy bars and new-fangled television sets with 10-inch screens.

"We had a TV set because he sold them in his store," said his daughter, Linda Kemmerer. "People would come in our house and watch TV."

By the early 1950s, he was happily selling shoes. But his seemingly perfect career ended after four years due to a dispute over whether to keep the business open on Saturdays. Kossoff favored staying open, citing the potential for increased sales. His boss staunchly disagreed.

Kossoff went from selling shoes to peddling fish at the Woodland East 55th Street Market. "Only fresh fish," his wife said. "Some of the times, they would still be moving."

He and his wife also ran a concession at Catalano's Supermarket on Mayfield Road, where they sold fried fish on Fridays. When business dropped off in the late 1960s, Kossoff went to work for the Cleveland Vending Co. He serviced vending machines until he was 69. Then he returned to Catalano's to work part time until he was 80.

Kossoff struggled to support his family and "never thought he gave us enough," said daughter Claire. "But looking back at my childhood, I can't think of anything we wanted that we didn't get ... Dancing lessons. Acting lessons. BBYO (B'nai B'rith Youth Organization). He always had money for us to do those things that were important to us."

The Kossoffs raised their kids in Cleveland Heights and South Euclid. After their youngest, Teri Alexander, graduated from high school, they lived in various apartments until moving into the Schnurmann House retirement center in Mayfield Heights.

In his latter years, Kossoff planned seniors' bus trips to such places as Amish country, Toronto and Washington, D.C. "We would rent a bus and fill it up with friends," Millie said.

One of those friends, Maury Feren, remembered Kossoff as a man who wanted seniors from his Jewish Community Center group "to spread their wings and do interesting things. George felt secure in himself and confident he could do anything with the group. He never worried about successes. He believed in the possibilities."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: abaranick@plaind.com, 216-999-4828

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Willie Ray Mackey

Willie Ray "Karimi" Mackey

May 16, 1953 - Aug. 6, 2004

Born in Memphis, Tenn.

African name: Osagyefo Karimi Salmone Faye.

To instruct someone to call him in his last months, liked to say: "Hit me up on my cell."

Willie Ray "Karimi" Mackey felt a kinship with the primitive Dogon people of West Africa, who have been mapping the stars for more than 800 years.

The 51-year-old NASA astrophysicist and African dance instructor was fascinated that the Dogon, who revere Sirius - known as the Dog Star - knew of its tiny companion star, Sirius B, centuries before modern astronomers identified it.

Mackey was pronounced dead, apparently of a heart condition, Aug. 6 - while Sirius was making its annual daytime appearance in the sky.

As a scientist, Mackey conducted far-ranging "fundamental research that doesn't reveal itself until years downstream but is critical to development," said Julian Earls, director of the NASA Glenn Research Center.

But he didn't look like a rocket scientist.

"He had his own style," said NASA colleague Eric Overton. "In appearance, he was so down to earth, you would be shocked to know he even had a job. Then you find out he worked at NASA, had a Ph.D."

Mackey grew up in St. Louis, the eldest of nine children in what was essentially a single-parent household. Ray, as he was known to his family, took care of his younger siblings while his mother worked the midnight shift at the post office. He got them ready for school in the morning and assigned them educational projects after school.

When his sisters saw a spider in the house, "not only did Ray kill it, he looked it up in the encyclopedia and gave a report," said his sister Karen. "He liked Radio Shack science kits. He outgrew those and started taking things apart in the house. Lamps, appliances. He always found a way to put it back together."

He watched public-television programs like "Nova" to learn about the stars. He tried to instill his passion for the heavens in his siblings and, later, his daughters.

"He made us go in the back yard, and we'd have to look up in the sky," said his sister Yvonne. "He'd say, 'Analyze that.' "

In the early 1970s, Mackey enrolled at Oberlin College, where he and classmate Diaris Jackson were "roaring with ideology, pushing for change, angry that we'd missed the '60s, aware of the special gifts that made us leaders," Jackson said.

Mackey, whose African name, Karimi, means "one whose spirit travels with the stars," went to Boston to study astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also trained in African dance and drum under Raymond Sylla, an African cultural icon from Senegal.

After earning a doctorate from MIT in 1981, Mackey taught math at Wilberforce University in southern Ohio. Abasi Ojinjideka, with whom he collaborated on projects integrating cultural arts and science, met him at a Kwanzaa event 22 years ago.

"He was sitting on a drum, listening to music on headphones, reading a book and watching TV at the same time," Ojinjideka said.

Mackey started working for NASA in Brook Park in 1989 but later returned to Wilberforce through a space agency program that allows scientists to spend time at not-for-profit institutions. More recently, NASA lent him to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.

"We worked together to provide NASA exposure and computer technology for students who lived in a homeless shelter in Philadelphia," said J. Otis Smith, a Cheyney professor. "He was fun to work with. He personally inspired some of our students to overcome their fear of science to explore those fields more closely."

He also did his best to get his twin daughters, Nyonu and Naima, excited about science.

"If you looked in the sky on a clear night, he could tell you the names of the stars," Naima said.

One weekend, while visiting his daughters at Hampton University in Virginia, Mackey woke them at 6:30 a.m., and said, "We're going to Norfolk State University. I want you to see the sunspots in the sky."

When they arrived, "he got out his little sunspot device with a mirror," Naima said. "We saw these little dots that would move across the paper. It was neat."

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Josephine Milbrandt

Josephine Milbrandt

June 8, 1911 - June 27, 2004

John Adams High School graduate.

Her husband died in 1990.

Philosophy about the past: "It's water over the duck's back."

Avon Lake - Josephine Milbrandt kept three quarters, four dimes, two nickels and scads of trust in a Whitman Sampler candy box on her back porch.

Alongside the box were dozens of fresh eggs.

Milbrandt, who died June 27 at age 93, sold eggs from the enclosed porch of her Avon Lake home for more than 40 years. She banked on people putting money in the box and taking only the change they were due - and, of course, their eggs.

"She had the honor system," said her neighbor and customer, Mary Mackin. "If you didn't have the money, you put an IOU in the box. Many times, she would be in the kitchen and come out and chat. She was very intelligent . . . very much aware of what was going on in Avon Lake and the world in general."

Milbrandt learned about entrepreneurship, customer relations and self-serve retail operations from her parents, the Blahas, in Cleveland in the 1920s and '30s.

Her father earned barely enough to support his wife and two kids at his stove factory job. Her mother, a native of Czechoslovakia, told him, "You're never going to get anywhere working for somebody else." So they opened a grocery store at East 131st Street.

To lighten their workload, they placed baskets at the door, so shoppers could take flour, canned vegetables and boxes of cereal from the shelves while the Blahas cut lunchmeat and ground coffee. Josephine was a youngster when she and her younger brother started working in the store.

After working for eight to 10 hours a day, Josephine liked to unwind by roller-skating at Euclid Beach Park. That's where she met her husband, George Milbrandt.

During the rationing days of World War II, "everybody on the street was raising rabbits or chickens for survival," said her daughter, Jo Grospitch. "After the war, stuff was plentiful. Neighbors complained about the chickens. We lived on a small, 40-foot lot. Mom wanted a better life for us. She said we should be on a farm."

In 1947, Milbrandt moved to Avon Lake with her husband, three kids and a dozen chickens. They ran a fruit farm and sold grapes to Welch's for jelly, but eggs became their bread and butter.

Each spring, egg seekers placed orders on a blackboard on the porch for dozens of eggs to be colored for Easter baskets.

"You'd say how many you need, and she'd hold them back," Mackin said. "The older the egg, the better the dye would take. She made sure she had them for you whenever you came."

Milbrandt also boarded horses in her barn. "My mother said she'd collect the eggs and feed the chickens, but wouldn't clean the horse barn," her daughter said. "That was man's work."

She donated eggs, time and money to Catholic churches in Avon Lake. She assisted with bake sales and raffles sponsored by the ladies guilds at St. Joseph and Holy Spirit parishes. She helped prepare chicken dinners - not using her own chickens - at St. Joe's summer festival.

Not long after St. Joseph School was started around 1949, Milbrandt came to the rescue of parochial school students, who were denied rides on a school bus because they didn't attend Avon Lake public schools.

"Anyone that was along that street and was kicked off, she picked them up in her station wagon and packed them in," said her son and former St. Joe pupil, George. "It was like one of these circus acts. She ran that wagon down the street to get those kids to school."

In recent years, the great-grandmother helped kids who visited the Bradley Bay nursing home with the Right-to-Read program improve their reading skills.

She also kept track of birds that stopped by for a snack at the bird feeders outside her window.

"She had bird feeders and a bird book," her daughter said. "If some new bird showed up, she'd look it up. She had a finch feeder. Mom fell in love with the yellow birds. People would show up at her room at 5 o'clock, when the birds came to eat."

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Clementine C. Werfel

Clementine C. Werfel

June 2, 1908 - Aug. 2, 2004

Her twin became a nun.

Survived Palm Sunday tornado of 1965, which destroyed some parish buildings.

Greeting to priests: "How's my little boy?"

Strongsville - Clementine Werfel blessed priests at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Strongsville with heavenly desserts, memorable meals and seemingly miraculous coffee.

The retired parish housekeeper, who died Aug. 2 at age 96, routinely walked around the dining table in the rectory, offering coffee to each priest.

"Would Father like regular or decaf?" the 4-foot-something Werfel asked them one by one.

Regardless of the priests' individual preferences, she filled all their cups with coffee from the same pot. The coffee drinkers silently accepted what they got, as though Werfel really could turn regular coffee into decaffeinated, much the way that the biblical Jesus turned water into wine.

"She was so comfortable with priests and anyone, she treated everybody the same," said the Rev. Mark Latcovich. "Clemmie made the rectory a home. She was like a mother and grandmother to you. She'd do anything for you."

But she didn't treat her charges with kid gloves. When a priest told her that he liked his beef "a little red," the diminutive Werfel handed him a bottle of ketchup and said, "Here. You can make it red."

She wasn't particularly fond of cooking, and sometimes it showed. She once boiled filet mignon, which is supposed to be broiled, until it looked like black tennis balls in a stew.

"She loved to clean the refrigerator out, put it in a pot and call it soup," Latcovich said.

Werfel did better with desserts. She made wicked fruitcake muffins, which she soaked in rum and brandy as they cooled. She drizzled hot pumpkin pie with honey to make it sweet. Whenever she baked pies, she made around 10 at a time, then froze them or gave them away.

"She enjoyed playing in flour," Latcovich said. "It was like dirt in the garden. She was really into gardening."

Werfel got her first packet of flower seeds as a child growing up in Wilmore, Pa. She and her twin sister, Catherine, were the middle pair in a brood of 12 kids. Her parents, first generation German-Americans, ran a prosperous farm.

"We had heat in the house; We had a bathroom, and we had a car," said her only surviving sister, Mary Casey. "That was something for that day and age."

Werfel, who had polio as a baby, stayed on the farm, working as a cook for family and farmhands until she was 31.

While visiting her sister Margaret in Cleveland in 1939, Werfel got a job as a housekeeper for the Hilkert family, who had eight kids. Two of them became priests. Werfel became housekeeper at St. Joe's when the parish was started in 1946.

When the Rev. Bob Sanson was appointed to St. Joe's in 1991, Werfel "was already 83, and she was still making delicious apple pies and scrubbing the garage carpet on her hands and knees," Sanson said.

As her ability to handle her duties diminished, "They let her stay there for a while and had someone else come in to cook," said retired parish bookkeeper, Hilda Monteleone. "This did not go well with her. She didn't want to give it up."

In 1994, Werfel reluctantly retired from the rectory and moved to the Harbor Court independent living community in Rocky River. The center provides one raised flowerbed for each of its gardening enthusiasts. Werfel had two.

Bill Parobechek, whose late father chauffeured Werfel around for decades, inherited the job of taking the ever-feisty housekeeper to church and gardening centers. He did his best to keep up with her as they walked to her room at the end of a long hallway at Harbor Court.

"She'd walk faster than I could, and I'm a mailman," Parobechek said. "She knew what she wanted, and she wanted it now. I would take her to lunch. We would be waiting to be served. She would ask the girl, 'Are you from out of state? It took you so long to serve us.'"

Werfel was accustomed to speaking her mind, even at the rectory. "She was a tough lady," Monteleone said. "If she didn't like something, she told the priests."

Stories copyright 2004 The Plain Dealer. Reprinted with permission.

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