Reflecting on a Loved One’s Life Time of Achievements

Published in the Woonsocket Call on December 29, 2019

A few weeks ago, my sister Nancy called to give me the bad news that my brother-in-law, Justin Aurbach, was diagnosed with an aggressive and deadly cancer known as glioblastoma, or more commonly referred to as GBM. This 77 year old Dallas-based endodontist who I knew as relatively healthy, a believer in vitamins and physically active most of his adult life, was now house-bound receiving 24 hour a day care by home health caregivers, along with his daughters Stephanie and Allison, and his partner Ruth who were now all part of a revolving schedule of care.

I booked a quick trip to Dallas to sit with him and show my support and concern. It had been a few years since I had been there and I wondered what the conversation might entail, knowing that our 53-year old relationship could cover a lot of ground. Justin and my sister were always collectors of art, and I soon found myself sitting at a kitchen table, surrounded by colorfully carved images of watermelons, where he and I reminisced as the time flew by.

Justin reminded me that we first met in 1967 when he came to pick-up my older sister Mickie, taking her to dine at Campisi’s Restaurant, a local pizza hangout. Even though it took place over five decades ago, he clearly remembered first meeting my mother as she greeted him from the couch, sitting with her thick soled shoes propped up on the ottoman, smoking a cigarette and wearing her trademark leopard print blouse. He recalls her holding Tony, the family’s three-legged Toy Poodle.

A year later, Mickie and Justin would recruit my twin brother, Jim and me to be ushers at their wedding in 1968. Through the ebb and flow of their life together, from raising children, grandchildren and building a successful dental practice, he reflected on their 41 year marriage, noting ‘how it flew by’ before Mickie passed in 2008.

Justin reminded me of the sage advice he gave me before I entered my freshman year at the University of Oklahoma. “Drink in moderation and put studies before chugging pitchers of beer,” he said. It is funny the things you tend to remember, I thought.

As our conversation became more focused on his health, Justin thought that the symptoms of the tumor might first have appeared over five years ago, when he became dizzy while taking a bike ride. Last August, the symptoms returned while riding again, and a Cat Scan would ultimately reveal his tumor.

Turning 60

In 2003, I had the opportunity to interview Justin about turning age 60 for my weekly senior commentary in the Pawtucket Times. He shared the following thoughts about being at the peak of his career professionally, while only five years shy of reaching retirement age.

In my commentary, Justin said, “It’s great [moving into your 60s], however, far too much [cultural] negativity has been directed at this chronological age.”

At that time, my brother-in-law was in relatively good physical shape. While he would acknowledge that he could not run a four-minute mile, he joked that he never could anyway. As he approached his sixth decade, he admitted that he played a little golf like many of his friends, walked and jogged, and even took time to lift weights.

Dr. Justin E. Aurbach, DDS, had accomplished much in his career by the age of 60. As the first endodontist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he was the first in the region to perform endodontic microsurgery, when at that time there were only 78 endodontists in the nation performing such surgery. He is past president of the DFW Endodontic Society, The Southwest Society of Endodontics, and the Dallas County Dental Society. He served as general chairman of the Southwest Dental Conference.

Justin believed strongly that he would still be ‘at the top of his professional game, improving with age’, as he proudly boasted. During my interview with him, he said, “not only am I technically better, but my years of life experience have made me wiser in respect to knowing what can and cannot be done in my life.”

The endodontist attributed much of his success to his wife, children and the many supportive family and friends that were part of his large extended family.

By age 60, his philosophy of looking at the “glass half-full rather than half empty” allowed him to cope with life’s difficulties. This life stage was also a time of excitement and learning for him, while he glided into the years he referred to as “best time of your life.”

Getting to the Big “70”

Ten years later, we would speak again about his approaching the age 70 milestone. He reflected on how so much time had passed, which he noted flew by in “the blink of an eye.” During my 2013 interview with him published in my weekly commentary in this paper, he told me that he would “certainly keep forging ahead at a break-neck pace,” promising that new goals would replace those that were accomplished.

He recalled having attended dozens of funerals, said final goodbyes to his wife, father, father-in-law, mother-in-law, along with many close friends and colleagues. Justin noted that “reading the Dallas Morning News obituary page and constantly attending funerals made him aware of the need to accomplish his set goals with the limited time he had left -” but life goes on,” Justin told me. A year after his wife’s death in 2008, the aging widower again found love and began to date Ruth.

Looking ahead into his 70’s, Justin had no plans to retire. Though financially secure, he aspired to maintain a very full practice until his eighty-fifth birthday. He found added fulfillment teaching endodontic residents at Texas AM Baylor School of Dentistry, a job that he hoped would continue into his 70s, while also staying active in the medical group.

Justin has been an avid bike rider for over 30 years, and despite being 70, he would continue to sneak in a ride when possible, even with his busy schedule. He enjoyed the City of Dallas’s fine restaurants, loved to cook for family and friends, and looked forward to a good play or chamber music performance from time to time. His mantra may well be “Live your life to the fullest, don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today.”

Looking Ahead

Justin says, since the diagnosis of his terminal illness, his house has been flooded with family, friends, referring doctors and even former dental students. “I have made a lot of friends and accept that I have impacted people in a very positive way,” he said, as he cites as an upside of his illness.

As we concluded our talk, he says, “Don’t wait to do things. You never know what the future has in store for you,” adding that he learned this lesson from Ruth.
“Simple things in life are your best bet to living a good life,” Justin tells me, stressing that it doesn’t cost a lot of money to enjoy your life.”

Justin acknowledges that he may live another two to six months with the GBM tumor, but remains optimistic, for there are those who have lived for another 14 years. In his remaining time, he hopes to maintain a “quality of life” that allows him to continue to attend musicals and plays, or perhaps even take short trips.

Final Thoughts

As you reach your 60s and into your 70s, research tells us that exercise, eating a healthy diet, developing a strong social network of family and friends, and continuing to learn and seek out new knowledge all become important in enhancing the quality of your life and increasing your longevity in your later years. However, in our twilight years life can become of full of tough challenges and we may face difficult times.

Ultimately, like Justin, reflecting on personal and professional accomplishments can give you the inner resources necessary to meet the challenges in the final stages of your life.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Pawtucket City Hall to Host Major Exhibit of Renown 90-Year-Old Sculptor

Published in the Woonsocket Call on September 16, 2019

The City of Pawtucket’s Arts and Culture Commission hosts a major exhibit of the work of 90-year-old internationally acclaimed Artist, Mihail Simeonov, running from September 19-December 31, 2019. An opening reception to meet Mihai will be held at Pawtucket City Hall, Thursday, September 19, 2019, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., 137 Roosevelt Avenue, Pawtucket, RI 02860.

Home to a thriving arts community, the City of Pawtucket is delighted to present this first-time major exhibition by an internationally-acclaimed sculptor and resident, says Mayor Donald R. Grebien. “As a city committed to art, design and innovation, we are delighted to be able to share the work of such an important artist. Bridging cultures, aesthetic worlds and ideas, Mihail’s work is both visually stunning and deeply rooted in history. He is remarkable for his continued innovation and relevance in contemporary art,” says the Mayor.

“As we celebrate the arts in the City of Pawtucket throughout September, we are honored to have Pawtucket-resident Mihail showcase his visionary artwork at a major exhibit in the City Hall Art Gallery”, states Miram Plitt, Chair of the City’s Arts and Culture Commission. “We invite anyone with an interest in art and those who rally to protect the world’s wild life to attend our opening reception to celebrate the life-time creativity and vision of Mihail whose extraordinary works of art can be seen at the United Nations,” says Plitt.

Cast the Sleeping Elephant

Although the 90-year-old Pawtucket resident has practicing his craft for over 75 years, with major public monuments in Bulgaria and Tunisia, he is best known for his life-size bull elephant bronze sculpture at the United Nations (UN).

In 1980, after several years of planning and work on a breakthrough idea, Mihail travelled to Kenya where, with the help of the country’s Ministry of Wildlife, he took a cast of a live bull elephant bull in the wild. The elephant survived the 72-minute process completely unharmed. From that live cast, Mihail created the Cast the Sleeping Elephant bronze, an over-life size sculpture. The sculpture was officially inaugurated by Secretary General Kofi Annan and installed at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York City in 1998, where it continues to serve as a symbol of man’s dedication to preserving all living creatures.

Mihail says his bronze elephant is a symbol of the importance to protect all wildlife and it is aptly placed at the United Nations, the home of all nations.

The Travels of Mihail

Mihail was born in Bulgaria in 1929, where for seven years he studied philosophy and majored in monumental sculpture at the academy of Fine Arts in Sofia. When one of his commissioned monuments provoked the wrath of Bulgaria’s communist government, Mihail went into exile in Tunisia. In Tunis, enchanted by an exuberance of Mediterranean colors and intense light, the artist embarked on a new aesthetic journey.

After several in Tunis, where many of his large-scale monuments continue to stand, Mihail and his wife, Lilda, emigrated to the United States in the early 1970’s, settling in a loft in New York City. Mihail was granted entry because of his status as an “exceptional artist.”

For over 10 years, Mihail also worked out of a boathouse art studio in Lloyd Harbor, where he was an artist in residence at Friends College. Later relocating to Millbrook, New York and then to Orient, Long Island. Mihail and Lida raised their daughter, Iana, a filmmaker who now lives in San Francisco with her cinematographer husband.

Around 2003, Mihail was looking for a new home and location for his art studio. An article in the Travel Section of the New York Times, picked up at random in an empty train car that featured the historic Pawtucket mills prompted him to write a letter to Mayor James E. Doyle. Mihail thought he might like to move there. Three days after writing this letter he was contacted by Herb Weiss, the City’s Economic & Cultural Affairs Officer. Two years later he would become a Pawtucket resident with Lida, living in one of the city’s mills.

Extraordinary Impact on Contemporary Art

According to Iana Simeonov, Mihail’s daughter and a former art dealer and critic, the Pawtucket exhibition showcases several distinct but related bodies of Mihail’s work in a range of media, including bronze, painting and drawing. The works illustrate how the 90-year-old artist continues to evolve artistically, elaborating on themes which have compelled and fascinated him since the 1960’s.

“Mihail’s 75 years as artist have not only been prolific, but extraordinary in terms of their contribution to the history and vitality of contemporary art,” adds Simeonov, “Mihail’s work has been the subject of dozens of solo exhibitions from New York to Chicago, Stockholm, Basel, Geneva to Milan.

“Mihail’s work is held in over 100 private and museum collections around the world, and his large-scale public monuments continue to stand in public squares and prominent spaces in the US, Europe, and Africa. His artistic legacy and personal story are uniquely compelling and, at age 90 he continues to innovate with materials and is as freshly obsessed with making art as the day he entered the academy,” she adds.

Mihail has not looked back since he relocated to his Pawtucket mill. “I like Pawtucket for its history and old charm and it’s only minutes away from Providence,” he says, noting that his artwork now reflects the industrial character of the City.

Mihail acknowledges that he has never had an exhibit at City Hall. “It’s highly unusual,” he says, admitting that he feels “grateful and happy.”

Fogarty Retiring as Elderly Affairs Director

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 28, 2018

Just days ago, Director of Rhode Island’s Division of Elderly Affairs (RIDEA), Charles J. Fogarty, announced his retirement to take place at the end of June, after 4 decades of public service. There have been nine directors since the establishment of DEA, including Fogarty.

Fogarty’s plans to retire at the end of the current legislative session. When this occurs, Governor Gina Raimondo will make an appointment to the RIDEA director position. The position requires advice and consent of the RI Senate.

Fogarty began his career in public service in 1978 as a junior policy advisor for Governor J. Joseph Garrahy. He served as lieutenant governor, from 1999 to 2007, having the distinction of being the last lieutenant governor to preside over the State Senate. From 2011 to 2015, Fogarty served as the director of the Department of Labor and Training, ending up his career as the Director of RIDEA.

During his years of public service, Fogarty, 62, has been focused on long term care and home- and community-based services and supports for older Rhode Islanders. He played a key role in steering and expanding the work of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council during his tenure as Lieutenant Governor for two terms. Under his leadership at the Department of Labor and Training, he reformed the unemployment insurance process. During his stewardship as Director at Elderly Affairs (since January 2015), he has led a division providing services and advocacy for over 166,500 older adults living in Rhode Island.

As a Glocester resident he was elected to the Glocester Town Council in 1984 and in 1990 was elected as a state senator, where he served for eight years. While a state senator, he served as both majority whip and Senate President Pro Tempore.

Fogarty Reflects on RIDEA Tenure

“Throughout my career, I have felt drawn to serve the people of Rhode Island. I look back fondly and feel fortunate to be a part of the forward progress Rhode Island is experiencing–particularly working with Governor Raimondo to empower seniors and help them to remain independent and living in the community,” said Fogarty.

According to Fogarty, under his helm, RIDEA has continued to process of supporting community-and home-based services for seniors and caregivers, but more needs to be done in order to really rebalance Rhode Island’ long-term care system. Aging in the community- in our own homes- is what many Rhode Islanders want for ourselves and our loved ones, he says.

“We’ve restored funding for Meals on Wheels, provided additional funding for respite services, and this year are proposing to double the amount the state invests in senior centers. Senior centers are primary gateways in the community that connect older adults and caregivers to services that can have profound impacts upon their ability to remain healthy and independent,” notes Fogarty.

Fogarty says, “If the general assembly follows Governor Raimondo’s lead and doubles the funding for senior centers, Rhode Island will be taking a huge step in the right direction of providing the appropriate support to these essential senior services.”

“We need to prepare for the shift in demographics that is occurring, and accept that the old model of providing long term care services isn’t working for the large number of Boomers who are marching towards retirement and old-age. RIDEA and other key partners are engaging in the Age-Friendly Rhode Island initiative, and we all need to work together to provide more choices and options for Rhode Islanders as they age, empowering them, and helping them to remain independent and healthy,” adds Fogarty.

Tributes to Fogarty

“Charlie has dedicated his entire professional life to Rhode Island and we thank him for his decades of service to our state,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo, in a statement, recognizing the key role he played as DEA Director in expanding Meals on Wheels and in repealing the tax that seniors pay on their Social Security.

“As sitting Lt. Governor, I appreciate Charlie being a resource to me on issues important to our state’s seniors. Under his leadership, the Division of Elderly Affairs has been a hands-on partner in executing the initiatives of the Long Term Care Coordinating Council and the Alzheimer’s Executive Board,, says Lt. Governor Dan McKee.

“We are especially grateful for Charlie’s support in launching our Age Friendly RI Report in 2016. In a few weeks, we will be announcing an exciting development in Rhode Island’s Alzheimer’s State Plan that would not be possible without Charlie’s participation. I have enjoyed working with Charlie and I wish him all the best as he begins this exciting new chapter,” adds McKee.

Maureen Maigret, Vice Chair Long Term Care Coordinating Council, sees Fogarty’s experience as oversight as Lt. Governor of the state’s Long-Term Coordinating Council, gave him the insight ad understanding of long term care issues and the needs of older Rhode Islanders.

Maigret says that professionals in the aging network will remember Fogarty for his strong support for and educating the community about need to expand services that help older persons to stay at home and live independently for as long as possible and to pay attention to caregiver support needs.

Adds AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, “I have known Charlie for many years and know him to be a worthy heir of his uncle, the late-great RI Congressman, who was a leading champion of legislation and policy benefiting older Americans.”

“At Elderly Affairs, he utilized many skills and resourcefulness acquired through his time as a legislator, Lt. Governor and Labor & Training director — not to mention his personal interest in the health and wellbeing of all Rhode Islanders. His leadership has been an enormous asset at the Division of Elderly Affairs,” says Connell.

After his retirement from four decades of state service, he will continue to serve on the faculty at Johnson & Wales University, as Adjunct Professor of Leadership Studies. He also plans to volunteer with Meals on Wheels, having seen the significant impact the home-delivery meal program has on combatting senior isolation. He will also continue to be involved at his church.

On a personal level, Fogarty plans to “learn to cook,” by enrolling in cooking classes, travel and perhaps learn to speak Spanish.