County residents counting blessings this holiday season

Rick Merkel at his home in McHenry. Merkel and his siblings found out this year they had two aunts they never knew they had. Their grandparents divorced when their father was young, and their father didn't know that his biological father remarried later in life. Merkel and his family are looking forward to meeting more of their newfound family members at upcoming gatherings.
Rick Merkel at his home in McHenry. Merkel and his siblings found out this year they had two aunts they never knew they had. Their grandparents divorced when their father was young, and their father didn't know that his biological father remarried later in life. Merkel and his family are looking forward to meeting more of their newfound family members at upcoming gatherings.

Thanksgiving Day may find you brimming with an attitude of gratitude or struggling to find a blessing to count.

For these three McHenry County families, the scale tips decidedly in gratitude’s favor. In sharing their tales, your holiday, too, may be brightened.

The greatest gift

It’s been 16 years since Don Reinboldt received the call that changed everything.

“I do think about it every day because, honestly, I’m so lucky,” the 61-year-old McHenry resident said.

In 1996, Reinboldt, who suffered from primary sclerosing cholangitis and spent nine months on a liver transplant waiting list, received the organ of a college freshman who died in a freak accident. The young man suffered fatal head trauma in a fall from his college dorm loft bed.

“I got his liver, and I think there were six or seven other people who also got organs,” Reinboldt said, adding that he and his wife of 37 years, Judy, have kept in touch with the parents of his donor, Dave and Linda Carlson of Wisconsin. Their son’s name was Christopher.

Like all transplant recipients, Reinboldt must adhere to a strict regimen of anti-rejection and other medicines. He downs about a dozen pills a day, at least one of which has caused a kidney ailment, but that problem now is in check, Reinboldt said.

And thanks to Christopher’s gift, Reinboldt has enjoyed attending the weddings of his daughters, Melissa Grams, 34, and Stephanie Leao, 32, and revels in spending time with his preschool-age grandchildren, Makenna, Mason and Logan.

Reinboldt, co-owner of R&S Distributors of McHenry, said he is extremely grateful to the Carlsons, and also is thankful for his wife, who cared for him throughout his illness and recovery.

As the Reinboldts gather today with in-laws, children and grandchildren, doctors, too, will be included in Reinboldts’ Thanksgiving Day thoughts.

“I am so grateful that there are such dedicated medical personnel who know what they’re doing,” he said.

“Because Don is doing so well, you tend to forget on a daily basis how sick he was,” his wife said. “But then you think of the donor family, and they’re living every day without their son. It’s a bittersweet thing.

“It’s important for us to remember that – how fortunate we are.”

One of the ways the Reinboldts honor Chris’ memory is to support the Donna Frett Organ Donation Foundation. Frett, also of McHenry and also a transplant recipient, hosts an annual golf outing to raise awareness and help defray recipients’ medical costs.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 18 people die each day waiting for an organ, and 116,575 are on waiting lists. One donor can save as many as eight lives.

An undaunted spirit

In the past year, 23-year-old Erin Tunison has counted a lot of firsts.

She enjoyed a weekend fishing trip to Hayward, Wis., learned to scuba dive, and climbed a rock wall. The busy young woman from Prairie Grove also regularly participates in a choir and frequently goes horseback riding.

She is among the first to participate in a new Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association program called LIFE, or Leisure Increases Freedom and Enjoyment, geared toward young, disabled adults transitioning out of high school district programming.

Tunison, the daughter of Mike and Pam Tunison, was born with cerebral palsy. She uses a wheelchair and although she struggles to speak, her comprehension lacks nothing.

After returning to the NISRA office in Crystal Lake from an outing to see the play “Peter Pan” with other LIFE members, Tunison and her mother talked about some of their favorite things.

The fingers of her’ right hand running over the screen of a white iPad, Tunison opened picture after picture. In one, she looked up from the water wearing full scuba gear. In another, she leaned toward the water from a boat deck, fishing pole in hand.

“I caught a bass,” she said, her head swaying a bit as she turned to make eye contact.

Up went each hand above her shoulders, her smile beaming, when asked the size of the fish.

Tunison received NISRA’s 2012 Courage Award for her eagerness always to try new things, said Sarah Holcombe, manager of communication and marketing for NISRA.

Pam Tunison said her spirited daughter’s quality of life is greatly enhanced by volunteers and organizations, including Main Stay Therapeutic Riding, Diveheart, Fishing Has No Boundaries, “and, of course, NISRA.”

Later-life discovery

The message arrived in Pete Merkel’s email box July 6.

“Hi,” it said. “My name is Marilyn Merkel Riep and my daughter and I have been looking into our ancestry. Are you related to [an] Edna Merkel by chance? Would appreciate hearing from you. Thank you, Marilyn.”

“It was kind of just out of the blue,” said Merkel, McHenry’s Parks and Recreation director and a retiring County Board member who will turn 60 this month.

Edna was, in fact, Merkel’s grandmother, who was married for a time in the late 1920s and early ’30s to a Joseph Merkel, Pete Merkel’s biological grandfather – and Marilyn Merkel Riep’s father.

Merkel’s father, “Big Pete,” died of a heart attack when Pete and his siblings were young. And of an original five, Pete, his brother, Rick, and their sister, Candy, already have mourned the deaths of a brother, Tom, and sister, Lynne.

The family occasionally wondered whether the grandfather they never knew had remarried and had other children.

Now they know, and a big Merkel reunion is in the planning stages for next summer, including the heretofore unknown Merkels of Wood Dale and Ohio.

“We all had our curiosities about it,” Rick Merkel said, recalling that he learned as a teen that Joe Mayer was not his biological grandfather. “But you didn’t think about, well, OK, how do I find this person?”

Rick Merkel, who is 54, said he is grateful that his half-cousin, Suzanne Ogilbee of Powell, Ohio, dug into her ancestry, turning up clues that led her to provide his brother Pete Merkel’s email address to her mother, Marilyn.

Rick, his cousin, Jim Merkel, and Jim’s wife, Melody, traveled to Wood Dale in October to meet Marilyn, who lives near Columbus, Ohio, and Marilyn’s sister, Claudia, who lives in Wood Dale.

“We sat and talked for two or three hours, sharing pictures and birth certificates and marriage certificates,” Rick Merkel said.

The aunts also brought along a recording they had made of their father, Rick’s grandfather.

“To hear his voice and hear him playing the piano was kind of cool,” Rick Merkel said.

Future family gatherings will be richer, all because Suzanne Ogilbee, who started doing a simple family tree for her daughter’s baby book two years ago, became hooked on ancestry.com.

“My original intention was to complete the tree only up through my grandparents,” she said. “However, I became fascinated with all of the information I was uncovering and couldn’t stop.”

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