Seven Years Gone, And Still Changing Lives Posted on January 21st, 2022 by

I was snuck up on yesterday.  By sadness.


I had been going along at a lovely pace of “accept what you cannot change and work towards changing what you can” for the past three months.  Pretty content.  Envisioning the future of TLC and the wonderful things unfolding, as well as the challenges we face like all organizations in a pandemic.  And I was quite happy in these endeavors.

But yesterday, sadness came up from behind and tapped me on the shoulder.  It was a specific sadness, not the sometimes-nebulous sadness that depression or anxiety can bring.  It had a name and a face.


Steve Wilkinson.  Seven years ago today, Steve passed away.  Seven years.  How can that be?  Someday someone will be saying that about you and me.  But not today.  Today I say it about Steve.


Looking back can be both beautiful and painful. 


I remember years ago sitting in the kitchen eating Cheerios with our daughter, Madeline.  I said to her, “I am sad today.”  She asked why.  I said, “Steve is going to die.”  This was when he first got his terminal diagnosis.  She loved Steve, he was always kind to her when she visited camp.  But she kept eating her Cheerios, and then said, “Everyone is going to die someday, Dad.”   Another bite.  Silence.  “You’re going to die.”  Another bite.  Silence.  “And I’m going to die, too.”  And finished her Cheerios.  Not without compassion, but clear-eyed, even as a ten-year-old, about the reality we all face.


And Steve had that same mentality.  He did not ask “Why me?”  H
e said, “Here are the cards I have been dealt, how do I want to play my final hand?”  Ultimately, he asked what he asked all the time before his diagnosis, “How can I serve others with the time I have left?”


He taught tennis until he couldn’t teach anymore.  He put smiley faces on until he couldn’t put smiley faces on anymore.  And he wrote his book, Let Love Serve, which is the guide of the TLC philosophy we used before he wrote it, but has become the textbook for going forward as a camp and as people since.


I’ll never forget Steve’s last days in his hospice bed in the living room of his house, the house that sits right next to the dorm where every camp for the past 45 years has been lodged (save the tornado summer in Winona in 1998).


If I have written this before, forgive me.  But the imprint is indelible.


Everyone wanted to see him before he died.  He had such a parade of visitors that Barb had to act as gatekeeper so he wouldn’t wear out.


Steve’s whole life was about service.  It was his goal. 


So, as he was in the process of dying, he had an idea. He could not get out of bed, he barely had the strength to talk, he could not do really anything that healthy human beings can do, but he could still serve.


And what he did, in his particular “Steve” way, was match up people who never knew each other, but who Steve thought should know each other.  Should be connected.  To light a spark of friendship that could double the impact of serving others in the world.


He scheduled these strangers together to sit by his bedside.  And he would listen to the conversation and smile as he saw another bridge built before these two people left the room as friends.


I wrote above that looking back can be painful and beautiful.  The painful part is we will not see each other again.  The beautiful part is we get to see him in almost every staff member and camper who attends TLC, leaving camp having built bridges all over the place, with people who you would not expect necessarily to bond in that way.


Today, I miss Steve, and I see him clearly.  As always, he is smiling and offering a high five.  Whether you met him or not, you have been impacted by who he was.


So, today, in honor of Steve’s memory, build a bridge with someone.


We need it now more than ever in this world, in this country, in our lives.


And today, though I am sad, I am grateful, determined, and hopeful.  All the things Steve taught through his actions to the very end.



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  1. Todd Bowlby says:

    Thanks Neal for the nice post on remembering Steve! I find myself many times sitting down and reading chapters from Let Love Serve – because it brings a sense of calm and balance to my life! He was an amazing person and I miss him a lot! Thanks for all your work at TLC and carrying on Steve’s legacy!

  2. Shery Clark says:

    Neal, thanks for your reflections on Steve. I love the simplicity of your daughter’s response over Cherrios, grounding and priceless! I am so thankful for the opportunity I had and my family to know and learn with him and you all at family camps. It is exceptional how what Steve and Barb created lives on strong through all of us and it continues to evolve and grow.

  3. Craig Nichols says:

    I grew up in Sioux City Iowa. My Dad was a CPA . He had a CPA friend who had some kids and our families became good friends. We did a lot together . Us kids even went to Central High School together . And after that went to The University of Iowa . I loved that family. The oldest son was a such a great athlete , but more important he was a humble, kind and caring person, a true Christian who showed his thoughtfulness and love. His name was Steve Wilkinson

  4. Susie says:

    Namaste. Amen. Love.ThanksGiving.

  5. Rozan Anderson says:

    So well said, Neal. Steve has had a huge impact on us all, and I cherish the time I had with him and my memories with great love.

  6. John Wilkinson says:

    Thank you, Neal, for remembering Steve today. It is a sad day for me as well. Seven years has passed in a blink of my eye, and I remember that day I shared with you, but mostly I remember all that my brother shared with me over the many years we grew together. I miss him greatly.

  7. David Jussila says:

    Neal, thanks for honoring Steve’s life and legacy, and reminding us of the beauty and importance of friendship, old and new. As always, I appreciate the work you are doing! Sincerely, Dave

  8. Paul Thomas says:

    Thanks for reminding us of Steve’s vision and for helping it continue to grow.

  9. Aileen Williams says:

    Heartfelt words, glad I read this blog today.