A life well-lived

We have sad news.  Bearskin Blog is mostly used for funny stories and happy updates, but we thought this was a piece of information that might be important to numerous long-time guests who regularly read this blog.

Many of you knew that Dee, the amazing woman of multiple talents who was the face at the front desk and the voice on the phone at Bearskin Lodge for years, has been ill with pancreatic cancer.  On Saturday Dee passed away.  Dee fought a formidable battle against a cancer which had, in her own words, a “grim prognosis.”   She described the treatment as “brutal,” but she was blessed to have great faith and a devoted, loving family.  Dee spent her last weeks at Solvay Hospice House, a beautiful and comfortable respite tucked in the woods in a quiet niche above Duluth.  Her family was at her side when she passed away.

When I visited her at Solvay, her room was full of fragrant flowers sent by Bearskin guests.  She seemed to enjoy the e-mails and cards she received from guests and former employees.  Dee was one of those special individuals who easily made lasting connections with others, probably because it was obvious that she was a caring person.  I also think she took some personal sustenance from her daily interactions with Bearskin guests.  She genuinely loved Bearskin and truly wanted to help our guests have wonderful vacations here. 

When we bought the resort last year, Dee had her hands full trying to deal with a family full of resort newbies.  No doubt she went home every night and rolled her eyes to Jerry and the rest of her family over our ineptitude, but she was unbelievably patient with our slow learning curve.  We couldn’t have done it without her and we will be forever grateful.  And believe me, we still miss her expertise on a daily basis!

But for many reasons, what we miss even more is Dee as a person.  One reason we miss her is that she was funny. And spunky.  When I think of Dee, I imagine her chasing down the hall, trailing a long, mistake-ridden cash register receipt, and calling out, “Young man, young man!!” (regardless of the age of the employee).  “If you keep this up, you’re going to make my hair turn blonde.” 

We could always tell when that cash register tape didn’t properly balance.  When she was having a terrible day, she would fall back on her vices – Nut Goodie bars or Peanut M&Ms, washed down with an iced tea.

On her worst days, she’d go home and watch two hours of “Walker, Texas Ranger.”  She was a kind and gentle soul, but every once in awhile it relieved her stress level to watch Chuck Norris roundhouse kick the bad guys.

We also miss Dee because she was always right.  I do mean always.  We would sometimes question how Dee went about a process, but she accomplished an incredible amount of work during her hours at the resort.  Honestly, over the past years she did the work of several people. One way she got so much done was to routinely stick to a structure that she knew would function efficiently.  Dee didn’t have time to fool around with “What if you tried this…”  She had way too much to do and too little time to do it; she was the master of staying focused on finishing the job.

Dee wasn’t just the resort manager, paymaster, human resources department, insurance administrator, front desk manager and accounting guru, she also totally ran the gift shop. It was basically her store; she did as much for that gift shop as she would have if she had owned it herself.  Dee and I went to the Upper Midwest Gift Show together last October.  I’m so happy that I was able to go with her once, because she was passionate about hunting for the perfect gifts.  (And was much better at it than I am.) It was a bit like walking through the show with a gift-buying celebrity.  Everyone seemed to know and like Dee. She was ill by the next show in January, so I went without her.  It wasn’t at all the same.

I will also always admire her total adoration for her family and grandchildren.  She and Jerry would drive to the ends of the earth (or even worse, to Oklahoma) just to support a grandchild in a race or activity. She indisputably was the kind of “Nan” everyone aspires to be.

Pancreatic cancer is an ugly, unfair disease.  Dee did not have the risk factors often associated with this.  Liquor never touched her lips, she maintained a healthy weight, she was a non-smoker and she lived a healthy lifestyle.  Research spending for pancreatic cancer is meager compared to the money spent to fight other devastating cancers; not surprisingly, the survival rate is also very low.  Those are tied together, that is not a coincidence. Screening for pancreatic cancer is essentially non-existent.  By the time symptoms are apparent, you’ve had it for a long time. 

Movie actor Patrick Swayze has been in the news regularly because he is being treated for pancreatic cancer; before that, it was Lucianno Pavarotti in the news.  “Stars” mean nothing to me, but Dee did.  Maybe the “stars” who battle pancreatic cancer can create more public awareness that will result in more research dollars being donated towards overcoming this excruciating cancer.   Breast cancer and lung cancer are examples of cancers with much better outcomes now that our society focused on research for cures; a person who gets one of those cancers usually at least has hope for the future.   With pancreatic cancer, an actual 5 year survivor is extremely rare.  It’s time to pour some money and media attention into pancreatic cancer research so that in the future good people like Dee have a fair chance to fight it.  That’s where our family health dollar donations will go in the future.

If you would like to contact Dee’s family to express condolences, please call the lodge front desk and we will help you reach them.  I think they might appreciate hearing your memories of the very wonderful person who was Dee.

8 thoughts on “A life well-lived

  1. TheJohnsonFive

    We’ve come to Bearskin for over a decade. We knew the Tuttles and we now know Bob & Sue, but we never met the guy who owned it in between. For years all of our dealings on the phone and in person at Bearskin were with Dee. She was a perfect mix of business professionalism and kindness. Bearskin was very fortunate to have her as the face and heart of the resort for all those years.

  2. Dave and Gloria Weiss

    We’ve been coming to Bearskin regularly for over 50 years, starting with a 1951 honeymoon dinner in the former old lodge. Dee’s caring and efficient administration reinforced and added to the charisma and class of this truly singular place.
    With our deepest sympathy to her family and her many friends,
    Dave and Gloria Weiss

  3. Jania I. Blakley

    I worked at Bearskin when I was a young girl of twenty years old. Dee was the first lady I spoke to, and was always there to be my Bearskin “Momma.” She listened to my complaining with a sympathetic ear, and tried to guide me with words of wisdom. She even kept in touch with me when I left–sending postcards and notes. I will never forget Dee, and I hold a special place in my thoughts and prayers for her family.

    Jania Blakley

  4. The Handegard Family, Harley, Karen, Amy, Kelly, KT & BJ

    Dee was the cream of the crop. We have been coming to Bearskin for 21 years and Dee was the one who made us feel like we owned the place. She always made time for us, did special things for us accommodating us in every way and was always interested in our kids’ lives during the off season. We always looked forward to seeing her during Memorial weekend when Harley and I would go up camping. She just made sure we were comfortable whenever we were up there. Bearskin will never be the same without her. So much change has happened over the past few years which we’ve dealt with but this one we may never get over. Her smile, her hug and her caring about and for us will be greatly missed. Dee will always be an integral part of our many special and wonderful memories of, as our kids call it, “our cabin”. This family truly loved Dee.

    Our deepest sympathy to her family and the family of Bearskin in the loss of an incredible lady and friend.

    The Handegards

  5. The Handegard roses were there when I visited Dee at Solvay, as well as flowers from the Arbisi family. They made the whole room smell so good — it smelled like a spring garden in there. I know those flowers took a circuitous journey to reach her (somewhat my fault) but they were still very lovely.


  6. Karen and Tom Reynolds

    It’s so hard to put into words how much our feelings about Dee are intertwined with our feelings about Bearskin. As I explained to Sue when she and I first corresponded after she and Bob became owners, particularly after Dave and Barb sold, Dee became Bearskin to us. She was kind, generous, inclusive, interested in us and our kids, and made every single guest feel that Bearskin was their own private slice of heaven on earth. What a truly remarkable woman. We feel privileged to have known her and to have shared her with her family and the rest of the Bearskin clan.

    Karen and Tom Reynolds

  7. Al & Helen Hamble

    We are very sorry to hear about Dee. Everyday I will be reminded of her as I look at the matching picture frame and business card holder(with butterfly’s)that I bought in the gift shop at Bearskin. Bearskin is our Heaven on Earth and we hope to see you again, Rest in the arms of the Lord Dee. Dee always made sure that we had a nice stay at Bearskin for Our Wedding Anniversary. We are lighting a luminary for her in our local Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society.

  8. Sarah Dale

    I really missed Dee last week when we were up at Bearskin. She was my up north “best friend” and was very special to all of us. Last year when I went through my own cancer treatment Dee would call me and check to see how I was doing, she really cared. Alan, Christopher, and I have been going to Bearskin for 20 years. I manage to get up there 2-3 times a year. I’ve always loved hearing Dee’s cute stories about her grandchildren and all the fun things they did, she loved her family. Dee always made our northwoods experience extra special, she will be in my prayers, always.

    Sarah Dale – Cabin 10

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