Albert Einstein said, "Life is a mystery, not a problem to be solved."
The same is true of death.
Last Friday, suddenly and inexplicably, Colorado Springs heard the tragic news of the death of two of its most beloved sisters, Pamela Hartman, 46, and Jeanne Kerechanin, 54.
En route to Beloit, Wisconsin, and Pam's brother's funeral, the couple was caught in a fiery pile-up on an interstate highway in Nebraska when 60-miles-per-hour winds, whipping up dust from a nearby field, produced a brown out. A semi driver hit his brakes, causing a chain reaction of collisions behind him.
Pam and Jeanne's friend Leslie speculated that they died instantly, then added, "At least they were together."
That friend, like many others, was a former long-term employee of Poor Richard's restaurant, the downtown eatery that feeds hundreds of regulars weekly and serves as a hangout for countless others.
There was no irony lost in the fact that just as the news of Pam and Jeanne's passing began to spread around downtown on Friday morning, demonstrators from Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church appeared around the corner from the restaurant at Palmer High School, carrying signs spewing their hatred of gays, some of the most hideous slogans carried by children.
Across the street, an estimated 1,000 counter-demonstrators peacefully protested the Westboro contingent's presence and their politics. Among that group were many personal friends of Pam and Jeanne, including Vice Mayor Richard Skorman, their employer. Had they been in town, they most definitely would have been there.
Long before the battle over the legality of gay marriage became a hot topic, Pam and Jeanne committed themselves to one another and to raising their son, Eli, now 19. In addition to Eli, now a student at CU-Boulder, they also left behind Jeanne's son Mike Gerbig and his wife Allison of Manitou Springs, who are expecting their first child in August.
"They were so excited to be grandparents," said Patricia Seator of Poor Richard's.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the doors of Poor Richard's were closed. Regular patrons paced the sidewalk, lost in sorrow and worry. Even if they didn't know Pam's name, they knew her curly salt-and-pepper hair, pulled back with a bandana, and her quiet way and smiling eyes. Even if they didn't know Jeanne, they knew the vigorous woman with the artificial limb who worked the kitchen and directed all the various building and repair projects at the restaurant.
On Sunday at dusk, fat snowflakes began to fall, washing away messages written in colored chalk along the sidewalk: You changed my life. I will never forget you. Thank you for always being so kind to us every time we came to the restaurant. Huddled against the building were a growing assortment of flower arrangements with personal notes addressed to Pam and Jeanne, and candles flickering in the wind.
On Monday, Poor Richard's reopened without its managers of the past 13 years.
"They were really my partners," said Skorman. "I let them run everything, manage the money, make all the decisions. There was no one I trusted as much to take care of this business that's really like a child to me."
When Skorman ran for City Council 6 years ago, Pam and Jeanne took over full-time management of the business.
"If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have been able to be involved in politics, leaving the business sometimes for weeks at a time. They took all the heat, all the worry, all the late-night phone calls."
They were his friends, said Skorman, the best friends imaginable.
"Personally, I just had so much respect for both of them," he said. "I shared my deepest secrets with them. I spent a lot of time with them. I worried about Jeanne when she was sick and they were the same way when I needed their help. They were the kind of friends I could call in the middle of the night and they would be there for me, and vice versa."
At the restaurant on Monday, employees baked pizzas and built salads and mourned. Helen, who has worked at the restaurant for six months, said, "I saw Pam on Tuesday; she was in a lot of grief over losing her brother.
"She was so loving and caring. She would listen to your stories about your life, and she always remembered everything, even the names of your cats and dogs."
Bea, who has worked at the restaurant for the past one and a half years, said she had known Pam since she was a little girl.
"They are in every corner of this place," she said, looking at the orange walls. "Jeanne painted this place."
In the kitchen, Roanna and Rowena remembered their bosses.
"They helped my partner and I find our house," said Roanna. "Jeannie came in and did our plumbing for us, framed doors for us. She would rather fix things herself than pay someone else to do it. She was such a badass, and a great teacher.
"Jeanne would be pissed for us to be closed all weekend," she added, laughing.
"They were people who were really true to themselves," said Rowena, who has been at Poor Richard's for two years. "They gave me a chance and gave me some stability in my life. When I came here I was in trouble, I had some hard things in my life. They didn't judge me; they were so loving and understanding."
As Poor Richard's employees look to each other for comfort, restaurant patrons look to them to keep the spirit of the place going, a huge responsibility not lost on Terri, a long-term employee who will be taking over many of Pam and Jeanne's responsibilities. They built a family, says Terri, not just a business.
"Most of us had the chance to tell Pam and Jeanne we loved them before they left, and I'm so grateful for that," she said.
A memorial service will be held this Saturday, March 19, at Manitou City Hall, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. On Saturday evening at 6 p.m., a celebration of the lives of Pam Hartman and Jeanne Kerechanin will be held at Poor Richard's restaurant.
"We always knew they were wonderful," said Rowena. "Now we realize what an impact they had on everyone."
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