Kim Stertzbach

To know Kim is to know a man who loved – the feel and smell of kneading dough, a perfectly placed pass to a brilliantly run buttonhook route, trading giggles with a kiddo (and ear “scrunchees” with a pup), dancing and whistling as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (and Elvis croonin’ “Oh yeah!”), smooching his sweetheart Teena, the fullness of family – and the countless friends who became family.

And to know Kim is to know a man of courage who sought paths of healing and justice for others when he became aware of their suffering; a courage to wear his compassion and desire to help on his sleeve to such a degree that he was dubbed “Sturdy-back” by those who knew him; and the courage to face with grace and faith his own path through Alzheimer’s.

Kim was born in 1945 and spent most of his growing up years in Poland, Ohio. He loved sports – was quarterback in high school and later played intramural football while in the Navy. Kim attended the University of Michigan (“M GO BLUE!!”) and graduated in 1967 with a BA in Psychology. Following college Kim served as a Lieutenant in the Navy and flew planes from the North Island Naval Air Base in San Diego, California.

Settling into a career, Kim initially worked as a stock-broker then he partnered in a business as a Certified Financial Planner. But…it was never his heart’s desire as a vocation, and it wasn’t until he spent several years being a stay-at-home dad with his two sons that he found his professional passion…as a bread maker! He “apprenticed” with a Great Harvest Bread Company in Denver, then purchased into a GHBC franchise – and loved it!

Kim and Teena (a United Methodist minister) met and fell in love in early 2001 as Kim was retiring from his baking career and he became the consummate clergy spouse – encouraging her, sharing in spiritual practice and reflection, delighting in meeting the congregants she served…and willing to help with the myriad of ministry “behind the scenes” supports. And that support continued as they moved from the Denver metro area to rural northwestern Wisconsin to help Teena’s parents close-down their Italian cuisine and pizza business when they retired (Teena continued to serve small rural United Methodist churches in the area, and Kim used his amazing breadmaking skills to revamp the family pizza dough recipe and give the already yummy pies a super send-off in those final years!).

In the Chequamegon Bay region, on the breath-taking shores of Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands, folks got to know the playful and kind man with the Harley beret whose 100-kilowatt smile accented his heartfelt greeting of “How ya doin’?!” Another familiar greeting was “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you since I last saw you?” Warm bearhugs and a tender soft touch…and legendary whistling! From bird sounds (cats would go crazy!) to intricate musical harmonies, Kim’s whistling was amazing and known throughout town (“the whistling man…oh, that’s Kim!”) as he strolled the aisles of the Washburn IGA or the Food Co-Op in Ashland.

Earlier, in Denver, Kim’s concern for those who struggled with addiction, mental illness and the impacts of poverty – as well as those who were marginalized by culture’s norms – took form in his participation in mentoring projects; as one who welcomed and included all persons into his daily life; and donated time and resources into community initiatives. In 1988 Kim and two of his best friends were foundational in the purchase and hands-on renovation of a house in the Capitol Hill area of Denver into a coffeehouse-style gathering place for persons to spend the day (into the evening) in hospitality (no strings attached!) with lots of free coffee and GHBC goodies. The Network Coffeehouse is still a vital community resource (even while COVID-constrained these days) – a legacy of love and lived values.

Kim cherished and admired his two sons, Traeger and Tanner, and his daughter-in-law Jen. And he was over-the-moon for his grandson Henry – even in the last days of his Alzheimer’s, Teena could always get a smile from Kim by regaling him with Henry stories. Sadly, with the advanced Alzheimer’s, Kim never met his granddaughter Maddie (aged two) but she would have stolen his heart…big time! Kim’s spirit of “big love” extended to Teena’s family and sons Dan and Celso, and his sisters-in-law (Desdamona and Robin) and brother-in-law Hal and their kiddos (Will, Zachary, Hana, Eva, Samantha, Miette, Susie and Chaeli) – and his special 4-legged “brother”, Sam. Kim would also get a huge smile when he shared his love and membership as one of “the 4 K’s” (siblings Karl, Kristen and Kathi) – and that love expanded to embrace his siblings’ mates and their children.

As a man of deep faith…a spirituality that was not constrained by religious rules but chose Jesus as his teacher and dear friend – Kim respected all the faith traditions of the world in their fullness. Kim’s faith was best manifested in his fearlessness with the Alzheimer’s disease…and his ideas and peacefulness about death. Kim continued to grow as a person on spiritual and interpersonal journey even after the diagnosis in 2011, and it wasn’t until sometime in 2016 that the awareness of the disease began to elude him yet did not erode his positive and playful and curious spirit. In some ways, being “free” from the filters of the parts of the brain affected by the Alzheimer’s deepened Kim’s expressions of his profound trust, and child-like wonder and awe of all and whom he encountered. Even when he reached the point of needing the dementia-informed and safer resources of a memory care facility in late 2019 (his night-time wanderings and “re-arranging” of the house [every day!], created the need for the care facility for his safety and Teena’s health), he continued to find joy and a sense of community with the residents in the memory care unit and the caring staff. Teena would spend about 3 hours each day with Kim during the times when he regularly had “sundown-like” behavior (was anxious and restless; Teena would use skills she learned from the Alzheimer’s Association to support him through these episodes) and they had a loving, playful and committed relationship. Sadly, all this changed when COVID caused the nursing homes to close their doors to family, and many residents deteriorated emotionally due to the isolation. Kim’s anxiety escalated even as Teena tried to help him (four times a week she worked with staff to have a time to engage and comfort Kim through the window of his room before he sun-downed each day [she outside with a cellphone, and he with a staff member next to him with a tablet]), but sadly he had an emotional/physical breakdown. He was removed by police and under a Chapter 51 requirement, transported to a geriatric-psychiatric hospital in Madison for 30 days. Teena was able to work with county and legal resources, and be reunited with Kim, and they lived together in a “suite” in an assisted living facility in Stanley, Wisconsin, for his final month of life.

Kim passed peacefully and fearlessly with Teena at his side and supported by the loving care of the staff of The Home Place, the assisted living facility in Stanley, Wisconsin, where Teena and Kim resided together for these final weeks.

Kim was preceded in death by his parents Joan (Searle) and Charles Stertzbach; brother-in-law Steve Earle and nephew-in-law Will Samborski; and father-in-law and mother-in-law Ugo and Marcia Racheli. He is survived – and celebrated by his wife Teena Racheli; sons Traeger (Jen) Stertzbach and Tanner Stertzbach; Grandchildren Henry and Maddie Stertzbach; siblings Karl (Thanthiam “Nang”) Stertzbach, Kristen Earle, Kathi (Herb) Hurst; beloved nieces and nephews; former spouse Lynne Kaiser (partner for many years and mother of his sons)…and so many friends and persons whose lives he has impacted, loved and touched.

Teena wishes to extend her deep gratitude to the community members and businesses of the town of Washburn (and Kim’s Chequamegon Food Co-Op “family” in Ashland) – they created the vital sense of community and inclusion during Kim’s Alzheimer’s journey which was probably the single-most factor that slowed the progression of the disease. All his at-home caregiver team (including Cheryl and Moki, Angel and Lilly, Karen, Denise, Casey, Cate, Joseph and Henri, Julie, GW, Kelly and Fred.) – they extended wise, skilled and caring love. The staff at “The Home Place” in Stanley, Wisconsin – who went above and beyond in their care, and truly made a home and family place to support Kim and Teena in their precious final days together. The Alzheimer’s Association of Wisconsin especially Kate and Shar who gracefully facilitated the support group for persons with a loved one in a care center during the pandemic nursing home closures to family members. The congregants of the United Methodist Chequamegon Bay Collaborative Ministries (Washburn, Ashland, Sanborn and Grand View) – they whole-heartedly extended their love, support and inclusion of Kim. And many, many more folk…who provided compassion and support to both Kim and Teena through their Alzheimer’s journey.

There will be two Celebrations of Kim’s Life once it is “COVID-safe” to gather, tell stories, roast corn, hug, “Hi-Five” and dance; one will be in Washburn, Wisconsin and another in Denver, Colorado – announcements will be posted.

In lieu of flowers, memorial gift donations may be made to the Alzheimer’s Association Wisconsin Chapter, 7900 W 78th St, Ste 100 Edina, MN 55439 (please include a note for donations to be applied to “care and support services”); or, the Network Ministries, PO Box 18813, Denver, CO 80218-0813. Donations can also be made through their website https://networkcoffeehouse.org/

(Copyright © 2021 APG Media)

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