EDEN — It wasn’t supposed to end this way!
The love story between Ron and Tara Rowe that began more than 43 years ago when she came into the store where Ron worked to purchase tires for her car should have continued.
After all, they had plans to take the grandchildren to Disney, were looking forward to more trips to see their daughter in Arkansas, wanted to visit the Grand Canyon again and generally just planned to grow old together.
Even when one illness after another befell the couple during the last four years, they fought through, leaning on their faith. And their Shepherd of the Hills Catholic community was right there offering support. In fact, in mid-September, during a daylong effort, parishioners pitched in to remodel their quad-level home to make it accessible for Tara and her wheelchair, fix roof leaks and assist with landscaping.
And two weeks later, the same parish community pulled together and held a fundraiser at Ledgeview Lanes in Fond du Lac, drawing more than 500 people to raise money to help the couple who had done so much for their community over the years.
In spite of the fact that Tara had both of her lower legs amputated in the past three years, she was looking forward to coming home after a stint at Harbor Haven Health and Rehabilitation Center in Fond du Lac, looking forward to things like her renovated home and “cookie day” where her extended family rents the town hall in Eden to make 3,500 to 4,000 Christmas cookies.
Yet, three days before the Oct. 2 fundraiser, Ron received a call from the rehab center that they were taking Tara to the hospital by ambulance. She had an ulcer on her esophagus, and, as Ron explained, “her blood pressure was off the charts, her kidneys went down, a lot of other organs weren’t functioning; she was not able to eat, drink.” While her other organs resumed function, Ron said the kidneys never started working again.
Tara, 61, came home from the hospital, but was placed in home hospice. She died on Friday, Oct. 7, the Feast of the Holy Rosary.
It wasn’t the ending that Ron or the Shepherd of the Hills community anticipated.
Yet, in spite of the rapid decline in her health, the community finds solace in their faith and in the inspiration of the Rowes, according to Tara’s niece, Kathy Teofilo.
“They are a great testament of what the marriage sacrament is,” said Teofilo, who was 7 when her aunt married Ron in 1976. “They took those vows for better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health and she gave of herself when she was nursing Ron back to health and he did the same for her. What a great lesson of what marriage really stands for.”
Even though Tara never got to enjoy the renovations on her home, Teofilo said the challenges faced by the Rowes pulled the community together.
“Our community has become tighter; it has brought us all together and we will always share something really special,” she added.
Ron and Tara had always immersed themselves into their community. They married at St. Patrick Church, Fond du Lac, and eventually joined St. Michael Parish, Dotyville, and later Shepherd of the Hills, Eden, when St. Michael, St. Mary, Eden and Our Lady of the Angels, Armstrong, merged, where, as Ron noted, “we pretty much did whatever anyone asked us to do.”
Over the years, he served on the parish council and was a member of the Knights of Columbus. Tara, who ran Jitters, a mobile coffee shop in town, founded the parish coffee shop where she was known for her home-baked cinnamon rolls that parishioners clamored for each Sunday. The couple helped begin the parish Life Teen program and worked with the Loaves and Fishes Program.
Describing Tara as a fabulous mother to the couple’s twin daughters, Jennifer Fain and Amanda Beihoff, now 36, Ron said it was Tara who always hosted the sleepovers, was a 4-H leader and volunteered to be the fourth grade basketball coach when no one else volunteered – even though she knew nothing about basketball. She had a fun-loving, bubbly personality, said Ron, who called his late wife “the strongest woman I ever met. What she went through in four years … she will be missed.”
The couple’s struggles began in 2012 when Ron, while on a business trip selling welding equipment for Forney Industries in the Upper Peninsula, was crossing Highway 2 by foot to get to a Walgreens. It was dusk and he was waved across the highway by a car, but neither he nor that driver saw a second car coming. As Ron described it, he became that car’s hood ornament and eventually was taken by helicopter from Ironwood, Michigan, to a trauma center in Duluth with seven or eight broken ribs, a broken shoulder blade and broken clavicle, and his face unrecognizable.
“If you saw a picture of me, you would not think I would survive,” he said.
Yet, after 18 months of rehabilitation, a time when Tara was right at Ron’s side, noted Teofilo, he pulled through. While Ron was recovering, Tara was diagnosed with Peripheral Artery Disease, an ailment that restricts the blood flow in the arteries, especially to the extremities.
Her toes began turning black, leading to the removal of her left leg under the knee in August 2013. Many hospitalizations and infections followed and as Ron was returning from a hospital visit to see Tara in Milwaukee in April 2014, he was involved in a 35-car pileup on an icy Highway 41. While he walked away from the accident without serious injury, the couple’s car was totaled.
Life seemed as if it were getting better for the Rowes, but in late 2015, Tara had problems with the blood flow in her right leg and last New Year’s Eve, her other leg was amputated, also below the knee.
She’s been in constant pain, according to Ron, and in late summer learned she would lose more of her leg, this time above the knee.
“When she lost her right leg, that really took a toll on her spirits, but she was always very faith-filled,” said Ron. “She’s a fighter, a very strong person.”
As parishioners at Shepherd of the Hills learned of their struggles, people wanted to pitch in to help, said Teofilo.
They started planning ways to help months ago, but Teofilo noted that Ron and Tara were hesitant to take the help.
“Tara and Ron are very humble people,” she explained. “They never wanted people to dote on them, they were very humble, saying, ‘We can handle it.’ But after the Dec. 31 (surgery) people were still wanting to help and we got a core group together, because Ron and Tara really touched our lives. They always give of their time and talents and never ask for anything in return.”
The group, consisting of Teofilo, Sandy Binotto, Annie Baumhardt, Mary Baumhardt, Mary Borgen, Barb Senn, Mary Ann Wagner and Fr. Mark Jones, pastor, kept approaching the Rowes, telling them they wanted to help, and Ron admitted, “They finally wore us down.”
The home renovations and fundraiser were the result.
Overwhelmed by their efforts and the turnout at the fundraiser, Ron said, while Tara missed being there by two days, her eyes teared up when they told her of the outpouring of support.
“I couldn’t even imagine it,” said Ron of the turnout at Ledgewood Lanes. “People I didn’t even know showed up.”
The event, with raffles, food and music, “Turned into this wonderful community event that brought everyone together for a common goal,” said Teofilo. “Not only our parish, but Holy Family in Fond du Lac, St. Matthew in Campbellsport, everyone donated a lot of time and resources, financial resources.”
Accepting the help was difficult, said Ron.
“I was never brought up to expect people to do things for you when you can’t do it. I always thought of being self reliant and it took Tara and me a long time to accept (the help),” he said.
Calling it pride that kept them from initially taking the help, Ron said it was “a very humbling experience to admit you need help, especially when you’re used to being the one to give the help. But I’ve come to see it’s a gracious and good thing to do and we’re learning it not only helped us, but helped the church community. I could see it last Sunday; it brought our parish a lot closer, and if we can be the catalyst for that, so be it.”
Teofilo spent much time with her aunt during her last days and prayed the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet with her.
There were moments during the couple’s last years that Teofilo said Tara would question why all the tragic events were happening to them.
“‘Why God?’ she’d ask, but would always come back around and say that this is what God planned for her, this is her story and she always tried to find that mustard seed in all that,” said Teofilo.
Their lives hold lessons for others, added Teofilo.
“You have passed on to everyone who has witnessed you, little things,” she told her uncle. “The selfless acts, the unconditional love that you two have speaks volumes and people are watching that.”