Saturday, November 10, 2012

Farewell, Dear Friend

Life always brings us great highs and some unthinkable lows. Like a well-tuned sine wave, the peaks of the highs of life are often ecstatic and joyful, like the birth of a child, the marriage of a loving couple, etc. Yet, to remain in balance, the lows mirror the opposite highs. And almost to anyone, the lowest point we can find is the loss of someone close to us; perhaps a family member or a good friend. The sadness and grief seem insurmountable; a return to normalcy a distant light similar to the stars, light-years away, unreachable in our lifetimes. Many of us stand at that low point this weekend, for we have lost a son, a brother, a husband, and a good friend this past week, Joel Connable.

My life experiences in Jewish ritual have brought me through many occasions of this cycle of life. Though not an ordained rabbi, I have officiated at many of the happy events and all too many of the saddest. I have officiated at numerous funerals, both for acquaintances and strangers. Yet, as prepared as I am to officiate when called upon, I have found that as of late, I am ill-prepared to deal with the loss of a close friend or relative. I find myself in that situation, once again.

I knew Joel for a couple of years before I had even met him. Joel came to South Florida as a reporter for our local NBC "O & O" (Owned and Operated) station, WTVJ, Channel 6. From the start, my wife and I liked his reporting style. He did not simply look into the camera; Joel looked through the camera, directly at his viewers. Each of us felt that Joel was speaking directly to us.

Before too much time had passed, one of NBC6's key anchors, the wonderful Tony Segretto, retired, leaving the main 6 PM and 11 PM newscasts needing someone to step into Tony's shoes, and those were big shoes to fill. Smartly, Joel was chosen as the new anchor and he transitioned into the position seamlessly. Bear in mind that Tony had been a long-time name and favorite at NBC6, having been one of the three people who hunkered down in the old studio and weathered Hurricane Andrew in 1992. At that time, Tony was the lead sportscaster from the station and had spent his entire career at WTVJ. No matter who was awarded the anchor's chair, he or she would be looked at very critically by WTVJ's viewers. Yet, Joel sat down that first evening and "sold it."

The two stories that had the most impact on my of Joel's ability to deliver news were the story he did on his own health situation with Type 1, Juvenile Diabetes. Joel was first diagnosed around the age of twelve or thirteen and by this point, was using an insulin pump to regulate his system. In this story, he spoke directly to a younger audience, South Florida teens, who were fighting the same battle as he had. It was a great educational peace, expressing the fact that even with JD, you could achieve whatever your dreams were. He explained that he had himself been a paramedic, a volunteer firefighter, a private pilot, and even a news anchor. He admonished the kids to not give up on life. instead, they should shape their lives into what they wanted. JD was just along for the ride.

The second story was the miraculous landing of the US Airways jet in the Hudson River in New York City. Both his passion for and, experience in aviation, gave him a unique perspective to report from, unlike the average reporter who would simply be a "newsreader." Joel used every "weapon" in his arsenal, to help the viewer understand every angle of the accident, the rescue, the impact on the passengers, and most of all, the pressure and stress that the pilot and co-pilot were under once they made their fateful decision.

Our family watched that 6 PM newscast each evening, followed by the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Until, one week in 2009, we found substitutes sitting in Joel's chair. At first, we took it as his vacation time or illness. After several weeks, we knew there had to have been a change. Never one to just walk away from change of something I liked, I started snooping around online to see if I could determine where had he disappeared to.

Finally, I turned to Facebook. There, I found Joel's page. Though there were no hints there as to what had happened between him and NBC6, I learned more about his life. I dropped him a polite note, advising that our family missed him and inquiring if everything was OK in his life. I also mentioned that I too, had been a volunteer firefighter/EMT, in Upstate New York and that my partners and I had a production company working to produce a reality series based on the fire service. If he had any interest, I enclosed my business number for him to call. Honestly, I didn't expect to receive an answer. This guy was an anchor at a major television station, one actually owned by the network. He had hundreds of Facebook "friends," and I would probably be looked at as a "stalker-fan."

And that was exactly what didn't happen! Joel accepted my "friend" request and wrote me a very nice note. While he didn't explain what was going on with him and NBC6, he did express an interest in our plans for a TV series and would love to get together to have lunch and talk. No matter where you're from, if you're a firefighter and meet another firefighter, the first thing you both do after the preliminary greetings, is to swap fire and rescue stories with each other. We met at a Kosher Israeli restaurant in Sunrise and spent a couple of hours getting to know each other and tossing around ideas to tweak our concept for the television series.

It was Joel, who before we had even spoke with any companies or agents in Los Angeles, who had the idea of steering the show away from the run-of-the-mill, everyday-type of calls, to highlighting departments, not just domestically, but internationally, as well, that had to meet unique challenges that most of us would never see. The scenes started popping up, one after the other, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Hawaii County Station 19 on Kona, facing at least two active volcanos, Israel Fire Brigade and Magen David Adom (Israel's EMS) rockets being fired over the border daily, Paris with their mobile Emergency Rooms, and many more. This was where Joel's love for and experience in travel provided us with several "ins" for contacting international departments. It was also his idea that instead of a standard "host" for the show, we would make the host participate in every rescue or incident. The host would be like a fish out of water, thrust into the most difficult parts of the incident.

I loved his ideas, but more, I loved his passion and dedication. He took my original idea, fine-tuned it to meet what we believed would generate interest as a news reporter and thus, to the networks, and gave it a strong breath of life. We entered the restaurant as acquaintances via social media and walked out as friends.

Needless to say, when I spoke with my partners that evening, everyone liked what they heard. They liked the edge that Joel brought to the concept of the show and they too were amazed, that from such an inconsequential connection via social media, we had a new direction to use to steer our production.

At the same time, Joel and his business partner were now working on their travel promotion business. Yet, he never turned me down for a lunch meeting or a planning session. At that time, we had a new puppy, Remy, and once, when we were going to meet at his apartment, he invited me to bring Remy to meet his adorable Lola. I packed Remy’s bag with her food and toys to keep her busy so as not to bother Lola if they didn’t socialize well. No need to worry. They got along famously, running all around the apartment, jumping over the couches, the tables, the toys, and yes, even us.

That December, he hosted a get-together at his apartment on the Saturday evening of the Winterfest Boat Parade. His living room, on the thirtieth floor, had a beautiful view of the New River, and though it was raining, the parade went on and we had a fantastic view. As the consummate host, he was running around making sure everyone had something to drink and eat.

For the next few months we worked hard on the show and making contacts. The existing partners of Dalmatian all agreed that Joel had given so much to the new plan that we would bring him in as a full partner of the corporation. We closed a deal with the San Francisco Fire Department to fly out in April 2010 and film with them. Joel told me to take care of the business side of the shoot and he would arrange all the travel plans and bring on board our two terrific video-journalists, Adam Kaplan and Eric Rodriguez.  We had a great time with the department and they were as helpful as could be. Unfortunately, the show did not come about, but it was not due to lack of effort. We even put Joel in some really unprofessional bits, but he was game for it all. “Whatever it takes,” he told our partner, Jesse and me. While there, he did shoot a terrific piece on the San Francisco Fire Department’s Ladder Shop, with Adam. That piece brought us a Suncoast Emmy nomination.

During the shoot, I fell and blew out my knee. Joel called the airline and tried to get me bumped up to first-class. He was pretty “determined” on the phone, to say the least, but that cabin was full. He came to me so apologetic that he hadn’t been successful. I told him not to worry, I’d be fine. But that’s the kind of person he was.

Time passed and luckily, Joel’s “Travel News Network” was becoming more and more successful. He was able to travel a great deal, oft times, with his parents. I remember him telling me about their upcoming trip to Europe and how much he was looking to be able to go with them. As I used to do, I depended heavily on my late parents for advice and direction when I was perplexed. When Joel was confused about his life, he turned to his parents and as he would tell me of their conversations, they reminded me of my own parents and the encouragement and advice they would give me.

As busy as he was, Joel would still drop me a line here and there. When my wife had significant surgery this past March, he chided himself in an email, for not having checked up on us sooner. I told him not to worry about it, since we both knew how much he cared. He told me about his darling Angela and the happiness she brought into his life.

About six weeks ago, I found a couple of video games I had borrowed a while ago and had forgotten to return earlier. I sent him the package with a “mea culpa” not enclosed. He wrote me back and told me not to worry about it. Then he told me he was heading up to Seattle, getting back into television news and he was going to be able to keep the travel business going as well.  But most importantly, he told me that he and Angela were engaged. I wished him a “mazal tov” and we both said we’d be in touch. But, we won’t. Not anymore.
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life and may his memory always be for a blessing.





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