My former wife Jan Breunig was laid to rest near Sauk City yesterday, and I have no doubt she is with the angels now. She loved angels. She made four huge, beautiful cross-stitched angels which were appropriately framed and hung in our former home in Madison.
We met on a blind date in 1982 when we were both working in Oshkosh and were married about a year later. We parted ways in 1996, sitting down together at the kitchen table with a legal pad, dividing assets and liabilities prior to an uncontested divorce. We remained cordial to the end of her days. Just a few days before she passed, she phoned from a rehab center in Sauk City to wish me a happy birthday and we chatted briefly about family, and how she hoped she’d soon recover from a fall she’d had a few weeks prior and be able to go home.
We spent time in some of our nation’s most interesting cities, travelling to her nursing conventions. It was in Cape Cod in ’83, after attending one of her conventions in Boston, that we decided to get married.
Here's a photo of Jan, just before addressing a national advanced practice nursing convention in Boston.
We got married and bought a huge, beautiful home on the north side of Oshkosh - which Jan, ever practical, thought was “too big”.
Here's a photo of Jan painting the deck surrounding the pool at our home in Oshkosh shortly after we were married. She had her dad's sense of practicality, and never "hired out" a job she could do herself.
She loved to grow things, and turned the northeast corner of the expansive lot at our Oshkosh home into a garden.
Just as we had finished furnishing and decorating that huge home, making it our own, hosting parties with our friends and families and were settling into a life together, we both lost our jobs. We put the big house on the market, sold it unbelievably quickly and had a contest to see who could get a job first and agreed that we would go wherever the job took us.
Jan won; after negotiations, she accepted a job with a Chicago-based national health care organization which wanted her to set up a joint-venture home health care operation with one of the South’s most prestigious hospitals, the Ochsner Medical Institutions in New Orleans. The day she accepted the offer, we went to lunch to celebrate, and when we got home there was a message on the answering machine, offering me a senior administrative position with a major public university in Ohio. We laughed at the timing, packed up, and moved to The Big Easy.
Living in New Orleans is an experience never to be forgotten. I loved the city; Jan tolerated it. Business moves at a different pace in The City That Care Forgot. Within a few weeks of arriving in southern Louisiana, I was able to land a great job with Xavier University. After a year there, and getting their joint venture up and running, Jan told the folks at headquarters in Chicago that she was more than ready for a move.
They gave her a choice of New York City or Los Angeles. That’s how good she was at her job. The powers-that-be in Chicago were ready to send her to her choice between the two largest cities in America. She asked me which I preferred, and soon the movers had packed up our stuff and we were headed to the west coast.
I was in heaven; Jan was buried in work. I went to a headhunter a few days after we were unpacked and settled in, and had my pick of five jobs. I interviewed for and was offered a job as General Manager of a Business Electronics firm. A few months later, I was recruited by a huge media consulting corporation and went to work for them. I was having the time of my life. Jan was working incredible hours and facing challenge after challenge. There was tremendous pressure from Chicago to accomplish nearly impossible tasks, and, of course, absolutely no support. We were making tons of money. We discussed it.
Here's a shot from our Los Angeles days, taken from the Griffith Observatory. That's the L-A skyline in the background, complete with the standard smog.
She said with her advanced practice nursing degrees (Jan earned a BSN and an MSN) and accreditations, she could work registry jobs with hospitals all over the L-A metro and make great money – literally hundreds of dollars for an 8-hour shift, and much more for a 12-hour shift; working three days a week doing 12-hour shifts she could command a six-figure income, and have absolutely no management worries. She’d work difficult and challenging shifts in ER’s all over L-A. Her “favorite” was Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, followed closely by the big Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills. She was constantly on the run during those long shifts, dealing with life and death decisions, but she’d come home and leave the job behind her.
And she would be taking care of patients, the real reason she got into nursing. So she told the boys in Chicago to stick it, and took registry jobs.
In the late spring of ’88, there was family trouble at home in Sauk City. Serious enough that she thought it would be best to move back there. I fought it. I dragged my feet. But I acceded, and again we packed up everything we owned in one huge Ryder truck – pulling a big U-Haul trailer – and rented a home in Middleton.
Here's a photo of that strange combination of Ryder truck and U-Haul trailer in front of our suburban L-A home, just before we left to return to Madison. Jan's dad and her uncle flew out to L-A to help us move, and we just couldn't get everything we wanted to keep into that truck - so we rented the trailer and put the rest of our stuff in it.
I’d accepted a job with my former employer and shortly after we were settled in, Jan took a management job at a downtown Madison rehab facility. Within a couple months she had landed the job she really wanted, at UW Health, working in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Clinic at University Hospital.
She flourished in that job. She published articles that led to speaking engagements at high-powered health care conferences all over the nation. The doctors loved her, the patients loved her. She was a brilliant diagnostician. She and a few of her other Advanced Practice Nursing Practitioners lobbied the state government and won “prescriptive authority” for board-certified Nurse Practitioners in Wisconsin. (In other words, it gave Master’s Degree nurses with the APNP designation the authority to write prescriptions under the protocols of their institution.)
I was rebuilding an AM radio station which was once the premier station in the city (the former WISM-AM) and loving the rocket-ride back to respectable ratings for the station. Long hours, starting with the morning show, which meant I’d have to get up around 3:45 AM to be in the studio, and several times a month, after the morning show, I’d be on the company plane headed to one of the other affiliate stations to do programming, news, and management consulting work.
Both of us were working the long hours again, but it was fun for both of us, we had a comfortable income, had bought a nice home, were driving expensive cars (Corvettes and Cadillacs for me, low-slung sports cars and big SUV’s for Jan) and we did at least two international vacation trips every year. Work hard, play hard.
We flew to Denver quite a bit to spend time with my brother Pat and his (now former) wife Joann. Here we are getting ready to tailgate before a Bronco's game in '89. We went to a lot of Broncos and Rockies games together.
Here's a photo from - I think - 1991, at my brother's home in Denver, with Jan holding our nephew Joseph. Jan loved kids, but a horrible, crushing car wreck that she was in when she was a senior in high school left her unable to have children of her own.
Our careers moved on and Jan's star continually rose in the medical community. We added a huge deck and put in a big pool and had a three-season “Florida room” built onto the house. I called it our “lawn elimination program”. Jan re-landscaped the entire property, with shrubs and beautiful flowers. She created and tended a garden. She took up cross-stitch and knitting and made clothes for all our family members.
We took warm-weather vacations every year during January in Wisconsin, visiting Florida, Cancun, the Bahamas - where we bought a parcel of land thinking we'd eventually build a vacation home - and other exotic locales. Above is a photo of us on vacation in Aruba in '91 or '92.
Jan's diagnostic skills and her ability to notice small things that could have a big health impact were legendary. At a summertime pool party we held for my family at our home in Madison, my mom was getting out of the pool and drying off. Jan said “Pauline, let me see the back of your neck – I think you have melanoma there.” As always, Jan’s diagnosis was correct; my mom’s doctors in Appleton confirmed it a couple days later, and said Jan had spotted it just in time; they were able to remove the cancer surgically and mom has been cancer free since.
In the spring of ’93 we made another of our frequent trips to Colorado to spend a few days with my brother and his wife and family. I got sick. At first Jan thought it might have been the altitude. We’d rented a car at the old Stapleton airport and driven up to Aspen to my brother’s condo. Jan said maybe we should go from 8 thousand feet in Aspen down to 5200 feet in Denver – to make it easier for me to breathe. We left for Denver the next morning. I was getting sicker, not better. Jan said we’d best get on a plane back to Madison right away. We did. When we got home, I was breathing a bit better but still very sick.
Jan wanted to take me to the ER at UW Hospital, but I said I just wanted to rest. I was so tired. She said we had to go RIGHT NOW. I protested. I was so tired. She hauled me up off the bed, helped me into her car, and we headed for the ER. I passed out in the car and Jan punched me in the arm, hard. She kept yelling “stay awake, stay awake, don’t go back to sleep”. She kept punching me and yelling to keep me awake.
When we got to the ER, they put me onto a gurney and wheeled me into a room. I was tired and dizzy and all of a sudden I was dead. Saw the white light and everything. I remember the sensation of rising up and looking down onto my body on the gurney in the ER. 47 seconds of flat-line. I woke up hours later, in a hospital room, with paddle burns on my chest from the defibrillator and a hole in my sternum from where the ER docs rammed a needle full of epinephrine into my heart.
They told me most people don’t survive something like that. I still have the little printout strip from the EKG with the 47 seconds of flatline; I still have the blood work printout where many of the items on the list say “value not consistent with life”.
What Jan had realized was that I had pneumonia, and my body was shutting down. I could quite literally have died if she hadn’t taken immediate action that resulted in saving my life. I am alive today only because she saved my life.
My lungs are still compromised – they always will be; and the bitter cold air of January really, really bothers me, but I’m alive thanks to Jan.
Our lives moved on together.
Jan bought one of those new-fangled “home computers” – back then, it was Windows 3 for PC’s – and taught me how to run it. She was always just a step or two ahead of the times on stuff like that, always learning, always experimenting with new technologies.Jan loved sporty cars, and the car above was one of her favorites - a classic 1984 Datsun 280 ZX Turbo 2+2, which I gave her as a 40th birthday present in '94. She'd owned a beautiful '84 Datsun Turbo Z when we lived in New Orleans, and just loved it. We kept that blue Z-car for years, taking it with us to L-A and then to Madison, but it finally became prohibitively expensive to maintain and we traded it in on a brand new Nissan 4-Runner SUV that Jan had her eye on. But I knew she missed that Z-car. A few years later, I saw the car above on a lot in Madison, and knew it would be the perfect birthday surprise for her.
Above is a photo of the "original" '84 Turbo-Z that Jan bought when we lived in New Orleans. This photo was taken in front of our town house in Metairie (west suburban New Orleans) right after she got the car. She loved the removable T-tops and wasn't afraid to use the car's horsepower. When we moved from New Orleans to L-A, she flew out ahead to start her new assignment and I drove her beloved Turbo-Z from New Orleans to L-A. On the second day of the long journey, I gassed up somewhere in Texas and followed a brand new Corvette from the gas station back onto I-40 headed to El Paso. The Corvette kept it at an even hundred miles an hour, so I just set the cruise control on the Z-car to 100 and followed him about a quarter-mile back. Needless to say, we made good time!
But, things sometimes change.
One September afternoon, as I was mowing what was left of the lawn around our home, I realized that I was falling in love with the woman I’d worked with, doing the morning show, on the radio station. She’d moved on to TV, but we’d remained good friends. Jan and I had often baby-sat her kids when she divorced her husband and became a single mom. I tried for a long time to fight the feelings, but couldn’t deny them. Shortly after our 13th wedding anniversary, Jan and I separated. I moved into a condo in Fitchburg.
Six months later Jan and I divorced, and a year and a half after that – on Friday the 13th in June of ’97- I married my former morning show co-host and became stepfather to her two middle-school age kids. Our son and his wife made me a grandpa this past October, a couple days before our daughter married the man of her dreams in Connecticut. Toni and I have been together 18 years now, although we first met at work 27 years ago. She is my best friend and I cannot imagine a life without her.
Jan and I stayed in touch; she dated a couple guys but nothing too serious. She finally met and married a really great guy, Larry, with whom she shared the rest of her life. They travelled internationally, and even built her dream home on a hill overlooking beautiful scenery near Sauk City. I’m glad she got to do so many things she always wanted to, with Larry as a wonderful husband and companion.
Without warning in ’04, when she was 50 years old, she suffered a massive stroke. Docs said she wouldn’t walk again. She proved them wrong with her massive will power, but her work days were over. She took full disability from her UW Health job and retired.
Not too long after she and Larry had moved into the beautiful home they’d built, on a blustery late fall night, Jan had another stroke. They took her to the hospital in Sauk City, where they stabilized her as best they could, and called for MedFlight to airlift her to UW Hospital, where she could get the best care. But with wind gusts of more than 50 miles an hour, MedFlight was grounded. It was simply impossible to fly in such conditions.
They put Jan into an ambulance and drove to Madison as fast as they dared, but every minute that passed meant more damage was being done to Jan’s incredible brain. When she was released from the ICU at UW Hospital to a rehab facility, she asked me to visit. I sat in the lobby waiting for her to be brought out in her wheelchair.
The nurses were wheeling patients around the lobby and to the elevator; it was around lunch time. A nurse was pushing a woman in a wheelchair toward me. I didn’t recognize the woman. Then it dawned on me – my God, it was Jan. She had a huge post-surgical scar all around her skull, much of her hair had been shaved off, her left eye had a big cushioned patch over it, and her left arm was immobilized. Her speech was barely intelligible.
I remember being angry after the initial shock wore off – angry that God would let this happen to such a wonderful person. Jan’s dad told me the prognosis was not good. She’d never walk again; she’d likely regain only a small capacity for speech; a litany of bad news.
As usual, Jan beat the odds, learned to walk with a cane, her speech continued to get better, and before long, she and Larry were taking trips to Hawaii, going on cruises, and Jan was enjoying life again. We would talk on the phone three or four times a year; she wanted to know all about how my family members were; she wanted to hear all about my stepchildren’s successes and adventures; she was making the absolute best of the capacity left in her body after that second stroke.
She sent Christmas letters with pictures of her travels with Larry; she never missed sending birthday cards to my brothers and sisters and stayed in touch with them. Just before my birthday, this past May 31st, Jan called and said she’d taken a fall, and was spending some time in a rehab facility in Sauk City, and she wouldn’t be able to get a birthday card in the mail to me, but wanted to wish me a happy birthday. We chatted for a bit and then she had to go to a rehab class.
That was my last interaction with her. On Thursday, June 11th, she had another stroke while in the rehab facility; again they transported her to UW Hospital, but – there was nothing the doctors could do. She passed away in mid-afternoon, and her funeral was held at St. Norbert’s in Roxbury on June 17th.She is with the angels now. I am privileged to have shared some of the best years of her life.