Simply put, we lost a ‘rock star’ in Diane Day
I’m pretty sure this is only the second time in my almost-nine years at the Tribune that I’ve written a column for the Friday paper.
I did so almost six years ago when my friend and colleague Jim O’Connor died, and I’m doing so again today.
Jim O’Connor was worth a Friday column; so is Diane Day, one of my all-time favorite people I’ve met in this 30-plus year career of writing stories for newspapers.
She was diagnosed with cancer last month, and on Wednesday, she passed away at the age of 56.
I knew it was coming; after all, she had not held out much hope when she let us know that she was sick. Yet when I opened Facebook on Wednesday afternoon and read the words, I was, in a word, crushed. Crushed for Derek, crushed for her family, crushed for all of us.
We may have very well first met under the worst of circumstances. I honestly am not sure if I had covered an EAGLE program Diane so capably led before her beloved son, Alex Potratz, died in a tragic pickup accident in September 2013.
There is nothing — absolutely nothing — harder in this profession than covering the death of a young person. To see the pain on her face that Sunday evening at Alex’s visitation still haunts me to this day.
And I will be honest. I think seeing the pain on the face of her husband, Derek, will be just as haunting.
Five years ago, though, Diane Day found the courage and the strength to walk through the most horrific period of her life, and that is how I will remember her.
Yet there is much more that made Diane so special to so many of us.
For years, she coordinated the EAGLE Program, a preschool-aged literacy program that made stops at numerous area public libraries.
A few months after Alex died, she made the decision to go back to work, and there are scores of parents who should be grateful for that decision.
Diane was an absolute natural with kids, and she was — I don’t know how else to put it — a superstar when it came to her job.
After covering an EAGLE event at the Ionia Public Library in the spring of 2014, I gave her a hug and told her she was a “rock star.”
She laughed and with a little self-effacing humor said, “I’m too old to be a rock star.”
Diane, though, wasn’t too old to reach preschoolers. Her programs consisted of reading a book to kids, conducting an activity and helping kids make a craft to take home.
On the first front, I honestly believe Diane could have taken on a career by being the voice for audio books. Her voice inflections were spot on and the kids loved her.
When the activity part of EAGLE started, more often than not there was Diane on her hands and knees, getting every child — and a few parents, too — involved, and the craft part, well, Diane was one heck of a crafter.
Her gift, though, with EAGLE was this: She could take the shyest of the wallflowers and get them involved. She just had a knack of taking the child who didn’t want to get more than an inch away from mommy or daddy and get them involved.
Deep down, I think going back to EAGLE after Alex’s death was a godsend for both Diane and obviously the kids.
The program, though, was just one part of Diane. She was the kindest, gentlest person I think I’ve ever known, and I will always be grateful for her.
When my step-daughter died from suicide, Diane was there for both Teresa and me. Sam’s visitation occurred on a snowy, cold November night, but Derek and her were the first there to comfort us, and it wouldn’t be the last time she would so ably find ways to provide us both solace and encouragement.
She helped us find the perfect ways — like days before the wedding of Sam’s sister a few months later when Diane made sure we had medallions to give Danielle’s younger sister a presence at her wedding — to keep Sam’s memory alive.
Even when our marriage hit the rocks, Diane was there for both of us — never judging us and always supporting us. After our divorce, she was a friend to both of us, and I — and I’m sure Teresa will say the same thing — will always treasure that friendship.
Diane and I didn’t talk a lot. Our friendship wasn’t an every-day phone call or chat, but when we did have a conversation, it was almost always deep and meaningful.
She found the courage to go on after Alex’s death, something I always admired. She gave hundreds of children a love for reading in EAGLE. She supported SNAP. She was Derek’s biggest cheerleader. She celebrated the good in our young people.
And now she is gone.
I do take comfort in the fact that, today, Diane Day and Alex Potratz are reunited, but I am crushed for her husband, her family and the rest of us.
We lost a giant — a rock star, if you will — Wednesday, and our little corner of the world, or at least mine, will never be the same again.