I looked back in my photo archive to find a picture of Dennis Pace, my dear friend who died last week. I found I’d photographed Dennis solely in the winter while we skied or skated. Strange since Dennis and I spent a lot of time together during every other season, as well. He was a bike rider, a soccer and basketball and tennis player. We ran the Sleeping Bear dune trails and sailed on Crystal Lake. We shared good meals and drank beer on his deck and mine. We talked a lot about the ideas of the day. All the kids loved him.
Though he was raised in the Phoenix desert and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Dennis very clearly ventured East to discover a region that fit his soul. Benzie County, near the top of Lake Michigan, is a one-stoplight forested county where no town holds more than 1,000 residents. Young people like Dennis arrived in the 1980s and early 1990s to build lives far from the places where they were raised.
Dennis landed in Benzie County in 1988. He, his wife Kate, and their two children, Isabel and Dakota, joined a community of caring people who formed a circle of trust and experience that he found delightful and absorbing. During the next 29 years Dennis built a lot of other good circles in Benzie County.
His passions were his children and grandchildren, his parents and friends, music, sports, and his community. When his kids were young he was a fixture playing midfield at every soccer game, center at basketball games, and wing at hockey games. After Isabel and Cody and all the other kids grew up, Dennis managed the Benzie Area Youth Soccer Program for nearly 20 years. He raised funds to keep the Benzonia ice rink open in the winter. He joined the board of Beulah’s Darcy Library. Trained as an optometrist, Dennis cared for us at the Scarborough Family Eyecare office in Beulah. The Betsie Current newspaper published a really nice piece on Dennis two years ago.
He loved music and played with friends every Thursday at his home in Beulah. He sailed and anchored a sweet and agile boat on Crystal Lake. He liked small parties and dinners with friends. He cooked an impressive brisket feast. Dennis was generous with his time and his affection. He liked the steadiness of firm schedules and easy events, like basketball games on TV at the Hahn’s, breakfast every morning with Jonathan Clark at L’Chayim Delicatessen, and coffee with friends every Saturday in Beulah.
He had only a few clear dislikes, like sharing too much about himself. He never told me his age. Years after we met as young men he let me know he was raised in Phoenix.
He delighted in his reputation among some of his friends for acting the occasional curmudgeon, but his comedic timing was keen. He liked to laugh and carry on. But always in appropriate moderation. I never saw Dennis lose his cool or be anything other than respectful and cordial to everyone.
He wasn’t perfect, as he was quick to note, but he was content and he could play basketball really well. I learned one day that before the birth of his two children, the most glorious event of his life was playing in a basketball scrimmage at Berkeley. He was matched up against the best player on the other team — Kevin Johnson, a future NBA All Star. “I could stay in front of him,” Dennis said. “I hit a few shots, too.”
As Dennis grew older, and especially after the birth of the first of his two grandchildren, his perspective changed a bit. He talked more about how blessed he was, how much he was enjoying his life. His children were making their way. His own work was satisfying. He’d achieved a formidable measure of respect and appreciation in Benzie County. “For a guy who never likes to say he’s happy,” he told me, “I just have to say, I’m happy.”
He’d never opened up that much to me before. It was almost as if he anticipated a change in his situation. His last two years were so hard. He was courageous and resolute. The last time I saw Dennis, in Ann Arbor late last summer, he was bright and attentive. We spent a few hours, as we always did, catching up on his condition, his children, folks back home. “You know,” he said, “I’m grateful.” He laughed. “I know that sounds strange coming out of my mouth. But I’m grateful for all that I’ve been given. I could never ask for more than that.”
Dennis Pace died too young, much too young. He was in my life for decades in a big and loving way, as he was for so many people in Benzie County. I am so sorry and sad for his children, his parents Naomi and Ralph, and his brother and sister. I’m sad for his friends. I’m sad and sorry for Dennis and for me.
— Keith Schneider