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Couple finds joy after hard days

Faith and a few special ‘winks’ help couple find contentment after medical rollercoaster

By Faith Anderson

The basement level of Dave and Gloria Nichtern’s home in Starbuck has the feel of a 1950s diner. The two of them spent a year living in the small space and even celebrated Christmas there with their family while their home was remodeled. With the completion of their main floor, Dave, who moves about using a power chair, was able to enter their home through the main door and navigate from room to room quite easily. Photo by Faith Anderson

Dave and Gloria Nichtern of Starbuck are living a life of joy and contentment. And they are thankful to be home. Over the past two years, Dave has spent 188 days in the hospital and in nursing facilities with a variety of ailments.

It all started in March of 2020 when Dave, then 69, suffered his first brain bleed and was taken to the St. Cloud hospital. Covid-19 protocols limited visitation of patients so for 74 days Dave and Gloria chatted via FaceTime and waved to each other through hospital windows while he underwent tests, medical procedures and therapy.

“Those were hard days,” said Gloria. “Thank goodness technology allowed us to see each other and talk each day.” Gloria always stayed in the loop regarding Dave’s condition through consults and conversations with medical personnel. When the couple finally was able to return home, they moved into their small walk-out basement because Dave was unable to climb stairs to enter their main floor.

But their basement is like no other. Upon entering, one feels like you’ve stepped back into a 1950s diner, complete with a black and white checkered floor and a cozy booth where you can picture yourself sipping Coca Cola from a glass bottle. The walls are covered with old keepsakes from the era when rock and roll was king and bobby socks were all the rage.

Because of Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, visitations in medical facilities were limited to FaceTime chats and waves through windows. Dave and Gloria spent 74 days apart during Dave’s hospitalization for a brain bleed. Dave and Gloria touch hands through the window at one of the hospital stays. Contributed photo

For most of his life, Dave has been a collector of memorabilia from the 50s and 60s. He particularly enjoys collecting old music paraphernalia, but his collection also includes movie and television memorabilia, childhood toys from that era and photos he’s taken with music celebrities.

“In our relationship, I’m the thrower and Dave’s the saver,” said Gloria with a smile. “We had a garage sale once and Dave picked up a small cup that I had placed on the sale and he bought it back for 25 cents.” Turns out, the cup had been given to Dave as a child for perfect attendance at Sunday school and he wasn’t ready to give it up.

“I learned not to sell his stuff,” Gloria added.

The Doo Wop Coffee Shop

For many years prior to his retirement, Dave owned and operated Dave’s Place, a Doo Wop Coffee Shop, in downtown Starbuck. In addition to serving coffee and light lunches there, Dave displayed most of his retro collection like vinyl records and albums, concert posters, a real working juke box and an assortment of old AM radios, among other things. Several years ago, the coffee shop was featured in a regional television segment. In an interview, Dave explained his love for 50s and 60s tunes, “The music was upbeat. You could understand the words. It was fun music…mostly about love, girlfriends and boyfriends and cars. It was kind of feel-good music.” That feel-good music is still part of their lives and those tunes, along with the memorabilia, have helped them through some difficult times.

Dave Nichtern has become an avid bird watcher from the living room of their newly remodeled home. He especially enjoys seeing Cardinals at his feeders. The Cardinal is the mascot for Waseca High School, the southern Minnesota school from which Dave graduated.

While they lived in the basement that year, a remodeling project was in progress on the main level of their home, which now allows easy access for Dave’s power chair through a new garage. That garage houses a full-size wheelchair van along with the 10-foot-long sign that once hung downtown on the coffee shop. An existing porch was added to the living room and a wall of windows opened up a beautiful west-facing view of their back yard with thick shrubs, trees, multiple bird feeders and wonderful sunsets. Only two days after moving back into the upgraded and spacious main floor of their home to continue living a more normal life, Dave was taken back to the hospital with a second brain bleed. After nearly three months in two different hospitals, he was transferred to a nursing home swing bed and eventually back home.

A Path to Endurance

Along this roller-coaster journey, the Nichterns learned ways of coping with the long days, unknown outcomes and an uncertain future.

“Every day we had devotions together,” said Gloria. “We knew that God had been there with us all along and had given us new joys every day.”

The two of them began talking about those moments of joy, celebrating them and looking for new ways that their lives were being blessed.

Dave Nichtern and his three-year-old grandson, Leo, have a special relationship. Contributed photo

One day during devotions, Gloria read several Bible verses from Ecclesiastes 3 which begins, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…” The two of them meditated on those words and then decided to finished their quiet time with some music. The first song they heard when they turned on the radio was Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds, a 60s rock band. Ironically, the lyrics from that song were taken from the same verses they had just read. But Dave and Gloria don’t think of it as irony or even a coincidence. “We call it a wink from God” Gloria said. “We now realize that we get ‘winks’ from God a lot. And they really make our day!”

Another ‘wink’ came in the words and actions of their three-year-old grandson, Leo.

“Dave was having a tough day,” Gloria said. “He was in pain and feeling down.” Little Leo sensed his grandpa’s mood and walked over to Grandpa Dave. Gloria recalled the moment, “I remember Leo taking Dave’s hand and saying, “That’s okay, Grampa. You can hold my hand.” And they held hands for several minutes.” It was one of those unscripted, precious moments in which time seems to stand still. For Dave and Gloria, it’s something they’ll always remember - another wink from God.

“I do believe God has a sense of humor,” Gloria noted. During one of many hospital stays, she visited the facility’s coffee shop in search of a snack. She decided to use up the small remaining balance from a Visa gift card she carried in her purse. Gloria knew that the gift card had only $4.32 left on it and planned to cover the rest of her bill in cash. When the cashier added up Gloria’s purchases, the total was $4.32. (Wink, wink!)

Stories Galore

Another way of coping has to do with Dave’s collection of memorabilia. These treasures bring back great memories for him, and he finds it therapeutic to be surrounded by the hundreds of stories he associates with them. Occasionally, with Gloria or another family member beside him, Dave will steer his power chair outside through the garage, down the driveway and around the house to their walk-in basement to do a little reminiscing in his happy place.

During his coffee shop days, Dave got to know Robert Velline (better known as Bobby Vee) a singer/song writer in the early 60s. Bobby Vee is best known for his Top 20 songs including hits like: Devil or Angel, Rubber Ball, and Take Good Care of My Baby. On one visit to Dave’s coffee shop, Vee called the place the real deal because he realized that the décor was authentic, not reproductions or replicas.

Dave has told the story many times about Bobby Vee’s rise to fame. Vee, from Moorhead, was only 15 years old in 1959 when he and his friends formed the band that hastily took over after a tragic plane crash killed the original headliners for an event called the Winter Dance Party scheduled to take place in Moorhead. Those killed that February night near Clear Lake, Iowa, were Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles Richardson, Jr., better known as the Big Bopper.

Buddy Holly’s album entitled, That’ll Be The Day, is a favorite piece of nostalgia for Dave Nichtern. The vinyl record and the album cover are neatly preserved behind glass and hang prominently just inside the door of his basement museum. Photo by Faith Anderson

Dave is a huge fan of Buddy Holly and has attended many of the memorial events held every year at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. One of Dave’s treasured pieces of memorabilia is Buddy Holly’s album entitled That’ll Be the Day.

On another wall in Dave’s happy place, hangs a poster size picture of Little Richard, a musician whose most popular tunes are from the mid-1950s. Dave, a hobby photographer, had an opportunity to photograph one of Little Richard’s concerts in Minneapolis back in the days of Kodak film and 35-millimeter cameras. The photoshoot during the live concert was a success and Dave had several prints developed from the many he snapped. He gave one of his favorite shots to Bobby Vee who agreed to pass it on to Little Richard.

Some time later friends visiting Dave and Gloria saw the large poster hanging with all Dave’s memorabilia. They told how thrilled they were to own that exact photograph in a much smaller size. They commented about how they had purchased it for quite a ‘tidy sum’ at one of Little Richard’s concerts. As they admired the poster, they asked Dave about the cost of purchasing such a huge print. Dave told them, “I took that picture.” It turns out that Little Richard liked the print Dave had gifted him so well that he had duplicates made to sell as souvenirs at his concerts. Dave still smiles when he thinks about one of his photographs became famous.

Life goes on for Dave and Gloria. As they look back at the past two years of their journey, they realize how far they’ve come.

“Reading back over my notes in my devotional, I noticed at first our prayers were for strength, endurance, acceptance and peace,” said Gloria. “Then, they gradually changed to more of an attitude of gratitude.”

Dave and Gloria began embracing the joy they were given each day. “God’s mercies are new each morning,” she added.

“Dave was saved for a purpose,” Gloria said. “We’re both convinced that his purpose is to teach others about endurance, contentment and faith.”

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