Rick McCrabb: The area's most intriguing people of 2022

Jan. 1—In 1987, I never thought I'd still be working at the Journal-News.

When Jerry Nardiello, the longtime sports editor of the Middletown Journal, hired me 35 years ago, my plan was simple: Work here for two or three years and wait for Sports Illustrated to call with a more lucrative job offer.

That call never came.

Then over time, this place became home. I married Tammy, we built a house in Springboro where we raised our daughter, Hannah, and just like that, I'm 62 years old and coming down the home stretch of my career.

I have been embraced by readers of this newspaper and those in the community. For that, I'm forever grateful.

The best part of this job is talking to everyday people. I try to make my interviews more conversational than questionnaires. I love to tell your stories.

Here are my 10 most intriguing people of 2022, listed in alphabetical order:

Adam Gibbemeyer: 'He's a blessing to our family'

I always look forward to my time at the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League complex.

Every person there has a story waiting to be written.

This summer I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Phyllis Gibbemeyer and her son, Adam, 39, who has Down syndrome.

When I asked Phyllis how she felt the first time she was told of her son's condition, she said "very sad."

Then, she quickly added: "That was so foolish. Adam knows he has Down syndrome. He takes it totally in stride. That's who he is. We wouldn't change him. He's a blessing to my family."

That blessing extends to Paul and Phyllis Gibbemeyer and their two younger sons, Jake, 34, and Eric, 32, and two grandsons.

I interviewed Adam and his mother because the 2002 Lakota West High School graduate had qualified for the 2022 USA Special Olympics Games in Orlando, Fla.

Gibbemeyer and his bocce partner, Bobby Zeisler, 44, won a gold medal at the 2019 Special Olympics summer games in Columbus. Since Ohio was allowed to take four bocce players to the USA Games that are held every four years, all the names of the state gold medalists were placed in a hat and four names were drawn.

One of them was Gibbemeyer, the only Butler County athlete competing this year in the USA Games.

Gibbemeyer won a gold and bronze medal in bocce at the Special Olympics and was recognized during a Hamilton City Council meeting.

Mayor Pat Moeller called Gibbemeyer, who has been a Butler County Special Olympics athlete for 30 years in various sports, "a role model for all of us."

Gregory Gray: 'It was horrible. Our lives were shattered'

Gregory Gray, less than two years after his son-in-law, Jonathan Siragusa, 28, of West Chester Twp., was killed by a drunken driver, found inspiration in the oddest of places.

When Gray lost a good friend, Charles Knuckles, a disabled U.S. Army veteran who lost his legs due to complications from infections and was homeless, he was encouraged to start a program called Camp Victory to teach young people construction skills and work ethic.

On Sept. 7, 2020, Siragusa, less than two miles from his home, was killed on Tylersville Road. He had a young child, Leo, at home and a wife, Haley, who was expecting their second child. Jonathan was born on March 12, 2021, six months after his father was buried.

The fatal crash left Gray empty. His life, meaningless.

"We were devastated," he said of his family. "It was horrible. Our lives were shattered."

Months before the accident, Gray, a roofer, said the remodeling business slowed during COVID-19 and he was furloughed. So the 55-year-old completed the 15 credit hours he needed to earn his bachelor's degree in small business management at Miami University.

Before he graduated in May 2021, Gray purchased two dilapidated mobiles homes in Butler County with plans to remodel them and provide a home for "whomever God sent," he said.

While Gray was working on one the trailers, Knuckles and his constant canine companion, Dottie, rode by the trailer park on his electric wheelchair. It was about out of power and Knuckles asked Gray if he had an extension cord he could borrow.

He charged up his battery, told Gray his life story, and rode away.

Knuckles had been homeless in Cincinnati when he was transported to Middletown by a Cincinnati police officer, he said during a May 2021 interview. He lived at Hope House, a homeless shelter in Middletown, then Quality Inn & Suites in Middletown.

In December 2021, Knuckles was diagnosed with liver cancer.

"He knew he was dying," Gray said quietly.

He was transported to Residence at Huntington Court, a Hamilton nurse center. On Feb. 11, 2022, Gray was notified by the staff that Knuckles was unresponsive and he died in his sleep. He was 66.

That death, unlike the loss of his son-in-law, gave Gray hope. Inspiration. A call to duty.

"My purpose is back," he said.

Now he wants to teach young people a skill so they can remodel mobile homes for those in need. He said Knuckles was proud of his service to this country, and he wants others to understand the sacrifices of our veterans.

Jeff Jena: 'It may save your life'

Jeff Jena, an accomplished amateur golfer and professional comedian, can add a title to his resume.

Life saver.

Jena, 70, of Middletown, now tells anyone who will listen the potential benefits of an inexpensive heart test he and his wife, Carrie, took at Atrium Medical Center. That CT heart screenings that can detect calcium deposits in the coronary arteries eventually led to Jena being diagnosed with heart disease.

He had triple bypass surgery in November and is on his way to a full recovery.

Before his surgery on Nov. 22, Jena researched the success of bypass surgery and learned 95% of patients survive the procedure.

That also means 5% don't.

"You know there's a chance you're not coming back," he said.

Then he woke up in recovery. He was alive.

"One of the greatest feelings" is how he described being in the 95%. "Although I felt terrible, it was amazing to wake up again. I'm incredibly grateful for every day. It changes your perspective on life. It's a life-changing experience."

The comedian understands heart disease is no laughing matter. His advice: Spend the money to get your heart screened.

"It may save your life," he said. "It's was a small price to pay for another 15 to 20 years of life added on."

Liz Lovy: 'The worst possible feeling I have ever experienced'

It would be difficult to share the loss of a child with your family and close friends.

Imagine the guts it takes to share with the world.

But less than one year after Jeremy and Liz Lovy lost a newborn son, they talked about their grief in hopes of helping other parents dealing with similar pain.

Jeremy and Liz Lovy, a Lebanon couple, were expecting the birth of a child around Labor Day 2021. Liz, 34, has a teenage son, Mason, whom Jeremy, 35, adopted.

Liz, an executive administrative assistant for Premier Physician Network, found out she was pregnant in December 2020, in the middle of the pandemic.

"Gave us something to look forward to," she said.

Logan Nelson Lovy was due around Labor Day 2021.

It was a normal pregnancy and "everything was good," Liz said. But on Sept. 10, 2021 her water broke in bed and later she couldn't tell which way the baby was lying.

While in the bathroom, Liz felt the umbilical cord. Her husband, a registered nurse in the Emergency Department at Atrium Medical Center, called 911 and she was rushed to Atrium. They were met by a team of doctors and she was taken to the operating room.

When she came out of anesthesia after the emergency cesarean section, she asked a nurse if she delivered a boy or a girl. She was told a boy. Jeremy was in another room with Logan and Liz was told a doctor wanted to speak to her.

"I knew that was bad," she said.

She saw Logan for a few seconds before he was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton. Five days later, on Sept. 15, when Logan's brain never responded after frequent seizures due to the lack of oxygen, his medical care was withdrawn.

"The worst possible feeling I have ever experienced," she said of losing Logan. "Every day is hard. Every little detail reminds you of what you should be doing. Every season change, every weather change, every new event, every holiday."

Hubert and June Malicote: 'We never have quarreled'

I'll never forget the afternoon Journal-News photographer Nick Graham and I spent with Hubert and June Malicote in their Hamilton home.

Their story almost seemed too good to be true, I thought. We were told they celebrated their 79th wedding anniversary on June 8. She turned 100 on July 13 and he turned 100 on July 23. Hubert joked he married an older woman.

"We never have quarreled," said June Malicote, who had recently had a stroke and struggled to talk.

No one in their living room, not Hubert and not Jo Malicote, their 70-year-old daughter, disagreed.

"If they ever argued, I never heard them," their daughter said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, while walking to attend a Christmas program at church, a friend told them the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. At the time, neither of them knew where Pearl Harbor was located.

In the winter of 1942, Malicote enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He only saw June when he was home on leave for 13 days. On his second 13-day leave, since he didn't know when — or if would he return home after World War II — they got married married.

They took their blood tests — then required to get a marriage license — in Indiana, where Hubert's family lived, then returned to Hamilton to get married in the home of Pastor Tom Steenbergen. He told them since the marriage license was issued in Indiana and he wasn't ordained in that state, he couldn't perform the wedding.

Hubert was asked the keys to a long and loving relationship. Couples must love each other, appreciate each other, honor each other and do nothing to aggravate or hurt each other, he said.

"You want to think about the other one first," he said. "Then yourself. It's always been intended that's the way it would be. Regardless of finances, problems at home, employment, we were meant to overcome all those things and stay together. And we did."

Then, just four months after our interview, they both died, about 20 hours apart.

Al Milton: 'I have a different view of life'

What Alfred "Al" Milton lost in pounds, he gained in perspective.

Milton, 56, of Middletown, dropped more than 100 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame after he was diagnosed with heart disease in October 2021.

"Like a million dollars" was how he described the benefit of the weight loss.

But it's not so much the pounds that you notice, it's the way his four-month medical journey has pivoted his perspective.

"I have a different view of life," he said in February after being released from the hospital. "I appreciate the small things. You know, my friends, team of relatives, the ones who have been at my side this whole time."

Many of those supporters were there to surprise Milton as his sister, Terri Glenn, drove her SUV down Fourteen Avenue to Young Street where he lives next to Bethel AME Church. The cars spilled out of the church parking lot as they lined both sides of the street. Many of the 100 well-wishers were Milton's 1984 Middletown High School classmates.

"I could not ask for more from Middletown," he said.

He has had heart issues for years and his surgeon told him he had two choices: Move into a nursing home under Hospice care or have a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) inserted. An LVAD helps pump blood from the lower chambers of the heart to the rest of the body.

Milton, a Middletown funeral director, told the surgeon he's familiar with Hospice. So he chose the LVAD.

"Easy choice," he said.

Eventually, he will be placed on a heart transplant list. Then wait for a matching donor.

Leelah McGuire: 'Make me proud and graduate'

It takes a team to help a teenager overcome the loss of a parent.

That's something Leelah McGuire certainly understands.

Twelve days before she started her junior year at Middletown High School, McGuire's mother Chawnda Hunter, 50, died unexpectedly. Her father Lance Hunter died from cancer when she was in middle school.

"Very confused," McGuire said when asked how she felt after her mother died on Aug. 1, 2020.

She was at a crossroads in her young life, faced with difficult decisions that overwhelm some teens. Luckily for McGuire, she was supported by her grandmother, Darlene Sutton, the "rock of our family," her high school counselor Christa Wilson, those on the Middie track and field team and her two sisters, McKenzie McGuire, 19, and Raeven Davis, 26.

She also heard the constant sound of her mother's voice whispering: "Make me proud and graduate."

That's exactly what she did on May 17 when she joined more than 300 students at Barnitz Stadium as members of the Class of 2022.

Wilson, who also coaches the discus and shot put athletes on the MHS track team, remembers those days after McGuire's mother died. McGuire, now 17, would stop Wilson in the hallway or step into her office. She had questions and she sought answers from her counselor and coach.

"We always talked about making the right decisions and how one decision can affect your whole life," said Wilson, who has worked in the Middletown City School District for six years. "She listened well."

Harry and Jeanette Ward: It's never too late for love

There is no age limit when it comes to love. Harry and Jeanette Ward prove that.

Not only did they get married after dating for less than one month, it took them 19 minutes to obtain their marriage license in Warren County, exchange vows at Harmon Park and return and file the completed paperwork.

From Harry meets Jeanette to Mr. and Mrs. Ward, just like that.

Maybe they were in such a hurry because Harry is 90 and Jeanette is 89. Or maybe he just couldn't wait to kiss his bride.

"I've never been this happy," Harry said while sitting in his Middletown home, Jeanette only a few inches away.

"Me either," said Jeanette, who was married for 62 years before her husband died four years ago.

Their relationship, as often is the case, started rather innocently. They both attend Dixie Highway Christian Center, and after one Sunday service, Ward stopped by the water fountain. That's when Jeanette complimented him on his shirt.

He recognized a softball and he hit it out of the park.

"That's a pretty dress you're wearing," he told her.

They saw each other at church, went on a few dates, then Ward proposed, though he doesn't remember.

The Wards understand that "until death do us part" may be right around the corner.

"Hopefully we can get five good years together," she said.