Simple Gifts by
(353 Stories)

Prompted By Gifts

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He gave me all kinds of intangible gifts. As I wrote in Dude – A Message of Love, I knew Dude Stephenson virtually my whole life as he was my operetta teacher for five glorious summers at the National Music Camp, Interlochen, MI from 1965-1969. He taught me the value of being an important member of an ensemble, he gave me self-confidence, he gave the gifts of friendship and love. I was honored to be recognized every summer while in the High School division with the Outstanding Chorus Award and, years later, as the best female chorus member for the first 25 years of operetta from among the thousands of girls who had been in Dude’s chorus. That was no small gift.

With Dude and the plaque for the Outstanding Operetta Awards for the first 25 years.

So his death, last December 29th, was a cruel blow. Every time we spoke, he told me that I was special and how much he loved me. That was a rare gift. Days after his death, the president of Interlochen informed us there would be a celebration of Dude’s life the last weekend of July. Those of us who loved him (and there were many) made plans to return. Then his widow, and true soul mate, called me and asked if I would be one of two alumni to speak at the service. Another honor and gift.

I wrote the first draft of my speech the next day, and continued to work on it for months, to hone and shape it. It had to be perfect. It was my last gift to Dude. I think I got it right. The weekend was a tremendous coming-together of friends from across the country.

With Cathy Stephenson on July 29, 2018

The night after the Celebration of Life, Cathy continued one of Dude’s cherished traditions: an ice cream social back at their cabin on the lake. She is so gracious, she hosted all, whether she knew them or not. She provided homemade brownies, pies and of course, ice cream and toppings of all varieties. We gorged, visited, enjoyed the view and each other. As we prepared to say good bye, she handed me a gift bag.”It’s just a little something,” she demurred.

We hustled into a car and went back to our cabin. Christie and I shared one, as we did years ago when we often visited Dude. She looked over my shoulder as I pulled the red tissue paper out and unwrapped a tiny porcelain owl, then read the card.

“Dear Betsy, Thank you again for speaking at Dude’s Celebration of Life. Your thoughts and memories were perfectly conveyed. Dude would have loved every minute of it! Thank goodness for these memories that keep Dude firmly in our hearts. As you know, Dude collected many things, including owls of every size and shape. Please allow me to make a gift of a little owl from his collection. I know when you see it you will think of Dude…Above everything else, thank you for your continued friendship. Love Cathy”.

I collapsed into Christie’s arms, overwhelmed by a sense of loss and gratitude. She comforted me.

My dear camp friends; Christie on the left.

The owl now rests on my bureau, with my grandmother’s little hand mirror, in front of my most precious family photos. I do think of Dude whenever I see it. I cherish this final gift.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Dude Stephenson, owl, mentor, Interlochen
Characterizations: been there, moving


  1. Suzy says:

    Lovely story, Betsy. Very touching, it brought tears to my eyes, and I didn’t even know Dude at Interlochen. I was actually planning to use Simple Gifts as MY title, just because it was the best song I could think of about gifts, but it fits your story much better. That owl was such a sweet and simple gift, and it will remind you of this special man forever.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you so much, Suzy. I know it isn’t a holiday-themed story, but it is a gift story, and I do look at that little owl every day. I found out early this morning that you, too used the title (not surprising…I sang the Aaron Copeland version of the Quaker song at camp; I have a feeling I will be singing it again second semester in my chorus). My story wouldn’t open, I had to contact John who informed me that you, my “sister from another mother” had used it also and we had confused the system, causing an error message. John remedied this by appending a “2” in the system to my title, so you can use the title now also.

      • Suzy says:

        That’s amazing that Retro wouldn’t let your story open with that title, considering that mine was still in draft. I guess Retro sees all, knows all, even before we publish. By the time I woke up, your story was already up, so I changed my title.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    The gifts you received from Dude were beautiful. Just knowing how much he cared and receiving his praise and love were precious. So sorry for your loss.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. He was very special. In truth, he was 89 years old, but his passing was unexpected, so this was harsh. His widow couldn’t believe that Interlochen would do a Celebration of Life for him, but he had been such a force there for so long and affected so many lives that it just had to be done. I was truly honored to be asked to speak about him and just undone (as I tried to describe) when I opened the gift and saw that Cathy had chosen to give me something so personal that once belonged to him.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Such an incredibly touching story, Betsy. You have written of Dude before, so it was wonderful to “re-visit” him here. And now you have fashioned this week’s prompt to talk about him in the context of many gifts, which was truly inspired. We can see the gifts that he gave you as a mentor, the gift you were able to give back in your speech and, finally, the cherished gift from Cathy. Beautiful.

  4. John Zussman says:

    The owl is perfect: a loving token of a very wise mentor. I’m glad I had the chance to know him.

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