Former Lions’ assistant Bob Karmelowicz lost his life due to an illness this weekend; he was sixty years old.
I won’t eulogize him in this space; I can’t. I didn’t know the man, I never met him, I never even heard him speak. I didn’t even read very much about him in the short year he was with the Lions. I barely wrote about him, save for a recent piece about Karmelowicz’s too-soon retirement, and his young replacement, Kris Kocurek.
When the news hit my BlackBerry, I immediately thought of how little time there was between his retirement and his passing, and of Charles Schultz. Schultz, of course, was the artist of Peanuts—one of the greatest comic strips of all time, and a seminal piece of American culture.
Schultz won essentially every award a cartoonist can win, and many that cartoonists never win: a Congressional Medal of Honor, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame--he's even been inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame! Schultz’s work is a treasured part of our culture, and millions of people, across generations, have a special place in their heart for his work.
Peanuts ran for almost fifty years—and Schultz took only one one-week vacation during that stretch. Peanuts was his life’s work; when his vision was clouded by a stroke in late 1999, he announced the strip would end. He passed away just hours before the last Peanuts strip ran in that Sunday’s papers. I was always struck by the intertwining of the end of his life’s work, and the end of his life . . .
My father (and later, my mother) once worked for a local retail chain, quite successful in their time. My father left there before I was old enough to remember. My mother stayed on for several more years—but shortly after she left, the shops changed names, a few of them closed, and the rest of them closed shortly after that. I never quite understood what happened; it all went down when I was still quite small.
Years later, I was in my early teenage years, running errands with my father, and he pulled over and pointed to a freshly-paved parking lot. What he said has stuck with me for a long time:
“There was the office building, the headquarters of all the stores. The owner worked and worked and worked ridiculous hours, never came home, barely saw his family, and just months after he retired, he died. The stores were sold, most of them closed, and now that office building is gone. He spent his entire life sacrificing everything to build that business up, and just a few years later, everything he worked to build is a parking lot. Remember what’s important.”
There were a few things I didn’t realize about Charles Schultz: first, he not only had a stroke that affected his vision, he also had colon cancer, which had metastasized when they discovered it. The second thing I didn't realize about Schultz was what an active, diverse life he led beyond Peanuts.
He had five children, who he doted on. During Peanuts’ early years, he drew a second strip, It’s Only a Game, which focused on typical people playing amateur sports like golf and ping-pong. In fact, he was very, very active in promoting sports, especially ice sports—he even owned an ice arena! His work in promoting hockey tournaments and engaging youth in skating sports earned him the Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.
Clearly, my neat little assumption about the timing of Charles Schultz's passing and the end of Peanuts was all wrong. Schultz didn't pass away because he could no longer lose himself in his life's work, he passed away because his life was at an end.
So, apparently, it was with Coach Karm. All us Lions fans saw was a “lifer” position coach with a great reputation for intensity, who left after just one season due to poor health. Knowing nothing about his personal situation, I assumed this was more of a general “getting too old for this” thing; a general failing of health—hence, said illness didn’t immediately come to mind when I read about his passing.
As it turns out, I was even more ignorant of Bob Karmelowicz than I’d thought. Not only was he truly forced into retirement because of his health, he didn’t start and stop with the whistle and the air horn. Gunther Cunningham, Karmelowicz’s longtime colleague and friend, had this to say about him:
I've had the privilege of coaching with and against 'Karm' for a long time and he was one tough guy. Though his coaching success on the field speaks for itself, I will always remember him for how much he loved kids, his compassion for helping kids and how much he cared for his grandkids. That will always be his lasting impression on me.
Take note, folks: that’s how you do it. When it’s all said and done, you want to go with a reputation of doing what you did well—but be remembered best for how you cared, how you loved, and what you gave back.
As I said at the beginning, I don't know Bob, or any of his family. I honestly have no right to speak about his life, or his death. But Gunther's little glimpse into who Bob Karmelowicz is off the field, well, it resonated with me in many ways; I hope it resonates with you, too.
My condolences to the Karmelowicz family; I hope they find peace in their time of grief.