Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Pleasanton girl graduates despite life-threatening challenges

This column appeared in the Tri-Valley Times in June 2014. 

Before this graduation season fades from memory, I want to bring longtime readers of my column up to date on a Pleasanton girl I’ve written about on occasion over the years. 

The girl is my daughter, Kelsey. 

Because her birth in 1995 was healthy, we would never have predicted the difficult times that lay ahead for our little girl. It wasn’t until she was two that we had any indication anything was wrong. Kelsey developed an enlarged heart from mitral insufficiency, a leaky heart valve.

But the weak valve was just one challenge. She was also diagnosed with Jeune Syndrome, a condition that would forever make her shorter than her peers. 

Soon x-rays of Kelsey’s chest revealed that her bronchial tube was being crushed by her heart, and most of her lungs were filled with fluid. So the decision was made for Kelsey to undergo open-heart surgery, the day after her third birthday. 

I’ll never forget as the operation began forming a prayer circle in the waiting room at Children’s Hospital Oakland with Kelsey’s grandparents and other family members. The surgeon unlocked our brave little girl’s heart, peered inside, and worked for several hours, successfully repairing the valve. 

For several years, our lives returned to normal. Kelsey loved playing with her older sister, and she developed a keen sense of compassion and a kindness toward others.

But soon her spine began to curve as she developed scoliosis. Painful surgery and the insertion of titanium rods at age 10 helped to straighten her back and even made her stand a little taller. 

Despite these difficulties, Kelsey kept up with her school work and progressed with her classmates through the Pleasanton school system.  

But as if her genetic condition and the two traumatic surgeries were not enough, her kidneys began to fail at age 13. Sadly, because young drivers do not sign up in sufficient numbers as organ donors, the waiting list for organs often sentences people with kidney failure to years of dialysis, but Kelsey was fortunate. 

In an act of love and kindness, a generous savior stepped forward to make an incredible difference in Kelsey’s life. Theresa Harris, Kelsey’s aunt, was a match for the kidney donation.

So it is fitting that Theresa attended Kelsey’s high school graduation earlier this month to celebrate Kelsey’s acceptance into Sonoma State University and her many achievements despite so many life-threatening challenges.

My daughter’s story of perseverance is just one example of the resilience and beauty of our children who graduated this season. So many students face difficult challenges as they navigate the requirements of our educational system and of becoming a teenager and a responsible adult.

In her own words posted on her blog, Kelsey says it best: “We are taught to help each other from the time we are in kindergarten, and it is a habit that we must remember. An act of kindness every day from all of us can make an incredible difference in the world.”

 Theresa Harris and Kelsey Ott at Amador Valley High School graduation

June 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Woman seeks to run 50 marathons in all 50 states

A year ago this month, Nancy Morehead of Pleasanton crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A few minutes later, she heard an explosion back where she had just been. Then she heard another.

“My husband was a few blocks away and also heard the explosions,” said Morehead, 52. “We got to our car and left as quickly as we could.”

The bombings at the Boston Marathon have not dissuaded Morehead from running races or pursuing her goal of running 50 marathons in all 50 states, a goal she has been chasing since she signed up for her first marathon in 2001 on her 40th birthday.

“I’m halfway to my goal,” said Morehead, who works for the East Bay Regional Park District as an administrative analyst in the police department. 

“I love working for an agency I believe in,” she said. “It's the perfect spot for me because my degree is in recreation and I had a short career as a deputy sheriff.”

Morehead’s job also allows her to get out on weekends to run long distances with her dog, Cooper, a mutt of questionable heritage from the Border Collie Rescue Society. “He has a lot of Border Collie for sure with his herding instincts, intelligence, and great endurance for long runs,” she said.

Morehead’s husband, Skip, is also a runner and has completed several marathons and two Ironman triathlons. “We’ve been married for 30 years,” said Morehead. “Skip loves to travel, so it's easy to convince him to go to another state for a long weekend so I can run a marathon.”

In addition to running, Morehead uses her free time to coach for the non-profit organization Team in Training, which offers training in a variety of endurance sports while raising funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Having coached swimming and water polo for many years at Tracy High School, she currently coaches Olympic distance triathletes.

Of course, 26-mile marathons are not the only endurance races she runs. Morehead has completed two Ironman triathlons, which consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle race, and a marathon.

But wait, there’s more: “When I turned 50, I decided to run a 50-mile race, so I signed up for the America River 50,” she said. This run begins in Folsom and runs steadily uphill to Auburn. The final miles are steep, but the views of the American River are spectacular.

Asked what advice she has for new runners, Morehead recommends taking 30-60 second walk breaks. In one marathon, Morehead counted 162 people she passed in the last six miles because she had taken short walk breaks each of the 26 miles. “Don't let anyone tell you walk breaks make you slower,” she said. “They make you stronger longer.”

Adding to the wonder of Morehead’s quest to run a marathon in every state is the fact that when she was a younger woman she hated running.

“It took me 40 years to discover that I’m an endurance athlete,” she said, offering this advice to all of us: “Don’t stop trying new things.” 


Thursday, March 06, 2014

Two friends save the life of their cycling buddy

This news item was published in the Tri-Valley Times on March 6, 2014

Around 8:30 in the morning last month, on February 17, just after cycling up a long hill through Golden Eagle Estates that leads to a Pleasanton ridge trailhead, Karl Wenzler, 46, collapsed from cardiac arrest in front of his friends, Brian Martinez and Joe Narciso. 
The three friends regularly ride their mountain bikes together, and on this day they planned to continue their ride up a steep, unpaved trail that leads to the top of the ridge overlooking the valley. 

Martinez, an Alameda County Sheriff, and Narciso, an executive with Safeway, initially thought Wenzler had simply tripped after the three took a short break in the parking lot. When he didn't move, they rushed to assist Wenzler, calling 911 for paramedics and to administer CPR since Wenzler was unconscious, turning blue, and not breathing. 

Assisted over the phone by an emergency medical dispatcher from the Alameda County Regional Emergency Communications Center, Martinez and Narciso worked together to repeatedly pump Wenzler’s chest several hundred times, followed each time by mouth-to-mouth breaths. They did this for nearly 30 minutes. 

The physical effort to keep their friend alive was exhausting, and the dispatcher offered both specific instructions and repeated encouragement. 

“I know it’s tiring, but you guys are doing a really good job,” said the female dispatcher. "Keep it up. The paramedics are on their way."

Eventually, a hiker, Michelle Stearns, also assisted with CPR until the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department arrived to transport Wenzler to ValleyCare Hospital. 

Thanks to quick thinking and the tireless work of Narciso and Martinez, Wenzler, who grew up in Pleasanton and lives in Brentwood, received sufficient emergency care from the friends to sustain his life and oxygen to his brain. He recently spoke by phone from his hospital room with the two friends, thanking them for saving his life. 

Wenzler is expected to make a full recovery. 
                                          Joe, Brian, and Karl

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Public Affairs Executive finds balance in life

By day, Pleasanton’s David Stark is the Public Affairs Director for the Bay East Association of REALTORS®. Spend even a few minutes with him, and his passion is evident as he describes the work he does in connecting with community leaders and the public around housing and real estate issues.

“I’ve always had an interest in social issues,” said Stark, 44. “When I was younger I worked in municipal government and managed housing and community development programs for cities in both southern and northern California.”

Stark said he has learned over the years that finding solutions to fundamental issues such as how to provide housing for a diverse range of families requires partnerships with the private sector. “We can’t expect government alone to solve our challenges,” he said. 
Stark grew up in southern California where his parents worked as community college instructors. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and English from the U.C. Riverside, as well as a Masters Degree in City and Regional Planning from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

"My father loved his job and said going to work was like spending time with his hobby,” he said. “That’s how I feel about my job.”

Another lesson Stark learned from his parents is the importance of maintaining a balance between work and recreation. So after hours and on weekends he and his wife Anne, who is the Public Information Officer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, make time for several pursuits.
“We build and race vintage motorcycles,” said Stark. “Our garage is a fully functioning workshop.” Stark said that building bikes is as satisfying as racing them. The couple both race late 1960s Hondas at such venues as Laguna Seca and Infineon Raceway. Stark is also restoring a 1965 Ducati.

Another common interest is swimming. Several times a week the couple can be found swimming laps with the Tri-Valley Masters Swim team at Pleasanton’s Aquatic Center. The exercise keeps both Stark and Anne physically fit, a priority they have always had in life.

“One of our first dates was a mountain bike ride,” he said. “Anne beat me on the trail that day.”

Along with motorcycles and swimming, Stark is also a member of a three-piece alternative rock band called Pilgrim. An accomplished musician who used to play throughout the Bay Area, Stark met fellow band members Charles McKeag and Chris Zaballos through their mutual work in the real estate industry. “Some people network on the golf course; we network in our band,”
Stark said.

The band performs original music described as a blend of high-energy rock and layered vocal melodies. Stark said their music is influenced by bands they heard on college radio stations during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Although Stark plays guitar, saxophone, and mandolin, his current favorite is evident when he smiles and says, “Playing bass guitar is so much fun it should be illegal.”

Though Stark said he and his wife have different personalities, he credits Anne with everything that is right about his life: “She’s my partner in everything we do. She’s the love of my live and absolutely my best friend.”

Monday, October 22, 2012

Local teacher brings life experiences to special education

As a special education teacher at Pleasanton Middle School, Christopher Lee, 40, brings the street smarts earned from fights and a near-death experience to working with youngsters who face special challenges.

“I came to the United States from South Korea when I was 9 years old,” said Lee, who remembers the stark contrast between Korea and southern California. The violent neighborhood where his parents lived offered a number of challenges.

Growing up around gangs, Lee navigated his way through daily life. He knew getting an education was important, but he also needed to survive. Getting in fights was inevitable, he said. 

But despite the violence, Lee was a curious boy and loved to learn. In middle school he decided to learn to play the cello.

“The school allowed me to borrow a cello,” Lee said. “But one day on a bus several boys made fun of me, and one grabbed my cello case and threw it out the window.”

Lee saw the case bounce along the street as he got the driver to stop the bus.

“The cello was in pieces,” he said. “After that, I decided being an athlete was safer.”

The incident that prompted Lee to leave Los Angeles occurred one evening after he was accepted at USC and yet found himself in another fight: “A fellow walked up and put a loaded revolver to my head,” Lee said. “As he started pulling the trigger, I knew I was dead. But for some reason the gun didn’t go off.”

That was the night Lee, then 19, decided to drive north with no destination in mind. 

In time, he worked in the hospitality industry, joined the military, worked as a financial advisor, earned both bachelors and masters degrees, and eventually heard a calling to work with troubled and special education youth where he uses his life experiences to connect with students and make a difference.

Today Lee has worked in Pleasanton for eight years has two children, an eight-year-old daughter and a ten-year-old son.

Along with coaching youth sports and working as a teacher, Lee is an artist and maintains a studio in downtown Livermore. His paintings exude the same passion Lee has about life: “I wake up every day with a positive outlook and a focus on goals,” he said. “I have a bucket list and try to cross off one item each month.”

One item he recently checked off the list was parachuting from an airplane. His next goal is to climb Mount Shasta.

While a favorite quotation is Socrates’ observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Lee credits the birth of his children with his own true awakening: “It is with absolute certainty that I did not take my first true breath on this earth until my children were born,” he said. “Through their birth, I have been reborn.”

To watch Lee skydive, click here.