(Note from Joan: This blog post is updated from the original version. Attribute some of the misinformation to my emotions and desire to ensure Arlene's life was honored as quickly as possible. My thanks to Arlene's and Richard's daughter, Brenda, for setting the record straight).
Our world moves too fast. We rush from one meeting to another. From one crisis to another. From one believed crisis to another.
And while we rush, we forget so many who meant so much—family, friends, colleagues—who came before us. In our industry, though we have the EIC Hall of Leaders to commemorate people who were once honored for their contributions, few rarely visit to learn of the standard-bearers for our industry.
This list of industry advocates includes Bill Just, Bob Dallmeyer, Jack Vaughn, among the many honored who had such an impact on my life, and others, and are now gone.
Though she was never honored by the larger industry, many of us were influenced and taught by someone I loved and now have lost.
On Saturday, May 12, 2018, Arlene Sheff—wife, mother, bubbe, friend, colleague, mentor, teacher—the self- and other-described “Queen of Everything”—died. She was my early morning/her middle-of-the-night instant message pal for years.
We taught together at MPI’s Institute programs where we were once accused of conspiring or maybe it was colluding … on what, we never knew but oh the wonderful clandestine calls and laughter we shared!
Arlene battled a non-cancerous brain tumor and then it returned—stage 4 brain cancer that she hid from many—in October 2017. The initial brain tumor pushed her to more-or-less retire earlier than she’d planned.
She epitomized the phrase battled when it came to an illness.
She was a warrior, doing all it took in treatment, whether that meant eating a better diet or exercising regularly [Joan's note: this is really what she told me! Brenda said Arlene did use a treadmill now and then! That seems more like it but I wanted to believe she was doing what I couldn't!] which she came to sorta love, to live and live well.
Through it all, she continued to teach and participate in interviews for industry publications, as always, sharing her knowledge. When I told one of Meetings Today’s editors, Eric Andersen, that Arlene had passed away, what he said described Arlene to a “t”: “I interviewed Arlene at least once for a feature story and remember she shared a good amount of knowledge with me when I was just starting up with [Meetings Today]. She took the time to explain things more thoroughly when I mentioned I was new to the position and just learning the ins-and-outs of the industry. [I’m] sorry to hear about her passing.”
Even in retirement (do planners ever really retire?!), Arlene planned the bicycle trips for her sweet husband, Richard, and his group of bicyclist friends. Never riding herself, she ensured every detail was taken care of, worrying that even the smallest detail might be overlooked. OY! Such a professional!
Arlene would tell me about the holiday (you name it—she’d make it a holiday!) parties she’d throw for family and friends. She’d send photos of the outfits and costumes she made for her granddaughters. She kvelled at each thing the girls did.
And about her daughters, Brenda and Debbi, more kvelling!
Then the damn tumor returned and even then, robbed of so much, Arlene worked like crazy to regain movement and speech. She, Richard, Brenda and Debbi and so many friends did all in their power to make her well. But our prayers and energies and love just couldn’t. Many of us lost a dear friend. Richard lost his wife, his love, his partner.
Brenda and Debbi, both who work for aspects of our industry, lost far more—a mother on the eve of Mother’s Day and just months before a birthday for Debbi [Brenda reminded me that Debbi's birthday is in July when I originally implied it was sooner. Let's celebrate her then].
As I spent the weekend grieving and still grieving for Arlene, memories of others who have gone too young, too soon, flooded back. I thought of dear Michael Conod, my first Convention Services Manager (CSM) at the then-Omni Shoreham, who even after a diagnosis of AIDS made him so sick, would call me nightly so we could talk through Jeopardy and the contestants and what we knew that they didn’t.
Doris Sklar, planner for General Electric, for whom an IACC scholarship is named. Teller of “Zelda and Max” jokes so well that we called her “Zelda,” and who, with Jim Daggett, Keith Sexton-Patrick and me, received the first HSMAI Pacesetter Award in 1995.
Jim Fausel who died, oddly, on the same day albeit in a different year that Doris died, which is also Arlene’s birthday—October 18—a stalwart in the Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP), who cared deeply about safety and helped begin an industry safety conference in Arizona.
Howard Mills, a founder of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals, who was inducted into the EIC Hall of Leaders, and who helped me adjust to the first Events Industry Council (EIC, then the CLC) Board meeting to which we were both delegates.
Sally Karwowski, a D.C. planner, who died six years ago of breast cancer and who was the one in the D.C. Metro area who ensured those on the old MIMList (a meetings forum) got together once a month for the virtual-to-face-to-face lunches to learn more.
Rosie Ledesma-Bernaducci, the queen (sorry Arlene—Rosie gets a small “q”!) of pharma meetings whose life ended so tragically and without the ability of any of us to help her but oh the void she left in our industry and in our lives!
Laurie Meyer, who operated a speakers’ bureau and had finally taken improvisation classes and started doing stand-up comedy. I treasure the copy of a few of her routines sent to me before her untimely death.
Dan Krueger, “Boston Dan” to many on Facebook, who lived a complicated life and died an untimely death, who knew travel and transportation in and out and would do so much for each of us who asked for help.
And dear Stan Aaronson who was a friend and brilliant man when it came to everything related to production and AV, gone over too few months of a horrible cancer.
Before I close this blog post to share, with permission, the beautiful tribute Richard Sheff wrote about Arlene, I ask this of you: please share in the comments section below your memories of those who have gone before us who made a difference in your life and the life of our industry. Tell stories. Share humor they shared with you. Share appreciation.
Then remember to say thank you to those still among the living who are making a difference and are ensuring that we grow as an industry.
We say we are a relationship industry. Let’s prove it! My list isn’t even close to comprehensive of those I loved and lost.
Please add names so that we can have a memorial wall here.
I will, each year on the yahrzeits of those I loved, say Kaddish to commemorate their lives just as I do for my family of blessed memory.
Arlene, and each of you who have gone before, who set standards for us all in the meetings industry and in life in general, your memories will forever be for blessings. With gratitude for his love of Arlene and his words, here is Richard Sheff’s tribute to Arlene.
Dear Family & Friends,
Saturday, May 12th at 12:25 pm, we lost our Queen.
Arlene was my wife of 38 years, best friend, business consultant, legal adviser, event planner, Rabbi, travel agent, editor, parole officer, the love of my life, and the Queen of our family.
Long live the Queen.
Her reign was an all too short 71 years, 206 days. She was far too young to leave us. Arlene led a charmed life. Yet her zest for living and the body it ruled was in the end, no match for the universe of complications caused by brain cancer.
Shakespeare expressed it so well in Romeo & Juliet; it bears repeating:
"Death lies on her, like an untimely frost."
"Upon the sweetest flower of all the field."
Arlene was our family's spiritual leader. She orchestrated the Passover Seder, purchased synagogue tickets and led us to prayer during the high holidays.
She became a loyal congregant at Shabbat (Sabbath) Services streamed live from New York City's beautiful Central Synagogue. Watching this religious reality show on the big screen in our bedroom became a Friday night ritual for her. If you have a moment, I think she would appreciate hearing you recite Psalm 121 ... it was her favorite.
A Song of Assents
“I lift my eyes to the mountains—from where will my help come?
“My help will come from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot falter; your guardian does not slumber. Indeed, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
“The Lord is your guardian; the Lord is your protective shade at your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
“The Lord will guard you from all evil; He will guard your soul.
“The Lord will guard your going and coming from now and for all time.”
A complete biography of her life would fill the pages of a very large book. I'll leave you with one fact you may not have known about the Queen ... she was the best at everything she did.
When Arlene worked at Bridgestone Tire, she received the highest mark ever recorded on their "Tire Test."
She studied all the English language practice exams at the DMV and memorized their study guide. Her test score was perfect. She was a knowledgeable instructor in her chosen profession and consistently received glowing reviews from all her students.
Her performance reviews at work were always "outstanding" and included bonus and stock option rewards. Her second grade report card—yes, I have it—informed her parents that she excelled at talking.
There's no easy way to say goodbye. Arlene lived every minute well and she lived her life at the speed of light. She flew first class. Stayed in the nicest hotels. Applied her make up with artistic perfection and made sure her hair was stylishly quaffed.
Her cologne was divine and expensive. Her wardrobe, endless.
She was always in charge. She was the Queen of our family and we weep from this indescribable loss.
It's been said that weeping is God's antidote for sorrow. With time, that may be so. For now, I will continue weeping while battling the silence that fills our home.
Thank you for your cards and kind words of condolence. No flowers, please. If you want to remember Arlene in a meaningful way, do what she did ... help fill the land of Israel with a forest of trees. This was always her way of honoring the departed. Order trees here.
May Arlene's memory be an eternal blessing.
Posted by Joan L. Eisenstodt
Follow Joan on Twitter: @joaneisenstodt