On episode 4 of season 2, we invite Casey’s new friend, Bob Yohnka to talk with us. While it may seem he talked a lot about Milk Jeans, he also had plenty to say about his experiences with death and grief.
He’s Casey’s neighbor now, but grew up in Kankakee, Illinois, 50 miles south of Chicago and married one of his best friends from high school. Together, they spent four years (2006-2010) in Southern Africa living in Zambia and working at an Emory University research center. Their team worked to implement HIV counseling programs and is contributing to vaccine research through the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in NYC.
According to Bob, “Living in Zambia, where the life expectancy is 38, sort of normalized death for me. It happened to young and old. We had 100 local employees and they cared for many extended family… Children, spouses and our own employees died. I walked through cemeteries in Zambia and entire sections are filled with my age-mates. Guys born in 1977 were dying in 1998 as I was excited about turning 21.”
Bob shared one particular funeral story with us. While living in Zambia, one of the drivers on his team passed away. It was the first time he had been to a Zambian funeral. He explains he didn’t know that it was customary for the “employer” to speak at the funeral service.
That’s when things get funny.
“So, we’re standing at the gravesite and everyone starts looking at me, nodding like we had already discussed this or something. I realize I’m supposed to give a speech. It went something like this: ‘Phil – Phil was a good man…and a good driver. And he liked to listen to music.'”
“It wasn’t until later that I realized I unconsciously did John Goodman’s speech from The Big Lebowski,” he continued. “My wife almost killed me, but that’s just what came out.”
When discussing his awareness of the inevitability of death, Bob says, “I’m not sure if it’s possible to totally normalize death, but I came away feeling like I had a better understanding of its inevitability. Still it was hard when my dad passed away at 68. I just thought we had so much longer.”
Which brings us to Bob’s most impactful death — the untimely death of his beloved father that passed away suddenly at the age of 68.
Bob says, “My dad was a writer for the local newspaper and the day after he died, a story about it ran on the front page. I walked around town and his face took up almost the entire front of the newspaper boxes around town. It was pretty crazy to see that. And I remember thinking the headline ‘dead at 68’ was so cold.”
We can’t imagine how surreal that must have been for Bob. If you’d like, you can read the article here.
Bob and the Funeral Stories family were particularly struck by this excerpt from that article:
In April 2015, struck by the obits page, Yohnka paused to reflect on how death seems so arbitrary: ‘the lack of connections is what fascinates me,’ he wrote.
‘It just doesn’t matter how long we lived or what we accomplished. It doesn’t matter if we made our beds in the morning or if we ate too much ice cream … we all fall in an unseen line for our final departure. As orderly as we might try to make our life, the check-out is a random work of art.’
It became clear to us that Bob’s dad, Dennis Yohnka, was loved by his entire community. This is apparent by the fact that the newspaper he worked for, as recent as this year, published stories about how deeply his absence is felt, and how his impact in the newsroom and community lingers.
From an article published on The Daily Journal on August 18, 2017:
For someone who was a kid at heart, it was deeply saddening to see someone leave life on Earth who, even at 68 years old, was so vibrant.
Here are some of our favorite stories of his:
- Dennis Yohnka and the fashion police
- There’s room on the Cubs bandwagon (Dennis was a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016 for the first time since 1908, not even three months after he passed.)
- Scooter, the Pie Man and the art of giving thanks
- Dennis Yohnka: 4 goofy pre-Christmas thoughts
- Discovering A-fib, Common, awkward, potentially deadly (This is an article Dennis wrote after being diagnosed with A-fib not even a year before he passed.)
As we usually do, we asked Bob what he wanted people to remember about his dad.
Bob said, “My dad turned everyday people into heroes through his writing. He wrote thousands of stories for the newspaper about so many people and things, but this one is by far my favorite. Read the story about Bob’s dad’s trip to visit he and his wife in Zambia: Dennis Yohnka: Son’s smile best Father’s Day gift.
Be sure to tune in next week when we release Bob’s second episode where his brother, Bill joins him to tell us about his dad’s interesting yet beautiful funeral story.
You can follow Bob on Instagram: @bobyoh
You can follow Milk Jeans on Instagram: @therealmilkjeans