She was like a second mom. And an older sister. And always a great friend.
Gerri Koclanis—the better half of Dean & Gerri, my parents’ best friends for twenty years—died on January 28, 2021. She was 86. Dean left us in 2010, two months after my father died. My mother died in 1986.
During our Hart years, 1964 to 1968, Dean & Gerri came into our lives. They were newlyweds. From Chicago. Doing what so many Chicagoans do: hitting one of Michigan’s lakes for fishing. Even more, their first visit was their honeymoon trip. They loved it so much, they kept coming back.
Dad was a regular at Harry’s Boats and Baits. That’s where he met them in 1967. Before we knew it, Dean & Gerri were over at our house for supper.
We kids—Tom was 14, Sue was 13, I was 10, Dave was 9, and Mark was 5—immediately took to them. It was easy. Well, with Gerri it was. Dean was a curmudgeon. Actually, he only played the curmudgeon. It didn’t take much to get him laughing with us.
Gerri? She was just plain fun. She played with us. She was goofy with us. She got our jokes. She made it her joy to live at our level.
We formed a bond in 1967. The summer of ‘68, they headed back to Hart for frequent fishing trips. Gerri began fishing less and spending time with Mom. Dad and Dean hit the lake.
A potential snag was soon brewing. Dad was taking a new job and we were heading back to our hometown of Montague. We kids were freaking out, that we would be losing our new friends. Dean & Gerri showed how close we’d all become by helping us pack and move.
Montague is a half hour south of Hart. Like Hart, Montague also sits along a lake. Dean could have switched fishin’ holes to White Lake. Nope. He liked Hart. What to do?
Mom solved the problem: “Would you like to stay at our house?” Problem solved! They came up for weekends. Dean drove north each day to fish. Gerri almost always stayed in Montague.
And we played cards. And Scrabble. And Yahtzee. And more cards.
And we laughed. Everything was funny to us. We laughed so loud, my sister Sue remembered, “We wondered if people going by our house thought we were a bunch of drunks.” We were, if one can get drunk on silliness.
We kids so loved them staying with us that we never wanted them to leave. As soon as they arrived, we asked, “When are you leaving?” It came out wrong. We meant, “How long are you staying?”
Our wrongly phrased question stuck. Every time they arrived: “When are you leaving?” Years later, when I was in my 30s, every time I saw them I still asked, “When are you leaving?” Gerri laughed. Dean just shook his head and walked away.
Dean was of Greek descent, and had the skin tone and features to show it. Clearly, Gerri was not. We learned her maiden name was Murphy. Soon, she had a nickname: Murph!
Because they wouldn’t arrive until early Friday evenings— the drive was nearly 3½ hours—and had to leave Sunday afternoon, we stayed up late. Always at the kitchen table. Always with a card game going. Often with someone zipping down to Papa’s Pizza for a bag of Pappa Whoppas.
Like us, they were Roman Catholic. During Lent, when you’re not supposed to eat meat on Fridays or eat between meals, we figured out how to get around it. We preheated the oven at 11:30 p.m. Put the frozen pizzas into the oven at 11:45. At midnight—when Friday became Saturday, and the Pope could no longer nab us—we chowed down and fueled up for card-playing late into the night. Good Catholics—that was us!
One time, they arrived from Chicago with a box of cream-filled long johns. All manners went out the window as we kids snarfed those up. Dean was not too happy. Dean should have known that would happen.
The long johns became a regular thing. We kids came to expect them. Dean & Gerri knew how to spoil us.
Gerri did two things that perturbed Mom. She washed dishes with her hands, instead of a dish cloth, and she buttered an ear of corn by grabbing the butter with her hand. Mom was not shy to tell Gerri of her disgust over both. I think Gerri kept doing both because it was so easy—and fun—to get Mom’s goat.
It was the same reason, every Thanksgiving, when Mom asked how the turkey was, I replied, “I’ve had worse.” “Whattttt???” But I digress.
One January—perhaps in 1977 or ‘78—Mom wasn’t feeling well. That, and it being a typical Michigan winter with lots of snow and cold and short, bleak days, she was down in the dumps. On a Saturday evening, my brother Tom, his wife Jo, and I were at the Stony Lake Tavern. We were talking about Mom. I think it was Jo who said, “You know what would make Mom feel better? A visit from Gerri.”
But how would this work? Gerri had a job. She never made the long drive by herself. We didn’t let either of those stop us from calling her.
She loved the idea. She could take the week off work. We would drive overnight to go get her. Dean would come up the next weekend to retrieve her.
We decided we would surprise Mom.
After midnight, Tom and Jo and I hit the road. We got to Chicago in the wee hours. Gerri made us a hearty breakfast. Since Mom always went to 11:00 a.m. Mass, we timed our arrival back home for when she was at church.
Mom got home and wondered why Tom and Jo were over (I still lived at home). No reply was needed. Gerri appeared with the big reveal. The look on Mom’s face and her scream of delight … well, it might be the neatest thing I ever witnessed with my mother. And when she learned Gerri could stay the entire week … well, where are the cards?!
Brother Mark reminded me of one of our crazy antics from that week. We had a huge snowstorm. The roads, while plowed, were still drifting. But, McDonald’s had just built a restaurant by the freeway—the first in our area—and we would not be denied some burgers and fries! The three-mile drive was akin to warnings these days about travelling during the pandemic: only do it if you have to. Clearly, McDonald’s was a have-to!
Mom died suddenly in 1986. That changed everything. Dean and Gerri continued to come up, but now they parked their mobile home at Gurney Park in Hart. By then, I was married to Kim and we had kids. Whenever Dean and Gerri were up, it became our practice to go up on Saturday afternoon.
Gerri loved our kids the way she loved us. She spoiled all of us. One time, she had a box of those wafer cookies, the ones with vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. The kids loved them. Gerri then so reliably had them on hand that we came to call them “Dean & Gerri cookies.” My family still call them that to this day.
We feasted so well those Saturday evenings that I came to say, “The question isn’t when are we going to eat, or what are we going to eat, but how much are we going to eat?”
Thank you, Gerri—and you too, Dean—for being our friends. You were great for our folks. You showered us kids with affection and devotion. We were all the richer with you in our lives.