We lost a key person in the world of cheese too soon last month, Steve Ehlers. I send my deepest heartfelt sympathy to his wife, his kids, his sister, Patty, and the family. Especially their father. No father should have to see a child pass before they do. All I can say is “what a wonderful life he lived, and we were lucky to know him!”
Steve was like the Jimmy Stewart character in the Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Always helping, unassuming, down-to-earth, unaware of how much he managed to touch people’s lives in far-flung corners of this little blue marble we call home.
His reach extended well beyond the comfort of his cozy store, filled with delicious things, in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. The store is not even in the center of Brown Deer, a bedroom community a short drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (if you don’t know). Accolades have come from as far California and New York, even Brazil.
All people are equal, but some people matter. One of those mattering people, Mr. Dan Carter, introduced me to Steve early on in the work of the Dairy Business Innovation Center. Steve was essential to the success of that organization and had a long history of helping small producers in the most important way you can, championing and selling their cheese. I’m sure he did a lot for a lot of other products.
I exchanged emails with Dan last week. About Steve he wrote, “The last time I was with him he broke into tears three different times. He made such a difference, served on our DBIC Board during its eight years, and was available, to be honest with all in our industry.”
The small family specialty grocer has a unique place in the history of American food over the last 60 years. They are the first to champion new products and the last to give up on small producers despite the sometimes challenging roadblocks there are for them along the chain of distribution.
Larry’s Market, named after Steve’s father Larry, who is still involved, will continue to do good work under the watchful eye of Steve’s sister Patty, who I know and love, and his wife, whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting.
Specialty food is a person-to-person business. You make lifelong friends bumping into them at food shows, or visiting their stores, or their plants, or their farms, when lucky enough to be near them. There are a lot of sad people in the food world this month.
So with great humility I want to remind them not only of what a wonderful person Steve was but what a wonderful life he had! From a great family, he worked as a kind of iconic version of the old-fashioned greengrocer, alongside his father and his sister.
Steve received samples of incredibly delicious cheese and other foods long before we had a chance to try them. He made friends with everyone who came through those doors, helping like-minded people who made the pilgrimage to Brown Deer, planning their new stores around the country, without ever leaving home. Our world is just a bit of a better place because Steve was among us.
There is an Hassidic tradition known as the Lamedvavnik. At any given time, according to tradition, there are 36 righteous humble people in the world called Tzadikim.
Nobody knows who they are. They may not know it, themselves. For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the world even if the rest of humanity has fallen prey to the Dark Side.
There may be a vacancy in the 36 as Steve might well have been one of them. So with great humility, I refuse to indulge in being sad. Instead, I am asking myself how I can be more like Steve, to carry on with life but keep his memory alive.
Rather than be sad, I am forcing myself to remember the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when Jimmy Stewart´s daughter hears a bell ring on their Christmas Tree and says that when a bill rings, it means an Angel has gotten their wings. Like Jimmy Stewart, I am winking and saying “Atta Boy, Steve! Atta boy!”
Dan Strongin is a former president of the American Cheese Society, chef and business coach for small to medium value added businesses, and the owner of the sites learn.managenaturally.com, and the Facebook group Enjoy Cheese. His online course: “Cheese: How to Buy, Store, Taste, Pair, Talk About and Serve”, is available at enjoycheese.net. Dan can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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