In Mitch Albom’s book The Five People You Meet In Heaven, he eloquently describes how chance encounters can shape our lives.
In 1981, I had one of those chance encounters with a woman named Lilian Kleiman. She was the assistant news director at WITI TV in Milwaukee where I had just landed a job as a reporter and anchor.
I was terrified. I had just moved to Wisconsin from a former position as a reporter/anchor in Huntsville, Alabama. I knew no one.
Lil immediately eased the loneliness. She invited me to her home for holidays and included me in all of her large and lively family gatherings. During the four years I spent far away from home in an age before cell phones and text messaging, she made me feel a part of her family.
Long after Milwaukee, we stayed in touch—keeping tabs on each other’s lives from my marriage and the birth of my children to her continued accomplishments and the unfortunate premature death of her beloved son Danny. We met in Chicago and more recently in Philadelphia. We spoke every year on certain holidays. I adored Lil. She was a surrogate mother to a younger me when my mother was thousands of miles away.
As time passed, we talked less frequently, but I never felt out of touch until last month when I learned of her passing on Facebook. Imagine my shock when I read this post from a former colleague I hadn’t spoken to in 35 years.
“Lil Kleiman passed away on Thursday evening. She was a rare and bright soul. A lovely star. It is not lost on me that she would die on a night when the sky sparked with meteor showers. A mom to us, though not much older than us, she found a way to make each one of us so much better. And then she let us stand in the spotlight and accept the award. “
That is the kind of person Lil was and at work, she managed people the same way. When she nailed the exclusive story due to her great sources, she never gloated. Instead, she stepped away and gave the credit to others around her. When stories won Emmy’s due to her tenacity and talent, she never bragged. She turned the spotlight over to others.
At a young age of 79 by today’s standards, Lil died from a rare blood cancer. She had suffered for some time, but told her doctors that they should spend their time not with her, but with people they could help. She said she had a good life; no regrets. That’s the Lil I remember. She always put others first.
Her death prompted me to reach out and reconnect with colleagues I haven’t spoken to in decades. We laughed and reminisced about fun times that seemed like yesterday. We talked about the impact and influence Lil had on all of our lives.
Someone I lost touch with emailed letting me know that at the funeral, her son noted the role I played in her life, and how she played a role in mine. Those words touched me in a way I could not have imagined.
Imagine how you might have made an impact on someone’s life, but never really knew. Imagine how a child of 9 or 10, now a man, recalls what you meant to his mother. Imagine discovering someone you admired and looked up to also admired and looked up to you. Imagine realizing how this person unknowingly shaped who you are today.
Author Mitch Albom writes “Heaven can be found in the most unlikely corners.” Lil Kleiman could be found in everyone’s corner. A little slice of heaven on even the darkest days.
Her passing is sad and unfortunate, but the lessons she shared will live on. A chance encounter can become permanent when we least expect it. We may not recognize the impact this person will have in our lives, but when we look back, we will realize that we are better people for having known them.
At the end of the Facebook post telling people of Lil’s death, my friend wrote “And now, the sky is less bright because we lost her.”
Fortunately, the radiance of so many lives Lil Kleiman shaped and touched will forever shine brightly.