The last time I sat in the kitchen at MaryAnn Ortiz Lieb‘s house was a joyous occasion. Her lovely and accomplished daughter, Juliann, had just graduated from Xavier College Preparatory. MaryAnn and her husband Bobby had gathered friends and family around them to celebrate.
Also at the kitchen table that day was Bobby’s 90-year-old father, Herb Lieb. I hadn’t seen him in awhile. Though he moved more slowly and seemed a bit more frail than I remembered, his gift for conversation was very much intact. So was his sense of humor. He kept me in stitches as he shared his stories and made me feel like I was the most important person in the room.
I saw that same spirit Sunday, under very different circumstances, as I listened to Herb’s four grandchildren eulogize their “Papa,” who died last Thursday at age 91, following a long illness.
MaryAnn’s son Sean was just an infant when she and I decided to start Raising Arizona Kids magazine nearly 22 years ago. Now he’s a student athlete, a football player at the University of Arizona. Sean hadn’t slept in days, but you wouldn’t know it as he stood at the podium at Sinai Mortuary in Phoenix. He stood tall, strong and model handsome, with curly dark locks of hair tumbling over his forehead. He hesitated just a moment before diving confidently into his remarks.
“If my Papa were here,” he said, “he’d never let me into this place with my hair looking like this.”
From that moment, which gave us all some much-needed comic relief, Sean moved into much more difficult material, explaining how he and his cousin Jeffrey had spent an entire night with their grandfather while he was in hospice care in the hours before his death. Throughout the night, Sean said, he and Jeffrey tried to say or do something to get a reaction from their semi-conscious grandfather. They played a DVD of a roast that had been held in Herb’s honor. They read aloud a letter they’d found from an old girlfriend of Herb’s. It was one part desperation, one part mischief. They were two young men craving one last moment of connection with a man whose love, support and guidance — though sometimes unconventional — left indelible marks and cherished memories.
Juliann, who is now a freshman at Barrett, The Honors College at ASU, took a similar approach, starting out with a funny story describing her grandfather, a notorious ladies’ man, approaching her at her bat mitzvah to introduce her to “your future step-grandmother.”
Herb loved to kid around but his jokes never crossed the line into hurtful. He could be fiesty and difficult when his independence was threatened but he always came around and admitted when someone else was right. Herb inspired Julian to choose her own path, no matter what. So she concluded by reading the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which she felt perfectly summed up her grandfather’s life.
Jeffrey, a student at Paradise Valley Community College, and his sister Stephanie (the oldest of the grandchildren), who works in the office of the Phoenix City Council, also spoke eloquently, honestly and with tremendous poise as they shared funny stories and choked back tears. Stephanie recounted the day she took her Papa to lunch to take his mind off a recent (and unwelcome) move into an assisted living facility.
As they left the lobby, where a number of the residents were hanging out, pursing typical retirement home activities, Stephanie could tell her grandfather was distraught. When they got into the elevator, she turned to him and asked, “What’s wrong, Papa?” To which then-90-year-old Herb exclaimed in dismay, “These people are so old!”
Herb was a World War II veteran who stormed the beaches at Normandy and willingly shared his story with many young people — including my own two sons, each of whom wrote reports after interviewing him for high school history classes. He was a successful and respected businessman in the Phoenix community. Most important, he was a devoted grandfather to these four remarkable young people — each of whom exhibits Herb’s natural gifts for social poise, telling a good story, looking at life through the lens of reality, fighting hard for what matters and building a network of true and loyal friends. And, perhaps his best legacy of all, they have his mischievous, but always well-intentioned, sense of humor and fun.
The cousins at a happier time (from left): Juliann, Jeffrey, Sean and Stephanie Lieb.