Doris Clark lost 16-year-old son Michael Deutsch in the roiling waters at the base of a dam on the Fox River near Chicago on June 9, 1993.
Although it took years, Clark said she has gained perspective and learned to deal with her loss in part because of the man who tried vainly to save Michael that day, Carnegie Hero John C. Stubner.
Clark, then 42 and now a 68-year-old grandmother, dealt with her grief in the recently self-published book, “Rowing My Boat Ashore.” She started writing the book for her other two children, Chuck and Janet, who were 21 and 19, respectively, when Michael died. Hoping the book would give her children insight into her life and memories with them, Clark said, she also came to grips with having to describe some details about Michael’s death and her feelings of grief, as well.
“In the book I write a lot about losing a child. One of those things that happens is you think, unconsciously, ‘You didn’t take care of your baby.’ And what those thoughts can do to you,” Clark said.
Those thoughts wound up tormenting Clark, she said, aggravating some physical ailments that eventually required surgery and serious bouts of depression and bipolar disorder. But Clark said she found she could move past her debilitating grief by focusing on her happy memories with Michael — and by putting Stubner’s ill-fated attempt to save Michael’s life in the proper perspective.
The book includes a chapter on Stubner, who was caught in churning waters at the dam’s base — known as a “boil” — when he tried to save Michael, and suffered brain damage that still affects his short-term memory and ability to read.
Clark came to appreciate that Stubner was there with Michael, convincing Clark that Michael died knowing that someone cared enough to try to rescue him.
Clark didn’t learn the particulars of Stubner’s rescue attempt until the day after her son disappeared into the river when she visited Stubner in the hospital. Clark said she worried about intruding on Stubner’s family “given the circumstances.”
“They were wonderful to me, and I really wondered what I’d be walking into,” Clark said. “As it turned out, that wasn’t the case at all. We grieved together. I will always hold all of them dear to my heart.”
Clark quickly became friendly with Stubner’s family, especially his mother Betty, now 79.
“I remember when it first happened, we couldn’t feel bitter,” Betty Stubner said. “Kids do things, it was an accident.”
It was that first day in the hospital that Clark learned the details of Stubner’s heroic rescue attempt.
Stubner, then a 25-year-old project manager for a major construction firm, was riding Jet Skis when he learned that Michael had gone over the dam on an air mattress he was using as a raft and got caught in the boil. Stubner sped up river to help Michael, but was knocked from his Jet Ski into the turbulent waters and also became trapped in the boil. Stubner surfaced minutes later downstream and would be comatose for two weeks. Michael’s body never surfaced that day; some of his remains were found and identified weeks later.
Michael, whose happy-go-lucky nature belied his strapping 6-foot-5 frame, was still in high school but had a summer job at his uncle’s diesel repair shop. Michael drove a beat-up used car that got him to and from his job, but on the day of his death, the jalopy was in the repair shop – again – so Clark dropped him at home on her way to work.
“I told him, ‘I’m really sorry your car’s always breaking down,’” Clark recalled. “‘Wheels aren’t everything, Mom.’ That’s the last thing he said to me. It’s just etched in my brain.”
Through talking to Stubner’s family and Michael’s friends, Clark has been able to put together a narrative of what happened that day.
Buoyed by warm, late-spring weather, Michael and two friends went to the river. His friends rode on a rubber yellow raft; Michael, somewhat of a daredevil, used an air mattress.
There were a couple dams they had to cross on the way down the river and Mike exited the river and walked along the shore around the dams, concerned that his air mattress wouldn’t fare well being washed over them, Clark said. But because the river was rainswollen, the boys came to a dam where the waters were especially high, so the drop over the dam didn’t appear to be as steep or treacherous. What Michael didn’t realize was the rain-swollen river hid the fact that the boil at the base of that dam was deeper and more violent than he anticipated.
Although Michael’s friends on the raft managed to get over the dam and out of the boil, Michael did not.
As Stubner approached the boil, he sensed the danger and warned his fiancée, riding on another Jet Ski nearby, to stay away before falling into the churning waters which repeatedly drew him underwater and popped him up to the surface before he lost consciousness and, finally, drifted downstream where he was rescued. A portion of Michael’s body was found by a fisherman downstream about five weeks later.
Stubner was still intubated and in a coma when Clark first saw and briefly spoke to him in the hospital, the day after the accident.
“I approached this severely hurt young man, bent over, and whispered to him, ‘I know things didn’t turn out the way you would have liked, but I thank you for what you tried to do,’” Clark wrote in her book. “They said it was just reflex, but John gave me a slight smile.”
Although his injuries ended his construction career, and Stubner had to re-learn how to walk and talk, he recovered enough by 1997 to begin working an entry-level maintenance job with Grainger. The industrial supply company services businesses but is growing into a direct online retailer of cleaning supplies, tools, and other hardware stored at a massive warehouse in Minooka, another Chicago suburb, where Stubner is now a key staffer.
Stubner’s brain damage has left him with short-term memory issues and he struggles to read material that is not in all capital letters. Still, he has tried to read part of the chapter about him in Clark’s book, and appreciates what motivated her to write it. He remembers only brief snapshots of his attempt to rescue Michael.
“I remember just seeing the water and things like that,” Stubner said.
Stubner has thrived in his rehabilitation, in part, because his brother Ray and his family have helped Stubner establish a regimented life and work routine that enables Stubner to compensate for his memory and reading struggles. Ray Stubner said John and the family’s only regret is that Michael couldn’t be saved that day.
“It’s not like you blame or find fault,” Ray Stubner said, “It’s just an accident. Our hearts just went out for [Clark], and we just wished there was something more that could be done.”
Clark said John Stubner and his family have already done all that was possible, and necessary, for her to come to grips with Michael’s death and help express her feelings about it to her children.
“I decided to put it in book form for them, I felt like it was such an impact on their lives that it had to be in there,” Clark said. “They didn’t know those last few moments I had with Mike, they didn’t know how happy he was that morning. Things like that got lost in the shuffle.”
— Joe Mandak, case investigator