Category Archives: Family

Missing Dad Earl: Five Years Gone

This article has been cross-posted on the Iowa Cold Cases blog.

Mom and Earl

Five years ago today, my family received news no family ever expects to hear. We were fortunate, however, in that we received a gift few families get to experience when crime comes knocking on one’s door; we each got the opportunity to see and speak to our loved one — and him to us — one last time in conversation not focused on any final goodbye, but words of hope, love, and the promise of many more tomorrows.

Those tomorrows lasted just four more days before my stepfather, Earl Thelander, succumbed to burns sustained in a home explosion brought about by copper thieves. He died September 1, 2007, four months shy of his and my mother’s 25th wedding anniversary.

Mom and Earl had been out the night before working on the rural home they were preparing for a renter — the same country home where my maternal grandparents used to live — and the late-night or early-morning burglars who cut and stole propane gas lines and let the home fill with gas have yet to be apprehended or charged in the crime. My stepdad’s case remains unsolved.

Earl and Mom early on, fixing up a rental property.

Two months after his death, my mom, Hope Thelander, wrote about what she missed most about her husband and best friend; with permission, I’d posted her story to my blog. Read the blog post here.

Today I’d like to post the things I miss most about a good man I felt privileged to call “Dad Earl.”

I miss the way he always looked at my mom.

I miss how he’d always throw back his head in hearty laughter.

I miss the way he so carefully pushed up his glasses, his fingers wrapped around the outer edges, when deep in thought. 

I miss watching him carefully tend to his tomato plants and point out those he had marked for BLTs.

I miss watching his face when speaking on the phone to one of his kids.

Earl getting ready to plant tomatoes.

I miss witnessing his meticulous attention to detail whenever he went about fixing something … anything … he made sure things got done right the first time.

I miss hearing the way he’d begin a sentence with “If a guy were to . . .” because he never stopped considering new ways to approach a task at hand.

I miss seeing him sitting in his favorite chair at the kitchen table, sipping coffee from his favorite blue mug.

I miss his silent disapproval and how he’d slowly look down into his lap whenever he heard someone make a judgmental comment about another. 

I miss him at family birthday parties, at family barbecues.

I miss seeing him in his favorite pink oxford shirt that always made him look so handsome.

I miss seeing him behind the wheel in his maroon and silver Dodge pick-up truck.

I miss him. 

Earl enjoys a day at my grandparents’ farm outside Onawa, Iowa.

Losing Cocoa

Today was the first day in over 14 years I came home without Cocoa there to greet me. Cocoa, the eldest of our three beloved family dogs, passed away yesterday morning on Sunday, September 26, 2010.

Rhett and Cocoa

My youngest son Rhett with Cocoa

Earlier today, my mother took my son Rhett and me over to Mapleton, Iowa, to the veterinary clinic Cocoa just visited a week ago today, and where he will be cremated and then returned to us.

Losing Cocoa has stripped my emotions raw, but anyone who’s ever truly loved and lost a family dog or pet fully understands what we are going through.

Most dogs have one family member whom they own, but over the years we never were really able to determine which one of us Cocoa had chosen because he’d laid his claim of unconditional love with all of us.

He’d started out as my daughter Jenny’s dog. Back in June 1996 when my sister Kim’s dog Shelby gave birth to Cocoa, we already had two dogs — Sam, a Cocker spaniel/Golden retriever mix, and Chelsea, a Shar-pei mix — and felt they were enough to make our lives complete. But 15-year-old Jenny, who very seldom asked for anything, had fallen in love with this little brown and black bundle who’d spent part of one of his first days locked in the glovebox of my brother-in-law’s pick-up, where my two young nephews had put him “just for fun,” they said, to see if anyone missed him.

Cocoa and Jennifer, Summer 2010

Cocoa and Jennifer, Summer 2010

“I’ll even take him off to college with me when I go,” Jenny had promised, and I simply could not say no. Two and one-half years later when she left for college where she’d live in the dorm, Cocoa remained behind and alternated sleeping with my youngest son, Rhett, and then me.

On Valentine’s Day 2001, Sam died three months shy of his 13th birthday, and both Chelsea and Cocoa grieved along with us. In 2002 when Dennis and his Golden Lab/Retriever mix, Bear, joined our family, Cocoa joyously welcomed them both.

Cocoa, Chelsea and Sam

Cocoa and Chelsea (back) and Sam (front)

The year 2002 wasn’t good for our new family. Dennis lost his 24-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, to cancer on June 30, and on December 12 we lost 10-year-old Chelsea, also to cancer. For a while, it was just Cocoa and Bear, and we tried to take them with us everywhere we went.

On Sept. 1, 2004, we moved into a 100-year-old home that at one time had been converted into apartments, but there was a unit on the ground floor for Bill Bowley — one of my late father’s best friends who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease and for whom I cared.

Bill brought with him his Chesapeake Retriever, Hagan, and his African Gray parrot, Clyde. So in 2006 when Bill finally had to leave to go to a nursing home, we welcomed Hagan and Clyde into our family, and once again had three dogs in our household.

Hagan, Cocoa and Bear

Hagan and Cocoa (front) and Bear

They became the best of friends. We’d no longer refer to them as “the dogs,” but “the boys.”

All three had always been house dogs, and Cocoa — as the alpha male — continued to sleep on the bed with us until a few months ago when he began to fall backwards after his attempt to make the upward jump.

Some days, Cocoa would let me lift him up to the bed without a fuss, but more often than not, he’d growl under his breath — nothing threatening, but more as if to say “How dare you imply I need any help?” — and he’d quickly jump right back down and settle in between Bear and Hagan on the camping mattresses we kept beside the bed covered with sheets and comforters.



Losing Cocoa hurts. It hurts a lot.

Yes, I know he was 14 years old. I know he had a good, long life surrounded by people he loved and who loved him in return, and I also know he’s in a better place. But, just try to tell that to one’s heart. Try to explain that to Bear, whose eyes stare woefully into ours as he rests his head upon our laps. Try to explain that to Hagan, who keeps burying his face under the pillows on the edge of the sofa.

I tried to play fetch with Hagan this afternoon after returning from the vet without Cocoa. Hagan still chased after the ball, but then kept dropping down in the yard right where he’d found it. He’d rest his head atop the ball and stare off  into a yard conspicuously missing his companion and the only other competitor who always raced to get the ball first.

We all miss you Cocoa. We miss you even more than the day you disappeared and lay inside a glovebox waiting for someone to rescue you.

We will always miss you. We will always love you. You brought happiness and joy to so many lives, and you will not be forgotten in all the rest of the days of those lives.

We Are as Great as…

I greeted today with unexpected feelings. All kinds of tangled roots of hope.

We are as great as the dreams we dream.

It’s been one year, you know. Already. A year ago today since Dad Earl succumbed to burns he received after copper thieves raided a rural country home and, in the explosion that followed, stole from an entire family a major force in all our futures.

As great as the love we bear.

Dad Earl may not have survived, but we did. He’d already taught us all how to do so.

Earl Thelander's headstone My mother had the poem “We are as great as the dreams we dream” inscribed in the headstone she will share with Earl.

As great as the values we redeem.

He taught us all about responsibility. Accountability. Values. We will not forget.

And the happiness we share.

We’re still a family. No explosion can tear that apart.

We are as great as the truth we speak.

He taught us to speak only the truth. Hard truths — no matter how difficult — are always easier to bear.

As great as the help we give.

He gave it freely. One never even had to ask…he was just there.

As great as the destiny we seek.

He sought none for himself, only recognizing that in others.

As great as the life we live.

He lived a life most of us could, and can, only hope to mirror.

Dad Earl, above all else, was a humble and giving man…quick to point out what he perceived as his own insignificant role in other’s successes…while all those blessed to be in his life rose to all he’d told them they could be.

Dad Earl had big dreams. Ours. He redeemed our values. He shared our happiness. He spoke our truths. He helped us all, and he gave freely of himself. He helped us seek our destinies. And he lived a great life defined by making a difference in those lives fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him.

We miss you, Dad, Earl. Dad. Earl. Honey. Grandpa. And even to some, Mr. Thelander. You were so much to so many.

Mom and Earl: They’re Famous, You Know

Hope and Earl Thelander

Hope and Earl Thelander

I swear I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping. In fact, I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time. I’d been saving it for a chapter in my book, but feel now I’ve got to share at least part of it as it relates to “Dad Earl” and my mother, Hope.

The year is 1992. We’d just recently moved to Northern California, where my husband had been assigned as an ammo inspector with the Department of Defense. My 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer (who, being very shy, made friends no easier than I had at her age), had unexpectedly brought two friends home from school. After introducing them to me, she ushered them toward her bedroom door, where on the other side I assumed they’d talk privately about the most important matters of the day — boys, teachers, moving to a new school and what-on-earth-ever-brought-you-Here?

But before they reached my daughter’s bedroom door, I couldn’t help but pick up on her words, and I had to stop and listen.

“Yeah, we’re from Iowa,” she said, “but you probably know my Grandma and Grandpa Thelander. They’re famous, you know.”

She said it so matter-of-factly. The tone languished somewhere between a child’s innocent bragging and one already versed in that which makes other people proud.

“Really?” I heard one of the girls respond.

“Oh yeah!” Jennifer said. “My Grandpa Earl and Grandma Hope … you know, the ones who rent out all those apartments? Everybody knows them and I thought for sure you’d have heard of them…”

And then her bedroom door closed and I heard only muffled voices.

I remember smiling, and thinking:

How could I have so underestimated the importance of what my parents do? Even my own daughter, at such a young age, clearly understood the role my mother and stepfather played in our community. Together, they bought old buildings and worked long hard hours renovating them into apartments to provide affordable housing for the less fortunate in our small town.

How could I have known that 15 years later, my stepfather would in fact make international headlines for having been killed trying to make life better for others?

The article in Australia’s Scone Advocate may have a couple minor details wrong (Earl was preparing the house for a new renter, not to sell), but the underlying truth rings loud and clear: copper theft isn’t a problem limited just to Iowa, nor even to the United States. It’s become an international problem, and is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars along with innocent lives.

Though Iowa legislators currently are working on House Study Bill 660 in efforts to control illegal copper theft sales, thieves continue to find willing salvage buyers at recycling businesses throughout and state and the U.S. In Las Vegas, Nev., where salvage yards have gone from 60 visitors a day to over 250 visitors a day with salvage wire, KVBC News Channel 3 Investigators recently purchased nearly $200 worth of copper pipe at a local home improvement store. Then, along with a hidden camera, they took the copper out to sell for salvage. The station randomly picked three recycling businesses from the phone book to see if they’d be asked for photo identification, required for salvage sales in Las Vegas.

All three salvage yards — the Silver Dollar yard on Lossee, Nevada Recycling, and a yard at Lakewood — purchased the copper without any identification. The seller’s ID as logged by Nevada Recycling? Zippy McGee.

With copper content at all-time highs between $3 and $4 a pound, the stories of copper theft are growing almost as fast as the illegal sales. In Buttonwillow, Calif., $10,000 worth of alfalfa withered and died after thieves stripped copper wires out of irrigation systems throughout California. Almost $38,000 in materials was stolen in June 2006 in 10 copper theft in Yelm, Olympia and Tenino in Washington state, and in Tacoma, the frequency of copper theft in the Nalley Valley industrial area now has investigators helping businesses install camera surveillance. Kentucky has seen at least three electrocution deaths associated with the theft or removal of electric copper wire. And just last month, Detroit Firehouse No. 42 experienced delayed response times due to a repeat copper theft.

I dare anyone to find a single state where copper theft is not a major problem. Still, to date there has been but one single innocent man who lost his life because of copper thieves. He became famous, all right, but I suspect my stepfather, Earl Thelander, would have preferred to remain anonymous and live out the rest of his life doing what he loved most: spending time with my mother, fixing up and providing homes for those less fortunate who couldn’t afford housing elsewhere, enjoying his family and grandchildren, and tending to his tomato plants.

Please Support IA House Study Bill 660 on Copper Theft

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This used to be a home. That was before copper thieves came in the night and cut propane lines and let it fill with gas to later explode with a man inside. That man was my stepfather, Earl Thelander.

My grandparents used to live here. After my grandfather died, my folks purchased the rural home from my grandmother (who’d come to live with them in town after Grandpa died) and fixed it up as a rental property. This is how my folks earned their living; they worked hard fixing up homes and apartments for those needing housing in this small community where everyone knows everybody else.

They’d recently installed new insulation and put permanent siding on the house. They cared for their tenants’ homes the same way they cared for their own, making sure everything always worked properly and that families who lived in their rentals were comfortable and happy.

Now, it’s nothing but a pile of rubble . . . a haphazard scattering of bricks, nails, metal pipes, a tumbled-down chimney and ashes laid out in layers like a melted accordion.

Earl had gone to install a new water pump. After authorities were notified of the break-in and the property had been aired out, Earl returned several hours later to begin work. He died trying to make life better for others.

Despite a $5,000 reward for information on those responsible for his death, there has been no arrests in the case.

The Iowa Legislature, however, now has House Study Bill 660 assigned to a Judiciary Subcommittee. I pray this bill will become law. For Earl. And for the thousands of other lives affected financially and in countless ways by what has now become a nationwide problem.

Copper Thieves Steal Lives.

Please join me in supporting Iowa House Study Bill 660.

He Thinks He Got Away with Murder…He’s Wrong

We humans, by nature, are forgiving people.

We should be.

After all, we all make mistakes. None of us are perfect.

We all, at one time or another, have done or will do something so incredibly stupid we can only hope and pray our neighbors … our friends … and (God forbid ) our families, never discover about our sinful souls.

These mistakes, however, do not by nature involve taking the life of another human being.

At one time, and despite the ordinary man’s quest (and, often, need) for vengeance, I truly felt I could forgive those responsible for taking my stepfather’s life. My mind enlisted every kind of reasoning.

The explosion, which occurred in the home's basement blew out upstairs walls around the wooden frame house. The explosion, which occurred in the home’s basement, blew out the upstairs walls around the wooden frame house Mom and Earl and family members had just finished insulating and re-siding. See a “before and after” slideshow of both inside and outside the house in All That Remains.

I told myself, the thief/thieves didn’t deliberately mean to cause Earl’s death. And when they broke into the farmhouse and cut and stole the copper propane lines to later sell for scrap metal worth perhaps $10 to $15, they probably didn’t realize the basement’s cut lines would continue to discharge propane gas into the house. And even that they probably didn’t think about the smallest actions and reactions — the plugging in of a fan hours after the burglary when the house had long since been aired out — that would lead to an explosion and melt the skin from a man who, even at 80, still worked hard every day and was there to install a new water pump in one of the rental properties he and his wife depended upon for their livelihood.

The truth is, I envisioned the thief and/or his accomplice (yes, there were two of them present that night) coming forward, acknowledging the fact one had burglarized what used to be my grandparents’ former country home while the other kept watch, with at least one of them asking for forgiveness and saying something like “This didn’t turn out like we thought it would,” and last, but certainly not least, “I am so very sorry for the painful death this caused for Earl Thelander and for what this has done to his wife and 11 children.”

Yes, laugh if you will at my unusual (and perhaps unrealistic) expectations from a petty thief. But, given the number of individuals who know who did this (make no mistake; there are many), and given the leniency and understanding my family has extended in the first five months following my stepfather’s unnecessary and untimely death, we honestly expected a day would come when one good man (or woman) would step forward and do the right thing.

Thus far, they have not.

Even where pleas to one’s conscience have failed, so have our family’s attempts to rouse anonymous tipsters with a $5,000 Reward.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” said the British Statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.

I only wish Mr. Burke were around today because I’d sit him down and tell him, “Evil will not triumph this time.”

Not with Earl Thelander. Not with this family. And we’re a forgiving family. But, our patience is running out.

So is time . Not just for those responsible for Earl’s painful and needless death, but those who know who they are and what they did. They, by God and under law, will be held just as accountable.

It’s not too late for them to still do the right thing. But, the clock is ticking.

Make no mistake about it.