Doctor reflects on the moon and a river … and on the ‘miracle’ of his life
He says his mother’s words inspired an unlikely path that led him to UNO and UNMC and then to an amazing career.
Posted: Tue, Jan 3, 2017
When your dad dies, right before your eyes, what happens to your life?
What happens when you’re just 5 at the time and you’re shore-fishing with your dad and you watch him wade into the Missouri River for a swim …
Watch him go under …
And up again …
And under …
And up again …
And you watch all this with the curiosity of a kid as the current pulls him farther and farther downstream until you see him go under one final time. …
What do you do?
You sit down on the riverbank. You wait for your dad. And wait.
You walk home to your house in Plattsmouth, up on the hill where the poor people live. (You assume you told your mom what happened, but it was so long ago, you say, and the details “are fuzzy now.”) You go down to the funeral home. And you go back down to the riverbank many times, usually at night.
You sit there and wait.
You realize that he’s not coming back and it’s now just you and the moon, reflecting off that dark water.
And you cry.
It’s just you and your mom now, too.
Her name is Luise. She came to Nebraska from Germany and was kind of like a mail-order bride. Your father, Frank Petereit, came from Germany, too. A friend from the old country played matchmaker.
She’s stout. She’s strong. She works in a canning factory.
After your dad dies, you move with your mom to a little house beside the train tracks. Some winter days, you walk with her along those tracks, looking for coal that’s dropped down so you can have heat.
You slide down a tree one summer day. You’re maybe 10 and you’re playing Tarzan with friends. A chain on that tree rips your left arm real bad, and you bleed. Your mom is the only one who knows what to do – she makes a tourniquet. You get rushed 20 miles north to Omaha to the University of Nebraska’s teaching hospital.
Your mom waits while you have surgery. And waits. She tells you all about it later, how a doctor named J. Jay Keegan saved your arm. You don’t remember him – just your mom’s stories. She repeats his name a lot.
Dr. J. Jay Keegan.
She plants a seed in you:
(You’re named after your dad, Frank Petereit.)
Frank, you should be a doctor, too, someday.
Your mother’s dream seems dumb. It’s the tail end of the Depression. It’s a stressful time, especially for a single mother who speaks little English and has a boy to raise. (As you grow older you start to see that something is pulling your mom under, too — her own lonely depression.)
And you don’t make it easy.
You hang out with the bad boys. You become a bad boy, too.
They take you down to the jail one day, to scare you straight. It doesn’t work.
You’re sent away to Omaha, to a home for delinquents. You live with foster families. Most don’t like you.
One does. They help pull you up.
You graduate from Benson High, but your grades aren’t that great.
You take a job as a vacuum salesman and get sent away to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. You walk up and down the town’s streets, knocking on doors. You have to carry your vacuum cleaners because you have no car, until your mom buys one for you.
Your sales go up.
You’re 19. You’re a good-looking guy and know it. So you go to a dance in town and see a brunette beauty. She wears a gold blouse. She sees you, too. You throw out a line. She doesn’t bite. So you ask her to the church youth group dance.
Her name is Iley. She was her class salutatorian. She’s now studying to be a nurse. You fall in love, but her parents aren’t impressed with you. Neither are you. You want to do better for Iley. You begin to see a better person reflected in her dark eyes.
And you hear your mom’s dream echoed in Iley’s words …
Frank, you should be a doctor …
You realize that first year of college that you like math and chemistry.
After that first year, you and Iley move to Omaha and you enroll in pre-med at Omaha University. You do well, there, too, and get accepted into medical school at the University of Nebraska’s medical school – the same place where the great Dr. J. Jay Keegan saved your arm 15 years before.
He becomes one of your professors.
He remembers you and your arm!
You see your grades go up.
You see life fly by: three healthy kids and seven grandkids. … a happy life as a radiologist, mostly in Sioux Falls.
Dr. Frank Petereit.
And before your mom dies, you see pride reflected in her eyes because of what happened to your life.
“I can tell you this,” Dr. Frank Petereit says one recent day, as he tells his story. “My life has been a miracle. An absolute miracle. And I owe the University of Nebraska a lot.
“I wouldn’t be here today, looking back on my life like this, if it weren’t for the fact that I went to Omaha University and then they accepted me (at UNMC) as a medical student.”
He is 86 years old. He still can ski. He keeps his brain active by mentoring students at the medical school in Sioux Falls.
So what do you do, someone asks him, when you realize that your life is a miracle?
“You give back.”
You give back, he says, because you’re grateful. You give back, he says, by putting a little money aside in your will for the people and places that helped pull you up, like his church and his alma mater, the University of Nebraska. You thank the stars for all those people watching over you.
Maybe even from above.
And, Dr. Frank Petereit says, you never forget that lonely little boy on that riverbank, looking up at the moon.
“I can remember sitting on the bank and seeing the moon come off the reflection of the water,” he says. “And I learned something: I learned that when you’re watching the moon on the water, the reflection will always come back at you – no matter where you are.”
Dr. Petereit is just one example of the type of generous people who support the University of Nebraska’s Our Students, Our Future fundraising initiative, which will help make better futures for us all. The two-year, $200 million initiative runs through 2017. If you would like to help, too, please contact the University of Nebraska Foundation at 800-432-3216.
Dr. Petereit also belongs to the foundation’s Burnett Society, a group of generous people who plan to leave a gift to the university in their estate. To learn more about the society, please contact the foundation’s Kim Waller at 402-458-1144 or 800-432-3216.