'Good funerals' for 2 of Rochester's 'good ones'

Columnist Steve Lange says stories at Igor Vovkivinskiy and Don Scholz services illustrated the goodness in them.

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A funeral, if it's done right, can be a feel-good story. It can motivate us to live life more purposefully. To realize the impact we have on others. To make us want to be better people.

It just needs a few meaningful stories. And a few good songs.

Two recent Rochester funerals -- Igor Vovkivinskiy's and Don Scholz's -- were done right.

Igor Vovkivinskiy -- America’s Tallest Person (at 7-foot-8), who moved from Ukraine to Rochester in 1989 (as a 6-foot-tall 7-year-old)--died in August in Saint Marys Hospital with his mom and brother at his side.

Igor left behind a legacy much bigger than his size.


He left behind numerous friends and admirers. He was a guy who, despite his pain, took the time to pose with people. To talk to kids. To tell his story -- always, it seemed, with the hope it would help someone else.

When Igor died -- when his heart finally gave out -- the response was dominated by feel-good stories of those who had met him for one of those chance encounters-turned-photo ops.

"My 5-year-old daughter got to meet Igor, and she talked about it for a month straight."

"My son got scared of him but he was so nice that by the end they were both laughing."

"He made my daughter feel like she'd just met a superhero."

At that funeral, we got to hear stories of Igor's smile and his laugh and his thoughtful insights on life.

They played "Silent Night" and "Plyve Kacha," a Ukrainian folk song-turned-anthem to the freedom fighters of Ukraine, a cause near to Igor's heart.

Don Scholz — an endocrinologist who started at the Mayo Clinic in 1947, 40-year Rotarian, Gonda singer, peregrine falcon caretaker, charter member of the Charter House ROMEOs ("Retired Old Men Eating Out") -- died in January, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday.


His funeral was postponed until a few weeks ago.

Don's son, Bob, told stories about his father's love for his family and his friends and his patients. About his never-ending energy (see the list, above).

He told stories about Don's Mayo Clinic pranks, some of which were probably best revealed after his death.

And it was one of Don's own stories, from an interview I did with him back in 2013, that help put it all in perspective.

"Mayo afforded me the chance to spend time with my family, which is what really mattered," Don said. "I had offers for more money to go into practice with different people. But when I put it all together, and realized what I wanted with my life I knew this was the place for me. Money wasn’t going to buy me any of that. Sure, I could get the big yacht, but what the hell? What’s the point of the big boat if it sits in the harbor? I’d rather be on a little sailboat on Lake Calhoun with my kids, having a good old time. That’s what it was about.”

Don's grandson, a professional cellist, played "Meditation by Thais." We sang "Morning Has Broken" (which I had always believed was a Cat Stevens' original and not a cover of a hymn first published in 1931). John Kruesel played "Taps" on the bugle.

Then we ate ham sandwiches and button cookies and laughed about Don Scholz stories and, hopefully, went home better people.

Steve Lange is the editor of Rochester Magazine. His column appears every Tuesday.

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