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Thomas Hiatt: Reflections on Lisa Daleo

When word came of Lisa Daleo's shocking death, those of us who loved her let out a communal howl of “why?” We wailed and sobbed ourselves to exhaustion and then embraced each other to keep from collapsing. To those left behind, this tragedy feels too unreal, like a rip in the fabric of the space-time continuum. Yet in the world of Lisa had a quality quite beyond time. In her presence, hours we had tucked away, suddenly opened up and moments would simply fall from the bookshelves like manna from Heaven.

Remembering her from some twenty years ago when she taught at the University of Minnesota, Morris, it is hard to forget that young, color-coordinated wavy-haired instructor whom all the male students surely had a crush on, given her make-up free beauty, golden skin tone, dark Sicilian eyes and high cheekbones that would give Sophia Loren a run for her money. Despite her beauty, she walked away from an earlier career in modeling when she heard the clarion call to serve humanity through psychology. "I always got whatever I wanted because of my looks," she reflected. "But one day I decided it was time to give back."

Her heart always lay with the student, whether in her class or in the world at large. She challenged us to go beyond ourselves, to lose our pretension. Among her student comments: “She knows her material, and respects you if you do a good job. One of the most knowledgeable teachers (I've known).” “She's awesome, and knows more in a finger than most professors know in their brains. I think she's amazing!! Go Prof. Daleo!”

Up to her last moments, she had a strong sense of responsibility. She constantly shuttled across the state from her home in Alberta to her volunteer involvement with Pomme de Terre Foods in Morris to her job in Hancock to her post-graduate classes at Argosy University in Eagan, and to her extensive visits and management of her mother, Lucille, in Wadena, who she brought specifically from New Jersey to be close.  

Here we have this Jersey Girl who came out to this good country of ours and decided she had found her true home. Here we have this Jersey Girl with the world at her feet who undoubtedly had all those well-heeled Eastern establishment boys wanting her hand. Yet she chose to return here (after going back East to earn a Ph.D, and to teach at a few colleges as a full professor) because she ultimately preferred a quiet, contemplative walk around Lake Hattie (on the property south of Alberta she shared with Layne Cin) to anything Atlantic City, Philadelphia, or the Manhattan Skyline had to offer.

In her teaching days she sometimes brought her “Tweety,”a fully-grown cougar, to campus to show him off to her students. We who understood her quirkiness followed her about like mice to the Pied Piper, forgiving her in an instant for sometimes being late grading papers or missing a lecture or two or not always being in her office during the posted hours. But when she did show, that the half-hour of allotted time would transform into two or three hours of talking about our dreams, the future, our favorite book or movie, our friends and family or where we came from and how we wound up in this little town of Morris. Anything but the subject we actually came to discuss. But in the larger scheme, everything she ever discussed served as a life lesson. Her life and teaching fused into something symbiotic and beautiful, much greater than the sum of their parts.

In her last years she remained a woman-child of delight. Something of a mischievous sprite, carelessly cartwheeling past our farmers and merchants, daring to be this free spirit who thought outside the box. She was as unpretentious as they came, she felt equally at ease with college professors and local farmers. She took great pride in the yellow tomatoes she would supply to the farmers market and Pomme de Terre Foods. These tiny pear-shaped jewels had a particular and vibrant, non-cloying sweetness. Not unlike the gardener herself.

And could she cook! Lisa had enough of a discerning tongue to know which Italian restaurants used too little basil or too much oregano in the baked ziti. She also had the habit of asking the kitchen staff if there were any actual Italians among them. For those she cared for, she would gladly spend three or four hours in the kitchen creating green health shakes or eggplant parmigiana (not to mention making a huge mess in the process) and not even realize the time.

More important than the brutal and public way she died is how she lived. And we who knew her best could not help but fall in love with all the wonder and brightness she brought to our lives. Much like the star child at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, she lies beyond our perceptual three dimensions, beyond illness, solitude or time. Beyond the very restraints of our fallible human bodies. The patina of time, like a finely aged Burgundy, actually added to her beauty. At 53 years old, she still retained the enthusiasm of a child opening presents at her first Christmas, always excited to know what is inside this mysterious package, always a perpetual adventurer, always longing to learn what lay beyond that final horizon. Now she finally has.

Lisa considered herself religiously eclectic (“I would probably call myself a Christian with Hindu and Buddhist tendencies”). But from my own Jewish tradition (which Lisa also showed an openness to), this prayer, recited during the seven day mourning period (Shiva), applies to her as well.

“We Remember Them” by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer

At the rising of the sun and at its going down

We remember them.

At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter

We remember them.

At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring

We remember them.

At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer

We remember them.

At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn

We remember them.

At the beginning of the year and when it ends

We remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live;  for they are now a part of us as we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength

We remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart

We remember them.

When we have joy we crave to share

We remember them.

When we have decisions that are difficult to make

We remember them.

When we have achievements that are based on theirs

We remember them.

As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us as we remember them.

Thomas Hiatt is a writer from the Morris area. He can be reached at