Thursday, June 01, 2000

Greg Thiel saw life perfectly




By LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Judy Schletker is still running.

        A dabbler in the early 1980s when she hooked up with Greg Thiel, Judy began running harder and longer. “He got me my first race,” she says, “and gave me lots of advice.”

        Such as?

        She laughs. “Run faster.”

        Greg can still make people laugh. Even now.

        “Hey,” he used to tease his friends, “gain another pound and even I will be able to see you.”

        If only.

        Greg Thiel was a runner, a biker, a swimmer and a golfer. He did all these things without being able to see. Blind. He never saw his wife, Joyce, in her wedding gown or the faces of his two children.

Temporary sight
        Just 18 years old, working at a job after school, he lost his sight in an industrial accident. A few years later, surgery on one eye allowed him to see long enough to become a massage therapist and to meet Joyce.

        Then he lost it again.

        “Scar tissue,” Joyce says. They met in 1976. By the time they were married two years later, he was sightless.

        “He knew this might happen,” she said. “He just looked at it as something that changed his plans a little.”

        Joyce and Judy met at St. Luke Hospital West in Florence, where both still are nurses. Ostensibly, Judy was Greg's guide. And, indeed, he did hold on to her elbow and keep the rhythm of the run with her long braided hair batting his arm.

        “I could see,” Judy says. “But he knew all the routes.”

        Imagine how brave you must be to run when you cannot see the bumps in the road or the stones or the mailboxes. Imagine how fine a man must be to attract hundreds of people to his side.

        Last August, Greg had a pain in his side that turned out to be pancreatic cancer. “He had no other symptoms,” Joyce says. “He was tanned from vacation. He looked great. And the doctor was saying, "We'll try to make you comfortable.'”

        He was dead six months later.

        During Greg's last weeks, Joyce put out the word, “The door to our house will be open from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.” A steady stream of visitors came to their Erlanger home. They came to comfort him, and he “had them all laughing before they left.”

Corny jokes
        When he died in January, he was hugely mourned. There were, of course, clients from the Wade and Central YMCAs. People from his church. Runners. Neighbors. Young and old. All colors. Both sides of the river. Lines around the block at the memorial service.

        This was not a crowd you could assemble in a hurry. It took a lifetime of being a good guy, years of corny jokes and a stunning example of bravery from this man who lost his sight not once, but twice.

        “He'd pull you up,” says Geof Scanlon, his friend of 22 years.

        A tribute by Geof in the current issue of Bob Roncker's Running Spot newsletter reads:

        “To all friends of Greg who are moving slowly, with sore knees over shorter distances, remember Greg can see you. Just for him, dig a little deeper, reach a little higher, run a little harder. The wind at your back is probably he.”

        Three or four mornings a week, you can see Judy pounding the pavement around Villa Hills. She appears to be running by herself.

        But she is not alone.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

        PULFER ARCHIVE