Last talk with daughter leads father to Africa
TOP: Julie Reitan (center) celebrates with her UA teammates in a victory over UCLA in the 1997 season. ABOVE: Pastor Mark Reitan and his wife, Elaine, watch the Arizona softball team play Washington in a game at Hillenbrand Stadium on May 13. Julie was their youngest child. RIGHT: Mark Reitan and four of his "adopted grandchildren" stand outside a Lutheran cathedral in Bukoba, Tanzania, in November 2006. The children (from left) are Arnold, 12, Witness, 10, Juliet, 14, and Gelda, 8.
The life-changing phone call came 10 years ago this morning.
Mark Reitan, a pastor in Lynnwood, Wash., north of Seattle, was showing visitors the Trinity Lutheran Church where he worked. His parents were in town from Tacoma. His wife, Elaine, was at a conference in Oregon.
His son, Micah, called from Arizona with the news.
Julie Reitan, the daughter of Mark and Elaine, a senior-to-be at the University of Arizona, a starting outfielder for the two-time defending national champion UA softball team, an academic superstar, was dead.
Mark had no way to reach Elaine. He called some people who knew where she was, and they drove out to give her the news that her daughter had died.
“Which one?” she asked in a panic.
They didn’t know. Could it be Angie, who was pregnant with her first child? It wasn’t until Elaine got to a phone and called Mark that she found out that Julie, 21 and the youngest of their three children, had died during the night.
But this isn’t about sadness. It’s not about grief.
It’s about how Mark decided to act on the final conversation he had with Julie.
It’s about how Mark and Elaine Reitan lost a daughter and, all these years later, half a world away, in a small, leaky hut in Tanzania, gained five grandchildren.
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The memory of Julie Reitan lives on in many ways.
Her uniform number is retired within the Arizona softball program, and her No. 10 hangs on the outfield wall at Hillenbrand Stadium. A group of softball fields at Lincoln Regional Park on the Southeast Side was renamed Julie Reitan Softball Complex.
Charity events have been held in her memory to raise money for diabetes research. Youth softball tournaments have carried her name.
Micah, 35, named his 3-year-old daughter Julia in her honor.
UA softball coach Mike Candrea, during the recruiting process, tells Julie’s story to prospects as an example of how a player can achieve the perfect balance of academics, athletics and spirituality.
“Julie was one who had all that,” Candrea said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.”
Julie graduated first in her class at Sahuaro High School in 1994, and her studies at UA included Swahili. She was one of just a few students at the university learning the language. Her interest in African culture was fueled, in part, from Micah’s heritage.
The Reitan family adopted Micah, born in Danang, Vietnam, from an orphanage when he was 14 months old. It was their way to do something positive amid their concern for the war. He is half black, half Vietnamese.
There were other influences on Julie. When Mark was the pastor at Spanish Trail Lutheran Church in Tucson, he brought in speakers from Africa. As a superior track athlete at Sahuaro, many of Julie’s heroes were black.
She was talking with her dad after her junior year at UA, telling him of her wish to someday travel to Africa to do service work and use her growing fluency in Swahili.
“She wanted to know if she could do that and if I would support her,” Mark said. “I was very supportive. In fact, I would have loved to go with her.”
Julie died a week later of hypoglycemia, a complication of her Type I diabetes.
Mark never forgot that final conversation.
“I wanted to go and fulfill her memory,” he said. “I was just waiting, I suppose, for it to work out in our schedule.”
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After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the young children who attended school at Trinity Lutheran Church sent letters to children who had lost parents in the attacks.
Stephen Bouman, the bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was so impressed that he wrote to Mark, asking to visit so he could thank the children in person.
While there, Bouman saw pictures of Africa and pictures of Julie in Mark’s office. Mark told him his daughter’s story. Bouman said he had been unsuccessfully looking for a pastor to go a sister diocese in Tanzania to teach at a school.
“Would you be willing to go?” Bouman said.
“That would be a perfect fit,” Mark said.
The trip ended up being part of Mark’s already-planned six-month sabbatical in 2004, which started in Germany. While there, Candrea called with horrible news; his wife, Sue, had suddenly died in a Wisconsin airport of a brain aneurysm.
It was just a couple of weeks before the start of the Olympics. Candrea was the coach of the U.S. softball team.
Mark flew back to Tucson to speak at Sue’s memorial service, and later joined Candrea in Athens as the softball team’s chaplain. The U.S. won gold.
The final part of Mark’s sabbatical took him in October and November to Ruhija Lutheran Theological College near a town called Bukoba in the northwest corner of Tanzania, on the western coast of Lake Victoria.
Mark instructed clergy from all over Tanzania on pastoral care-giving skills, so important in a country suffering from an AIDS epidemic. According to a United Nations report, 6.5 percent of the country’s adults were living with HIV in 2005.
A group of HIV-AIDS workers from an organization called HUYAWA – it’s an acronym that translates to “services to children” – then asked Mark if he would visit a family of five orphans. Their parents had died a couple of years earlier of AIDS.
When he arrived, these were the conditions he saw:
“They drank dirty water they got from a stream. They had one pan. They had no dishes, no silverware, no shoes, no change of clothing. They had nothing. No beds. They slept on the dirt floor,” Mark said.
“The roof leaked. They were wet. They had no uniforms for school. They rarely went to school. I don’t know how they did it. . . . And there are thousands and thousands of children like this.”
Of the five orphans, four were girls. When Mark arrived, he was told that one of them – about 11 years old – was out searching for food for the night.
“What is her name?” Mark asked the oldest child, who was about 15 years old.
“Julie,” she answered.
It was like a lightning bolt from heaven.
“It was just as if I melted into the dirt at that moment,” Mark said.
“What I heard God say to me right then was, ‘I know how much you miss your daughter Julie, and I know how much you miss the grandchildren she likely would have given you by now, so I’m giving you these five children to be Julie’s children.
” ‘You take these five kids and be their grandfather.’ ”
Mark’s answer was immediate.
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The new Julie in the Reitans’ life is actually Juliet, which is even more appropriate in that it means “Little Julie.” Juliet is 14.
The youngest is Gelda, 8. Another girl, Witness, is 10. Arnold, the only boy, is 12. The oldest sibling, Elliot, “was taken by a man to be a second wife,” Mark said. “That was before I got them all into boarding school.”
The Reitan family, for about $3,000, bought the orphans a new home on the family land.
“It’s very simple,” Mark said.
“Dirt floor. Metal roof. It’s made of brick and concrete. A front room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. We built an outhouse and a water system so that all the water that comes off the metal roof runs into gutters and into a cistern so they would have clean water all the time.
“It works really well.”
The Reitans, through the HUYAWA organization, provide for all the children’s care, including boarding school and clothes. An aunt, discovered after Mark’s initial visit, lives in the house and takes care of the children when they are home.
“They are doing very well,” Mark said. “They are all healthy. They are all HIV-negative. They are learning English.”
Juliet, who had scant schooling, is now at a second- or third-grade level.
“She is working so hard,” Mark said.
“A good education could change their lives completely. I think there are unlimited opportunities for them. I don’t know what all that means, but I’m looking forward to discovering that for myself.”
The best part: They call him “Baba.” It’s Swahili for grandfather.
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During the year, Mark keeps up with the children’s progress and sends messages to them through HUYAWA. He has returned to Tanzania every year since 2004. He says the children run into his arms.
When he goes back this November he will bring with him about a dozen people from the congregation at Trinity Lutheran. The parishioners have contributed money to “build many homes and provide lots of resources,” Mark said.
He told the story of a young woman who received HIV medication, helping her become strong to raise her two daughters. When Mark visited, she treated him to fried grasshoppers, a delicacy.
A boy, 16, caring for his four siblings, wouldn’t move into his new house until Mark arrived to bless it.
“He waited a month until I got there,” Mark said.
While doing all this in Julie’s memory, carrying out the vision she never had a chance to complete, the Reitan family also navigates through its grieving process.
“It’s been a great help for me. I really do see these kids as Julie’s kids,” Mark said.
“I think Julie would be very pleased with what we’re doing. It would overjoy her.”
1997 Tucson Citizen file photo
Courtesy of the Reitan family
JULIE REITAN: 1976-1997
A star softball and track athlete at Sahuaro, she helped the softball team win two Class 4A state titles and was a co-winner of the Tucson Citizen’s Student Athlete Award in 1994. She ranked first in her graduating class of 374 students.
The outfielder helped lead UA to national titles in 1996 and 1997, hitting .462 in the 1996 College World Series. She earned All-Academic honors with a 3.64 grade-point average.
A diabetic, the 21-year-old Reitan died of complications from hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, at her North Side townhome June 27, 1997.
For more information on HUYAWA, which cares for orphans in Tanzania, contact Mark Reitan at email@example.com