Several years ago, I lost my only sister, Martha, to brain cancer. At the funeral service, in the midst of our grief, the parish priest put things in perspective. He told our family and friends, “We are not here to mourn Martha’s death. We have gathered here to celebrate a life well lived.”
Those words came flooding back to me as I began to ponder writing this blog entry, about the death of Dave Prentkowski, the foodservice director at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Like my sister, Dave’s life ended much too soon. Like Martha, he suffered from a terrible form of cancer, although ironically it was not the cancer that claimed his life. The circumstances of the accident that caused his death, along with that of his 18-month-old granddaughter, Charlotte, may never be known.
The news hit me particularly hard for reasons that go far beyond the fact of the double tragedy. For one, I’ve known Dave for almost as long as I’ve been covering the foodservice industry. Although I was not as close with him as I am with some other operators, I have always admired him and considered him one of the “go-to” directors when I was working on stories about trends and challenges in the industry.
Second, he is one of only two foodservice directors Notre Dame has had since I began my career. Dave was hired in 1990, just a few months after the death of Bill Hickey, who had been at the university for seven years. I knew Bill well; like Dave he was an icon in the industry, having won an IFMA Silver Plate Award in 1986. Dave earned his Silver Plate in 2005. In addition, both men died at a relatively young age. Dave was 55, and Bill was 54.
As I thought about all of this, the words from the priest’s eulogy at my sister’s funeral came back to me, and I came to terms with this tragedy. It does no good to dwell on the death. We can’t change things—we can’t even make sense of it all. And so the only healthy thing to do is to celebrate his life.
Dave was a student of the industry, always studying, always learning and always willing to share with his fellow “students.” People can talk about what he accomplished at Notre Dame, as well as at the University of Michigan and the University of Utah. His professional life could be summed up by his list of achievements.
But the truth of the matter is, people in the foodservice industry never achieve anything in a vacuum. A scientist may spend years in a lab, working by himself or with a few trusted colleagues, to come up with an invention or a theory or a discovery that will earn him immortality in the history books. But in foodservice, you accomplish nothing if you don’t touch the lives of the people around you. In this business you are nothing if you haven’t been a mentor. If you haven’t given of your time, energy or wisdom, your success as an operator means little to anyone outside of perhaps your boss.
Dave Prentkowski will be remembered more for what he gave back to the foodservice industry than for what he accomplished. He will live on in people’s minds as a mentor, a resource and a sounding board, rather than as a man who “did things.” His legacy will be as a person who inspired others to push their boundaries, even in the face of something as uncompromising as cancer.
That is a life well lived.