A Sanctuary for the Soul: Honoring a Cancer Victim
Keeping Jeff's Spirit Alive
That August, on vacation with his wife and son, Later was biking near the cottage when he noticed a spray-painted sign reading "40 ACRES FOR SALE." Something clicked. "The sign had been there forever but not until that moment did I connect it with Jeff," says Later. "My next thought was a big 'what if' -- what if we could buy that property and deed it to the Leelanau Conservancy as the Jeff Lamont Preserve?" The Lamonts had been involved with the nonprofit conservancy since Mike and Jeff were children; every year they bought small plots of land -- sometimes just 2 square feet -- to be preserved in the boys' names. Jeff had proudly hung the certificates in his room.
Later mentioned his brainstorm to his wife, Betsy, who called the conservancy about the idea. The next morning, after walking the property, the conservancy team was cautiously encouraging.
"They said they'd have to run it by their board, but their attitude was, 'Great idea, go raise the money and make it happen,'" says Later. He located the property's owners to check the asking price: $140,000. "We can raise that," Later remembers thinking confidently. But a bigger obstacle loomed: talking to his sister. "I was afraid Bridget would be upset that we were talking about this before Jeff had even died."
He needn't have worried: Bridget was blown away by the idea. "It was more than I dreamed of," she says. In fact, she was eager to share the plan with her son, who by this time was so weak he could barely talk. "It was tricky to bring up," says Bridget. "We just said, 'Uncle Jeff had a wonderful idea. What do you think about buying that land along our lane? We'll make it a preserve and it will always, always stay the way it is. And we'll name it after you so you will always be with us.'" Too weak to speak, Jeff's gaunt face nevertheless lit up and he beamed his old megawatt smile. "He understood," says Bridget.
Later composed a contribution request letter to send out to friends and family members. He had just finished it when Jeff died, on September 21, a month after his 21st birthday.
As the funeral was being planned, Later called the property owners to let them know they were ready to proceed. Their response flattened him: They were having second thoughts. In a panic he phoned Tom Nelson, a land protection specialist at the conservancy. Nelson was unruffled. Be patient, he advised -- conservation projects take time. But Later was worried: Could he ask people to contribute not knowing whether the land was available?
Unsure of how to break this news to his sister, he decided simply to forge ahead. He turned his Wilmette, Illinois, home into "campaign headquarters" and put his own family and the Lamonts to work -- folding, stuffing, sealing, addressing, and stamping hundreds of envelopes. Later and Bridget have five other siblings and everyone pitched in. "We had about 200 names ourselves and a ton of friends, so we ended up with a database of about 500," Later says. "No matter how crazy it got, we were doing something, we were making something, and it was always a high."
Bridget and Tom agree. "Writing letters and talking to people about the preserve kept us going for all those months after Jeff died," she says.