A young writer preserves the family history of a Villager whose wife no longer can recall a lifetime of memories.
For writers, coming up with an ending often is the most difficult task for any story.
Doug Tharp has lived a 60-year love story with his college sweetheart, Claudette, or “Mitch” as he calls her because of her maiden name, Mitchell. After moving in 2000 to The Villages, the couple enjoyed dining out, spending evenings at the town squares, and indulging their love of travel by taking daytrips around Central Florida.
But their story comes with a cruel plot twist: Those memories now elude Mitch, who was diagnosed in 2013 with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and since fall 2016 has resided at a memory care assisted-living facility.
Instead of accepting a bleak ending, however, Doug decided he wanted to complete his longtime goal of documenting the couple’s story in a family history book. Doug, who turns 83 in January, teamed up on the writing project with a seemingly unlikely partner: Olivia Savoie, a 23-year-old English and history graduate from Lafayette, Louisiana. Olivia was inspired by her grandmother to write the story of their family history, and now she puts the finishing touches on people’s lives and loves as a writer.
Together, they produced “Mitch and Doug’s Life Travels” for the Tharps’ four children, eight grandchildren, and generations to come. Part travelogue and part memoir, the 80-page book includes numerous family photos, as well as the stories of Mitch and Doug’s life together.
Of course, Doug had always hoped to include Mitch’s input before that became impossible. For Mitch, it’s day when it’s light and night when it’s dark, but she has little awareness of much else, Doug says. Still, he visits her every day and now he has one tool the caregivers do not have.
Doug plans to read the family history to Mitch. It’s a page right out of “The Notebook,” the Nicholas Sparks book and later film in which a man writes and relates his love story to his wife, who has Alzheimer’s. But Doug doesn’t expect any Hollywood-style miracles.
“I don’t think she’ll understand what I’m saying,” he says. “My guess is that she’ll just sit there and stare at me and probably won’t comprehend what this is—even some of the pictures I don’t know that she’ll remember—but I’m going to try.”
Doug will revisit the many places they traveled during his eight years in the Navy and long career as an engineer primarily in the missile defense and railway industries: Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Europe, California, Texas, Colorado, back home to their native Pennsylvania, and then retirement in The Villages. He will show Mitch the photos of their adopted children, daughters Catherine and Elizabeth, and sons Ben and Bruce. A fifth adopted child died young.
“Because we’ve had such a varied background and been to so many places, a lot of them before the children were born, I thought it would be nice to document, because once you’re gone, that’s all gone,” Doug says. “And I thought it would be nice if it were in writing. I had always thought that I would do it. But I could not have imagined anything that I would do would turn out to be something like this [book]. She’s just done a marvelous job.”
Olivia started her business, Raconteur Story Writing Services, in 2016 after graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She built her business around her love of history and writing. She also writes love stories for wedding anniversaries and tribute books for families who have lost a loved one, but the memoirs are her favorite genre.
“I saw my grandmother try for 20 years to write her life story and never really put the whole story together, and that’s what gave me the idea to do this,” Olivia says. “I sat down with her for four hours and within four weeks gave her a book that was published, and after I saw what it did for my family, I just love doing that for other people and their families.”
She and her husband, Joshua, moved in June 2017 to the Orlando area, unaware that a treasure trove of potential stories awaited her nearby in The Villages. Olivia had not heard of the 55-plus community but she wanted to move to Florida because of her affection for seniors, not usually a trait of the stereotypical millennial.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I adored older people and I loved volunteering at retirement communities and I ran out of them in my town,” Olivia says. “So when my husband was looking for a job and wanted an adventure, I wanted Florida. I just wanted to be around older people and with what I do, that worked well, of course.”
She put an ad in a local paper, and Doug saw it—one in search of a story, the other searching for someone to finish his story.
Olivia spent two three-hour sessions with Doug, using a 150-question list as a guideline and typing every word as he spoke. She spent another couple of hours organizing photos and numerous hours writing, completing the project in about two months.
She writes in first person from the point of view of the storyteller.
“When I saw the first draft,” Doug says, “I got the distinct feeling when I was reading it that I was talking. She had a knack to put me right in the middle of this. I think when my kids read this, this is going to be Dad talking.”
“The whole point is, 100 years from now, you want your great-great-grandchildren to know this is how he told it and this is his story and this is him talking,” Olivia adds. “It’s personal, getting in his head and writing.”
The couple’s journey began in Pennsylvania when Doug, from Shamokin, and Mitch, from Verona, met at Penn State University and became sweethearts.
Doug joined the Navy, and they married in 1957 while he was in training in Pensacola to pilot helicopters.
His naval stops included San Diego in an anti-submarine warfare squadron, and Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, where he tested missile defense systems that were forerunners for the Patriot missile used years later in Iraq.
After leaving Kwajalein and the Navy in the mid-1960s, the couple took a two-month pleasure trip to Europe, sailed on cruises and visited the Panama Canal, and traveled to national parks in the western United States.
Doug went on to work for companies that developed missile defense systems—some projects were “very, very top secret,” he says—and as a NASA contractor on a Hawaiian island in 1969, he had a role in the Apollo 11 moon landing by keeping the transmission frequencies clear. Later, he worked in Colorado at the Transportation Test Center, which tested high-speed trains.
Mitch, who encouraged Doug to adopt, spent much of her time raising the children and later taught home economics. Before her illness, she was an excellent teacher, avid reader, politically astute, a lover of travel, and a giver who always wanted to help other people, Doug says.
The couple came full circle by returning to Pennsylvania, where they both took jobs at PSU, Mitch running food kitchens and assisting at-risk children in outreach programs in the College of Agriculture, and Doug assisting small businesses with technology in the College of Engineering.
After retiring to The Villages, Doug spent a couple of years as a boat captain cracking corny jokes on the Jungle Cruise in Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and he has worked for many years in The Villages’ golf division. Doug and Mitch served as neighborhood representatives for The Villages Homeowners Association, and Doug rose to president. Mitch also worked in the Sumter County supervisor of elections office.
The circumstances of life took the couple on an adventure that wasn’t planned, Doug says.
“Our fondest memory was being together and being able to see some of the wonders of the world,” he says. “We’ve had a wonderful life.”
Meeting recently at Doug’s Village of Polo Ridge home, Olivia brought him a bound edition of the finished manuscript. Mitch and Doug’s son Bruce designed the cover with passport stamps representing all the places the couple lived and visited.
“It was so exciting to be able to bring you your book today,” Olivia says. “It’s so important to leave a family heirloom and to capture your story because, like [Doug] said, when you’re gone, you’re gone. You have to get your story out while you can, but not everyone is a writer and capable of doing that or at least not capable of doing that without a lot of years of heartache and years [spent] on it.”
While Doug and Mitch’s story is not over, the family history book completes another chapter for Doug.
“I’ve already gotten something out of it,” he says. “Just seeing a dream that I had come true is very gratifying to me.”
And even though the memories have faded for Mitch, her life story with Doug doesn’t change. It’s written in Doug’s memory, and now it’s written on the page.