Depression & Suicide in Rural America: Joey’s Story

Who’s Joey?

Joey’s a white, 54-year-old male living in a small town in rural North Dakota. He’s been married for 29 ½ years to fellow Napoleon native, Missy (Sperle).

He’s the proud father of three grown children (Amanda, Megan and Elijah) and has an adorable 9-month-old grandson.

Joey’s the middle child with two sisters and an in-law to Missy’s 12 siblings.

He’s provided for his family as a restaurant owner and manager, retail manager and maintenance worker at the Napoleon Care Center.

Joey loves spending time with his family, especially hunting with his son, mowing the lawn and watching TV.

He’s described as kind, soft-hearted, genuine and sweet.

Joey loves people, but is shy.

He works hard not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Joey can also be a prankster and a joker.

He has a strong Catholic faith.

Joey has suffered with depression for 34 years.

On December 9, 2016, Joey ended his life by suicide.

Battling Depression

This wasn’t Joey’s first attempt at ending his struggle with life.

Three times he overdosed with medication chased by alcohol. The last time by a fatal gunshot in the master bedroom.

“In the 35 years we were together, it was like a roller coaster ride,” said his wife, Missy. Joey was hospitalized for the suicide attempts. He saw doctors for decades and took a variety of antidepressants. He even had shock treatments, which worked for a few years, but, according to Missy, also affected his short-term memory.

Joey’s depression peaked when he was under pressure or conflict was present in his life.

“Joey loved his family so very much but I believe the suffering just got to be too much. He was so tired of the struggle to keep going,” shared Missy.

Suicide’s Effect on Family

Joey’s children felt deep guilt in the months after his death. “These days were very hard. The kids felt guilty because they didn’t call or visit their dad more often.”

Somehow they believed if they’d have reached out and visited more frequently his suicide could’ve been prevented.

Not likely.

Hilzendeger Family

Joey and Missy often talked about suicide because of his 30-year depression battle. “I knew the day would come where he’d accomplish it. However, I always figured it’d be by means of overdose and not by shooting himself on a day when all the children were coming home.”

Missy assured and comforted her children and told them what she’d say to any family who’s suffered such a loss:

1. This is not your fault. Depression is an illness like cancer, diabetes or alcoholism. It is no one’s fault and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

2. Use available resources for helping you cope: support groups, pastoral counseling, therapy, physician visits, retreats, spa services-whatever is available to you and makes you feel better.

3. Stay strong. It may feel like you will never get over this. It is not easy and you will never forget. Each day does get better and you will learn to live with it. You have to believe God loves you and will help you through this.

Though she coaches her children and others to be guilt-free, Missy sometimes blames herself for Joey’s suicide. “We were together for 35 years and I just couldn’t bring him back from the darkness this one last time.”

However, Missy has never been angry with Joey for what he did. “We were together so long and I knew how much he struggled on so many occasions. I can’t be angry with him.”

She admits, though, she’s been disappointed that he didn’t fight harder, especially after they had their first grandchild. “He was so unbelievably proud of that little boy.”

Missy is comforted knowing that she and the kids did not miss any warning signs of Joey’s impending suicide. “He battled depression for 30 plus years. Though it was difficult, it was part of our lives for so many years.

I wish I could have him back, but for Joey’s sake, knowing how much he suffered for so long, I truly hope and pray that he is now at peace.”

Moving Forward

Joey is terribly missed by all. Thinking of him brings both a smile to Missy’s face and tears to her eyes.

She talks to him regularly, asking him to watch over the family and to keep them safe, always, but especially from the current pandemic. “I pray every day that Joey is at peace and is right beside God.” That was always his greatest wish.

Missy’s relies heavily on her immediate and extended families to cope and is deeply grateful to each of them for their commitment to her. “They’ve helped so much with everyday life since Joey’s death. I wouldn’t have been able to get through this without them and my faith.”

Her toughest days were the grief-filled ones the first four weeks after Joey’s death. “I cried every day, many times a day. I remember thinking I’d just lost my husband yet everyone is moving on like nothing happened.”

She returned to work and kept busy, yet when summer arrived, she was hit with another wave of grief. She was alone to tend to yard work-one of Joey’s favorite chores that he enjoyed so much.

I had a wake-up call. Life was moving on with or without me. “The pain of his death has not gone away. I have just learned to live with it.”

“It’s been 3 ½ years. Every day is anyone’s guess how the day will be. Some days I feel like crying when I hear a certain song or relive a special memory. The next day, I’m just fine.”

Wishing Missy and her beautiful family days of peace and happiness ahead.

Thank you for sharing your story so that others may have hope.

If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek immediate help from a physician or mental health professional. In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For more information, visit the NSPL web site (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org).

Pinochle Tournament

Keeping Legacy Alive

Joey loved playing pinochle https://bicyclecards.com/how-to-play/pinochle-2/, as do many in the Napoleon, http://napoleonnd.com/ North Dakota community.

To keep Joey’s memory alive, every March his family hosts a pinochle tournament in Napoleon with funds donated to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in memory of Joey Hilzendeger.

If you’d like to make a donation to the card tournament, send a check to Missy Hilzendeger 322 Avenue C East, Napoleon, ND 58561.

Or, you can donate directly to AFSP online in memory of Joey Hilzendeger. https://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=cms.page&id=1390&eventID=2043

The 5th Annual Pinochle Tournament is scheduled for March 2021. The day is not yet available.

What Can You Do?

  • Seek help if you are suicidal. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Leave notes of encouragement for Missy below.
  • Donate and participate in the Pinochle Tournament.
  • Send a donation in Joey’s name to AFSP.
  • Encourage loved ones to seek help.
  • Objectively listen and pay attention.
  • Keep the lines of communication open.
  • SHARE this post with others struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts.
  • SHARE with family members left behind.

North Dakota Facts

North Dakota saw the nation’s largest increase in suicide rates from 1999 to 2016- 58 percent.

That was more than twice the national increase of 25 percent, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means that in North Dakota, which has the nation’s 10th-highest suicide rate, a person dies by suicide every 57 hours.

In 2019, 154 people committed suicide.

Guns are the leading means of suicide nationally as well as in North Dakota. They account for slightly more than half of all suicides in North Dakota.

Easy access to firearms, along with increased social isolation and lack of behavioral health services, are among the reasons cited for higher suicide rates in rural areas.

Learn More

https://www.theitem.com/stories/the-pain-of-suicide,339546

http://www.ndaap.com/uploads/2/6/4/7/26479511/reaching_zero_suicide_in_nd.pdf

https://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/suicide-numbers-keep-rising-in-nd-but-there-s-help/article_41deb409-b5b9-5efa-b48c-6b0d6efe7753.html

https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/the-sin-of-suicide.html

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/men-and-depression/index.shtml

https://www.governing.com/gov-data/health/county-suicide-death-rates-map.html

https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/01/30/americas-suicide-rate-has-increased-for-13-years-in-a-row

https://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/suicide-rates-are-rising-especially-rural-america-n1050806

https://www.kfyrtv.com/content/news/Resources-in-ND-available-when-mental-health-and-suicide-grief-becomes-too-much-567637891.html

https://afsp.org/state-fact-sheets

©April 2020. Linda Leier Thomason All Rights Reserved.

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3 Generations Thrilled with Nebraska Adventure

Brenda Thomason, affectionately known as “Granny” in our family, enjoys traveling. In honor of her 75th birthday we planned a trip around two of her favorites: Neil Diamond and travel.

It was a bit of a challenge. She’s not a fan of large concert arenas or crowds. That meant it wasn’t as easy as purchasing tickets for Neil’s Omaha, Nebraska performance.  Alas, a Neil Diamond Legend Show was scheduled in southwest Nebraska, simplifying the task.

The greater challenge became building side-trips along the route to and from Red Cloud, Nebraska. Joining the adventure were two twenty-somethings and his parents: 3 generations, each with its own preferences and tastes.

The result was a remarkable trip celebrating Granny’s milestone birthday,  re-connecting while listening to Neil Diamond CD’s on the journey over Nebraska highways.

Are you and your family seeking a Nebraska adventure?

Try this travel plan. Click on links for more information. See additional photographs on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Let me know what else you discovered along the way. Share photos of your trip. They may appear here.

Departure

Our first stop after leaving Omaha shortly after 9:30 am on a Friday was in

Beatrice, Nebraska

  • Located about 96 miles from Omaha, approximately 90 minutes.
  • 37 miles directly south of Lincoln on four-lane US-Highway 77.
  • Nearly 13,000 residents live here.
  • Click here for list of “Things to Do in Beatrice.”

Lunch

Back Alley Eatery

  • 124 23rd Street Beatrice, NE

We were the first diners when the restaurant opened at 11 am. Everything from the brisket platter to the pulled pork sandwich was flavorful and plentiful. The service was quick, efficient and friendly. Favorite sides included baked beans, green beans and corn muffins. The homemade coconut cream pie topped with meringue was a family favorite.

Side-Trip

Homestead National Monument of America

  • 8523 West State Highway 4
  • Located 11 minutes (6.9 miles) from Back Alley Eatery
  • Includes Heritage Center, Education Center and Freeman School

This site commemorates the lives and accomplishments of all pioneers and the changes brought about by the Homestead Act. It is staffed by well-trained  rangers. The area includes exhibits, a bookstore/gift shop, a 20-minute video, a barbed wire outdoor exhibit, a cabin and 100 acres of restored tall-grass prairie. There is plenty of information on the Homestead Act and its far-reaching effect on the development of the west. Guests can even narrate and record their own family history with the Homestead Act.

The monument salutes the Homestead Act of 1862 by preserving the 160-acres of the Act’s first claimant, Daniel Freeman. For over a century the Act allowed men and women, many immigrants, to claim and develop 160 acres of free land.

There is no park entrance fee. One can often find artists-in-residence at the Education Center. During our visit Susan Lenz, a full time, professional studio artist from Columbia, South Carolina, was present. That afternoon, she was working alongside two volunteers on a quilting project.

Destination

Red Cloud, Nebraska

  • Located 105 miles, or about an hour and 48 minutes, southwest of Beatrice (Highway 136).
  • Hometown of author Willa Cather.
  • The town also hosts a number of cultural events at the Red Cloud Opera House and The National Willa Cather Center, attracting over 10,000 visitors annually.
  • Population of 1020 residents.
  • County seat of Webster County.
  • Red Cloud is home to the largest memorial of an American author; even larger than Mark Twain’s in Hannibal, Missouri.

National Willa Cather Center was completed and dedicated in June 2017 in a ceremony where former first lady Laura Bush was the keynote speaker. Mrs. Bush also cut the ribbon to officially open the $7 million Center.

In addition to being the headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation, the building features a climate-controlled archive, a bookstore, a museum, and conference rooms. Tours of various locations, lengths and prices are offered.

Visit the town’s website to see a number of travel packages.

Pick up a “Town Tour” brochure at the Foundation Welcome Desk. It includes 26 notable locations worth walking to or driving by.

Lodging

Cather Second Home Guest House

Willa Cather’s parents purchased this home in 1903, leaving behind their little rented home at Third and Cedar Streets where Willa Cather had spent her formative years. Over the years, the home had several private owners and also served as a hospital, nursing facility, and bed and breakfast. It was acquired by the Willa Cather Foundation in 2011 through the generosity of a Cather family descendant.

Guests may rent the Frankfort room that was Cather’s, or the rooms of her parents-Sweet Water-Virginia Cather and Moonstone -Charles Cather; or her brother Douglass’s room-Haverford. The family maid’s room Hanover, has two twin beds. The Blackhawk room is on the main floor and has an ADA entrance. It is the former family kitchen.

The entire home may also be rented for family retreats, meetings, and special occasions.

10 Tips about Staying at the Guest House

  1. Hairdryers, toiletries and bathrobes are provided, as are slippers; shoes must be removed.
  2. No pets or smoking are allowed.
  3. Continental breakfast is provided.
  4. Most rooms do not have closets; clothing hooks and luggage racks are available.
  5. The house is unattended; no innkeeper lives here.
  6. Juices, tea and coffee are available as are homemade granola and oatmeal.
  7. The kitchen is fully furnished (flatware, kettles, plates, etc.) for guest use.
  8. The home has 2.5. shared bathrooms.
  9. A washer and dryer are on the second floor.
  10. A gold plate on the back of each door locks the room from inside.

Dinner

Fat Fox’s Restaurant

Granny chose Fat Fox’s for her birthday trip celebration dinner. Their specialty is pizza; they also have daily specials. Pork chops were featured during our visit. We chose a supreme pizza that had an outstanding crust and plenty of toppings.

The restaurant was at full-capacity.

 

Notes about Fat Fox’s

  • Gluten free pizza is available.
  • Save room for homemade desserts.
  • Roasted in-shell peanuts are on each table.
  • Beer and wine are not served here. You may order pizza at The Brix-a wine tasting room down the street. It will be delivered.
  • A salad bar is offered.
  • Specials are noted on a chalkboard
  • Celebrate a special occasion here. Communicate through Facebook Messenger. The owner is responsive and does a great job helping you plan. He’s not a bad singer either.

Entertainment

Red Cloud Opera House

Our trip was planned around the Neil Diamond Tribute Show.

Keith Allynn is an award-winning entertainer. His career began in stand-up comedy at age 14, warming up for Chris Rock, Tim Allen and Robin Williams. His musical talents were discovered at age 21. In 2004 Graceland voted him one of the world’s top 10 Elvis Tribute Artists.

More recently he’s headlined the Neil Diamond Tribute Show in Branson, Missouri. There, he’s been awarded the Tribute Artist and Tribute Show of the Year and multiple Trip Advisor certificates.

His 2.5 hour show at the Red Cloud, Nebraska Opera House was sold out to an appreciative audience of 300. Keith’s voice and stage presence are top-notch. He provides fascinating history behind the songs and interacts well with the audience. Keith encourages participation, roaming the aisles, shaking hands while singing, especially pleasing to female attendees.

He will be leaving the Branson stage in 2017, making him more available for corporate events and independent shows throughout the world.

You can find Keith Allynn on Facebook. Check out his upcoming show schedule.

Notes about the Opera House

  • Beer, wine and premium mixed drinks are available for purchase.
  • Popcorn is sold.
  • Tables for 8 can be reserved.
  • Doors open 30 minutes prior to show time.
  • Bathrooms  are on both the main floor and second floor-where stage is.
  • Come early and browse exhibits on main floor.
  • Chairs are movable and do not have arm rests.
  • Ask staff prior to taking photos during performances.

Day 2

Side-Trip #1

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

  • Located 5 miles south of Red Cloud, Nebraska on the west side of Highway 281.
  • Roughly 612 acres of native prairie in southern Webster County.
  • Hiking trails are open.
  • The horizon is unbroken.
  • Purchased by the Foundation in 2006. They are working to restore the Prairie to its pre-1900’s condition.

Side-Trip #2, Unplanned Find

Geographic Center of the United States of America

  • About 14 miles south of the Prairie is the geographic center of the United States.
  • Watch for the sign to your right, traveling south on Highway 281.
  • The gravel road (K-191) will dead end into the location that includes a very small chapel.
  • It is a free attraction and open all the time.
  • Lebanon, Kansas is located 2 miles southeast of this location.
  • A small Visitor Center is in Lebanon.

Lunch

Odyssey Restaurant, Hastings, Nebraska 

The biggest surprise on the trip was the food quality at this restaurant in Hastings, Nebraska, the birthplace of Kool-Aid.

We left our meal proclaiming Odyssey as our family’s “newest food crush.”

  • Located in historic downtown Hastings at 521 West Second Street off Highway 281 North, traveling from Red Cloud, Nebraska.
  • Across from Rivoli Theatre.
  • Odyssey occupies two buildings united into one.
  • There is an outdoor patio; dogs welcome.
  • Casual, modern and innovative cuisine, including grilled Caesar salad and chocolate crème brulee.
  • The atmosphere is as appetizing as the food; get up and look at the historic maps on the walls.
  • Here’s one place you’ll like getting the check. Won’t ruin surprise.

Side-Trip #3

Holy Family Shrine

A Catholic Chapel on the highway is a place for I-80 travelers to rest, be at peace, pray and be comforted.

  • 23132 Pflug Road, PO Box 507, Gretna, NE  68028
  • Between Omaha and Lincoln off I-80, exit 432 and go south on Hwy 31 (1.3 miles), then turn west onto Pflug Road (1 mile). DETOUR July 2017 due to construction.
  • Open 10am-5pm Monday through Saturday and 12pm-5pm on Sunday.
  • Averages 20,000 visitors a year.
  • Catholic Mass Saturday mornings at 10am.
  • Open to travelers of all faiths.
  • Gift shop in visitor center.
  • Free entrance. Goodwill offering/donations accepted and needed. Not supported by Archdiocese.
  • Outside life-size walking Stations of the Cross are currently under construction.
  • Does not host any weddings, funerals, baptisms, renewal of wedding vows, proposals, or anything connected with wedding parties.

Return

Our party of 5 returned to Omaha at 4:30 PM Saturday. We’d seen and experienced so much. We are committed to doing it again. Are you?

Go Explore

Explore Nebraska. Support economic development in small, rural towns. Try something new and different. Take an overnight trip. Renew your spirit. Support the arts.

Like & SHARE this story with Willa Cather fans, backroad travelers & those who enjoy Midwest adventures.

Linda Leier Thomason is a former CEO who writes freelance business and travel stories, along with feature articles. Her work experiences include a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government, entrepreneurship and small business. Find out more about Linda by clicking the “Meet Linda” tab above. Interested in working together? Complete this form below.

Contact me. Did you travel this route? Share your story and photos.

©Copyright. July 2017. Linda Leier Thomason

All Rights Reserved.