If the start of a new year makes you consider the possibility of making dramatic changes, you might be interested in the story of Ralph Bernstein, who was moved to take a moment of epiphany because of tragedy.
Go back to April of 2011. Bernstein had it all, or so he thought: The job in banking, helping to run a multimillion dollar company. The house in Minnetonka. A wonderful wife of 25 years and two terrific sons. A big salary, nice suits, a couple of cars. A dog.
Then one day his son called: "Dad, you have to come home, mom had a stroke."
Bernstein's wife, Stephanie, was hurried to the hospital. She seemed to be recovering nicely, until she had another massive stroke a few weeks later, and died. She was 49.
Ralph and Stephanie had known each other since college, so Bernstein had never really thought about a future without "the love of my life." He had not really questioned his career.
"You make plans, and then things just kind of happen," said Bernstein. "If you are at all inclined to self-exploration, tragedy forces you to look at life differently."
The Bernsteins' dog, a Pug named Frannie, stayed home with Stephanie, an educator who had a flexible schedule. After she died, Ralph began to look for somewhere to take Frannie so she wouldn't be lonesome at home alone.
He visited Downtown Dogs, a rambling warehouse near the Minneapolis Farmer's Market teeming with potential pals for Frannie.
"I just fell in love with the place," said Bernstein. The young workers who care for the dogs greeted him every day and immediately got to know his pooch.
"I was really having a rough time after Stephanie died," said Bernstein. "It was the bright spot in my day. There were all these young people who just love dogs, and they seemed to put their hearts and souls into the business."
Before his wife died, Bernstein had occasional thoughts about another line of work. "I thought about buying a bar, but that was a really bad idea," he said. "I thought about a comedy club, but that's just a bar with more expenses."
"I was sitting at my desk one day after our annual planning meeting," said Bernstein. "It was just grueling. I thought about what I would do if I could do anything I wanted. I thought about the best part of my day, bringing my dog to Downtown Dogs, and it just hit me: I thought, there is nothing I would rather do than spend my day with young people and a bunch of dogs."
The owner, Anne Hendrickson, had no plans to sell the business she had built up over 10 years. Bernstein had his lawyer call her anyway. Conversations over a possible sale of the business went off and on for a couple of years.
Bernstein did his research and, after his interest waned for a while, came back with another offer.
"I think she was quite surprised at what it was worth," said Bernstein.
They closed the deal at the end of August, and the former banker gave up his wing tips and power ties for a warehouse building full of rambunctious hounds.
So, does he miss climbing the corporate ladder?
"Oh gosh, no," Bernstein said.
"Of course there is stress in running a business," said Bernstein. "I'm responsible for 120 living creatures, which are like people's kids. I'm responsible for 20 employees who rely on me to pay their bills. But it's self-imposed stress, there's nobody telling me I have to get stuff done. If you want to feel energized, hang out with a bunch of people in their 20s and 100 dogs. I just don't miss it at all."
But Bernstein still misses Stephanie dearly.
"I never would have done this if Stephanie hadn't died, so I guess it's a bright spot in the tragedy," said Bernstein. "I'd give it all up tomorrow to have her back."
I asked Bernstein if his story is one that others could emulate, without being pushed by a horrible event.
"I have no illusions that everybody else could do what I did," Bernstein said. "I had the money and the opportunity. I'm certainly not saying if you have a dream follow it and don't worry about the mortgage or your kid's college tuition."
But he's already confident he made the right decision: "I tell people the closest I ever want to come to a French cuff is a French bulldog."
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