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Our Unappreciated Ties

Philanthropy issue takes aim at the value of connection

I’ve never been inside Bernie Strege’s house. We’ve never broken bread at the dinner table or met for coffee. But for most of my childhood and early adult life, she was an integral part of my days. 

Bernie lived less than a mile down the road from me, and I grew up getting into trouble around Egg Harbor with her son, Eddie, but where I knew her best was at the checkout at Main Street Market. 

When I was 10, she was the person who would somehow remain patient when I held up a long summer line, fishing a couple of final dimes out of my pocket to pay for a pack of football cards. As a high school freshman, she was the one who would let me use the phone to call for a ride when the late bus dropped me off in town and I didn’t have change for the pay phone. As an adult when I was back in town from Chicago, she was the familiar, friendly face who knew my family members’ names, asked about my mom and dad and updated me on her kids. 

Her role was unofficial, unspoken, unrecognized – and vital. She was the weak tie that helped hold us together in little Egg Harbor, then-population 189. The one with a smile, a question, a nod of encouragement. 

In the 2024 edition of our annual Door County Living Philanthropy Issue, on newsstands throughout the peninsula now, we explore how our community fights what Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called “Our Epidemic of Loneliness.” Our topic was sparked by the musings of contributor Tom Groenfeldt, who read about the report and began thinking about the people and places that serve as our weak ties.

In this remote peninsula, our writers found that we may be better equipped than most to address the consequences of social isolation that create a drag on people’s family, health and economic fortunes. We found a small army of individuals leading initiatives big and small to help people connect. We talked to islanders to learn from those who know better than anyone how to lean on each other. And we discussed the ways social media does – and too often doesn’t – serve to connect us. 

As we put the issue together, I found myself thinking of Bernie a lot – and the others like her who have been a part of my 45 years – and the many days made just a little better by a smile and a hello. Maybe she’s the reason I still choose the checkout line with a person over the self-checkout every chance I get. 

Maybe those little interactions add up.