Degree helps bring journey to a fitting end


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

On Monday, 11 days after her beloved husband’s life was cut short by a heart attack, Kristin Lavoie donned cap and gown for an academic ceremony that made everyone around her proud.

A middle school teacher in Pontiac, she can now be rightfully addressed as “Dr. Lavoie” after earning her doctorate from Wayne State University, capping a long and winding journey that she shared virtually every step of the way with her late husband, Mike Lavoie.

“I couldn’t have done this without Mike,” she said succinctly Monday afternoon, offering a debt of gratitude for his encouragement, input, and support.

Providing help was her husband’s lifelong mission, which tragically ended October 13, just hours after the 63-year-old Butzel Long attorney completed a weekly doubles tennis match in Birmingham. For his friends and loved ones, it was a sudden and shocking end, leaving a legion of admirers reeling and at a loss for words.

Mike, as it turned out, was seldom at a “loss for words,” whether in his personal or professional life. I learned as much a decade ago when I first crossed paths with the Notre Dame alum who grew up in Pontiac.

Joe Papelian, then deputy chief of litigation for Delphi Corp., suggested I write a feature story on Lavoie and all of the good works he was involved with in Pontiac and in Burkina Faso, the West African nation where Lavoie served in the Peace Corps years ago. It proved to be an interesting assignment that led to a friendship cemented by the twin forces of golf and tennis.

Along the way, when Mike and his twin brother Rob celebrated their 60th birthdays on a Super Bowl Sunday in 2013, I discovered something about Mike that seemed a bit incongruous.

He once was an altar boy.

The thought of Mike, even as a youth, with a facsimile of a halo over his head didn’t quite add up to the reality of the present day mischief-maker that we had all grown to know and love, I said in remarks delivered prior to a rosary service for Lavoie last week.

As one of his frequent golf partners over the past 10 years, I had grown accustomed to his penchant for pranks, wise cracks and good-natured barbs, and admired his quick wit and wry sense of humor.

And yet, all that time on the golf course together also allowed me the privilege of seeing his decidedly softer side. He was a man of deep faith, who cherished his role in helping make the world a better place.

Foremost, of course, was a deep love for his family – wife Kristin, daughters Katie and Melissa, and step-daughter Laurel and step-son Elliott. Then there was the bond he had with his brothers and their families, and the joy he shared in their respective journeys.

Now, as we all try to come to grips with the loss of a presence that seemed sure to be undying, I think that “halo” of his was indeed rightly placed.

Such a sentiment is shared by one of Mike’s most treasured friends, Mark Werder, a retired attorney from Honigman Miller and a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Mark and his wife Abbey were on a long-planned trip overseas when they received word of Mike’s passing. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to make it back for the rosary and funeral service last week, but Mark still came through with several anecdotal stories that helped define his late friend.

“On a trip up north around 20 years ago hosted by Mike, a group of Assistant U.S. Attorneys out night snowmobiling drove two of the snow machines into Little Wolf Creek and broke through the ice,” Werder related. “Mike and I ended up there an hour or so later, alone, trying to horse the machines out in moonlight with ice cold water right at the crotch of our jeans.

“As we hoisted and sunk an inch lower, he turned to me and said, in beautifully fractured English, ‘It don’t get no better than this.’ In the years since, he’s found occasional lousy circumstances to let those three words speak volumes: ‘Little Wolf Creek.’”

Lavoie’s  “golf psychiatry” was equally impressive, according to Werder, and ranked as “legendary swordsmanship” in terms of toying with the competition.

“The process was especially rewarding when it identified a scab he could subtly pick,” Werder said with a grin. “Did anyone else ever carry a handful of lug nuts in their bag to toss out onto the tee box after somebody had launched a second ball out-of-bounds as code for ‘the wheels came off?’

“For a guy who threw so much energy just into golf, it’s amazing that it was just a tiny drop in his bucket,” Werder said of Lavoie. “His time for Burkina Faso counted so much more heavily for him in his life’s equation. He often explained so earnestly about the significance of even small donations or gifts of school supplies, looking hard at the back of your eyeballs and saying, ‘You can’t begin to understand how much this means, how very little they have.’”

His desire to help the people of the former French colony would become a passion he shared with his wife, who hopes to spearhead a drive to build a school in his honor in the tiny village of Namtenga, where his Peace Corps work took place.

“When Mike came back from his first return trip, decades after his Peace Corps service, he seemed very deeply touched by a lot of things involving renewed friendships – that literally lasted the rest of his lifetime – with men and women who he’d originally known only as very little children, now become grown adults, who still revered him from memories from 25 years before,” Werder explained.

“Since that visit, when he was so struck by how long his wells lasted, he has drilled into the soul of that country with enormous energy and constantly growing diplomatic involvement, truly to the highest level. As much as he will be missed here – and God knows we’re really gonna miss him – I wonder whether we hold a candle to the loss felt in Burkina Faso.”