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Reborn on the 4th of July: Using the power of love and faith to transcend Race

On a warm summer day 25 years ago a tragic motorcycle accident altered the lives of two young men and two families forever. The lives of 15-year-old Justin Bobholz and 30-year-old Tracy Washington intersected, and changed their families in a way that is considered divine intervention by members of both families.

Tracy was one of my best friends. He and I lived our lives like brothers from another mother. He called my mother “mom” and she called him “son.” We lived a block away from each other, along with our closest friends Dave, James, Peter, and Paul, we were nearly inseparable.

We played sports together. My house was the place where the neighborhood basketball court was. Every kid in the neighborhood came to play on the turf that my brother and I defended like we owned it. Tracy was one of those neighborhood kids who came by, and we developed a close bond and genuine lifelong friendship beginning on that basketball court.

Tracy was the type of person that everyone liked. He had a constant positive attitude, a love of life and a kindness that was immeasurable. From the time we first met in the late 1970s until I graduated from high school in 1983, Tracy and I – along with our good buddies – shared a life together that young people today would be envious of.

We took long walks in the city, unbothered by anyone. We rode our bicycles down to the lakefront and from park to park, challenging people to play us in basketball games. We were crazy about that game. We shoveled off the court at Columbia Park in the winter so that we could play year round. We could not feel our fingers, but our hearts were connected to that game. We pretended to be NBA stars, buying t-shirts with the names and numbers of Magic Johnson, George “Iceman” Gervin, Marcus Johnson, David Thompson, Julius “Dr. J” Irving, and others.

We eventually began to play a neighborhood against neighborhood series of games when James and Dave left the neighborhood. Along with three of their cousins, they played against me, Tracy, my brother Daryl, our friends Paul, Peter, and anyone else we could find to fill out our team. We played up to 100 points and included 3-point baskets.

They beat us most of the time. Sometimes the games were competitive, other times they were blowouts. It did not matter, because we had so much fun competing. Tracy was the best defender on our team and played exceptionally hard against bigger guys. He was a great competitor.

Later in life I remember playing pool against him and his father, Mr. Washington, on their pool table. Our friend James was a pool shark, still is in fact. Tracy and his dad played an extra focused game when James came over.

Our childhood was ideal. We would often say, that we would not trade our childhoods with anyone else. I joined the military right after high school and was gone for about ten years before moving back to Milwaukee. Although we were still tight friends, we did not see as much of each other in the mid 1990s. All of that changed in early 1996.

Tracy’s doctors discovered he had a heart condition that required him to receive a new heart to be able to continue his life. He would spend the majority of the next six months in Froedert Hospital awaiting a donor heart.

While we were in high school a beautiful baby boy, Justin Daniel Bobholz, was born. There was no way to know at the time that he would become so important to Tracy.

I first met Justin’s mom, Kay Bandle at my graduation from Concordia University. I saw Tracy in the audience and asked him “what are you doing here?” I had no idea that Tracy was there to see not me, but Kay graduate. He introduced me that day and it would be nearly a decade before I saw her again.

Kay Bandle grew up in a small rural farming community in Wisconsin. Kay’s second husband Fred, Justin’s stepdad, was a childhood friend. Fred’s dad was raised on a farm and worked at A.O. Smith and other blue collar jobs while his wife and children attended to the farm. He eventually returned to the farm to help his wife when he saw that it would support the two of them and their twelve children. Tragically, Fred lost his three-year old brother when he was only four himself. As Fred told me, “every five years another brother would die for various reasons.”

Fred joked about meeting Kay and carrying her around the farm when she was a little girl. Working on the farm “was 365 days a year” Fred told me. Kay and her siblings would sometimes come over to help with farm work “and bring gloves” and food also. Kay and her family introduced Fred’s family to pizza when they brought it to the farm one day. It was the first time Fred and his siblings ever ate pizza.

Years later Fred entered military service in the Army, serving in Vietnam for one year. Life after that was difficult according to Fred. “It would take years after that to get back to what I considered normal.”

Fred worked construction for most of his life. When I drove to their home to interview them, Fred was outside using those skills to make a repair. He married and had two children after leaving the military but that marriage did not last.

He moved back to Wisconsin and continued working in construction. He received a call from Kay and his mom took the message and told him “to be good to that girl because Kay had always been special in our lives.” That was the beginning of their relationship and they were eventually married.

As I sat with them, it was readily apparent how much they loved each other. Their gentle back and forth during the time I was with them, told me a lot about their heartfelt love for each other and their family. Their blended family included Justin and his big sister Jessica, as well as Fred’s daughters Katrina and Daisy, who spent their summers with the Bandles.

Tracy came from a large family as well. I can recall spending a lot of time at his house hanging out with his brothers, sisters and a lot of nieces and nephews. Tracy lost his mom when he was 14. I met him sometime after that and his father always treated me like a son.

One of his nephew’s Patrick, was around a lot and we spoke laughingly about our childhoods when I called to interview him. Likewise when I spoke to his nephews Jeff and Jerome, it was like a trip down memory lane. They each remembered Tracy as much more than just an uncle.

Patrick took care of Tracy, taking him to doctor appointments, and he recalled “we had some good times and we had some bad times” when Tracy became ill in the latter years of his life. Tracy and Patrick sat in Tracy’s truck having “long conversations” and talking “about things he wanted to do.” They went fishing a lot. Tracy often invited me, but fishing was not in my heart. I regret that I did not at least go with him one time because I knew how passionate he was about it.

I can recall as a kid that someone was always working on cars at Tracy’s house. It was no surprise that he gravitated to doing the same. Patrick told me that they worked together on Tracy’s truck, which Patrick still owns and maintains to this day.

He said Tracy “just wanted to live more.” Being the man that he was, Tracy naturally took care of the young men and boys in his family. Patrick recalled that “Tracy was like a father to me.” Tracy loved to dance. He and our buddy Peter formed a drill team on 14th Street where we all grew up. Our childhoods were full of really great memories. That neighborhood, in the heart of the now infamous 53206 zip code, was a beautiful place to raise children back in the 1970s and early 1980s – when manufacturing jobs still supported many families in the city.

Jeff and Jerome, two of his nephews, now live in Ohio. They shared some of their fondest memories of “Uncle Tracy” with me. Jerome told me Tracy “was there for me” when I needed advice. Jeff said the same, “Tracy was the uncle but he was the uncle that was close enough in age that we were like brothers.” Jerome recalled that “he was an outlet for us” and he “helped us through difficult times.”

Jerome told me his best memory of Tracy was when “Uncle Tracy helped me buy my first car. He came out there with me and told me what to look for in my first vehicle.” Jerome remembered with a laugh how great that made him feel to have support from Tracy at that moment. Jeff talked about Tracy “teaching us how to be young men.” He advised them both on the things to be aware of in life as young men. It was really cool to talk to them after so many years, and to realize how important Tracy was to his nephews as a friend, mentor, and a role model.

As we were growing up, Tracy’s niece Morilyn was a good friend of mine too. She graciously shared her memories of Tracy, and his organ transplant process. “I was there when they first called him, that he had a heart,” Morilyn told me.

Tracy had been in Froedert Hospital off and on for half a year waiting on a compatible heart, after doctors told him he would not survive without a transplant. I visited him in that room many times. Despite the stress and difficulty of that experience, Tracy was always upbeat when I saw him. His infectious smile made it hard for you not to be optimistic that he would survive.

I can remember my friend Dave called and told me the news about Tracy getting his new heart on July 4, 1996. I was elated. Tracy had prayed many times that on those helicopters – which landed right outside his window on a regular basis – would be one with a heart which would save his life.

As joyful as that day was for all of us who loved Tracy, it was devastating to Justin’s family.

The day before, Justin was on a motorcycle with his biological father and they had an accident. Justin did not have a helmet on and sustained an injury to the back of his head. Fred was home alone and received the call about the accident.

Kay was at the Kewaskum fireworks that night. Fred “rode around in a police car trying to find her” with no luck. He came home and waited by the phone. When they went to Froedert, that was “the beginning of our journey” Fred and Kay said simultaneously.

“Justin was only 15-years-old. At 15 you don’t talk about a child’s death,” Kay told me. One of the amazing things they shared with me about Justin was something that happened several months before the motorcycle accident. A friend of Justin had “passed away out on Highway K on an icy night, he lost control of the car and he died.” She continued by saying, “I was down in our laundry room at our old house and I was crying… for his parents. I remember Justin coming in… and he said ‘why are you crying?’ And I said… they’ve lost Mark. And he gave me a hug, he was always a good hugger and he said ‘stay right here…’ He goes up to his bedroom and he brings down a sheet of paper they had in the school newspaper and said ‘look Ma, Mark might have died, but they did the donor program… look at what Mark could do, he could contribute his heart here… and he could give his liver here, look at this and if anything ever happens to me I want you to donate my organs, Justin said.”

That decision, by this wonderful young man, cemented into place his commitment to help others in case of a tragedy. He attended the high school prom as a freshman and told Kay that night “was the best night of my life.” She found out later that Tracy was home from the hospital that day, April 20.

Justin was thrown 35 feet off of the motorcycle on July 3 and had a gash on the back of his head. Kay said “they should have taken him to Children’s Hospital because he was fifteen.” Instead he was at Froedert on the adult end. They searched frantically but they could not find him in the children’s wing of the hospital.

Jessica was out on Lake Michigan watching the fireworks with friends when the accident happened. Kay recalled conversations with hospital staff while they sat in the ICU waiting room after Jessica arrived. She said she could tell people were having trouble telling them that Justin was gone. They began to speak of the donor program. Kay, Fred, and Jessica knew that was what Justin wanted. Their very strong faith helped them to get through the night.

“God had already orchestrated everything,” Kay told me while sharing the events of that late night. The three of them went into the chapel to sign the papers. “My one request out of everything,” Kay told the person coordinating the donor program, was that “I want to know who gets the heart.”

In the time leading up to this, Justin had often said “Mom, my heart really hurts.” They took him to see doctors multiple times and they said his heart was strong and good. Each of them, in retrospect, now believe it was God sending a message. This premonition would play a big role in Tracy’s life.

On July 4th, Tracy received Justin’s heart and Justin was reborn in the body of someone who was amazingly similar to him – but very different from his also. Justin was half the age of Tracy. Tracy was Black and Justin was White. They grew up in completely different worlds but their lives connected that day. It was the beginning of new relationships. Their race did not matter, only their shared humanity did at that moment.

Morilyn told me about the phone call regarding the heart which was a match for Tracy. “I was there when they first called him and they told him that he had a heart… And so I was one of the people who went to the hospital with him, talked with him and everything. He gave me a thumbs up that he was gonna be okay, and we talked. I told him ‘I’ll see you when you get done…’ When he came out of recovery, he said ‘I love you,’ and ‘I said I love you too.’” She shared with me how much she misses Tracy, and how hard it was to lose him when he passed on August 18, 2018, twenty-two years after receiving Justin’s heart.

Kay said that Justin had “the coolest brown eyes,” and Jessica asked that they not donate Justin’s corneas. His heart, liver, kidneys, and pancreas all went to save multiple individuals including Tracy. The donor program could at that time only tell them how the organ recipients were doing.

It would take a lot of phone calls and letters over the next two years before Kay, Fred, and Jessica finally found Tracy. Yet it was a simple chance meeting – according to Jessica – that led them to connecting with him. Tracy spoke at a program about having a second birthday after receiving a heart on the 4th of July 1996. That was when they connected the dots. They officially met Tracy on August 14, 1998.

“God’s been so much part of it. You know, it’s hard to lose a son, it’s hard to lose a child, it’s hard to lose a brother, it’s hard to lose a stepson,” Kay shared. “Then enter Tracy into our lives, and we were all blown away by that man.”

It remains really difficult for me to put into words how special of a person Tracy was. He had such a love of life and his heart was full of love for others.

As Kay talked about the relationship that developed with Tracy’s family, she mentioned that “they’ve been very kind to us. It’s been very special for us, because let’s face it, you come back to the race issue. I guess I never saw that, I just saw people around us look at us.”

She told me about an encounter at Mayfair Mall when a woman came up to them as they sat together and said something insensitive. Kay looked at Tracy and thought, what do you say to something stupid like that?” He told the woman, “this is my Mom,” and she was very thrown off by that. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time something of that nature happened over the years.

Spending time together allowed Kay, Tracy, Jessica, and Fred to grow very close. Kay spent a lot of time getting to know Tracy’s sisters and brothers, especially his sister Doris. The two families are still close and the presence of Justin and Tracy is still the glue that bonds those relationships. Kay gave me a copy of a book with pictures of Justin, Tracy, and both families that she had titled “Two Sons ~ One Heart.”

I write a lot about race, and wanted to share this very special and personal story because it shows how absolutely ridiculous the concept of race is. It is not real biologically, but people have convinced themselves it is.

I know that my memories of the miracle that saved my friend Tracy, and the story of how Justin and Tracy traveled a path together for twenty-two years, will always remind me to see every person as a human being and not as a label. Race will continue to be important, but as my mentor Dr. James Cameron always said, “we should learn to be one single and sacred nationality.”

Kay made it abundantly clear how much she and all of their family love Tracy. He was her son and he spent a lot of time with her. They did speaking engagements for the Wisconsin Donors Network on many occasions. Tracy drove in a snow storm to visit with them, because his love for them knew no boundaries. They were filming a commercial for the Wisconsin Donors Network that cold and snowy day. He walked in with a big smile as he always did, not complaining about the treacherous driving conditions.

Tracy did a reading at Jessica’s wedding and walked Kay down the aisle. Jessica told me that she was eighteen when the accident happened. She was in Milwaukee on a boat enjoying the lakefront fireworks and came home to an empty house. She went to the hospital with her aunt and she recalled, “I really didn’t know what was going on with Justin. I just knew that he was in the ICU and he was in an accident.” Shortly after she arrived the doctors told them “it wasn’t looking so good.”

That was when they made the decision to donate his organs. With tears in her eyes Jessica told me, “This was a turning point in my life, because I was heading off to college… and so I just talked to Justin before he was gone.” Jessica talked about the family’s attempts to reach out to other organ recipients. Tracy was the only one who reached back out to them. She said, “It was very kind of Tracy,” which fit perfectly with everything I knew about him over the years.

Kay and Jessica shared these words about Tracy that let me know how special the bond and story are as a lesson to us all.

“He’s touched our heart, he’s been a gift.” – Kay Bandle

“He was a kind soul and… Justin’s heart could not have gone to a better person. We’re fortunate, Tracy’s fortunate… very blessed… Tracy spoke so fondly of his family and I think what was always very kind was that he included us in his family… he was just a very special person.” – Jessica Jacobson

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The families of Justin Bobholz and Tracy Washington

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As an award-winning Senior Columnist for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also co-founder of Nurturing Diversity Partners, and volunteers as Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.