Stories of Live & Death

Warren Miller

St. Augustine, Fla.; Longwood, Fla.; Novato, Calif.; South Boston, Mass.; Morristown, N.J. By On June 24, 2016

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Kathy Sherwood of WSOS interviewed Warren Miller for the final Closing the Loop interview.

KS: The first words in a Closing the Loop interview usually are where someone is from.

WM: I was born in New York City. I grew up in Morristown, N.J., near where my father grew up, I went to college in Boston, moved to California after college to become a rock ‘n roll musician, moved in 1980 to St. Augustine, to the Orlando area for 20 years, and came back to Jacksonville in 2002. So more than half my life has been in Central and Northeast Florida.

KS: How did you become a journalist?

Basically, I’ve done two things pretty well since I was a child — write and play music, especially on keyboard instruments. I’ve been in business. I have an MBA, I’m a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM practitioner, I’ve held insurance and investment licenses, but I’m not more than competent at finance and marketing. If I’m talented at anything, it’s story-telling.

KS: How did you develop the story-telling skills to do something like Closing the Loop?

I moved to Florida in 1980, and I got work almost immediately as a writer. While I was writing, I was asked by Glenn Stetson to join The Diamonds as a singer and piano player, and traveled the country for five years in the mid ’80s. We were regulars on Ralph Emery’s show on The Nashville Network, we played the Beacon Theater in New York, the Universal Amphitheater in L.A., and dozens of state fairs. All the while, I was writing and editing magazine articles, using an early portable computer, on airplanes and in hotel rooms.

By the early ’90s, I was out of music, editing and writing full-time. I started doing commentary for WMFE, the public radio station in Orlando in 1993 and wrote for the television side, as well. By 2002, I was divorced, the custodial parent of a 15-year-old science whiz kid, and working with a technology development start-up. That company let me move to Jacksonville so that Andrew could go to Stanton, and I started doing commentaries for WJCT. I’ve been on the air in Jacksonville ever since.

KS: You began Closing the Loop five years ago. Whose idea was it?

The show was my idea, but Scott Kim was the news director at WJCT at the time. We were friends from WMFE in Orlando. He asked me to do a weekly four-minute spot to fill a scheduled break in the morning and afternoon news programs. he said, you can do anything you want, but you have four minutes. I thought, how cool – it’s like haiku or a 12-bar blues. It’s a discipline, not a limitation. Closing the Loop started out about how people were dealing with the recession, but it quickly became about how people were dealing with life.

KS: Was it hard to find people to interview?

I just asked everyone I knew if I could interview them! …

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Deirdre Clayton

Jacksonville, Fla. By On April 8, 2016

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Deirdre Clayton was widowed at age 30 with two young children. Her career search led back to what she’d wanted to do since she was a teenager – help people. Today, she’s a guidance counselor in a Jacksonville middle school.

Deirdre Clayton grew up in Jacksonville, and became a military wife. Her husband and she had two young children when her husband was killed in a car accident.

“I was 30 years old, and I was very depressed. I had a six-year-old and an 18-month-old, and I didn’t want them to see me depressed.”

So Deirdre, who had worked part-time to make extra money for the family, started thinking about work differently. She got a job at a local credit union.

“I started off in the call center part-time, because I was raising my kids. After they got in school, I was able to dedicate more time to a career. Then, I went back to school and was able to dedicate more time to my career. I got my degree in business. As the kids got older, I was able to go into the mortgage department.”

Deirdre became a loan underwriter, and did that for a number of years.

“When I went to college from high school, I wanted to go into social services. But everyone said, ‘no, you don’t make any money at that.’ So I went into marketing.”

When the housing slump hit in 2006, and mortgages weren’t being written, the thrift sent many of its officers to speak in area schools as community outreach. Deirdre was one of them.

“I loved it! When I came to work every day, I was hoping that they would say, ‘Miss Clayton, go to this school and do some work.’ We’re going into the schools and saying, ‘this is how you do your financial portfolio, this is how you save money.’”

Deirdre was starting to change her view of what she wanted to do with her life.

“I worked in a program at the International Baccalaureate high school, and that became my project. I talked with guidance counselors, and I wanted to do what they did. I talked with one of mentors at the credit union, who said, ‘Miss Clayton, you need to follow that.’ I said, “I can’t afford that!’ and she said, ‘when you’re following your dreams, you can afford it.’”

That didn’t mean she could afford it easily.

“ I applied to the program and got accepted. I cashed in my 401(k), got some student loans, put in my resignation at the credit union. I got a job at my church – it didn’t pay much, but it was just enough.”

Deirdre graduated from the counseling program, and got a job almost immediately. A year later, she got a phone call about a high school guidance counselor position.

“Someone called me who I interned with and said, ‘hey, they got a school counseling position!’ that never happens. To get a job in here, somebody has to die, …

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Photo: Warren Miller

Winston Allen

Columbus, Ohio; St. Augustine, Fla. By On March 18, 2016

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Winston Allen is, is in his own words, a “triathlete for life.” He started working out at age nine to keep bullies away. Today, at 85, he’s the defending world champion triathlete … and getting ready to defend his title.

Winston Allen is from Columbus, Ohio. He’s now 85, and he started working out as a child to defend himself.

“I started taking care of myself when I was about nine. I realized I was smaller than my peers. I’m only five feet, six inches now. We had a guy in our class named Joe Brown. He was 12 years old in the third grade – he’d flunked three times! – and he was a bully. My coping mechanism was to exercise, pushups, pullups, lift bricks and stuff, because I didn’t have weights then. The word got around that I was scrappy, and I never had a problem.”

Winston found that he liked sports.

“In high school, I swam, and then I went on to college and became a diver. I was a finalist in two Olympic trials, in 1952 and 1956, in 10-meter platform diving.”

Winston graduated from college during the Korean Was, and was drafted. He became a military criminal investigator, and when he finished his enlistment , there was a job waiting for him as an auditor.

“When I got out of the service, the IRS wanted to hire me. They wanted me for my investigative experience. I learned a lot in the IRS.”

Winston left government work, and became a private asset manager for some years.

“When my last client died, I dropped out of that. I couldn’t sleep nights. When you’re responsible for your clients’ life savings, it’s a big responsibility.”

He retired when he was 60. About that time, a new challenge appeared.

“My son did the Ironman Hawaii in 1982. He came back and said, “dad, you could this.’ I did my first triathlon in 1983, so I’ve been an active triathlete for 33 years. The first one I finished, it was an Olympic distance – a mile swim, 25-mile bike, and 6.2-mile run. then I went back the following year, leaned into it competitively, and I finished third. I’ve done 13 Ironman Hawaii’s.”

You’ve probably figured this out already … but Winston Allen is a very competitive person.

“Oh, yes. Yeah, always. Anything I take up, I want to be good at.”

And what he likes most about triathlons is that he takes an early lead and tries never to give it up.

“Well, I’m a swimmer, so right off the bat, I’m in front of everyone out of the swim. Nobody in the world beats me out of the swim. It’s mine to lose. I’m the defending world champion, and I’m going to defend that championship this September in Cozumel, Mexico.”

The irony of Winston Allen’s competitiveness is that the head-to-head aspect of competition is not what’s getting tougher.

“At 86 years old, I don’t have too many in my …

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Photo: Warren Miller

Julia Crowley

Sacramento, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla. By On March 11, 2016

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Julia Crowley started selling cosmetics for shoe money and girl time. But when her family needed much more from her, and from her business, Julia stepped up her game.

Julia Crowley grew up in Northern California, studied communications in college, and immediately went into television news.

“I went to college in Washington state, started at a TV station there, and then went to Sacramento for my first job out of college.”

She met her husband there, who lived in Jacksonville. Fortunately, her employer also owned a television in Jacksonville. Julia was on the air in Jacksonville for four years. When her contract came up for renewal, however, she had second thoughts about what her priorities were.

“I was wanting to start a family, and the stress of the job was just a lot. I did morning and evening traffic, and there weren’t many break or vacation days.”

Julia and her husband, who was a teacher, had a child, who – they quickly learned – had a rare genetic disorder that required her near-constant attention during his first year. But Julia also realized that she wanted to work.

“When he was about six months, I really thought that it would nice if we had a little extra money coming in, but I also needed a place for me. I needed to have goals, something to get excited about. That was what I was missing from not working.”

With her son’s illness, day care and a regular job, let alone her previous profession, were out.

“I started to think of something to do for me. I was just looking for a way that gave me freedom to work with my child, because I needed a job that I could keep him with me. When I started, I called it ‘shoe money,’ just some extra spending money.

Julia Crowley became a representative of a well-known direct sales company in cosmetics and beauty products. She found that it met even more needs than she had anticipated.

“It also gave me girl time that I was missing. Have women over and play with makeup. I really enjoyed that.”

And things might have gone on like that … but they didn’t.

“My husband became ill overnight. He was healthy on Wednesday, and by the weekend was having 20 or 30 seizures a day. And it lasted for a year and a half. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and life got a little crazy for us.”

Julia Crowley was pregnant with the couple’s second child. Doctors couldn’t find a way to treat her husband’s benign but inoperable tumor … or help the seizures.

“The doctors eventually told us that they didn’t think they were going to be able to stop them, and that this just might have to be how he stayed.”

Neither Julia or her husband thought that that was an acceptable outcome. So they prayed.

“We focused on healing prayer. Because of my business, it allowed me to focus on that and …

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Photo: Warren Miller

Elaine Pace

Orange Park, Fla.; London, England; Salt Lake City, Utah; Atlantic Beach, Fla. By On February 29, 2016

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Elaine Pace went from being an honor’s student with a college scholarship to living in her car for most of a year. Despite her share of ups and down, Elaine considers herself incredibly fortunate.

Elaine Pace came to Jacksonville as part of a Navy family. Although her father was posted to a new location every 18 months for most of his career, that changed when Elaine’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was 14 when my mom died. It had been a really hard five years, but together, my dad and my sister and I got through it as best we could. My mom was amazing. She prepared us for everything, right up until her last days.”

Elaine was an honor student. But her home life deteriorated quickly after her mother’s death.

“I graduated when I was 16 from Orange Park High School, and left the house soon after that. My father remarried less than a year after my mom died, and he didn’t choose well. He married a woman who was unkind to his daughters. I received a scholarship to junior college to debate. I was going to school full-time, I was working three jobs, and got an apartment with three roommates, who all moved out at once and left me with thousands of dollars of bills and I couldn’t keep up.”

So Elaine, with a scholarship and part-time jobs … lived for the next nine months in her AMC Gremlin.

“That Gremlin to me was everything! It had enough room to put everything I had in it, and I could lay down the front seat and sleep in it. When I was able to scrape together five dollars, there was a man who would lock me in a gas station bathroom, and I could spend the night with a sink and a bathroom.”

Elaine kept the fact that she lived in her car a secret.

“I was ashamed that I couldn’t take care of myself. I’m not ashamed of myself now, but I can feel what that shame felt like.”

Elaine Pace got another scholarship for debating to a college in Alabama. The college ended debate scholarships before she graduated, though. Elaine worked in the States and in England before returning to Jacksonville … where she attended the University of North Florida. After earning her bachelor’s, she won a scholarship to the Kennedy School for Government at Harvard. Then, Elaine moved to Utah.

“I’d never lived that had mountains, and I wanted to ski! I didn’t think it would be for long, but I ended up staying 15 years. I met my husband there. Recently, we moved our family back to Jacksonville. I missed being here. I work for myself now, consulting with non-profits and helping them to do better philanthropy.”

But despite a life that has had its share of tragedy and upheaval, Elaine wouldn’t trade away any of it.

“I’ve always considered myself to be incredibly fortunate. My mom brought me up, if we …

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Photo: Warren Miller

Pete Ancone

Philadelphia, Penna.; St. Augustine, Fla. By On February 5, 2016

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Pete Ancone grew up near Philadelphia. He had a blissful childhood … but it ended abruptly when he was in high school.

“I was into writing, cars, I ran track, and that world burst when my father died very suddenly. I qasn’t happy and carefree any longer. My father, while a good man, didn’t leave us with much and we had a quite a bit of debt. My mother grew up on a farm, and did not have much education, and there were few jobs available to her. So I had to double down, and I began working with newspapers”

He’d thought about going to a public junior college, when someone from St. Joseph’s College heard about him.

“ The administrator, who was a Jesuit priest, reached out to me and said, ‘I heard you’re going to a public college, that’s unacceptable. I said, father, I can’t afford to go to St. Joseph’s. He said not to worry about it. Two days later, I had a scholarship letter, as long as I worked on the school publications.”

Pete did that, studied for a few semesters in Mexico and Colombia, and earned his degree. He was hired out of college by as a stringer by the Dallas Morning-News.

“My assignments were business and Latin American business climate. After doing that for a few years, I realized that I did not want to live under dictatorships for the rest of my life, and came back to the United States and ended up as a business journalist.”

And that’s where, as a stringer for a publisher of trade magazines, Pete Ancone entered the world of entrepreneurs.

“My assignment was to travel all over the Midwest and the South. My beat was small business I fell in love with small business people, and I thoroughly enjoyed the job.”

What he didn’t like was the amount of travel required by the job.

“I would be out on the road for six to eight weeks at a time. This meant that I had no life! Every time I’d start getting involved with a girl, they’d get tired of waiting for me to come back. So I ended up getting married fairly late in life.”

So Pete decided to go out on his own, writing business stories as a freelancer and forming an advertising and marketing agency.

“Being an entrepreneur was very interesting to me, and I was going to use advertising as a tool to get me there. Which would eventually lead me to writing fiction, which was my first love but not a very practical one.”

Pete ran his own agency for more than 30 years. By the time he was in his 60s, he had some new ideas of what to do with his life.

“I decided to start working on a game plan. I don’t want to do one thing, but there was one thing I did want to do, which was the one thing I never got to do, which …

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Photo: Warren Miller

Suzi Baker

Jacksonville, Fla.; Oregon; Gary, Ind. By On October 16, 2015

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Suzi Baker was born in Gary, Indiana, and came to Jacksonville with her parents when she was 15.

“I met a Navy man at 19, married him six weeks later. We moved to Oregon where we lived for the next 22 years, and where I mostly raised my family. I came back one day; I just wanted to come home. I came back with the kids, except for my oldest, who stayed with his daughter.”

Suzi’s husband had worked on boats, and that was the beginning of a business.

“He had a bad back, so he started a boat-repair company. He worked on diesel engines and he couldn’t do that no more. So he put an ad on Craigslist doing boat repair. It took off the first day. It was mobile, which Jacksonville really needed. There was a lot of boats lined up, waiting to get fixed in the middle of summer. You couldn’t go fishing, so we nailed that right away. And the business tripled every year, you know, until he passed.”

Three years ago, Suzi Baker’s husband died suddenly.

“He had a heart attack on a Sunday night. He wasn’t feeling good, but we didn’t have insurance.”

Suzi was forced to shut down the business immediately.

“He was the business. I would handle the phone call, schedule appointments, maybe hold a flashlight or something, you know.”

Suzi and her four children were able to move in with her sister.

“We hadn’t talked in five years, but she was right by my side immediately.”

And with the help of her sister and a bigger family … Suzi started to rebuild her life.

“She was a single mom, and we were going to raise all six kids together. She made me get up every morning and take a shower. I knew that with me, I would either gain weight or I needed to lose weight. Fortunately, I wasn’t hungry for a while, and I went with it, I thought it was a gift. I lost 70 pounds. It took me six months. I just got myself together, and I got stronger, and I got my own place. I went back to waitressing, which got me back into the restaurants. It just got me going in the direction I needed to go.”

Several of the many jobs Suzi had worked over the years involved food. Recently, she answered an ad for a chef at an assisted living facility in the area. She was hired almost instantly.

“I’m a chef! My boss says I’m a chef. I had cooked in a retirement home, and it was the best job I ever had. The people are happy to see you. I went to work and smiled all day! But here, I applied for jobs, and everyone wanted a chef. So when I applied for this one, I included a letter that said, ‘look, I’m not a chef, but I’m a cook, and a good one. I just need a chance.’ I was …

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Photo: Warren Miller

Bill Stroer

St. Augustine, Fla.; St. Louis, Mo.; San Diego, Calif. By On September 4, 2015

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Bill Stroer’s father had moved his young family from St. Louis to Birmingham. “He was a traveling salesman. His company sold anything and everything you could think of. He would sell dry goods to department stores in Alabama and Mississippi. Both sides of my family are from are from St. Louis area, and we moved back. St. Louis was fun for a kid, because the grandparents and aunts and uncles and what-have-you were there.”

The family returned to Birmingham five years later, and a few years later. Shortly after, tragedy struck. “When I was 13 years old, my father died suddenly. The night he was watching me play baseball and chaperoning a dance for my sister. The next day he went to work. They were having a show at a hotel, went to check out and had a massive heart attack. He was dead before the ambulance got there.”

Bill’s mother had gone back to work a weeks earlier, mainly to save for her kids’ college. Bill started to work as well. “We buried him on a Wednesday, and I went to work on Saturday. A friend in the neighborhood owned a convenience store, and I would stock the shelves on weekends and some afternoons after school. But I was also able to play sports, I played basketball and baseball.”

Throughout all of the upheaval, Bill managed to go to Auburn University. “My sister was already there. My mother somehow was able to get us into college, with small loans. She was working, but for minimum wage for the most part. Social Security is how we paid for college.”

Bill graduated from Auburn, was drafted into the Army, served in Vietnam, and returned to Alabama. “Went to work for my sister’s husband’s insurance agency. That’s how I started in the insurance business, which is what I did my whole career.”

Throughout that career, Bill Stroer thought often about the differences and similarities of his father’s life and his own … as well as in the lives of his own children.

“He started work when he was my age, but it was full-time as a stock boy. He had a ninth-grade education. My goal was that they [my own kids] wouldn’t have to do those things that I did. One time, my son said, ‘you had a really tough life.’ I said, ‘ I just had to work, but the difference was, I had a car, I had gas money and things like that, where people around me didn’t. It wasn’t a tough life. It was one you had to work for. When I got married and started having kids, that was my goal, that they would not have to concern themselves with those things. They could focus on what they wanted to do down the road.”

Now that he’s retired and his kids are grown, Bill works out, plays some golf … and looks for his next work. “In my retired life, I’ve done volunteer work. I would like …

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Photo: Warren Miller

Od’Juan Whitfield

Jacksonville, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.,; Indianapolis, Ind. By On August 21, 2015

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Od’Juan Whitfield grew up in Indianapolis, and served in the Army in Iraq during the Gulf War. After he left the service, his wife, baby and he moved to Jacksonville. “We wanted to stay in the South, but we wanted someplace bigger than Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville was the closest.”

Od’Juan reinserted himself back into civilian life. “I started back off truck-driving because that’s what I’d done before going in the service. But that was too much over-the-road, so I went into sales, first cars, then contractor supply sales.”

His problem was something closer to home. “When we came here to Jacksonville, my wife and I had issues. She like to fight — with her fists.”

Od’Juan moved out. “I let her have the house and evedrything in it. I was the only one working, so I continued to work and lived on the streets. I’d pay the bills and keep maybe $30 a month for myself.”

As a working homeless person, Od’Juan figured out some shortcuts. “The company opened its doors at 6 a.m., and they had a gym on the first floor. So I’d store my clothes in a locker, shower there and go to work early. People thought, man, you are dedicated … but I didn’t have nowhere else to go.”

But it become difficult to work, Od’Juan says, since it’s not safe for the homeless to sleep too soundly at night. Eventually, he lost his job. “That was rock-bottom. I felt like a failure as a father, as a husband, as a person. But I couldn’t feel too sorry for myself, even though I tried. My son was constantly on me to get out of the situation I was in.”

Od’Juan heard about the Sulzbacher Center, which provides food, a bed and other services to the homeless. He stayed for six months, then attempted to put his marriage back together, but ended up homeless again after six months. That was in 2007. “I did not go back to the Sulzbacher Center to stay, because I was too embarrassed. Then I heard that they were hiring an outreach director to work with the homeless people they serve. I thought, ‘they’re not going to hire me — I used to stay here!’”

But that was exactly why they wanted Od’Juan Whitfield for an outreach job. “They hired me in December 2007, a day before my birthday, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Being homeless didn’t really change Od’Juan Whitfield … but working with the homeless has given him an opportunity to grow as a person. “Everybody’s story is different. I have the compassion now, and I understand it better. I can relate to almost every single person that’s come through the Sulzbacher Center. It’s changed me in the sense that it’s made me see them as people. A lot of people try to look over homelessness, like ‘I don’t want to see them, and I’ll just look away as if they’re no there.’ But it made me …

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Photo: Warren Miller

Danielle Rivers

Jacksonville, Fla.; Washington, D.C. By On August 7, 2015

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Danielle Rivers’ life has turned out quite differently than what she’d expected when she moved to Jacksonville a few years ago.

“I’m originally from Washington. I came down here about 10 years ago to look for real estate deals for investors. I love real estate. I thought it was what I was going to doing for the rest of my life.”

It wasn’t. In 2011, Danielle was assaulted.

“I was jogging down on the Riverwalk when I was attacked by a homeless guy.”

Danielle fought him, and he pulled a knife. She was stabbed 25 times. She survived, and appeared in court to testify against him.

“He’d done this to other women, I found out after I learned more about him. I thought it was important to get him off the streets.”

Unfortunately, Danielle’s health problems didn’t end there.

“I developed hives as a result of the wounds, and that required prednisone, which caused me to add 80 pounds in six months. Then a herniated disk put me in the hospital. It was a bad time; I was the only breadwinner in my family at that time.”

Bedridden and getting few answers as to what she could do, Danielle researched healing on her laptop.

“I went down to Honduras to visit a healer, who treated me with herbs. When I returned four weeks later, I asked the doctors to do another MRI, which I had to pay for. The doctors said, I don’t know what happened, but we must have made a mistake — the mass in my pancreas had reduced.”

Danielle wanted to know why she had been misdiagnosed, and had a doctor test her vitamin levels. She found that was Vitamin D deficient. The doctor told her to buy the highest dosage pills she could buy over-the-counter. She did, and was tested again at her own expense. Her levels improved. but the whole experience just made her more upset at medicine.

“Nutrition should be a basic part of medicine. We should be able to know our nutritional condition, without a lot of copays. The doctors couldn’t tell me what the levels of vitamins in my blood was, and I could have spent that four weeks healing. The mass on my pancreas reduced, but what if I hadn’t?”

As Danielle Rivers got stronger, she looked to get back into investment, not in real estate this time, but in health care technology. She found a device that could test the vitamin levels in our blood.

“The technology has been around since 1994, but wasn’t in use. The inventor wasn’t doing anything with it, and the patent was ready to expire. We applied for it and received it.”

She’s started a company that intends to build and sell the testing machines.

“I’d like to see it in every pharmacy and supermarket, the way that blood pressure testing machines are — free to everyone who walks in.”

Danielle Rivers is determined to use her own experiences to effect change.

“It make …

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Photo: Warren Miller