“The holiest of holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; the secret anniversaries of the heart." — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Happy Holidays Friends,
Like so many of you, the holidays bring me both joy and sadness. As I get older, I don’t mind reminiscing about the downs as well as the ups, because at the end of the day, even those downs remind us of lives well-lived.
Yesterday, December 17th, marked the 4th anniversary of losing my wife, Elizabeth Smith, to cancer. Our story is deeply intertwined with the penultimate chapter of the Minocqua Brewing Company—the pre-Covid period between 2016-20 when we were a bustling brewpub and live music venue in Northern Wisconsin.
I’d like to share my love story with Elizabeth—mainly because it helps me remember her—but also because good stories get rusty when they’re not told.
If you like sappy stories, then this email is my holiday gift to you. If you tune into this page to read about politics or beer, today’s missive might be the one to skip…
We met at a dive bar in Morristown, New Jersey. She had recently moved from Switzerland after a painful separation from her then-husband, and I was in town having a drink with my uncle.
We immediately had an easy and humorous repartee, but I remember getting that “pinch-me-I'm-dreaming” feeling because “How on EARTH could this gorgeous woman be interested in me?" That said, it took a month getting to know each other on the phone before she was able to set aside her fears of dating and meet again in person.
I picked her up with a rose near Central Park, and we made small talk as we walked the High Line and calmed our nerves with a little champagne at the Standard Hotel. I planned to give her “the talk” once we hit Lucien, a great French bistro on the corner of 1st Street and 1st Avenue.
“It’s important to tell you earlier rather than later that I have a child with another woman, and the situation is contentious.”
“Great, that means you have working sperm and I want to have babies.”
I nearly fell off my chair.
I was already infatuated with Elizabeth, but the way she put me at ease about an issue tearing me apart on the inside really set my heart on fire.
Elizabeth was an oil trader and a fierce female executive in a male-dominated industry. Her brand of feminism was NOT to disparage men or outwardly rail against the patriarchy, but to hire, mentor, and promote smart women whenever she could.
About 9 months after our first date, we started living together on the Upper West Side. A few months later, I landed a role in an off-Broadway production of 42nd street in Long Island.
“Kirk, one of the reasons I love you is because you followed your dreams to become an opera singer, but this gig in North Port pays $250 a week. I’m JUST old-fashioned enough to expect you to pay SOMETHING in rent. Please don’t quit your day job as a management consultant.”
Elizabeth didn’t shy away from tough love, and at the age of 33, it was time for me to realize I wasn’t going to “make it” in show business anymore and to figure out my next career. With her wisdom and support, I felt strong enough to make a life change.
Elizabeth started out in Ohio politics working for an energy lobbyist, but was quickly hired by Marathon Oil—one of Ohio’s largest companies. We shared a love of politics, but given her background in oil and mine in the arts, we didn’t always see eye to eye.
“Talk to me when the price of solar hits the price of natural gas. Until then, it’s all bleeding-heart wishful thinking.”
She was ecstatic when I landed a policy job on Anthony Weiner’s Mayoral campaign. We both respected him as a hard-charging, clear-eyed, middle-of-the-road (at least by New York City standards) politician. Little did we know he had a fatal flaw that he seemingly couldn’t shake—exposing himself to women online while being married to Huma.
Right around the time that “Carlos Danger” became a household name, Elizabeth started coughing and couldn’t seem to stop. She collapsed in our bathroom in early October, 2012, and after many life-and-death moments over the course of a month, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
“It’s probably time you break up with me,” said Elizabeth. “This isn’t going to end well.”
We were married two weeks later at the 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church with the most gorgeous music provided by my opera friends and church-job colleagues.
When the pastor asked “Do you take this woman, in sickness and in health, to be your wife,” there was an audible sound of sobbing among our friends and family throughout the church.
In an amazing twist, Elizabeth tested positive for ALK, a rare cancer mutation that was treatable with a pill that worked miracles—for a time. We quit our jobs, and not knowing how long she had left, immediately started traveling.
Elizabeth got stronger every day and after seeing the world over the course of 9 months, we rented a house on Lake Minocqua in Wisconsin. She loved the idea of living on a lake because she had grown up spending summers at her grandparent’s lake house in Michigan.
Since my short stint with Anthony Wiener, I was still passionate about politics and wanted to help fix my dysfunctional home state of Wisconsin. I also really liked the fact that Minocqua was close to my family in Stevens Point in case Elizabeth’s cancer came back and I needed help taking care of her.
With about a much hubris as you can imagine a relatively flush New Yorker who grew up in Wisconsin could have, I put my hat in the ring to run for Congress in Wisconsin’s rural 7th district—one that was held by a democrat for over 30 years but had lurched WAY to the right—a fact unbeknownst to most every Wisconsin politico I asked for advice who didn’t actually live there.
“Kirk, you’re gonna get killed in this race and the Democratic Party isn’t lifting a finger to help you fundraise. It’s going to cost a fortune when my cancer comes back, and we just can’t afford to light money on fire right now.”
Did I mention Elizabeth was an able practitioner of tough love?
While I was tilting at windmills, Elizabeth opened a stationary bike studio and quickly amassed a bunch of clients in town. Imagine a woman with Stage 4 lung cancer rocking a chemo-wig, jamming to Bruno Mars, and screaming at you to “just push a little harder!!!!”
I mean…who WOULDN’T be motivated by that?
I remember watching my wife hold court, thinking she was super-human, and quietly shedding tears of admiration while huffing and puffing in the back row of her class.
Right around the time I dropped out of the congressional race, the opportunity arose to buy the Minocqua Brewing Company. Elizabeth LOVED her spinning studio and wanted to stay in Minocqua, and since the tourism industry is kind of the only game in town, we bought a brewpub in 2016 with absolutely no idea of how to run one.
With almost the same amount of hubris I had when running for office in bright red Northern Wisconsin with New York City sensibilities, I asked myself “how hard can the restaurant industry be?”
Sometimes we stubborn Norwegians need to be kicked in the head a few times to learn our lesson.
Running the Minocqua Brewing Company was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but Elizabeth made it wildly fun on the good days, and bearable on the bad ones. She was always upbeat, and when a line cook would walk out in frustration in the middle of a busy summer shift, as they inevitably do, she would happily roll up her sleeves and start doing dishes to help out.
Most of the staff loved her, not because she knew how to run a brewpub, but because her enthusiasm was infectious and we all needed a dose of that tough love from time to time. I think Elizabeth’s best quality was making everyone around her want to become a better version of themselves.
Elizabeth’s cancer eventually caught up with her in 2017, and the last 6 months of 2018 were brutal in every way. But somehow, the good memories stick with me and the bad ones have slowly faded away.
While our relationship wasn’t perfect—no marriage is—we loved each other HARD for 8 years. And after loving deeply and losing that love through illness, nothing else really seems that hard anymore.
Elizabeth’s love toughened me up and the memory of her ferociousness still feeds my fire. Finding a way through the grief of losing her gave me the calluses I needed to sell beer that hopefully makes the world a little bit better, but is a magnet for "deplorables" with endless amounts of negative energy.
So cheers to my Elizabeth and all the “Elizabeths” in your lives whose memories make you a bit melancholy this holiday season. As many of us know, a love lost is WAY better than never having loved at all.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas,
Owner, Minocqua Brewing Company
Founder, Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC