Traverse City Record-Eagle

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February 6, 2013

Cancer, fire plague area environmental icons

TRAVERSE CITY — Bob Russell is supposed to avoid stress as he battles stage four cancer.

A Sunday fire at his home — the legendary Neahtawanta Inn — hasn't helped matters.

The latest round of bad news prompted friends to organize a fundraising concert on Valentine's Day to show their love and support.

"My feeling is, it's incumbent on the community to be there for them," said Steve Nance, general manager of Oryana Natural Foods Market in Traverse City. "This couple has done so much for the region and the community. I know folks will pull together."

Chris Treter, who organized the fundraiser, said he and his friends didn't see any other option than to organize support.

Russell, 62, and his wife, Sally Van Vleck, are considered icons of the area's environmental and peace community. Van Vleck created the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council in 1980 with three other women. The couple helped SEEDS bring the annual Bioneers conference to Traverse City in 2002. Russell now produces the TV show, "Investigating Community Resilience" on UpNorth Media, a public access television station he helped start.

Van Vleck and then-husband Jim Olson bought the Neahtawanta Inn in 1979. Built in the 1800s, the rambling structure also is home to the nonprofit Neahtawanta Research and Education Center.

Van Vleck and Russell arrived home on Sunday about 5:30 p.m. after cross-country skiing and saw smoke pouring out of the chimney area.

"We knew right away it was something bad," said Van Vleck. "I popped my skis off and hit 911."

Firefighters battled the fire for five and a half hours, said Richard Vandermey, Peninsula Township Fire Department chief.

Damage was confined to about a quarter of the home, from the basement to the couple's third floor bedroom. Vandermey blamed an electrical malfunction on the second floor.

Van Vleck was relieved that her pets survived, along with her lifetime of journals.

The City of Traverse City, Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department and Elmwood Township fire departments assisted.

"It was devastating to watch," Van Vleck said Tuesday, as she pointed to charred piles of clothes and belongings on the ground.

Russell and Van Vleck later reflected on recent events at a nearby friend's house, where they'll stay until the inn is repaired.

Russell's esophageal cancer has spread to his brain, liver, and lymph nodes. Van Vleck's daughter in Colorado also is battling cancer, Van Vleck said.

Russell no longer sports his trademark beard. Radiation took its toll. His motto to friends is, "I'm still here!"

"The cancer game is staying alive long enough for a cure," Russell said, who has hopes for a breast cancer treatment still in clinical trial. It appears effective against gastric cancer, he said.

The couple has excellent insurance for the inn, but will need help with medical bills. Russell plans to also pursue care from the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment, which his medical insurance won't cover. An online fundraiser has already raised $5,000.

VanVleck said the fire and cancer has brought home to her what's important.

"It's love, community," she said.

Joan D'Argo, who stopped by to visit the couple, said she is grateful her friends survived the fire.

"I don't know where else a community responds like we do — to show resilience and love that Bob and Sally have been teaching us all along," D'Argo said.

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