by Judy Stringer
If one were to assign roles from the 1968 film “The Love Bug” to Hudson High School graduates Jerry Dorneker and Chris Mikolay – who recently went on their own Volkswagen Beetle-fueled adventure – the temptation would be to cast Dorneker in the role of race car driver “Jim Douglas” and make Mikolay his philosophical sidekick “Tennessee Steinmetz.”
Dorneker, after all, grew up in the racing world. His late father, also “Jerry” and a longtime Hudson resident, built and was the owner/driver of the “Bad Moon Rising” funny car dragster. The younger Jerry shares his father’s love of cars, restoring classics, including the 1973 Beetle that he and Mikolay drove 600 miles from Columbia, South Carolina, where Dorneker currently lives, to their mutual hometown of Hudson.
For his part, Mikolay dabbles in philosophy with guests on his “Three Questions, Three Drinks” podcast, delving into religion with local ministers in one episode, for example, and a more lighthearted exchange about what two animals could be merged to make the ultimate creature in another.
Spending some time with Dorneker, however, muddies the casting. He makes profound statements like “We don’t have souls; We are souls” and unabashedly declares nothing less than divine intervention is responsible for the strengthening brotherhood he and Mikolay share.
While the two graduated from Hudson High School together in 1995, they were acquaintances, not friends. In fact, they hadn’t spoken to or seen each other in 25 years, when on April 15, 2020, Dorneker’s 12-year-old daughter took her own life. This sent both men on a two-year journey that culminated in the VW road trip where they recorded a moving podcast about suicide and the heartbreak left in its wake.
“Morgan can’t come back and say to others, ‘Listen, don’t do this. I didn’t realize it would cause these problems, this pain,’” said Dorneker. “So, I think when people, especially young people, hear my story, they can relate to Morgan. They can connect with her one way or another and then witness the aftermath – me. It’s kind of like when you get to look at a photo of an area where a nuclear bomb went off and see the devastation.”
Tiny car, big baggage
Mikolay, who lives in Hudson, said the road-trip podcast came about somewhat “organically.” He had reached out to Dorneker shortly after Morgan’s death with a text to express his condolences, and the two soon started texting regularly.
“I could tell he was really down, and I felt like he just needed to talk,” Mikolay said, admitting there were times he feared getting a call confirming “Jerry couldn’t handle it anymore.”
It was not until about six months ago, Mikolay explained, that he noticed a shift in Dorneker’s emotional state and first floated the idea of having him on his “Three Questions, Three Drinks” podcast.
“I sensed that Jerry was coming to this point where he wanted to help in some way, by talking about what he’s gone through,” he said.
Dorneker took a few months to think about the offer. A successful and celebrated volleyball coach in Columbia, he had shared Morgan’s story at a high school assembly there last December and was stunned by the “mob” of teens who stayed after to describe their own survival stories of losing friends, siblings and even parents to suicide.
He knew the podcast likewise “could help,” but had reservations about his qualifications to speak about suicide. Then there was the lingering grief, guilt and trauma.
“It is so, so frightening that a beautiful, athletic, smart, charming, loving and loved child would do the most horrendous thing that you could possibly think of, and as her father, I don’t have an explanation as to why,” he said.
Dorneker ultimately decided the likely benefit outweighed his own trepidation. The men agreed a September road trip from South Carolina to Hudson in the newly restored Beetle would provide the ideal backdrop for their conversation and a fitting homecoming for Dorneker.
The trip took 13 hours with frequent stops for the 60-horsepower engine to cool down. Mikolay later distilled their conversations into a 1-hour-46-minute podcast, which had been listened to more than 1,500 times just one week after its Oct. 2 release. In it, they discuss the importance of more people being aware of the new 9-8-8 mental health hotline – staffed by professional crisis counselors 24 hours a day – and how mental fitness is just as critical as physical fitness.
Dorneker also talks a lot about his faith, Morgan’s warmth and kindness and how even the happiest of people can succumb to moments of hopeless and despair in a way that changes the life of everyone around them.
“There’s a lot of love that is expressed from Jerry to his daughter,” Mikolay said, “and I hope one big message is that if you’re struggling, there are resources out there, there are people you can turn to, and it’s not worth even a fraction of the pain that you’d leave behind if you decided to take the next step.”
“Maybe someone will put the gun down or put the pills down, but the truth is we will probably never know even if that does happen, which is fine because it’s not about us,” Dorneker added, referencing a Greek proverb that says “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
“That is what we are trying to do. We’re leaving a legacy that we’ll never be able to quantify or understand. Morgan’s leaving a legacy that we will never know.”
If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. Veterans, press 1 when calling. ∞
Featured Photo: Chris Mikolay and Jerry Dorneker ended their 600-mile road trip at Kepner’s Tavern, joining a bar full of friends and supporters. The last time Dorneker was in Hudson, it was with his daughter Morgan who died tragically on April 15, 2020. Photo submitted.