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Russell S. Crawford

Died: September 14, 2010

Russ, who was raised in Grand Forks, ND, started Yale in the class of 1965 but took a year off, pausing to consider his path while working as head brakeman for the Great Northern Railway, before returning to Yale in the venerable class of 1966. After Yale he enlisted in the Air Force, serving for five years as a pilot and leaving as a captain in 1972. Toward the end of his military service, his wife Marcie Windler, whom he had married in 1968, died. After some deep soul-searching, Russ took pre-med courses at the University of North Dakota and entered medical school, graduating from Baylor University with his M.D. in 1977. He did his internship in Fresno, CA, where he met Donna Skoegard Brannon. Russ and Donna were married in 1980, after he finished his residency in emergency medicine at Oregon Health Science University in Portland, OR. He practiced emergency medicine in Portland for almost 20 years before he and Donna decided to move to the north woods of Minnesota in 1997, where they had always vacationed and renewed their souls: the wilderness. Helping Russ decide to make the move, Donna promised him that when he came home from ER stresses, she would have the canoe ready with beer, sandwiches, and bait. He continued to work in emergency medicine at Fairview University Medical Center Mesabi for three years before retiring in 2000.

In retirement Russ thrived in filling his time with the things he enjoyed most. In Donna’s words, this included, inter alia, catching every fish in the lakes of northern Minnesota. Russ continued to combine complexity and solitude, as he had as a military pilot and as an emergency room physician, now through canoeing, hunting, and fishing in the wilds of northern Minnesota. He proudly excelled at geocaching. Russ and Donna chose to live a simple, humble life. He treasured his time in the wilderness, often intoning his mantra: “It doesn’t get any better than this,” notwithstanding rain, snow or B-29 sized mosquitoes. Russ was devoted to his friends and developed many deep and long-lasting friendships over the years. His Yale connections trekked from all over the United States, from California in the west and Maryland in the east, to Grand Forks, ND, to pay their respects to their fallen friend.

Russ was survived by his wife Donna of Deer River, MN; stepson Wesley Brannon, Albuquerque, NM; stepdaughter, Brooke Brannon, Seattle, WA; sister, Mary Ann, Grand Forks; his Black Lab Chippewa; and best friend of over 50 years, Nereus L. Weighter, Bellingham, WA.

Charles Murphy remembers:
The longer I knew Russ the more I came to appreciate what a remarkable, unique person he was. That conclusion was reaffirmed recently, when my wife, Kathy, and I were blessed to have spent most of the last two weeks of Russ’s life with him and Donna, most of it in the Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota.

Russ had many enduring and endearing qualities. I would like to share with you my perspective on three of them, beginning with his life-long ability to adapt to challenging circumstances.

This first became apparent to me at Yale. After a couple of years of scholarly pursuits there, Russ became dissatisfied with his academic progress, a view shared by the dean of our residential college. So, despite much advice to the contrary, Russ took leave from Yale and returned to his Grand Forks home to clear and refocus his mind. Soon he began working on the Great Northern Railroad, reuniting there with his best friend and co-conspirator, Nereus Weighter. To his parents’ delight, Russ’s first position as a trainman was that of head brakeman. Only much later did Russ disclose that the head brakeman was so called, because he rode in the locomotive and that he was the lowest-ranking member of the train crew. Anyway, after a year on the rails, a rejuvenated Russ returned to Yale, where he graduated with the elite class of 1966.

Perhaps the most vivid example of his adaptability followed the tragic death of his first wife, Marcy, in 1971, just three years after their marriage. Russ then set out, in “Old Paint,” on a long journey seeking to better understand the meaning of life and find a new purpose for his life. His travels around the country took him to many of his friends, as well as to places of seclusion, like the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana, where (he used to say) he was able to think most clearly. Russ emerged from that long period of introspection determined to honor Marcy by dedicating himself to the well being of others through the practice of medicine. This was no small commitment for a man of 30 with a B.A. degree in history, whose previously demonstrated passions were for cars, trains, and planes. But he did it, with great professionalism, over a career in emergency medicine that spanned 23 years. If the correctness of his bold commitment to medicine needed any confirmation, he found it during his residency in Fresno. There he met and later wed Donna, thus beginning the most harmonious marital relationship I have ever observed. But that is another story.

His adaptability was once again challenged toward the end of his career, when Russ became weary of certain bureaucratic aspects of his medical practice. In response, he and Donna embarked upon a change of venue unthinkable to most, moving from cosmopolitan Portland to the shores of Moose Lake in the boondocks of northern Minnesota. From there, never looking back, he successfully restarted his life as an emergency care doctor and commenced, with Donna, a romantic symbiosis with the walleye and the Boundary Waters.

Shifting now from things romantic to those more prosaic, there is the puzzling matter of how Russ managed his stuff and his time. For as long as I knew him, Russ kept an office that resembled a chamber in the National Archives Building. Journals, books, papers, and other documents were stacked in great piles everywhere. Very little of anything appeared to be of recent vintage. In his basement below, by my last estimate, there were at least 30 hats, each with a distinctive logo and sized extra large, of course. In short, it appeared that Russ was an inveterate hoarder, a man incapable of discarding anything. Proof positive of that could seemingly be found on his front lawn, where the rusting hulk of Old Paint rested forlornly, now four decades after she came off the Pontiac assembly line.

But I have come to conclude that this impression of Russ is wrong. He was not a hoarder at all, but rather a master collector of parts and pieces, who viewed projects with a very long horizon and measured time with extraordinary patience. In his world, the papers filed so exquisitely in his office would someday, somehow have relevance again. And the new front fender and rear seat that he had acquired long ago would eventually be installed on Old Paint. It was only a matter of time, and Russ measured time in increments different from those of the rest of us. That is why, for example, he thought it proper to send his Christmas cards in the spring of the following year. And why it was not possible to have a short telephone conversation with Russ, if the subjects being discussed were at all of interest to him.

For me, though, Russ’s most endearing quality was his relentless positivism. Never was this more evident than during our recent Boundary Waters canoe expedition, which, as it turned out, was Russ’s 38th and last venture into that mystical wilderness. On the morning that we were to put in, he set the tone and theme for what was to come the next seven days. Kathy and I emerged from our motel room to find a gorgeous day — bright sun and no wind -– and Russ standing by in his wilderness outfit — belt and suspenders and Boundary Waters cap with compass suspended in a ball from the brim. “Boys, it doesn’t get any better than this!” he proclaimed. An hour later, we packed and launched the two canoes, then paddled and portaged and finally reached a spectacular campsite that was the Crawfords’ favorite. At each juncture, Russ exclaimed, “Boys, it doesn’t get any better than this!”

And so it went: while on the lake fishing, during cocktails, around the campfire after dinner, and even upon his return from a visit to the privy up the hill, Russ would remind us that, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” After a couple of days, I began to imagine what it must have been like in colonial times, when the town crier would announce hourly his assurance that “All is well!”

Then the weather turned nasty: cold, wind and rain for several consecutive days. We couldn’t canoe or fish and spent the waking hours huddled in rain garb under a huge tarp Russ had suspended over our gear, which he euphemistically called Blue Sky. The trip was beginning to feel like an Outward Bound survival experience. But through it all, Russ doggedly maintained, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” though none of us was smiling in response any longer.

One morning, I emerged early from my tent. The weather was still foul, and I found Russ huddled on the ground under Blue Sky, brewing coffee on a camp stove between his legs. Rainwater was pouring off the tarp, which was flapping in the wind, creating mud splats around him as it hit the ground. As I sat down next to him, Russ handed me a mug of coffee, smiled and said, “Charlie, you know it doesn’t get any better than this!” At last, I had heard that once too often. I signaled “time out” with my hands and said, “Russ, you can’t seriously mean that.” His response was a series of questions. “Are you cold?” to which I replied, “No, with all these layers on, I’m warm enough.” “Is the canoe cushion you’re sitting on uncomfortable?” “No,” I said, “it’s actually very comfortable.” “Maybe you don’t like the coffee I made you?” “Actually,” I acknowledged, “this instant Starbucks is quite good.” “You realize,” he said, “with both our wives still asleep in their tents, you and I get to spend some time alone together. What do you think of that?” “That’s pretty special, Russ,” I conceded. “Well, then, Charlie,” he concluded: “Don’t you see? It doesn’t get any better than this!” All I could do was agree and admire his mindset.

And nothing could change it. Even when a black bear ransacked our campsite at 5:00 a.m. on the day we were to pack up and paddle out. To the sounds of a whistle blowing and pots and pans clanging, I thrashed my way out of my tent to find Russ standing in the middle of a debris field that was previously our campsite and food storage containers. He was wearing a headlight, T-shirt, briefs and flip-flops and was about to throw a firecracker in the direction of the retreating bear. After we concluded that the bear would probably soon return for more, I started back to my tent to retrieve Kathy and her cosmetics, when Russ stopped me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You know, it doesn’t get any better than this!”

Since then, I have reflected often on this remarkable and unique man. Russ left us prematurely, but he certainly lived his life, right to the very end, on his own terms.

Richard Swingle remembers:
Everyone’s best friend. Russ was one of the nicest people you could have ever met. He could befriend anyone from a bus driver to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He loved to talk to new acquaintances and discover their interests

Russ grew up in Grand Forks, North Dakota and was damn proud of it. He worked as a brakeman on the Great Northern Railroad during the summer in college and actually took off his junior year from the class of 1965 to return for a period as a brakeman.

Russ had two great lady loves of his life. The first, Marcie, he married while attending USAF flight school in Texas. Marcy bravely fought cranial bone cancer at MD Anderson Clinic in Houston but succumbed at the age of 23. This fight led Russ to do a career-about-face and become a medical doctor.

His second love was Donna whom he met while an ER doctor in Portland OR. They were two peas in a pod — both loved the wilderness and outdoor life. Every year they canoed in to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. Eventually Donna and Russ left Portland and moved closer to the wilderness in Deer River, Minnesota. I can only say that if you like long cold winters Deer River is the place for you.