Life Before Death By Leah Voss

It looked like a scene from Hollywood Boulevard rather than Jensen Beach Boulevard. A woman, small and sprightful at 85 years old, clutched a Cuban cigar in one hand and a bag of money in the other.

“The holidays are for children and the young at heart,” said Alice Yelenic, of Stuart, before marching as the Good Leprechaun on March 13 in the Jensen Beach St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Her friends, Pam Denny (from left), Peg Cook and Don Denny, all of Stuart, came to cheer her on. She created the costume, her holiday tradition, using dish towels, tablecloths, stickers, boas and fabrics. Yelenic brought $30 in quarters to pass out to children along the route. “When they discovered it was a quarter, I mean you’d of thought you gave them 5 bucks. And that was very, very rewarding.”

The crowd lining the streets stared and took images on their smartphones as the leprechaun in green tights passed by on the Jensen Beach St. Patrick’s Day Parade route. She tossed quarters to children, boldly sat down in a man’s lap and struck a sassy pose for a camera. Alice Yelenic, of Stuart, soaked up a final, fleeting moment of fame before heading home with a six-pack of Yuengling.

Dressing in holiday costumes was nothing new for Yelenic, an entertainer through and through. For weeks she had been preparing her leprechaun outfit, shopping and sewing for hours, putting money into a costume that brought joy to the hundreds of parade attendees.

“Most people are afraid to be foolish,” Yelenic said. “I’ve been at the age for so long that I’m not afraid to be foolish. And if it puts a smile on your face and you remember the holiday for a certain reason and it spreads joy, I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve.”

The St. Patrick’s Day costume might be the last one she makes.

Alice Yelenic is dying.

After saying her St. Patrick’s Day costume could be her last, Yelenic comforts her granddaughter, Sonya Delane, on Feb. 29 at Yelenic’s home at the Monterey Yacht & Country Club in Stuart. “You’ve all been prepared, I’m in the last stages now,” Yelenic said. “You have to go on. Look at what lovely memories you have with your kooky grandma.”

She has a carcinoid tumor in her stomach. When it was discovered in 2014, she had one pint of blood left in her body. The tumor is inoperable and has caused slow internal bleeding. She did not react well to medication, so she stopped taking it. She has outlived her prognosis by nearly a year.

“I have a cancer,” Yelenic said. “I have a rare cancer. It’s located in the tail of my stomach and it’s pancreatic cancer and it’s got several other names, and I’d have to look where I have it written down, but it’s rare."

“Sometimes I am brave, sometimes it’s a little scary."
During a visit with her granddaughter, Marisa Proulx, and her husband, Tom, Yelenic blows a kiss to her great-grandson Maddox, who calls her Airplane Alice, on May 21 as they FaceTime from Yelenic’s home in Stuart. The Proulx family came from Ohio to celebrate Yelenic’s 86th birthday. While discussing her health, Yelenic thanked her doctors for helping her to live beyond her life expectancy. “I think it’s your attitude,” Marisa said.

Yelenic wouldn’t let it stop her from her normal activities, like washing her car, tending to her garden or golfing nine holes in the morning at her residence, the Monterey Yacht & Country Club.

The threat of death will not bring her down.

At first glance, no one would ever know about the blood transfusions or the palliative care she denied. Yelenic never looks for pity. Instead, many of her actions are for the benefit of others.

“She thinks more about other people than herself,” said her daughter, Jill Kidd, of Stuart. “That’s why she dresses up in these funny, silly costumes because they make people laugh.”

“She’s not all about me, me, me,” Kidd added. “She likes to make someone happy about being alive.”

Because she, too, is happy to be alive.

Alice Yelenic celebrates completing nine holes of golf March 7 at the Monterey Yacht & Country Club in Stuart. Yelenic credited golf for being her salvation after the death of her mother. Now, she plays as often as she can with her daughter or friends. “When I can’t golf any longer, I don’t want to be here, because that’s the one thing I really, really do enjoy.”

Yelenic described her past in Irwin, Pennsylvania, with a loving fondness. She never graduated high school, but earned a high school equivalency certificate and had many experiences along the way.

From her time as a cookie packager at a National Biscuit factory in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, she has stories that are similar to an “I Love Lucy” plot.

She had another job splicing photo negatives, then worked her way up to color correcting and printing images.

She was a waitress at a dinner theater and sold beer from a cart on a golf course.

Once, she was offered a job at a bank in downtown Pittsburgh but decided against it so she could road trip in an RV with her husband through Central and North America. She wistfully remembered the “magical” feeling of antelopes dancing around them in the Canadian Rockies. They learned to deep sea dive in the Florida Keys, and for her 65th birthday, she went scuba diving off the coast of Roatan, Honduras.

Though, like with everyone else, Yelenic faced dark challenges.

“Everybody loves Alice. We do, we do,” said Bridie Caruso, of Stuart, after the pair played nine holes of golf with their friend, Laurie Thomas, and Yelenic’s daughter, Jill Kidd, on March 7 at Monterey Yacht & Country Club in Stuart.

Her late husband, Richard, was a World War II veteran who developed a drinking problem later in life, long after their two daughters were grown and married.

“Richard didn’t tell me a lot about the service until he got older and, at that point, he was drinking. I had my escape; I golfed at that time. And I pleaded with the two women that owned the club. They gave me a job, and that was my way of socializing and keeping my sanity. But I never, ever knew what I was coming home to.”

The stress of her marriage, which Yelenic called “a corporation,” climaxed with her diagnosis of severe depression and inpatient psychiatric treatment.

She said the turning point of her life was “being in that mental hospital and finding out how important I was.”

Yelenic rests June 8 at her home in Stuart. In April 2014, an inoperable carcinoid tumor was discovered in her stomach, causing slow, unstoppable internal bleeding. In May, she began feeling cold more frequently. “It’s just the progression of the cancer. It’s a symptom. It could be worse,” she said.

Still, you won’t hear Yelenic complaining about her circumstances or regretting staying in her marriage.

“There were things that weren’t good in life but I learned from everything that wasn’t favorable, and I don’t think that blackened my thoughts at all. I think that I was able to go on and be positive, and that’s the way I feel now,” she said. “Even with the cancer I have. I’ve been given extra time to live and I’m very, very lucky.”

Following her passing, she will continue to be important.

“I’m going to live two years after I die. I’m donating my body to science.”
“I’ll still be doing good,” Yelenic said. “The fact that I’ll still be helpful for two years, when they take my body, helps me understand.” Soon after Yelenic dies, the undertaker at Martin Funeral Home and Crematory will collect her body and deliver it to the University of Miami for two years of research.

In the hours after her death, her body will be collected by an undertaker in Martin County and transported to Miami, where aspiring physicians will do research for 24 months, she said.

“When I can’t golf any longer, I don’t want to be here because that’s the one thing I really do enjoy. Just to be here for the sake of breathing, no thank you, no thank you. And I’m at peace with when I go,” Yelenic said.

Even in the face of death, she looks forward to supplying her body so future doctors can learn and grow.

“She is an inspiration. She is an inspiration of what is and what can be,” said her daughter, Rene Delane, of Westerville, Ohio . “Adversity was her advantage. She wasn’t undone, she overcame it.”

“I think a lot of what’s kept her alive is her attitude,” Delane added.

Yelenic has a sentiment she often says when parting with the company of those she loves:

“Be good to yourself,” she says with conviction, time and time again.

She would say it to you, too.

Yelenic’s neighbor, Philip Schwelm, heads home after saying hello May 20, the day after Yelenic’s 86th birthday. “I’ve learned from everybody that I’ve been a friend to. It’s done me more good than my friendship to them, I believe. So I’ve benefitted. I’m surprised how much I don’t know yet and I’m still learning,” Yelenic said.

About this project

In January, photojournalist Leah Voss photographed a class at the Kane Center in Stuart, where she met Alice Yelenic and her daughter, Jill Kidd. The two spoke of Yelenic’s tradition of dressing in costume and entertaining anyone who would pay attention. Soon, Voss learned of Yelenic’s terminal cancer that could not win out against her positive attitude. Over several months, the 86-year-old woman shared the highlights and challenges of her life.

Writer and photographer | Leah Voss

Video | Leah Voss

Digital producer | Maureen Kenyon

Social media | Maureen Kenyon, Leah Voss

Photo editor | Kelly Rogers

Editors | Eve Samples, Louise Phillipine

Created By
Maureen Kenyon
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Leah Voss

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