Anne Strainchamps: One thing we're hearing over and over from people is that death is like birth -- a life transition that's deeply personal and private. But Dan Pierotti and his wife Judy generously invited us to share the end of Dan's life. We'll be bringing his story to you throughout this series. Here's the first installment from freelance producer Seth Jovaag.
Seth Jovaag: Dan Pierotti knew for a long time that he was going to die. I guess we all do. But Dan, he really knew. In 1988, when he was 59, a valve in Dan's heart collapsed.
Dan Pierotti: Since then, I've never been given what you would call a "clean bill of health." The diagnosis is that I have congestive heart failure. Now I've got a fancy pacemaker with a defibrillator and so on. I can hear the valve clicking all the time.
Jovaag: That's Dan in 2012, more than a year before I met him. He was talking to Judy, his wife, who was recording his life story in their living room in Madison.
Judy Pierotti: Dan, when and where were you born?
Dan Pierotti: I was born at 33 1/2 Park Avenue, Kane, Pennsylvania on October 27th, 1929. I was born at home, in the very bed that you and I slept in at one time.
Jovaag: In those interviews, Dan told story after story about his long, full life; about growing up in the Allegany Mountains during the Depression, becoming a Lutheran minister, and later, deciding to leave the church. He talked about marching in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., about preaching to a packed congregation on Queens after JFK's assassination. In middle age, he launched a second career, helping small cities renovate old theaters across America. Along the way, he was married twice and had seven kids.
Dan Pierotti: I've always had a kind of holy mackerel feeling about my life. This skinny little kid from Kane, Pennsylvania and here I am with 7 children, 6 grandchildren, living a very comfortable life. It's really rather amazing.
Jovaag: When he was a minister, Dan buried hundreds of people. In a way, death became just another part of the job. But he told Judy that his first lesson about death came as a kid, when his dog was hit by a car.
Dan Pierotti: Sport was with the family before I was born. When I was young enough to see over the top of the enamel table in the kitchen, Sport was hit by a car out on Park Avenue. Dad brought Sport in and laid him gently down on that enamel table and stroked him, and just kind of was with him until he died. I have that image of my father. Not much said, but he took care of Sport.
Jovaag: Nearly 80 years later, when Judy asked her husband about his own death, Dan was matter of fact.
Dan Pierotti: Death doesn't bother me anyway. It's part of life and I don't even think I worry about that. I'm not looking forward to it, but I certainly don't care.
Judy Pierotti: You spent many years preaching about God. How do you envision God today?
Dan Pierotti: I don't. That's not true. The problem I have with that question is that whenever anyone asks you "Do you believe in God?" they've already got something in their head they're talking about, whatever the image is that they've got. They never have the right image. I'm enough of a scientist, or have enough interest in science to understand that you can't destroy matter. It becomes something else, it becomes energy. You can't destroy energy. It becomes something else. That's what I am. I'm just a bunch of matter and energy put together in a certain way.
Judy Pierotti: Do you believe in an afterlife?
Dan Pierotti: No. Whatever I am, all this energy and mass and stuff, becomes something else. Maybe I'll be a tree.
Judy Pierotti: Do you think that's what you will be?
Dan Pierotti: I have no idea.
Judy Pierotti: If you had your choice, what would you like to be?
Dan Pierotti: Nothing in this world, because I've done this. I don't know. Just some energy floating around, doing something.
Strainchamps: That's Dan Pierotti and his wife, Judy. Not long after these recordings were made, Dan fell out of bed and he hit his head. There was bleeding in his brain. That marked the beginning of a new final decline. Seth Jovaag will bring us the second installment next time.