Rhona and Jerry Meislik

Dr. Jerry Meislik was my ophthalmologist in Kalispell. I looked forward to my annual appointment because he was different: thoughtful, engaged and interested in a lot more than just my astigmatism. He is now retired from medicine and engaged in his other life passions. When I had the opportunity to visit his home and meet his wife, Rhona, there was a special connection between them and the way they live their lives. As a couple, they are both accomplished, well educated and by all appearances, very successful. But Jerry and Rhona are different. There is contentment, centeredness and a peace about both of them that is palatable. How did two New Yorkers wind up in Whitefish with arguably the finest bonsai garden in the West?

When Jerry graduated from medical school, he and Rhona headed to Grundy, Virginia on the Virginia/West Virginia border; he to run a medical clinic, she to do early childhood development. As a couple, a life of service was important to them. They were idealistic young adults of the 1970s out to make the world a better place. After a rich and sometimes difficult experience in the poorest part of the rural south, the Meisliks moved to Denver for Jerry’s training at the University of Colorado and then moved to a practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their friends all had second homes, but Rhona and Jerry never wanted that kind of life. They were always drawn to traveling in the far east: Japan, Bhutan, Burma and Thailand.

As a child, Jerry had visited the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and was fascinated by bonsai. He wondered, “How could they make a tree be that little?” He bought a book on how to grow bonsai and followed the directions with little success. From that point onward, he read about and studied bonsai. He is the author of two books on bonsai and has come full circle with the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, which recruited him to work on a revised edition of the book on how to grow bonsai. His expertise has taken him all over the world as a speaker. When you see his garden, you can see the patience, the care and the nurturing required to become a master of this art. Your sense of time is different. It may take 70 years to perfect a specimen.

Jerry is also a superb photographer and delights in taking photos of nature.

Rhona and Jerry have no children but have been role models and caretakers to many. For years Rhona has coordinated the link-up of foreign workers at Big Mountain with local families. She has served as a friend away from home and will host a fourth wedding this summer for one of their “adopted” charges. Rhona is an avid volunteer, has served as an ambassador at the mountain, on the board of the local fire department, as an advocate for children and still works part-time on the mountain.

She and Jerry have served as surrogate grandparents every Wednesday since birth to Addi, who is now 4. They both feel it is important to support the needs of others while they are able. Rhona and Jerry have led a life committed to health and wellness. Rhona has a beautiful herb-vegetable garden, loves to cook healthy food and exercises regularly. She has a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Michigan.

Both are very realistic about the impacts of aging. They ski a few hours almost every day in the winter but not all day as they did in their 50s, run a weekly strenuous snowshoe group, and hike and bike regularly in the “off season” with a group of friends.

Rhona and Jerry never had a life plan. They joined trips with the Nature Conservancy and liked the West. The Montana Academy of Ophthalmology held a meeting in Whitefish in the early 1990s, which they attended. Rhona was surprised by Jerry wanting to go to an open house on Big Mountain. They soon bought a lot. The next year they came back and did a pack trip in the Bob Marshall. Their house in Whitefish was built in 1994 and they moved for good in 2000.

They live each day as it comes. Rhona learned early on in life, during the loss of a younger sibling, that you can only control how you react to life, not what happens. She has kept a positive attitude. Jerry, who was born in Czechoslovakia, lost an older sibling to the Nazi camps. He, too, makes the most of every day. They feel that if the world ends tomorrow, they will have had great lives that neither imagined or planned for.

After 44 years of marriage, their respect and friendship for each other and others is fresh, real and inspiring. In the Meisliks, East meets West meets Far East in Whitefish.

Liz is fascinated by the various approaches to aging – from denial, to plastic surgery, to running marathons, to depression. Given our current demographics, Liz thinks there is a lot to explore, celebrate and learn from those living and aging in the Flathead Valley. Contact her at Liz@frontierangels.com.