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Cindy Lange-Kubick: Woman in white leaves mark on friends, Aug. 27, 2000
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Cindy Lange-Kubick: Woman in white leaves mark on friends, Aug. 27, 2000

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Everyone you talk to remembers how much better she was this summer.

Those two glorious months of June and July. How she traveled and danced and planned to teach again in the fall -- the art of writing and life to her students at Doane College.

Instead, Sheila Reiter died early Thursday morning. She was 58. Cervical cancer -- diagnosed Feb. 2, zapped with chemotherapy and radiation -- returned with a fury six weeks ago.

"It is sad," she told those gathered around her hospital bed in late July. "It is dramatic. But it's OK. I'm full. I have lived the most wonderful life."

I always meant to write about Sheila Reiter. She was on my list.

But I never did. Something else always came up.

Reiter didn't let things wait, her friends and family will tell you.

"She made the most of every single moment," says Cinnamon Dokken, owner of the used bookstore below Reiter's second-floor, 14th Street apartment. "She saw beauty in everyday things."

And she made an impression.

"I don't know anyone, and I know a hell of a lot of people, who five minutes after you meet them you know you'll never forget them," says Reiter's Doane colleague Betty Levitov. "Indelible. That's the word I'd use to describe her."

There is so much her friends want to tell you.

How the tall, slender woman with boy-cut, blondish-red hair loved film, art, poetry, people, buildings, champagne, men, the blues, flowers, hard cider, escargot, her church, women, the Zoo Bar, port wine jelly, words, the Missouri River, opera, white.

"It was easy to tell people who didn't know her who she was," says Dan Ladely, director of the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater, where Reiter spent countless hours watching films and judging competitions.

You don't know Sheila Reiter? She's the woman who always wears white.

She didn't always dress this way, says Reiter's daughter, Katharine. In 1986 the single mother of two grown children came to Lincoln to work in advertising. A few years later her passion took her to teaching. She began revamping her wardrobe then, paring down her life the way a wood carver slices away slivers of oak and maple to reveal a perfect polished core.

Life became simpler, closer to the bone. She didn't want to waste time deciding what to wear, so she filled her closet with identical white garments.

She read books with insatiable zeal, gave them away when she finished.

Katharine shows a visitor her mother's apartment. Shoes off at the door. The carpet is off-white. Spotless. The walls are white. Unmarred. The couch is white, as are the chair and lamp and bed, the desk and dresser, the television.

Her mother had seven white washcloths and seven white towels, says the 31-year-old who lived across the hall. A dozen white sweat shirts and a dozen pair of matching white sweat pants. A drawer full of snow-white socks.

Four pairs of white pumps hanging in a shoebag in the closet.

There are no paintings on the walls, or plants, or curtains. The only objects she collected were pale starfish, ancient sand dollars and yellow sticky notes her daughter hid in her sock drawer: You and me are like peas and carrots. It only gets better being your kid. I love you more than you know.

The daughter spreads photographs across the white carpet. Her mother as a little girl in jazzy sunglasses under palm trees. A young bride -- the English major who wed her professor. A second wedding -- dressed in black this time, throwing her head back, laughing as her new husband peeks down her low-cut neckline.

She looks like Mia Farrow with her high cheekbones, luminous green eyes and rich red hair.

"She had style," friend and neighbor Marcia White says.

"She was beautiful," adds her daughter.

There are photos too of the Christmas party. The Ultimate White Christmas Party, Reiter called it.

She'd rent a white baby grand piano, put up three white trees covered in white lights, serve pale refreshments -- sugar cookies, white chocolate mousse creme puffs, cases of sparkling Brut.

Cowboy boots, wingtips, tennis shoes and heels would fill the hallway from the feet of physicists and groundskeepers, architects and students -- the dozens of friends she collected instead of paperweights or antiques.

"Her friends were her biggest hobby," Katharine says. "She loved people."

She served in the Downtown Lincoln Neighborhood Association. Always fought for people on the fringe, the disenfranchised, says White.

Reiter loved living in the heart of the city -- the buildings, people, culture.

"She made living downtown come alive in terms of neighborliness," said Cecil W. Steward, who met the teacher when he and wife Mary Jane moved to North 11th street six years ago.

Every Friday night the Stewards, Reiter and other neighbors would meet and walk to a nearby restaurant to dine.

Steward was the token male, he says.

"Hood Girls," the women called themselves.

Those friends thought about wearing white to the Sept. 6 memorial service at St. Mark's On the Campus Episcopal Church -- marching back to the Zoo Bar to drink champagne and celebrate Sheila, like a glorious necklace of pearls down 14th Street.

In the end they decided against it, remembering what she told those she loved.

"I don't need to put color in my life," the woman in white would say. "You put color in my life."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7218 or clangekubick@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @TheRealCLK

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Columnist

Cindy Lange-Kubick has loved writing columns about life in her hometown since 1994. She had hoped to become a people person by now, nonetheless she would love to hear your tales of fascinating neighbors and interesting places.

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