Although he is a neurologist and she is an attorney, Dr. Richard and Anna Kovar live a modest life in a home in Fort Gratiot, Michigan, a borough of Port Huron, just over the bridge from Sarnia. Their daughter Jule drowned August 8, 2007 just north of the pier at Grand Bend beach. Casey Lessard traveled to Fort Gratiot the day before the one year anniversary of her death. “I lived with her every day,” Jule’s brother Russell says. “I’d come home and she was here. I woke up and she was here. The thing I notice the most is when I wake up and go downstairs, and I pass her door. I think what’s there and what used to be there.”
As told to Casey Lessard
Richard Kovar: It was a beautiful, blissful, carefree summer. All the girls were looking forward to ninth grade, going into high school. Everybody was focused on that and enjoying the summer while we still had it. Anna Kovar: This stopped everybody and everything and brought everybody into a state of shock. The house is so quiet without Jule. She was so bubbly and effervescent. She couldn’t be here without you knowing she was here. Everything is so sedate and quiet now. It’s not the same house anymore.
Anna: She was a very easy birth. The thing I remember about her from her birth until the time she died, she was a happy, happy girl. She woke up every morning with a smile on her face; a big, bright smile. Good morning, mama. Happy. Singing. She would come out of bed singing and dancing and jumping and leaping. I think what everyone will say that when she was in a room, she was just energy. She was like glitter. She was always there. She had so much energy and happiness. We moved to Port Huron when Jule was a year and a half, and Russell was three. We avoided buying several of the houses we looked at because they were on water and I didn’t want the kids to drown. Because we lived in a town where there was a lot of water, my husband and I wanted to make sure they were good swimmers, so we took them to the YMCA every year and had them take swim classes until they were really strong. And Jule had tremendous upper body strength. She used to do the monkey bars and try to see how many times she could go back and forth without stopping. It was an incredible amount of times. Richard: That came from wrestling with her brother, I think. They were very physical. The usual. They loved each other; they were best of friends and worst of enemies sometimes. Anna: They were both tall and athletic. Jule was 5’8 1/2” and she wasn’t done growing yet. She was an excellent tennis player, as is Russell. She played volleyball, and played travel soccer when she was younger. Richard: At school, she was smart when she worked at it, and when she was distracted, which was frequently, she had to be kept to task. Anna: She was a very creative person. If you have ever known people that creative, sometimes it was so easy for her to get distracted by this thing or that thing. She went to Montessori for preschool, and I remember one time I came to pick her up when she was four years old. They used to make these world maps where they would cut out the continents with pins and then paste them on this map and label the continents and oceans. The teacher met me at the door and said, ‘I can’t believe what your daughter did today.’ She started at the beginning and her goal was to finish her world map. She didn’t talk to anybody, she didn’t go to the washroom, she didn’t eat her snack. That was very unusual because she was a social butterfly. Richard: But she was a detail person at the same time. She used to come up to me with an envelope filled with paper that she had cut into tiny, tiny pieces. She’d look at me really proud. ‘Dad, look what I did!’ Anna: She wanted to be a fashion designer. She had little drawings of fashion design and she was going to start a fashion design company with her friends. She redid her room. I had given her a bedroom set, which was my dream because I grew up poor; it was this antique bedroom set with a white sleigh bed, and she said, ‘Mom, I’m not like that. I’m modern.’ So she redesigned her room with one wall yellow, one wall apricot orange, one wall lime green and the last pink. At first we thought, ugh. But it looks fabulous. She picked out her furniture, which was very modern. She had a great sense of style and she was always dressed in her sense of style, which was always really cool. Richard: I thought she had a great sense of style. She would dress me. Anna: She was an artist as well. When she was in 5th grade, she joined an art club and did these detailed drawings of animals, and the art teacher was so impressed with her, she said ‘I would really like to do a summer study with her because she has a lot of talent.’ Richard: I was looking forward to seeing her develop as a person. With all of the creative ideas that she had, we had a hard time containing her creativity and diversity without suppressing her. Anna: She was an extremely talented tennis player and we were looking forward to her going to high school because the tennis coach promised her a spot on the varsity tennis team. Russell is a state doubles tennis champ, so that’s something we were all excited about.
Typical summer Richard: She used to tell me, Dad, I live to socialize. That’s what she did. She played volleyball with her friends. She had just finished playing tennis in the Robinson, a big tournament here. Anna: She was supposed to play in a tournament here the week she went to Grand Bend, but she didn’t want to because her friend, who lives in Sarnia and who she ended up going on this trip with, wanted to do a social thing. Her mother was going to take them shopping in Grand Bend, and so, being a softie mother, I let her get out of the tournament. Richard: It was just a sleepover. She left Tuesday, slept over in Sarnia and then Wednesday they went to Grand Bend swimming and having fun on the town. They played mini-golf and went back to the beach after.
Waiting for a call Anna: There was a change in our plans and her friend Lindsey was coming over to stay, so I had to let Jule know that no matter what time she got back Wednesday night, I was going to pick her up from Sarnia. I called and the father was home at five o’clock after work, and he said he didn’t have anyway of getting in touch with them because they didn’t have cell phones. He said they might stay late at the beach, but he would tell them to call when they got home, no matter how late. I was up waiting for the call when the policeman came knocking on the door. I was the only one home. The police officer came to the door with my neighbour and I could tell from the look on my neighbour’s face that something really awful had happened. The first thought was that my son was in some mischief, but he was at someone’s house, so I thought that’s not possible. Then they told me. My first thought was, not Jule; anything but that. I spent an hour trying to locate Richard. Richard: I was just in my office working late and it was close to 10:30. Anna: I didn’t look for you there because you’re never there that late. Richard: I get a page from the hospital emergency department. I called home and I talked to the officer who answered the phone. He said, just come home. So I was thinking the same thing, it’s Russell. Anna: And he’s never been in trouble! Richard: I was just crazy by the time I got home. He met me in the driveway and told me… Anna: This entire town stopped. Within half an hour, all of my friends were here. I was paralyzed. My friend Lori stayed at my side for a week. My friends were helping me do whatever I needed to do. We ended up driving to the hospital in Exeter. Richard: We had to see her. We couldn’t just believe somebody that she was dead. We talked to the ER doctor and Officer Finch, who was on duty at the time. Anna: The mother who was with them was so horribly devastated. Here you are, responsible for someone’s kids and something like this happens. She was in an emotional state that was near hysteria. She was still in her bathing suit at midnight. They didn’t know what our response would be, like would we blame them? It was just something horrible having to see Jule. She was already stiff. You want to hug her, and her body was cold and stiff. It was so horrible to be in that situation. What happened after we got back was the most amazing thing. The entire house was full of people and food and flowers. The funeral director, who’s been doing this his entire life, said he’d never seen anything like it. There were hundreds of people. The whole funeral home was full of flowers. Over 800 people came to the funeral home and the church service. We kept receiving cards from people for months. Richard: I think the community had not experienced something like that for a while. It was a shock. Just tragic.
Understanding the tragedy Anna: I’ve never had a chance to talk to anyone who was there. Richard: We called Richie Laflamme a few times but he wasn’t there. We still want to talk to him, but we can’t find the number anymore. Officer Finch told me that she started to get in trouble and Richie was with his date on the pier. He asked her, Do you need help? Are you in trouble? She said no, and then said, Yes! I could see her doing that because she wouldn’t want to cause a problem. He jumped in to try to help her and the waves were too much. (He had to be rescued himself). Anna: I’m pretty sure she and her friend started playing in the waves further down where it was safer. We come from Long Island where there’s an ocean, so we know what this is about and she didn’t. The waves kept pushing her closer and closer to the corner. Richard: Closer and closer to the sea wall. There were 3’ waves, we heard. I went out there on a calm day, waded up to my waist in the sand bar, and I started walking down to the pier. As I got about 15’ from the pier, all of a sudden, it got deeper and deeper until there was nothing under my feet. I started swimming toward the pier and I felt this cold sensation. I tried touching the bottom and couldn’t at that point. I went over to the pier and there were a couple of ladders, but they were very difficult to pick out because they’re rusted like the sea wall. I ended up climbing out using one of the ladders.
On the beach Anna: I think there’s a need for lifesaving equipment on the pier and on the beach all the time, and I think during the summer tourist months, there should be lifeguards longer hours because kids love to swim. It was still very warm in the evening when she was swimming. Also, there should be some sort of alarm system so that when someone drowns, people respond. I understand there weren’t a lot of people there, and the people who were there would have gladly helped if they could have. Do you think it’s a coincidence that every year, someone drowns when the lifeguards are off-duty? Richard: Absolutely not. This is a totally preventable death. Even something as simple as a life ring could have saved our daughter. It’s obvious there’s a strong current there. It’s a highly dangerous spot. Anna: I think the thing that’s disturbing is that it’s not a danger that you can see. Richard: It was a warm, beautiful night, and was so inviting. I can totally understand why Jule was attracted to the area, and going out and swimming there. It’s not apparent, and there are no signs that explain how dangerous it is there.
Life without Jule Anna: She was my future. I was looking forward to living the rest of my life with my daughter. I miss her happiness. She was like the sunshine in my life. Richard: I’ll miss talking with her and having fun with her. There’s just a black hole in my heart that will never heal.