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Dying of cancer, Fritz Behr refuses radiation, stops eating, has no regrets

2012-11-27T00:00:00Z 2012-11-27T17:13:31Z Dying of cancer, Fritz Behr refuses radiation, stops eating, has no regretsBy SANJAY TALWANI Independent Record Helena Independent Record
November 27, 2012 12:00 am  • 

A man on his deathbed smells delicious chocolate-chip cookies baking. He makes it out of bed and crawls downstairs to the kitchen, where he sees the cookies cooling on the table.

He reaches up for one, only to have his wife smack his hand away.

“Don’t touch them!” she says. “They’re for your funeral!”

That’s one of many jokes Fritz Behr has told Dr. Justin Thomas at the St. Peter’s Hospital Cancer Treatment Center lately. Behr visits the oncologist on Tuesdays, and has promised to bring two jokes with him at each appointment.

“It’s like ‘Tuesdays with Fritzie,’” Behr said, alluding to “Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson,” a 1997 book about a young man’s visits with his dying former college professor.

Behr, 79, has a big repertoire of jokes and also has stage four cancer. A tumor was removed from the back of his tongue about a year ago and he refused follow-up radiation therapy.

About 36 days ago, he decided not to eat, which he could do only with great difficulty anyway.

Now he spends his days at home, with plenty of visitors. He said he feels no hunger or pain, although he smells food and sometimes dreams of it.

“I got no regrets,” he said. “I’m as happy as a clam.”

He didn’t expect to make it to Thanksgiving but enjoyed it at the home of his daughter, Lorraine Formaz, and her husband, Pete. Fritz sipped coffee.

“The doctors tell me you can live for months without eating, if you drink enough water,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

NYPD to Montana

Behr came from Nazi Germany to New York City at age 8, and became a patrolman with the New York Police Department back when officers, if they weren’t in a car with a radio, communicated via call boxes on the street.

He ascended the ranks, eventually overseeing hundreds of officers throughout all five boroughs in various tasks.

His life changed on Sept. 11, 1976. Croatian nationals who had hijacked a plane also planted a bomb in Grand Central Station. Behr was among those injured during the attempt to diffuse it.

“I should have been dead then. The guy over here’s dead,” he said, gesturing as if at a colleague. “The guy over here, his fingers are gone. The guy over here, he doesn’t see so good anymore.”

Shortly thereafter, disability pension in hand, he moved out to Montana on the recommendation of a colleague who had moved to Livingston.

He had earned a law degree in the meantime from St. John’s University (“Right at the top of my class, thank you very much,” he said) and worked for Attorney General Mike Greeley (a Democrat) for more than 11 years, and then in the office of Gov. Stan Stephens (a Republican) where, he said, he sucked up job duties “like a vacuum cleaner,” before retiring again in 1993.

He took up skiing in his 60s. In recent years, he waged a one-man crusade against litter on local roads, particularly in the South Hills, driving a truck with a “Litter Patrol” seal that looked almost official.

Sometime in mid-2011, he began having difficulty swallowing.

He went to a throat specialist, who said he had a sinus infection. Another specialist said he had acid reflux.

Finally his primary care physician, Dr. Don Skillman, recommended he go to the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

There, about a year ago, a doctor diagnosed him correctly: “You have an ulcer on the back of your tongue,” she told him.

A biopsy revealed it was cancer, and surgeons removed part of the base of his tongue.

And so began difficulties with food. He began using a feeding tube, gaining liquid nourishment from “a hanging bag” three times a day, he said.

After about a month at the clinic he was faced with the prospect of radiation therapy. He refused.

Back in Helena, he had continued complications with his throat. He ate through feeding tubes, either through the nose or directly to the stomach.

He’s had “wonderful care” at St. Peter’s Hospital, he said, including therapy to help with speech and swallowing.

He learned to swallow enough to handle pureed foods, and was able to free himself from the feeding tubes.

But every bite, every meal, remained a challenge.

“Angela is an excellent cook. She has worked very, very hard to accommodate me and nurse me,” he said. “But all that pureed food looked awful. Didn’t taste that good either.”

No more hassles

After consulting with doctors and Angela, he decided he didn’t want to go through the hassle of eating anymore. Angela said she supports his decision, although he tends to make his own decisions in any case.

“I’m not interested in prolonging my life,” he said. “I’ve had a long and interesting life.”

In addition to family in the Helena area, he has a son in Arizona. Another one died about 17 years ago at age 30, Behr said.

That son, he said, was an alcoholic and drug addict who squandered opportunities at Carroll College and died of AIDS, while Fritz held his hand.

“I told him, when he couldn’t breathe anymore, ‘Let it go, Fred, let it go,’” he said.

There are lots of tragedies in everyone’s life, he noted, and lots of wonderful things.

He’s especially thankful for the care from St. Peter’s, in particular the hospice care. A nurse comes a few times a week to check on him and see if he needs anything.

He’s made arrangements for his funeral. Mediterranean Grille will be catering it, and some friends say they’re going to play bluegrass music.

He’s on just a few medications, including a painkiller he takes sparingly.

Among the medals, badges and plaques honoring his police work is a frame with three documents: A Nazi-era passport, with a picture of 8-year-old Fritz and a red “J,” for being Jewish; a certificate of naturalization, with a photo of Fritz in early adolescence, marking his American citizenship; and another certificate from the German government, issued just last year, officially reinstating his German citizenship.

“I got to come to this country, I got to be of service in New York and Montana,” he said. “What could be better?”

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(19) Comments

  1. Ladyautumnraven
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    Ladyautumnraven - December 22, 2012 8:33 am
    Hello Angela, Pete,'s Leslie from Montana...i live in Washington now. My prayers and love go out to you and all your family. I have nothing but amazing memories of Fritz, and of you all. What a loving and courageous man and family.
  2. Matthew Downhour
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    Matthew Downhour - November 30, 2012 8:29 pm
    I met Fritz on a trip with the Methodist church that changed my life forever - he's always been someone I've admired. He's a great guy - God bless him and his family.
  3. cynthiak
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    cynthiak - November 30, 2012 2:14 pm
    DEar Fritz and Angelia...You are both wonderful people and I have admired you for years. I believe God is with you in this choice you have now made. And Angelia I know the Father will be with you as well. Knowing you and now of all your works in a fuller messure along with some of your heart aches and more happy times I love you and Angelia evan more..God's best to you Fritz...I will meet you one day on the other side ..a friend and sister in Christ Jesus, Cindy once from Helena now from Deer Lodge
  4. blessedmom
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    blessedmom - November 30, 2012 10:45 am
    Fritz: I am saddened and sorry about your illness. You are an amazingly strong man. I was fortunate to have met you many years ago at the Y. I was thankful that I was able to also chat with you and enjoy your laugh while I worked at Montana Eyecare. You would brighten the place up every time you walked in. You are a very kind and sincere man. It's always been a pleasure to see you and Angela out, especially at the Festival of Trees every year, and get that wonderful Fritz hello and smile from you that will never be forgotten. I have always admired you and Angela and I am a better person for simply knowing the two of you. This world is a better place because of you Fritz Behr. Happy trails my friend......may the best ski trails in Heaven be yours! Love and Prayers-Brenda Schnittgen
  5. Snowboarder7007
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    Snowboarder7007 - November 29, 2012 1:44 pm
    Fritz, I admire you and all you have done. So glad our paths crossed on the ski hill and other places!
    Tim R. Missoula
  6. threebars
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    threebars - November 29, 2012 8:34 am
    Your choice as to how you will leave this world doesn't surprise me in the least - you're obviously still that hard headed German and still in control!
    I certainly wouldn't have passed up the opportunity to let you know Larry and I both read your article and feel for you and the family.

    This comes to you from your long-time 'partner in crime', your "earthy" friend, Marlene from those days in the CI Div. in Helena. Many memories..

    Hello to Angela and Lorraine, also.
    Marlene P in Kentucky
  7. ruby77
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    ruby77 - November 29, 2012 7:44 am
    My wish is that the cancer starves to death and this wonderful man lives happily ever after.
  8. jona22
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    jona22 - November 28, 2012 3:43 pm
    Fritz you are the most wonderful person on thiis earth!
  9. lindsay13
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    lindsay13 - November 27, 2012 8:50 pm
    I have never met this man, but what an inspiring story. He sounds like a great and honorable man and we would be so lucky if this world had more human beings like this in it. My thoughts and prayers are with the family!
  10. xmontanaken
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    xmontanaken - November 27, 2012 3:23 pm
    Fritz is also a man of tremendous faith. I still remember the first day he and Angela came to St. Peter's Episcopal Church - New York accents and all! It didn't take long for Fritz to start teaching the adult Bible class. His Jewish heritage and intellect added so much to the Bible studies. I learned so much from him and he influenced my religious views greatly. Thanks God that Fritz and Anglea found their way to Helena. We are all the richer for them.
  11. JohnDMagician
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    JohnDMagician - November 27, 2012 1:52 pm
    I had the honor and pleasure of serving in the Stephens Administration with Fritz Behr (his office was just down the hall from mine in Lt. Governor Kolstad's area). I spent many pleasurable hours drinking coffee and swapping stories with Fritz. He was serving as Gov. Stephens' bodyguard and office security while I had the same duties, as well as being a speechwriter, for Lt. Gov. Kolstad. Fritz always impressed me as an intelligent, caring and funny man who made life a lot better for those around him.
  12. DaisyMae
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    DaisyMae - November 27, 2012 12:06 pm
    Many blessings to you and your family.
  13. FlamingLiberal1
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    FlamingLiberal1 - November 27, 2012 11:58 am
    I am sad that he has to starve himself instead of having a choice. He is handling this with grace and dignity and I hope that when my time comes I will have this kind of courage.
  14. deedaleame
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    deedaleame - November 27, 2012 10:58 am
    It was great to see you out and about a few weeks ago. Know that your love and legacy will live on. You have shown me compassion, truth and what it is to live within my own skin. You are truly loved; and will be missed by all who know you. Dee G, Townsend.
  15. skooter
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    skooter - November 27, 2012 9:37 am
    God Bless you Fritz...thinking about you and your family. Great to see you in church the other've helped and touched a ton of lives everywhere. THANKS!
  16. the mt_1
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    the mt_1 - November 27, 2012 8:35 am
    Fritz: I often think about the time we first met in Helena,Thank you for all your service work in Town,God Bless you.the mt-1
  17. Redbirdie
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    Redbirdie - November 27, 2012 8:07 am
    What a fantastic like of service. Thank you for your work Fritz. Life really is full of challenges tragedies and rewards but yours are definitely worth reading.
  18. shawnwhitewolf
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    shawnwhitewolf - November 27, 2012 12:55 am
    Boy I sure have missed seeing you around Fritz. You will be missed all through out Helena and I'm sure back in New York. You've always been great to me.
  19. 5thgen
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    5thgen - November 27, 2012 12:40 am
    Fritz: Thanks for all you have done in your life, I wish you the best and God bless you.

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