It’s been a year that’s tested Dayton’s faith and resilience.
Robin Sassenberg knows this far more intimately than most.
Her 34-year-old son died seven days before the most ferocious of the 15 Memorial Day tornadoes roared over her house, biting off its roof and shattering its windows.
Fletcher Austin’s May 21 death in Saint Louis came 74 days before the massacre a short city block away from her business steeped in Dayton history.
That mass shooting, the worst in Ohio’s history, left the gunman and nine others dead, at least 40 injured badly enough that they required medical treatment and thousands with mental scars.
The Trolley Stop tavern co-owner’s sorrow has been compounded by the loss of a sister in February, Oregon District fixture Tom Nicoson in July and a brother in September.
“ROLL WITH IT”
She says the seemingly relentless trauma has left her with PTSD that impacts her memory, concentration and leads to sleepless nights.
“It is a good thing I have a bad memory. I forget to be sad,” she told me as we sat in the Trolley Stop, her tavern near the corner of Wayne and Fifth Street.
Still, the Oregon District matriarch isn’t giving up and keeps searching for the faith some survivors of 2019 in Dayton hold tightly to their hearts.
Robin says there have been few other options as the tragedies kept coming one after the next.
“You can get all upset. You can carry on (about it). You can be all dramatic, or you can roll with it,” Robin said.
“WE ARE DOING FINE. WE ARE VERY LUCKY”
Despite the pain, she counts herself among the fortunate.
Robin and her husband Chris had insurance and supportive family members and friends.
Weeks after riding the tornado out in their basement, the couple reunited with two cats lost that night, Slim Shady and Henry.
The twister that hit their two-story home ebbed between EF-3 and EF-4 as it traveled from Brookville to Trotwood, to Harrison Twp. to Dayton and then on to Riverside.
It literally rocked the Hillsdale Ave. home the Sassenbergs moved into 32 years ago with their blended family of six kids, but didn’t destroy it.
And now, despite a few bumps and contractor issues, Robin sees a light at the end of the tunnel for the home constructed in 1926.
“Our house is getting rehabbed. It has a new roof and windows and insulation boards,” Robin said. “I want people to know we are doing fine. We are very lucky.”
Some of her neighbors have not fared as well, including one who lived in the ravaged house next door without electricity or heat until about two weeks ago.
“She couldn’t find a place to rent,” Robin said of the woman, a healthcare worker. “She’s a survivor.”
That woman has since found a new home, but others in her neighborhood have not, Robin added.
The owner of the house where the woman was staying collected insurance money, but said he planned to neither repair the house nor have it leveled, Robin told me.
The Sassenbergs recently purchased the blighted house for $7,500, according to country records.
They aim to renovate it and perhaps make it a rental.
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The Sassenbergs stayed in friends’ homes for a few weeks after the tornadoes. They eventually bought a Durand Street ranch house to live in while repairs are being made to their Hillsdale property.
The Sassenbergs and their staff at the Trolley Stop partnered with brewers, distributors and other businesses and community members to raise $11,060 for those impacted by the tornadoes and shootings and continue to do smaller efforts to help.
She wishes she could do more.
“I hear all these stories, but I don’t know how to help,” she said, adding that unity is much needed in this community.
She wishes the community spirit that flowed during Gem City Shine hosted by Yellow Springs based comedian Dave Chappelle following the mass shooting would be replicated on smaller scales.
“I wish there were more gatherings so people can be together and not be at odds,” Robin said. “We should be together and put our differences aside.”
She felt fortunate that her staff and customers were not directly involved in the Aug. 4 mass shooting just a block away.
“We were real grateful for that,” she said. “Being a block away made a difference.”
The Sassenbergs were not at the Trolley Stop at the time.
It was a beautiful night and the Trolley Stop had a packed bar and patio when the sound of gunfire from a pistol modified to act like an assault riffle pierced the air.
The Trolley Stop’s doors were locked and Robin said manager Suzy Switzer and others ushered patrons upstairs and closed the curtains.
“They called to ask what they should do,” Robin said. “Chris came down. I couldn’t.”
“I AM IMPRESSED EVERY DAY STILL”
Following the shooting, Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services and its partners offered mental health services to survivors in The Trolley Stop’s back house.
Robin was grateful her staff didn’t witness the horrors seen by those near the heart of the entertainment district.
She called those who did heroic for the actions they were made to take.
Bartenders, waitresses and doormen like Ned Peppers’ bouncer Jeremy “Pitbull” Ganger helped the wounded and sheltered those in the line of fire during the 30-second assault and the
chaos that followed.
A little more than two months before, some of those same people helped remove debris from the Sassenbergs’ house the day after the tornadoes as part of a crew organized by Heart Mercantile owner Brittany Smith.
Despite the pain, Robin said beauty has shined through.
“People have resources and strengths they did not know they had,” she said. “I am impressed every day still.”
That said, like many, Robin is ready for 2019 to go pound salt.
She showed off a wine glass designed by Cassandra Robere of BGCandle that reads F*** Tornadoes 2019. It has an etching of a tornado and #DaytonStrong.
In the days that have passed, Robin has crafted a gratitude list she intended to post to Facebook around Thanksgiving thanking everyone from bank tellers to letter carriers to supportive friends.
“Then my computer died,” Robin said and laughed. “I rolled with it.”
Without Fletcher and her daughter, Dani Bandura, who lives out of state, Robin said Thanksgiving in her new home was not the same.
“It wasn’t uproarious like the old times,” she said.
The family dined on brisket, smoked salmon and other food from
Robin enjoyed time with her brood, including “crazy” grand kids.
>> RELATED (May 17, 2019) Oregon District restaurant has new owner
“We don’t have enough chairs, but they all fit,” she said. “I have hard days, but I keep on going.”