From the Chicago Tribune

Family recalls man who rowed Atlantic

By Tom McCann
Tribune staff reporter

December 17, 2001

The day before he embarked on his solo journey to row across the Atlantic Ocean, Dr. Nenad Belic closed the door to his study and wrote letters to his wife and four children, to be opened if he didn't return.

"Things must have changed drastically for the worse if you are reading this," he wrote his son Adrian, 32. "But if the end has come, which is inevitable, it might as well be in the middle of the Atlantic. But I will miss you."

About 300 friends and family gathered Sunday at the Chicago Sinai Congregation downtown to share their memories of Belic, 62. His rowboat capsized in September during a storm off the Irish coast, just a few hundred miles from his goal.

At the memorial service, his children tearfully read snippets from the letters they opened last month. And his wife, Ellen Stone Belic, recited from a letter of her own, the one she didn't have time to give him.

"That night you were lost at sea, I stared at the door to our bedroom, hoping you would come through it," she said. "Tomorrow I may be a widow. I felt such despair.

"But then I was enveloped by this most wonderful something, like many arms caressing me. This feeling stayed with me for quite a long time, and I knew it was you."

Belic, a Chicago cardiologist, had a boundless passion for life and an almost childlike love of the sea, his family said. He grew up hearing stories of the seafaring ways of his Yugoslavian ancestors, and as a boy his father would often take him for long boat trips on the Adriatic Sea.

But only when he retired two years ago did he begin to pursue the idea of a cross-Atlantic trip, even though his wife and some of his children did not want him to go. Daughter Dara, 17, said she kept telling him to stay home. Maia, 13, said she was scared and didn't want to lose him. But Belic showed such zeal in the project, painstakingly making preparations and designing his small yellow covered boat. In the end, they said they could not deprive him of something he loved so much.

"Whenever I talked to my dad on that satellite phone when he was at sea, he was just ecstatic," said his son, Roko, 30, a filmmaker. "He said to me, `I have to keep rowing, but the sky is so beautiful, the stars, the fish come right up to the boat. I just want to enjoy that.'"

"My dad was not religious at all," Roko said. "But what he could never find in a religious institution, he found on that trip. I think it was his spiritual journey."

Belic instilled that love of adventure in his children. Roko recently returned from making a film in India. Just before his father went to sea, Adrian, also a filmmaker, got back from doing a documentary in Afghanistan.

Jerome H. Stone, Belic's father-in-law and chairman emeritus of the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., compared him to the "Man of La Mancha."

"His life was like a lovely painting, filled with such striking patterns and arresting colors," he said.

At Kilkee, the Irish village close to where his boat was found, locals have lit candles for the doctor and will put his name on a plaque with others lost at sea.

"You were searching for something more than adventure on that rocky Irish coast," his wife said. "I hope you found it."

Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune