DOWNTOWN — Amazing what a pair of imaginary friends can inspire.
Onny and Oboe, the make-believe buddies of a little girl in failing health have, years later, become the inspiration for one man’s trek across the country to raise awareness for organ donation.
Michael Tittinger, a one-time editor of the Daily Press who until last week managed real estate properties in Santa Monica, is preparing to set out on his journey this week hoping to do right by the memory of his late wife, Deanna Tittinger.
In Deanna’s first years, she was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a common genetic heart disorder with potentially deadly consequences.
When she was 10, her parents were told that she wouldn’t live long without a heart transplant. Doctors said she would most likely not see her teens.
As a result of her poor health, Deanna didn’t have the opportunity to do some of the things other kids enjoyed.
“She spent a lot of time alone,” Tittinger said. “She had to use her imagination.”
And Onny and Oboe were born. They would accompany Deanna through life as she continued to defy the odds.
In 1997, at 27, she would meet Tittinger while the two worked for a newspaper in Pennsylvania. He a writer, she the director of the classifieds department. The two would find romance along the way, ultimately marrying.
Even with the excitement of the nuptials, there was always the stark reality that it could end at any time unless her name came up on the wait-list for a heart. That day finally came, but to no avail. After receiving a new heart, it wasn’t long until it became apparent that it wasn’t taking.
She lingered a bit, but would die in 2000 at 30.
Tittinger was a widower with a heavy heart.
A decade and a new wife later, Tittinger found himself becoming introspective, even restless as he tried to process what had happened.
“It dawned on me that it had been 10 years,” he said. “I always vowed to do something for people similar to her.”
A conversation with his new wife, Brooke, was the clincher. The two were discussing what he could do to honor Deanna when she simply said, “You’re going to walk home, aren’t you?”
Tittinger had considered that as an option, but the fact that it came from his current wife gave him all the motivation he would need to create the Onny and Oboe Scholarship Fund and decided to walk across the country back to Deanna’s childhood vacation spot, with a brief stop in Philadelphia, where he was raised. He dubbed the venture Mikey Walks. It’s even the address of the website he created to support the cause.
He hopes to raise $25,000 for the fund, which will be awarded annually to somebody who has been touched by organ donation. He’d like to raise more, but being a man on the eve of a transcontinental walk, he’s pacing himself.
“It’s a second chance to live,” he said, “a second chance to dream.”
Once he decided on a cause and a means to an end, Tittinger had to consider routes. He decided on the fabled Route 50, which travels from Northern California through Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. While Route 50 comprises most of the distance, he’ll need to transition to alternate routes near the East Coast to make it to New Jersey.
Lucky for Tittinger, he won’t be alone. In addition to his imaginary traveling buddies Onny and Oboe, he’s recruited a filmmaker friend of his to drive a van as a chase vehicle along this epic trip.
Matthew Stanton, who Tittinger met in 2004 while the two worked at House of Billiards on Wilshire Boulevard, didn’t think his friend was crazy for taking on such a monumental task. He was intrigued by Tittinger’s commitment to the project. Stanton was easily sold on the idea and volunteered to tag along. He even convinced a small business in his native Ohio to donate the van. Jack’s Way to the Heart obliged and the trip became even more of a reality.
“It’s a leap of faith kind of venture,” Stanton said. “I love that he’s leaving behind the comforts of his lifestyle, searching for something more inspiring.”
Along with being Tittinger’s support staff, Stanton wanted to document the trip as a film project. Tittinger at first didn’t want the spectacle of filming a documentary to distract from his walk, but ultimately agreed to be the subject of the film, but with conditions.
He wants Stanton to remain as detached as possible as the two head east.
“He didn’t want to be the center of a film project,” Stanton said. “He wanted it to be organic and unfold naturally.
“His biggest objective is that the reactions to communities aren’t influenced by the camera.”
It will be a difficult task, but Stanton, who has had a film in the influential Sundance Film Festival, said that he’ll just lay back and act as a voyeur of Tittinger’s travels.
“I want it told truthfully,” Stanton said. “I’m ready to record.”
The two will begin the trip later this week in San Francisco, where Tittinger has a buddy who owns a bar on Fisherman’s Wharf.
In the mean time, he’s actively looking for sponsors. He’s had some luck thus far, but said that he’ll ramp up his fundraising efforts while on the road.
(For more information about Tittinger’s walk, visit mikeywalks.com.)