On a plane bound for O'Hare International Airport, Elsie Clark felt weak, scared and utterly alone -- until she spotted a pair of shiny leather shoes across the aisle.
What happened to the 79-year-old Canadian over the next 12 hours -- she was embraced by a good Samaritan, escorted through O'Hare in a wheelchair and welcomed to a swanky high-rise for a dinner overlooking Lake Michigan -- saved her from a traumatic stranding in Chicago.
It also proved that, even in tough times, people can surprise each other with acts of kindness.
On Dec. 30, which she described as one of the worst days of her life, Clark was on her way back to Winnipeg, Manitoba, after spending Christmas with her family in Texas when she missed her flight out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport after an airport employee left her sitting for hours at the wrong terminal.
Clark, who has a bad hip and has to use a wheelchair when traveling, was finally put on another plane with a connection in Chicago, only to be delayed by bad weather.
"I was so thirsty and hungry," said Clark, who lives on a fixed income. "I felt absolutely deserted and I was scared because I kept thinking, 'What is going to happen in Chicago if I miss my plane?' I would have to sit on the hard airport bench all night."
But as Clark looked down, trying to hold back tears, she noticed the polished shoes of a man sitting nearby.
"I wanted to talk to somebody to get my mind off things for a little while," said Clark. Growing up poor, she said, her mother taught her that people who dressed well respected themselves and other people. "So, I said, 'Sir, do you mind telling me what you do because I've always admired shiny shoes.' "
Dean Germeyer, 43, who runs a technology consulting group in Chicago, did not mind at all.
"People were coming by and putting their hands on her shoulders and saying, 'I hope you get home tonight,' " said Germeyer, who was scheduled to leave Texas later but snagged an earlier flight at the last moment.
"She was doing OK, but you could tell she was at a breaking point," he said.
Although Clark didn't ask for Germeyer's help, their passing pleasantries turned into a longer conversation. Germeyer soon began making arrangements with a flight attendant to have a wheelchair ready when the plane landed so Clark could catch her next flight.
"There was a connection between Elsie and myself," Germeyer said, adding that during the flight he learned that Clark had raised four daughters by herself, helping to put them all through school while working as a waitress. "She wasn't asking for anything at all."
Upon landing, Germeyer rushed Clark to her next terminal, but Clark still missed her flight. That meant she would spend the night in Chicago, so the airline, United, offered her a stay at a nearby hotel at a discounted rate, in keeping with the company's bad-weather policy, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.
But Germeyer said he did not feel right leaving her.
"She is somebody's grandmother," Germeyer said. "And to slide this piece of paper across the desk and say, 'Here is your voucher, good luck,' when she hasn't eaten, doesn't have her luggage and doesn't know Chicago ... that really aggravated me."
So Germeyer called his wife, Nina, who had dinner waiting at their Streeterville condo, and asked her to arrange an extra place setting.
"This is why I married Dean," said Nina Germeyer, 41. "He couldn't know that this little old lady was going to just sit at the airport all night while he went home and had a nice meal and a warm bed."
But Germeyer did not stop there. After taking Clark to his condo, on the 55th floor of a building just off of Michigan Avenue, he took her on a brief city tour before putting her up in a suite at the Affinia Hotel next to his building.
Then he arranged for a car to take her back to the airport the next day.
"He even gave me a new toothbrush and toothpaste," Clark said. "I just sat down when I got to the hotel and I cried and cried and cried. Everything he did for me was just so beautiful."
Random acts of kindness are witnessed every day -- dropping money in a homeless person's hand, offering directions or giving up a bus seat. But Tom W. Smith, who studies altruistic behavior at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, said that such sustained displays of altruism are far less common.
"This is unusual both in the amount of assistance he offered and the complexity of what he did," Smith said.
When Clark arrived home in Canada the next morning, she began to think of ways to repay Germeyer's generosity. In the end, she decided the best way was to tell her story, and she started with the local newspaper.
Germeyer said Tuesday he is amazed by the e-mails flooding into his inbox, many from Canadians thanking him. He said he had spent less than $250 on the hotel room and car. "I just wanted to make sure that she got some sleep that night."
A missed connection leads to a special bond
Chicago man helps Canadian woman who was stranded at O'Hare
Dean and Nina Germeyer (left) took care of 79-year-old Elsie Clark after she was stranded at O'Hare airport on Dec. 30. (Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune)