“I’m so grateful,” he said, first, before anything else, “I’m so grateful that our school took a chance on me.” By “our school” he means his and mine–the graduate school we both have a degree from. His was earned in 1951. Mine in 2002.
He arrived at our school a World War II veteran, having flown planes for the US Army Air Corps, following flight school at their west coast training site after he’d earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from an east coast college. When he’d gone from that college to the flight school, he left behind the woman who would become his wife, as she still had to finish her degree. For two years they didn’t see each other. But, he bought her an engagement ring at the Army post exchange, and he sent it to her in the mail, along with a handwritten proposal, and she sent back a handwritten “Yes.”
Seriously, y’all, I swooned.
They built a life together–one that included a world war, then graduate school (seminary), then jobs in education and children’s advocacy for her and work serving as minister to churches for him. Across six decades they did this, raising a daughter, traveling when they could, serving (always, serving) communities and congregations, and always open to new people and new ideas and new places and new projects.
She died a few years ago, and he lives at the retirement village they helped dream up, market and open almost 40 years ago. He works out every day, keeps up with his friends and family via his iPhone 6 and his Apple watch, and is clearly loved and appreciated by other residents and staff alike. “I wish you could have known her,” he said to me, of his late wife, “she was something else.”
A lump caught in my throat at the devotion and longing in his voice, and I barely managed, “It sounds as if you all were a wonderful team.” He smiled, nodded his head and said, quietly, “But she was always the better half.”
It was my privilege to be his guest for lunch today, to sit with him and hear his stories. Two hours over salad and baked fish and pie flew by, and when I told him I hated to go, but I must, I meant it.
And as I navigated my car back down the highway, lost in thought over all I’d heard and what it made me think of, I kept coming back to this one thing he said, just as we’d begun our salads. He wanted to know about our school–we do things much differently now than in 1951, and he knows it. And so he asked questions, probed for detail, wanting to understand how this 150 year-old institution we both owe so much to operates in 2016. And finally, he said, “Well, it’s change or die, you know, and I sure am glad we’ve survived. And I’m hoping for another 150 years.”
I grinned, stunned and encouraged both by his candor, and told him that another 150 years was my plan for our school, too.
Y’all, I’ve said this before, but I’m really feeling it this week–so much that I have not been able to put words to the feeling. But it’s this: It is a terribly frightening world we live in.
Our own corner of it made more so by our inability to find a civil and respectful way forward when it comes to United States politics. By terrorists blowing up airports. By a father murdering his whole family and then himself (local Louisville news this week). By…by…you fill in the blank. Because you know you can. The list is endless.
This man I sat with today, he has seen an entire lifetime of awfulness, if you think about the things he has done and the things he has seen. And I expected him to talk about the old days. How things used to be different and better. I expected him to be wary of this high-heel and black suit jacket clad 40 year old single mom and her convictions. I expected someone who has seen enough. And who is ready for something else. Something not of this world.
What I got was hope. Joy. The earnest stories of one who has lived over twice my lifetime and who has been willing, at every turn, to make/do/be the change necessary in any given moment or situation. What I got were the stories of one who has paved the way for you and me. In so many ways. And so often we discount this. We forget about the sacrifice, the willingness to adapt and change and risk that has come before us. We forget that this country, this world, our churches, our communities–they are not only ours. We stand on the shoulders of everyone who has come before us, everyone who has lived their lives so that we could one day live ours.
He spoke, “it’s change or die,” about our school, specifically, but I heard in it the wisdom of one who has observed, over a lifetime, that nothing stays the same. But that every new thing has possibility. Promise. Potential.
And it seems to me that in his observation there is a choice for the rest of us: we can stay as we are, collectively, in this country, in this world, and let violence and rage and hate and greed win the day.
Or…we can change. We can do what must be done so that our children have a future. We can give up, sacrifice, think beyond ourselves and these days we’re living in and decide, once and for all, that our legacy will not be one that makes this world less…but one that makes this world more, that makes this world better, that makes this world more whole…for our children.
And their children.
And their children.