My friend died this past Friday. He had just turned 58. It was sudden and unexpected. I am crushed. I am hurt. I am shocked.
John and I met in 1991. He and I were beginning our teaching careers at a college in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky at the same time. We became fast friends. My children called him “Uncle John” and his children called me “Uncle Jay.” He was like a father to my youngest son when illness prevented me from filling that role.
John was very familiar with the college where we were teaching. He had been born there and completed an AA degree from there. It was all brand new to me. As the youngsters on the faculty, I guess we had less appreciation for tradition and staid propriety then those who had served there for decades. To others, I’m sure, it appeared irreverent.
All meals were served family style with a faculty or staff member as the host. It was a time to learn proper etiquette and table conversation. John and I set a new standard – laughter. Either his table or mine would interrupt the quiet and respectful tone in the dining room with uproarious laughter. And, to make a confession, we were mostly to blame for starting it. His was an infectious laugh and loud – oh so loud. Many times we received correcting stares from other faculty and staff, but it didn’t stop us. Finally, they grew used to our hilarity and occasionally led the way.
We both were dedicated to pouring our lives into our students. John was a master teacher – many testified that he was the best they’d ever had. He also cared. We often cried with our students, prayed with them, guided them, grieved over their failures, and celebrated their successes. He became the Vice President of Student Affairs and he appointed me as Dean of Men. Later, I got a burden for starting pre-marital counseling for couples who were planning to marry over the summer. He jumped right on board and was involved in the first couples to take advantage of the service. The program continues. He also supported me fully in my efforts to get started accountability discipleship groups for spiritual growth. This continues, too.
During the summers we tag-teamed traveling with singing groups to raise funds, friends, and recruit. I was in charge of the music for the annual campmeeting. He was there to help me with the load alternating services. John loved music. Taught himself to play the guitar. Wrote songs (some of them quite unusual) and sang wholeheartedly. Even though my name was on the flyer as the song leader, he was much better than me. He would extend his arms as high and as broad as they could reach and use his body as exclamation as he led. He didn’t do things half-way. He was all in or all out. We both became campmeeting speakers and singers. But he took it to a whole other level. He became widely known and sought after within the broader Wesleyan Methodist churches.
We shared deep thoughts with one another and weren’t afraid to call each other out when necessary. I remember him telling me about some pain a family member had caused his dear wife. The emotion flowing from his mouth was raw as if it had happened yesterday rather than several years prior. Raising my head to look him in the eye, I said, “You have to forgive him.” “Oh, Jay,” he cried, “I thought I had.” He thanked me many times for helping him through that struggle. Another time we cried and prayed together over the pain and unnecessary grief caused by someone against his father. It hurt him deeply.
John loved his Kentucky Wildcats basketball. He was forever bragging on them. Being a Hoosier, I was an Indiana fan. He always wanted me to come up to his house and watch the annual UK/IU game. Kentucky almost always won, but one year I got bragging rights. He told me, “I wouldn’t have invited you up here to watch the game with me if I thought we were going to lose.” The year Christian Laettner tipped in a last-minute basket to make Duke NCAA Champions over Kentucky, I called him. He answered the phone crying. He was passionate about his Wildcats.
After my melancholia gave way to full-blown severe depression, I could count on John. In the middle of the night he would come and help me. He intervened when I scared my children. He was there when I had a gun in my hand ready to take my life.
Regrettably, we drifted apart. Five episodes of depression, four hospitalizations, two lost careers, and chronic instability will try the wherewithal of the most dedicated soul. I think he just didn’t know what to do anymore.
In recent years, I reached out to John again. When his sister was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, I wrote him several times. He always responded with a gracious note thanking me for my prayers and concern. When she lost her battle with cancer less than four months ago, I kept in touch. In one of his last notes to me he said, “Love and appreciate you.”
I love and appreciate you too, John. Until we meet again.