It is to be expected at my age, but over the last couple of years I have lost three men who have been instrumental in shaping and influencing me. Looking back on our relationships, I would consider them mentors. The relationship didn’t feel like that at the time, but looking back I can see that is precisely what it was. They were shaping me, but none of us had that intention when we entered and continued the friendships. They were just that, friends. The mentoring happened because of who they were, and perhaps also because of what I needed at the time.
Although these three men were very different, they shared a couple of characteristics. First, they all taught me, mentored me, shaped me, and even by example corrected me, while being cleverly disguised as my parishioners. I thought all along that I was pastoring them, when just the opposite was true.
The other characteristic they shared was that they were good men, and I think that at their core that was what each one of them aspired to be.
The first one to go was Dale Hair. Dale was an old cowboy from Oklahoma. He was tough, and scarred. His hands were gnarled from years of working with rope, leather and wire. He came from the old school where you showed up for work even when you were hurt, sick or there was 6 feet of snow on the ground. When he needed sleep a bed was fine if one was available, but a sleeping bag on the ground, or a saddle blanket on the floor of a horse trailer worked just as well.
Dale had worked with his hands, and lived on a laborers wages for a good portion of his life. He was a master of making due with what he had. He had a genius for fixing things with duct tape and bailing wire. But that’s not what I learned from Dale—or maybe it was.
The gift Dale gave to me was showing me how a man can learn to live with his faults—another form of making due with what you have. Dale had a few faults. That’s not my critique, that is Dale’s honest assessment of himself. He struggled with alcoholism, he occasionally spoke without thinking about what he was saying, and he was known to commit himself to things without fully considering the ramifications to himself and his family. Every once in a while Dale would grab onto an idea and stubbornly cling to it long after common sense had shown it to be fruitless or misdirected.
Dale wasn’t proud of his faults, nor did he use them as an excuse. He just owned them. He never let them stop him from being a good man. In fact, he used some of those very characteristics as tools to be a good man.
Dale loved his friends openly. The same impulsiveness that often led him to speak without thinking also allowed him to care without judging. He was kind, and his rough exterior merely added to the texture of his kindness. Many people are generous, but Dale would even give you something he needed himself if he thought you needed it more.
The same stubbornness that tempted him to hold onto ideas beyond their useful life also made him tenaciously loyal to his friends even when they disappointed him or hurt him. I know that is true because I was on the receiving end of that tenacious loyalty more than once.
Dale taught me several things about wisdom. First, he taught me that our individual characteristics—the makeup of our personality and nature of our tendencies and thought processes—do not automatically lend themselves to faults or strengths. The same characteristics that make us susceptible to our worst faults can also be the foundations for our greatest strengths. It all depends on where we point them.
The second thing Dale taught me about wisdom is its tidal nature. It ebbs and flows. I used to think of a wise person as one who has gained enough from their own experience to speak into another person’s life. What I saw in Dale was the other side of wisdom. He had learned enough from his own experience to allow others to speak into his life. Dale knew his own pitfalls, and he listened to his friends when one would warn him that he was wandering too close to a ledge. He understood that those who love us can often see us more clearly than we can see ourselves.
Dale was a good man.
The second to go was Witt Hawkins. Witt lived in Chicago and worked for the Ford Motor Company for his entire life up to retirement. When he retired, he and his wife Pam moved to a town in the mountains of California that was too small to have a stoplight.
I never met anyone more comfortable in his skin than Witt. Witt learned something that most people never quite figure out; He learned to know himself, and he payed attention to what he learned. Witt knew how to say no.
Don’t get me wrong. Witt was not obnoxious about saying no; he was always a gracious gentleman. But he knew himself and knew what he was willing and able to commit to. He said yes to those things and had no regrets about saying no to everything else. Unlike Dale, who might commit to something without thinking, I knew that Witt thoughtfully and prayerfully considered every request made of him. I was never offended or hurt when he said no—and he said no to me often—because I knew there was a good reason he said no. He never seemed to feel compelled to explain his reasons, but something about him reassured me that there was one.
When Witt said yes, I knew he was all-in and committed. His yes was as final as his no. As I said, he worked for Ford Motor Company all his life and he never drove anything but Fords. He was the same with his friends. When Witt said yes to a friendship he was making a lifelong commitment. Even a dozen years after we moved away from Mariposa, he still religiously sent me birthday and Father’s Day greetings every year. The relationship didn’t end just because we were hundreds of miles apart, it just had to be lived out differently.
I think Witt was trying his best to live out his picture of God. I never heard anyone pray like Witt prayed. His prayers were melodic, rhythmic, poetic and powerful. But he didn’t pray just to sound good, he believed what he prayed, and in the One to whom he prayed. He was confident that when he asked something of God, that request was not taken lightly. He believed God’s yeses and noes were honest and carefully weighed. He never asked God for a reason for saying yes or no, but he believed there always was a good one and he trusted that.
Witt was a good man.
The latest friend to go was Ken Austin. Ken was/is an institution around here, but I didn’t know that when we first met. He was just a fascinating, brilliant old guy that started coming to our church with whom I felt an instant connection. It wasn’t until I saw his book, American Dreamers sitting by the register at Jac’s drive-in, and then had a couple of members of the church explain to me who he was, that I finally put 2 and 2 together.
In spite of all his success, Ken was keenly aware of the missteps and mistakes he made along life’s journey. He was not afraid to mention them or point to them. He didn’t do so with aching regret as if they were permanent blemishes on his life, rather he spoke of them as if they were moments of grace where God and the people around him, or perhaps God through the people around him, lifted him up and carried him through.
Ken was obviously conscious of the success he had in his life, but he never claimed much credit for it. His wasn’t a false modesty. He acknowledged that he had been gifted with a genius for engineering and invention (he always spoke of it as just that—a gift), but he was quick to point out that without Joan’s encouragement and business sense, and contributions by others who encouraged him or challenged him along the way, his genius might well have produced nothing.
Ken and I tried to have coffee every couple of weeks. We would just sit and talk about stuff. I would show him photos of projects I was working on, and he would show me things he had done, was doing, or wanted to do. We were just two guys talking about things that brought them joy.
It was only a couple years ago that I met Ken, so I only knew him for the last years of his life. I’m sure with all the success he experienced in his life, and the stature he had in this community because of his generosity, there was great pressure on him to be a certain person, or to project a particular image. But the man I knew was not affected by that. He was content with just being Ken, and his desire to honestly be himself invited me to honestly be myself. Ken became a safe and comfortable place for me.
Ken taught me that it is important to pay attention to your life because God is always using people to distribute grace into it. If you don’t pay attention, you might miss it and that would be the greatest tragedy. No matter where one is in life there is much to be grateful for. Misery is not an outcome of bad times so much as a lack of gratitude. The entire time I knew Ken he was aware that because of a respiratory illness his life was coming to a close. That knowledge never dampened his gratitude.
Ken also taught me that no matter where a person is in life, whether successful, famous or homeless there is an authentic, human person wanting to be known and seen. Deep down inside we are just guys wanting to talk about things that bring us joy. One of the last times I saw him he was supposed to be unresponsive, yet when he heard my voice he acknowledged me and greeted me by name. I will always remember that and look back on it with great joy.
The last text I sent him was some pictures of an old hand plane he had given me. I had restored it and sharpened it. The photos showed that great old tool making beautiful wood shavings like it was designed to. Perhaps that is a fitting picture of Ken. He might well have seen himself as that great old tool that had been redeemed time and time again so he could do the very thing he was created to do.
Ken was a good man.
I miss them all so much.