Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stan the Man

Last night, Stan Weller passed away after what had been a quick illness, and a long, productive, and fulfilling life.

When I was a young youth pastor (v1.0) at Shawnee in the early/mid nineties I was so dumb I didn't know what I didn't know. It seemed like every other week I said or did something that got me into some kind of trouble. Whether it was people offended by my calling my senior pastor "The Great Bald One" (fortunately, over time the congregation developed a greater sense of humor) or ticked off trustees angry because another table ended up broken at Youth Fellowship, it seemed like the opportunities for me to get beat with sticks were abundant here. I realize most of this I brought down on myself, but I was truly ignorant, and I can tell you it wasn't bliss.

I don't know what it was that convinced Stan to step in and help a clueless guy out. He had been a teacher, coach, and administrator, so maybe he thought he could mold me just like his other students or a young teachers. He liked taking on hopeless causes and arguing with others (he liked to say God put him on the earth to give other people a hard time), so maybe as a member of SPRC, the incessant complaining he heard mainly from older members about the youth pastor kinda got his dander up. Maybe he felt compelled to step in because the lack of a youth ministry at the church prior to my being hired made him sick to his stomach. I don't know.

I suspect that real reason Stan took to me was due to all the mission work the teens were doing in those days. Some of the work - like the annual mission trips to rural South Carolina (which started as Hurricane Hugo repair work but over time became an effort to not only alleviate poverty among mostly rural poor elderly South Carolingians but an effort to bridge racial and cultural barriers in a divided Williamsburg County, SC) was initiated by me.

Some work they were doing wasn't. Ellen Dukeman, a high school student, initiated with a couple of other teens from the church an after-school art program at the Bradfield Center in Lima, which evolved into a once-a-week tutoring program totally run and operated by teens. Stan, I think, saw teens working and giving of themselves, and felt it was too important for the church, and the Kingdom, to idly stand by as the youth pastor in charge repeatedly shot himself in the foot. That's probably when the first invitation to come eat chili at his house happened.

Soon, on about a monthly basis, I found myself at Stan's house where we'd sit, eat, talk, and mostly laugh. In time he started giving me a hard time each and every Sunday morning before and after the 8:30am service. Not long thereafter, he'd regularly stop in at the office, grab Helen Price from her desk, and she and he would come heckle me mercilessly about how I (dis)organized my desk.

I loved every minute of it.

He owned an old orange suburban in those days which he made available to the youth group whenever they needed it. Later, because we were using it more than he was, he asked me if I wanted to buy it. I didn't really have the money so he set it up so the payments could be made whenever I could afford to do so. It took two years to finally pay off the $1100 I owed him, but he didn't seem to care. He burned the ledger in the fire of the grill he used to make us the hamburgers we ate to celebrate the end of my debt.

You just don't forget stuff like that.

After about a year of those lunches at his house, he had asked me so many questions about our mission work in South Carolina that I guess his curiosity got the best of him. He asked whether or not that following summer if he could go with us. I told him that was fine by me. Personally, though, I was a little worried. Stan retired early (at 55, I think). By the time he went down with us he was I believe about 70 years old. I wondered how he would get along with the teens, and they him.

I got my answer as we made our way down the highway on the very first day. I was leading a caravan of four or five vehicles, when out of nowhere an orange suburban went flying past my van. In it was one 70 year old driver and five teens dancing to music coming out of the radio. The suburban was swerving all over the road because the driver, while dancing, wasn't keeping his hands on the wheel as the hunk of metal loaded with kids and gear hurled down the highway at 75mph.

From that day on, Stan was, by far, the most popular adult counselor we took on our mission trips.

I remember something else about Stan's first year with us in SC. We had this kid go with us who even at the age of 12 or 13 was a hellion. Everywhere I had taken the kid he would be a real pain in the everlovin'. He was always mouthing off, sneaking off to grab a quick smoke (which I'd have to quash whenever I could), and causing some sort of trouble. He would openly tell me each week at YF that only reason he was there was because his mother made him go. Repeatedly I gave him permission to stay home, but his mother never relented. I remember shivering when she gave me the sign up form and registration fee so that her son, Todd, could go on the mission trip.

Anyhow, the first day Stan worked in South Carolina, it was hot. Real hot. Like 112 degrees in the shade hot. I had put in charge of building a wheelchair ramp at a home where a mother taking care of an adult daughter with MS lived, and it was clear by lunch that Stan was not well. He wasn't afraid of work, but unaccustomed to the heat he had already over-exerted himself. Because it wasn't that big of a job (I think that year we were also renovating a couple of houses) and because he insisted as a retired principle he could handle them, I had assigned to Stan a crew of my young troublemakers, including Todd.

At first, Stan worked while the kids stood around looking for trouble, but as he tired, he began assigning jobs and showing kids how to do things. By the time I arrived later that morning the kids were digging post holes, mixing concrete, cutting wood, and nailing nails while Stan sat under a shade tree drinking lemonade.

That night at devotions youth and adults were (in jest) giving Stan a hard time about sitting around all day. The ribbing was only growing and getting more pointed, when out of nowhere, Todd stood up, and began passionately defending Stan. Stan, he told us, was only doing what he was supposed to be doing... showing the teens who had signed up to work how to do the work. He went on to tell us to leave Stan alone because he was older and we needed to treat him with more respect. He concluded his speech by letting all know that Stan's crew, under his leadership, would outwork any other crew there that week and the rest of us could just kiss their ass.

Might be the only time I was ever proud of a kid for using blue language at devotions.

It was not only a turning point for Todd. The kid who hated coming to church and YF ended practically living there whenever he had the chance. But is was also a turning point for me, and all the adults and kids involved in the SC mission. From that day on adults made greater efforts to show the kids how to get things done and do the work, and kids expected to work hard. To this day, I don't think any youth pastor expected more work out of a group of teens than I did on those mission trips. One year, for example, in one week those kids built a house from the pad up, renovated another one (down the floor joyces and studs), renovated a church, and did a host of side projects. I think back now and wonder what I was thinking. I worked them so hard under that hot sun you'd have thought they were being punished, but every year their numbers grew.

By 1997 a group of almost 100 people, more than 80 of them teens, traveled to South Carolina to build and repair houses. It was Stan, out of personal necessity, who really taught us how to train and trust teens with actual work.

In any event, Stan became a perennial participant in our South Carolina mission . He was, by far, the most beloved volunteer I ever took anywhere in 20 years of ministry. He received the ultimate honor when one year during devotions the kids decided he was too cool to be an adult, and they made him a lifetime member of the youth ministry. Stan beamed from ear to ear.

I don't know when it happened, but sometime during my first six years at SUMC our relationship, which had started more as a mentoring thing, became a true friendship. I'd tell him about stuff at work or home and he'd talk about his own family. Out of that conversation, I ended up meeting his son, Mark.

Mark had since long quit going to church, which I have to say bothered Stan. Mark, after I'm sure hearing Stan talk about SC incessantly, liked what he heard about the mission work we were doing, and one summer asked if he could come with us. I remember all week he kept telling us we were doing everything wrong (the nut doesn't fall far from the tree). By the time the day came for us go home, he was hooked. Not only did Mark go with us every year until I left in 1997, but he also started playing b-ball with a bunch of us over-the-hill guys from the church at the local armory. He'd even show up occasionally and sit with his folks in the 8:30am service, which delighted his Dad to no end. I loved having him become part of the congregation, and he too became a good friend.

Those were very good days.

After we moved, Stan never failed to keep in touch. He was one of the most loyal friends I've ever had. When we lived in Toledo, he'd drive up occasionally and take us out to lunch. When we moved to Bloomington, Illinois, he and Betty planned a trip that included stopping off so they could meet our newborn son. When we lived in Goshen, they'd stop over a couple of times a year to see us to see how the kids were doing. In turn, whenever I was back in Lima visiting my folks, I usually found myself at least one afternoon or evening visiting with Stan and Betty at their home, checking out whatever car or camper he had just bought at the auction in Fort Wayne (he owned a gazillion cars in his lifetime... my hero) and getting caught up on what his family was doing.

After we moved back in 2004, the dementia that Betty had started to experience very slowly in the late 90's had totally eroded her memory. Stan was taking care of her round the clock and it was wearing him down. He was losing weight at an alarming pace, and I noticed that his own memory was starting to fade. We still had a bowl of chili occasionally and my two oldest sons and I went with him a few times to fish, but after he made the hard choice to put Betty in the nursing home (the day he did so it was the only time, I think, I saw him break down) I saw him less and less. He spent most every hour of each day by her side.

By the time she died this past winter, Stan was in pretty bad shape. Fortunately his sons, and the rest of his family, were there for him. It couldn't have been easy for them to ease him out of driving and eventually out of the home he had built, but they didn't have much choice. He was fading quickly.

We had no idea here at the church over the last month how rapidly Stan was deteriorating. He apparently was in the hospital for three weeks in late May/early June, but despite our calling that hospital every day to ask if they had admitted any of our parishioners, they failed to notify us that he was in their care (which still makes me very upset). That's why I was so shocked when Mark showed up at church Sunday to tell me that Stan was dying.

I just didn't know.

By the time I visited him Sunday afternoon he was unconscious, heavy morphine masking the pain which comes from a failing liver. I wish I could have told him how much he meant to me and how his support and friendship had shaped my life. I wish I had the chance to groan and laugh at one of his terrible jokes, and tell the same tired stories about the South Carolina mission trips. I wish I knew whether or not when I read to him the 121 Psalm and told him I loved him that he heard me. I wish I knew that when I kissed him goodbye on his forehead he knew it was me. I hope as around his bed I told his sons that there was no way I could take a dime to do his funeral, he heard Mark crack back, "Well that makes it easier cause we weren't gonna pay you anyway." I hope on the inside it made him laugh.

But I won't fret too much about those things. He'd just scowl if he heard me saying this stuff, and tell me to worry about something important. That's just the way he was, and maybe it's the thing about him I'll miss the most. I'll just take comfort in knowing that now he is safely with his Savior, embracing again his lovely wife, and telling all kinds of fish stories with buddies long since past.

Rest in peace, old friend. I look forward to seeing you again someday, laughing as we once did, over lunch in the kitchen of our Father's house. Just keep a pot of chili on the stove, and an empty bowl on the table.


The Thief said...

That was a beautiful tribute to a wonderful saint, Bryan.

ElleBee said...

What a wonderful tribute. May we all be so blessed as to have a "Stan" in our lives. My prayers go out to all who were touched by him.

UCsimplyme said...

Stan was a fantastic leader and a wonderful influence for our youth group. I remember those trips to SC with Stan fondly. Thank you for this tribute Bryan.

Travis Miner said...

Everyone should be so blessed to have a Stan in their life. I never knew the man, but I can picture him clearly.

He obviously was very special to receive a tribute like that.

Kara Lucas said...

Thank You Bryan. It is very special to read such a touching story about my Uncle Stan.

I am glad so many had the pleasure to know him and be blessed by him.

Jake Alger said...

I don't know Stan, but I know men like him. They deserve tributes like the one you've so aptly offered for your great friend.

Jerry said...

Byran... I know someone like Stan.. he sounds just like my Dad... but not that many cars.... anyway whay a cool way to remember him ..