Sunday, July 02, 2006

After They're Gone

Why do we have to wait for an obituary to get the full picture of a person?

This last month I have read the obituaries for two stellar individuals. These two men were those I considered friends and were devoted friends to each other. I became acquainted with both in my former career at Parlor News Coffeehouse and grew to enjoy their regular visits to the shop; their wit, fine conversation and talent always brightened my work day. Both were private individuals, one in his retirement and one in the midst of his professional career. But, as I became friendly with them, I knew them mostly as two gentlemen who shared a love for music. They obligingly shared their love of music in the company of those who would come to the coffeeshop on Friday afternoons for guitar and mandolin strumming in the back corner, singing well-known tunes that would have all around them tapping and humming along.

As I read the accounts of their lives in our local paper – their professional achievements, their plans for the future, the families to whom they were devoted, I realized I had only seen a couple of chapters in the books that were their lives. These two men had seen much of the world and made Powell their home both professionally and personally. Both continued on a lifelong quest for education and exemplified an ethical precision and contribution to society that was outstanding. Two nicer, more approachable fellows could not be found.

Of course, I am writing about Warren Smith, a retired agronomist, and Doug Nelson, a recently honored outstanding professor of Northwest College and Fulbright Fellow. Both of these men were fantastic individuals who added considerably to our small community. Doug was a fixture at the coffeeshop, but never without a stack of papers to grade. Each paper received his undivided attention but he was always available for a pleasant conversation. It is strange to think I saw Doug, and Warren, more than I see my own relatives. I think it was because of that I grew to consider them extensions of my own family. Doug was doting with my children, I shared meals with him and his wonderful companion, Yasu, at their home, and I enjoyed his Friday afternoon music meetings with friends. We visited about politics, life in Wyoming, visits to California, our pets, and his upcoming return to Israel with students.

To speak of Doug and Warren in the past tense is painful. One lost due to illness, one gone suddenly and unexpectedly in a far off country makes it difficult to reconcile that their passing could be so close together. I don’t know when I’ll stop expecting to see Doug’s vintage truck at the coffeeshop. The plunking of strings will continue to be expected on a Friday afternoon. I try to overcome the sadness with knowing Doug was in Israel, with students, about to play basketball – all things to which he was devoted. My condolences go to the families of Warren and Doug, as well as the faculty and students at Northwest College, to those students he would have taught in his future, and to my friend Yasu.

There were other things that I could have written but as I washed some windows today, on a bright and warm Wyoming afternoon, all I could think of is how little we know of our family, our colleagues, our friends. My hope is that we all won’t have to wait to read an obituary to tell someone we care about what a fine person they are, how appreciative we are of their contributions to our lives, and what joy they have brought us. So often the happy news of the world gets overlooked and the focus goes to the sadness. I know that it will be with joy that I think of Doug and Warren and the talented and human lives they lived amongst us. My hope is that they are enjoying each other’s company now and they will always know how much they will be missed.

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