Apr 27 2009

My Uncle Fred

Category: friendshipharmonicminer @ 7:55 pm

My Uncle Fred passed away about 12 days ago, moving on to be reunited with his brothers, and best of all, with the Lord. I wanted to tell you a bit about him, not in the way of a complete recounting of his life, but more along the lines of a personal appreciation.

He was an absolutely amazing classical tenor. He could probably have had a career at the Met, or something similar, if he’d wanted that. (He might have needed cosmetic surgery to make him look Italian.) On the other hand, with all his amazing talent, and great success as a teacher of singing, he never quite managed to turn ME into a tenor…. or even a singer. Nobody bats a thousand.

My Uncle Fred was a philosopher. No, really. Not somebody who sat around woolgathering, but someone who read what all the other woolgatherers sat around thinking about, and then thought about that. For a long time. He was unusually adept at communicating to his philosophy students the fruit of the many generations of philosophers that he had studied. Yet, he encouraged his students to think for themselves, not to be intimidated by the weight of all those heavy thinkers, who certainly don’t seem to have been intimidated by each other. He left his students believing there was always a chance that they might think a genuinely new thought, but that meant they’d have to learn what other people had already thought, so they’d know it when they saw it.

He was a theologian and pastor, whether or not he happened to have a church at the time. He was a skilled communicator from the pulpit, and a caring shepherd for his flock. (I know, I’m writing too much about wool.) Speaking from personal experience, he was an absolutely safe place to store confidences. He genuinely loved people, all kinds of people, and saw them as opportunities to show his love for God, by loving them.

Uncle Fred was just enough of a politician to survive in the world of academia. (Remember Henry Kissinger’s comment: “University politics make me long for the simplicity of the Middle East.”) When I was a young professor, and in some serious political hot water at my university, he was exactly the right combination of mentor, strategist, behind-the-scenes operative, therapist and (I suspect) rhetorical hitman, to help me keep my job. But he loved teaching more than university politics, and when he had the chance, he moved out of higher education administration back into teaching, an exception to the Peter Principle if ever there was one.

He was quite the golfer, an avocation I never understood, and still don’t, though I hear he was very good. I had a suspicion, for a time, that he imagined the faces of philosophers with whom he disagreed to be stenciled on the golf balls. In retrospect, I now believe it more likely that he had in mind lazy students, or rock and roll singers. Or maybe he was just doing ballistic research. Maybe he had fantasies of being a reincarnated Scottish king. He seemed to know an awful lot of golf jokes. Thursday was golf day, and it didn’t really matter if the Big One finally shook southern California, or the Martians landed, or the president invited him for tea; golf is very important, you know. And a man has to have some principles.

He was pretty interesting to watch in faculty meetings. He’d sit and listen for a time, while the various perspectives on the trivial issues of the day were aired. Then he’d clear his throat, an utterly characteristic gesture, a sort of announcement of pronouncements to come, and as the room fell silent (they knew what was coming), in a very few incisive sentences he’d explain what was wrong with all previous statements, all the while appearing to compliment the wisdom of those who’d made them. Besides singing, this rhetorical tactic was the other thing he failed to teach me. Not for lack of trying. But for me, it was like a person with a club foot watching a ballerina on a high wire. If I was fast, sometimes I could knock him off the wire, but I could never do the dance. I saw him literally end a few faculty meetings, working without a net, with no one having anything much left to say.

(I’ve ended a few faculty meetings in my time, too, but somehow it isn’t the same when the paramedics have to come and save people who’ve slit their wrists.)

My Uncle Fred was a man of words, who seemed often to be searching for the exactly right phrasing to say what he meant. He clearly believed that how a thing was said was important. (He once referred to me as “a man of words,” but I think he had something else in mind.) He loved clarity, and concision.

For some reason, my Uncle Fred seemed to precede me to lots of places. I recall being very proud, at the age of 18, of having started a jazz band (big band) in my undergraduate college, and then seeing a 25 year old photo, in an old college annual, of Fred Shackleton directing the Anderson College Band. I used to play the trumpet, while he was a trombonist… but I suppose nobody’s perfect.

Does it sound like my Uncle Fred was three or four people? You don’t know the half of it. I haven’t even mentioned many of his various accomplishments: speaking and conference invitations, publications (songs sung by hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, scholarly work in theology/philosophy, popular and curricular work in ministry), honors he received, institutions he helped to rescue, etc. Actually, I used to wonder if he had a cape or something stowed away under his suit jacket. But it is a fact that he was extremely gifted in a variety of ways, such that most people would be thrilled to have one of those gifts, let alone all of them. And then he worked very hard in polishing those gifts, and using them in service. In all of that, somehow he managed to encourage people to excel, to bring out the best in them, and tended to leave the lesser mortals in his life (that would be most folks) believing they had something unique to contribute, too.

The last time I saw him, he asked me to rub his ankle, which still hurt from a recently cleared up skin infection, and which was hard for him to reach. So while we chatted about the old days, and I thought about how much he looked like my dad (who I knew was waiting patiently across the great divide), I rubbed his ankle.

It was an honor.

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Jun 08 2008

Invisible Link

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 10:35 pm

Today I sat in church with my 10 yr old daughter. Her mom is usually playing the piano, and so my daughter often sits between her grandmother and me. That way, we can both hear her sing. I don’t think the small vocalist knows that we sometimes just listen to her. She probably just thinks we’re tired by the second verse, if she thinks about it at all. Sometimes grandma and I make eye contact. We both know what we’re doing. We don’t talk about it.

Now, not to knock the sermon today; it was great, on Psalm 42. But attention can drift. I expect somebody dozed off during the Gettysburg address, or while Paul was waxing eloquent about unknown Gods. Especially while Paul was going on about unidentified deities. So my mind can wander now and then.

But partway through, I noticed an odd looking purple pen in my daughter’s hand. I don’t know where she got it.

She took my arm, and prepared to write something on it. I thought, oh great, now I’m going to have ink on my arm… But Dads will do anything for love of a child, pretty much, so I let her write. She seemed to write a short word, but apparently the pen wasn’t working… No ink, I supposed, or it was dried up or something.

I shrugged to her, and returned my attention to the sermon. She was doing something beside me, but I wasn’t paying lots of attention… Kids get squirmy in church sometimes, and she wasn’t making noise. Then she tapped my arm, until I looked down. She had turned on a small light on the end of the funny looking pen, and was shining it on my arm, the miracle of “black light”. In kid-scrawl letters, my forearm said, all in lowercase, “dad”.


I know this is probably silly, but the moment took on a luminescent meaning for me. There we were, father and daughter, bonded in many different ways, each partly defining ourselves in terms of the other. She was naming me for what I was to her, and applying the label… But only she could read it. And she wanted me to see the label, too. It was our secretly acknowledged non-secret.

Being metaphorically minded, I could not help but reflect on the invisible bonds in our lives. These chains bind us as surely as titanium steel twisted cable, as unexpectedly powerful as light-weight carbon fiber-reinforced Kevlar. We can stretch our bindings. But they’re still there, drawing us together.

As a father, I have tremendous freedom of action, befitting the responsibility that is mine. There are a thousand ways to be a good father, and about a million ways to be a bad one. It may be odd to say, and it is not usually expressed this way, but I am also her servant, working for her and for the One who put her in my charge, for a little while. Perhaps it is good for servants to wear invisible identification.

Her yoke is easy.

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