Recently, I have been discussing The Red Badge of Courage with my College in the H.S. class, and we focused for a day on the way the protagonist, Henry Fleming, begins to realize his insignificance in the face of the universe. Fleming does not really begin to comprehend this until he sees those around him die and sees the lone soldier in the woods, forgotten and without a hero’s burial. While Fleming does not believe these deaths are necessarily in vain, he does wonder about his own place and his own significance and that his own impact on the world may be small but important.
My best friend’s father died of cancer on Wednesday, and this led to me thinking about my own impact. But first, Gene was a man of great importance to me though few outside of our little mountain valley knew him. Gene was the man with a ready smile who could tell you what you needed to hear, whether you wanted to hear it or not, and always said it with a smile and open arms. Literally. He was a robust, stocky man with obvious strength of body but who at once put others at ease with his also obvious tenderness.
Sitting at his funeral yesterday, my mind drifted a bit to when I first met him: I traveled to Washington State from California for college ahead of my family by a year and met Gene’s son, David. We became fast friends, and still are the best of friends, and Gene told me I was now family. Now, people often say this without really meaning it or at least not really showing it, but not Gene. I was another son in the clan. From that moment on I was a member of the family, still am in fact. When I hugged his wife last night before driving home, she reminded me that I was a son to Gene.
Many people shared stories about Gene at the funeral, and what struck me was how many people truly loved him. One man explained how they had known Gene for twenty years because of the campground the family owned, but how Gene was more than the owner; Gene’s kids taught his to swim in the river, that Gene invited them to family outings, and how Gene individually visited each camper on the grounds. A second man stood and described how Gene helped him through difficult times. Others spoke, but all of the words centered on Gene’s generosity, good will, and ability to openly love. He’s the type of man who impacted so many without need of acclaim. My paltry words just don’t do him justice.
I always told people, and still will tell others, that Gene’s family is my second family. Knowing Gene made me a better man.
We have such power as teachers, and I only hope my impact on my students lasts longer than the end of the day. My sincere wish is that my impact holds a candle to the profound impact Gene made on those around him.