Saturday I went with Christopher to University Baptist Church in Clear Lake to a funeral, and it is hard to put into words what an impression it has left on me. The funeral was to honor someone who had been friends with my father for almost forty years. This was the kind of friendship we all hope to have: one that lasts. It was one of those Texas days that makes you think all things are possible: sunny and warm, low humidity, a few clouds. You could have been in southern California. Or heaven.
I had heard the name “Wayne Young” on and off all of my life. This was a man who had met my dad through the Air Force, had degrees in engineering from Texas A & M and Ohio State, worked at NASA from 1962 to 1995, was selected to attend Stanford University’s Sloan Executive Development Program, and earned a doctorate in Public Administration from the University of Colorado. He was also a professor at the University of Houston at Clear Lake for many years. I know of few people who have excelled so much in so many areas: the military, academe, engineering, business. But when you met Wayne, he was so unassuming, so interested in what you were doing, that unless you knew him better, you might not realize all of these accomplishments. He was that modest. But that was just the tip of the iceberg, because he also served his community and church, and was devoted to his wife, Pat, his three sons and their wives, and his seven grandchildren.
He also served on the Board of Trustees of Houston Baptist University for many years.
In retrospect, it feels like coincidence that we would both be affiliated with two universities. But there are really no coincidences; there are blessings. When I moved back to Texas to teach Shakespeare at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, Wayne always made sure to introduce me to others at the university whenever there was an event, as he was teaching there in the Business and Public Administration department. As I knew virtually no one, this was very kind of him, but that was said over and over about him at his funeral: he was a kind and giving man. In an age of The Busier Than Thou, he always had time to ask people what was going on in their lives. Whenever he met with my dad, he always asked how I was doing, always had time to talk to my son Christopher if he saw him on campus at HBU, always spoke with him in a way that made my son feel like he was part of the conversation. Long after he had finished his term on the Board of Trustees at HBU, he was still interested in how people were doing. He cared.
Saturday was the first funeral that Christopher, who is eleven, has attended. I have been protecting him from death, leaving him at home for funerals, but he had met Wayne Young several times, and I wanted to be there. I am so glad that Christopher came, because even though he was sad during the service, he was so moved by the words said about Wayne. He kept saying, “I hope I can be that kind of person.”
After the funeral, we drove to the Museum of Fine Arts, but the service was not really over for either of us. We kept thinking and talking about what his family was going through, how they would miss him, how Christopher would like to be in the Air Force too. I kept thinking of how quickly Wayne went from spending time with his family on vacation, to a hospital bed, and how the doctors thought he might have four months, but he really only had a week. It was humbling. When we walked through the art museum, we felt very small, and although we were looking at images on the walls, what I was really picturing was Dr. Don Looser, former Vice President of HBU, playing the most beautiful piano through that service, even though I knew he was grieving for his friend. I thought of how hard it must have been for Wayne’s family to plan a funeral for him that could convey how many lives Wayne had touched in so many areas. I kept hugging Christopher, so glad to be on this earth.
But this is what I want to say: even in his most tangential relationships, Wayne Young’s presence had a profound and positive impact. Christopher may have only had a few conversations with him, but he will remember the example Wayne set, and the funeral that celebrated his life, forever. I wish I could thank Wayne for that. Wayne’s goodness, of which there was so much, like all goodness, always goes farther than we know. It may have no end.
And it may have no end with me. I spend so much time trying to protect Christopher from the bad things in this world, that at that funeral I realized that I was going about this all wrong: that maybe what I need to do is make sure that he is exposed to so much good in this world, that there just is not that much air time for what is not. Just listening to all that Wayne had done for others made you want to be a better person, no matter what else is going on around us. Even at his own funeral, Wayne was helping others just by the example of his entire life, and even though it was so sad that he had been ill and died, you felt so happy that it was possible to know such a good person who had helped so many people, and had accomplished so much. It was inspiring.
Wayne wrote before his death: “I would like for my funeral to be a victory celebration that provides a proper balance for a life lived for the Lord and a graduation ceremony that provides for the recognition of the eternal significance of a life that has known two births but only one physical death. My soul knows no end and as you know it is only my physical body that is in the casket. I am not really there. I am with our Lord and those of our family who have gone on ahead of me….We each have our own timetable with our Maker and the important fact is that each day is a gift from God and none of us can ever count on a day other than today….I have just begun the greatest era of my existence because I have taken up permanent residence with Jesus and all the rest of our family will join me someday.”
Wayne Young not only taught us a lot about how to live, he has also taught us something about how to die. Through his influence, we realize that things do not end, but continue. The good that he did goes farther than any of us know, and in a world that focuses on how things end, I think everyone at that funeral left thinking that they too would start again the next day striving to be better than they were before. We can thank Wayne for once again helping us to be better people, and he will be missed.