I’m not such an unaware narcissist that I believe that I’m the only one Roger Hladky blessed in a powerful way. I was one among many.
It was long after Roger performed our wedding ceremony, his first to officiate. I was a father, my children grown and flown, an elder at our church back in Oklahoma. Roger greeted me in the aisle of the Tabernacle, NJ church and spoke words everyone longs to hear at some moment in their life. I realized later that it was a blessing. Roger had read something that I had written. He said that he admired people who do their craft, their calling, and do it well. It was simple and authentic, absent of any cliché, a genuine encouragement from mentor to protégé. I’ll never forget it. It was a dart that hit me between the eyes and stuck like the memory of a first kiss.
Like many others who have been blessed, we arrived in Memphis for Roger’s funeral prepared to serve and comfort and bless. But just like the upside down Kingdom of Jesus that Roger and Carolyn inhabited where the weak become empowered, we left Memphis as recipients of grace and comfort and peace.
Friday night at the funeral home, Roger was there, still willing us to live like Jesus from an open casket. I hugged Carolyn as she said, “Isn’t he handsome!”, more in the declaratory fashion rather than as a question. I paid my respects to Roger, a great tree fallen. We’ve come to the end of a novel, a life, a story of passion and purpose and persistence. A page has turned, a leaf drifts down to the earth, swayed and delayed for a time by a freshening wind of memories. And yet, pages are still being turned, stories are still being lived, lives changed through many tributaries of the God-authored novel in which Roger was protagonist.
I saw Chad Cutts after the memorial service and thanked him for sharing his memories, stories of Roger’s predictable re-dedication to learn Spanish once again and his incredible curiosity that left no stone or verse unturned while taking 218 weeks to study the Gospel of Matthew with his teen class. I told Chad that Roger made me want to be a better man, husband, father, and Christian.
He was 21 when he walked into a corn field to interview for a job as a school teacher in Tabernacle, NJ. It was a single question interview:
“Do you love kids?”
Roger spent his entire life answering that question in ways that resound across our nation, in homes and hearts, and in places we will never know.
“Do you love kids?”
Part of the answer to that question was obvious from scanning the audience. Those who came to pay respects are doctors, preachers, nurses, elders, coaches, leaders, movers, shakers, sinners and saints all, but all who love Jesus. We have all borrowed part of Roger’s curriculum without returning it.
Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book, “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside of us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it…with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited…it takes on a life of its own.”
Christians are a little bit different. We believe in life that never ends. It might change, but we live on. The building that housed the many chapters and volumes of Roger’s life has left us for now. But he left many books behind, still circulating with those who borrowed them, some of us book borrowers singing and praying and remembering on a Saturday in Memphis.
We stood to complete the memorial service, delinquent book borrowers from Roger’s library who will never return those books. We will keep them and read them and remember a man who gave it all away because he loved kids.
Carolyn never left his side. Even in death there was connection, loyalty, friendship, and love. She held his hand as the words of the song The Lord Bless You and Keep You echoed through the gathering room of Memphis Funeral Home. She shepherded the casket and pallbearers to the hearse. She made space for her good friend Mary Lea Thompson to sit beside her at graveside.
Standing graveside. a baby interrupted final rites, giggling, talking, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Just north of that Tabernacle cornfield in 1963, where the question was asked that defined Roger’s life, in a Trenton hospital, another child interrupted the world, crying out during birth. Her name is Karen Mason. Roger was Karen’s 7th grade teacher and basketball coach. He invited her to church, as he invited so many others. She took him up on the invitation eventually and her life changed for good.
Roger and Carolyn, thanks for loving children, for loving the girl who one day would marry me and share life with me. You have answered that question in the cornfield so well. You have run the race and finished strong. And your books are all out there still delinquent, still being read, still changing worlds for good.