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The Measure of Greatness

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns, Endless and singing…….. Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre. Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun And left the vivid air signed with their honour. - Stephen Spender

I do not believe greatness is defined by wealth or fame or accomplishment. I see greatness instead as something much more demanding. True greatness is meeting the demands and responsibilities of daily living with an open heart. True greatness is diligence, compassion, care, and most of all kindness, and it is exceedingly rare.

I first met Jerry Evans 25 years ago. I had been seeing his magnificent daughter for a few weeks and had fallen crazy in love. Lynn’s suggestion that I meet her parents hinted that I may not have been alone in that heart-based journey, so we all agreed to meet for dinner at a slightly upscale local restaurant in Minnetonka.

Meeting the parents is enough to chill the veins of even the fiercest romantic warrior. I knew myself to be perfectly capable of dismantling the entire process, either through a subconscious effort to be impressive, a misplaced or inappropriate remark, or just a nervous awkwardness that would make me look as juvenile as I sometimes am. So much was at stake. I had Lynn, and I couldn’t bear the thought of alienating her parents. I was Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series waiting for the ground ball to go under my glove and down the right field line.

We arrived first and were at our table when Jerry and Marlys arrived. And I knew at once that I needn’t have worried. With a firm handshake, a genuine smile and a twinkle in his eye that I would later see to be his constant expression of amusement, interest and welcome, we became instant friends. When the server came by, Jerry led the ordering by asking for a scotch. How could I not like the man?

Two scotches, a fine but unmemorable dinner, nearly three hours of stories and questions and reminiscences all mingled with Lynn’s laughing radiance and Marlys’s gentle humor……I felt I belonged with them, and to them. That feeling never changed. Jerry Evans became my second father, and, like everyone else who knew him, I came to look forward to the time we would spend together.

Jerry made a career with Western Electric after a fairly hardscrabble youth and a reluctant tour of duty near the end of the Korean War, where he lined up to be a target of a North Korean sniper until, sensing his vulnerability, he willfully disobeyed the orders of his lieutenant and ended up capturing the sniper and a few of his pals himself. He loved a wife and raised two splendid daughters. The neighborhood friends he made in his twenties remained close friends all his life, and get-togethers with Jack Carlson, John Kissel and Walt Harle marked his calendar for more than five decades.

Through it all Jerry never wavered, never strayed, never violated the ideas that he held most dear – that all he met were entitled to trust and good humor, that every problem had its solution if we looked hard enough for it, that good times inevitably followed good work and were to be savored when they came. That love itself was life’s most precious flow. That each day, each person, each situation, should be met with kindness.

Our son Michael had a special relationship with his grandfather. The visits were too few, even if Michael would sometimes fly to Minnesota on his own to spend time with his grandparents, to eat Grandma’s ginger cookies and to hear Grandpa’s stories. Michael loved the stories, loved the wisdom. Loved the man. He referred to Jerry as “the purest man I’ve ever known.” Who would disagree?

In this springtime of sorrow, we lost Jerry Evans. We had watched his health take a series of hits through the years – arthritis, a weakening heart, some other more minor afflictions. While his vitality waned, his love of life never diminished. The stories continued even as the naps became more frequent, and he so clearly loved being with his family. The twinkle in his eye never faded. He remained our father, our husband, our grandfather. Our constant friend.

The virus took him the day after his 92nd birthday. He passed in isolation, tended to by a loving hospital staff that never made him feel alone and a family tied into several “visits” a day through video calls. He passed quickly, and, I like to think, without undue pain or discomfort. If anyone on this planet merited a peaceful passing, it was Jerry Evans…….

We cannot know where we go when our bodies finally set us free. All faiths aside, we cannot ever really be sure. But I believe that any realm where Jerry Evans’s soul has traveled must be a peaceful place, a warm place where the soul can at last rest, and gather itself again.

When I take the trip he has taken, when my own soul steps away from all it has ever known and I cross that same bridge, I imagine Jerry welcoming me there on the other side, perhaps saying, “What kept you?” with his eyes twinkling once again, and I will shake his hand, laughing. And I will tell him the things that reside deep in the heart’s core, and too often go unsaid during our lifetimes. I will tell him that I love him, and that I missed him during our time apart. I will tell him that I missed hearing his stories when he was gone, and ask him to tell me again about being a boy in South Minneapolis during the lean years, about the war he never wanted to fight, and about seeing Willie Mays and Ted Williams play AAA ball at Nicollet Park . We’ll talk of baseball, and cold winters, and summers where the fireflies shone on the trees like Christmas lights. He’ll tease me again about never having caught a fish.

I will tell him that I would never have been the person I became without his unspoken, subtle guidance. And I will tell him that I am nowhere near alone in that gratitude, that he walks ahead of a family shaped by his gentle good humor, his unqualified acceptance, the constancy of his affections, and his unending kindnesses.

We can aspire to nothing better than to touch the lives around us with gentility, respect, kindness and love. At the end of it all, we rest.

Rest well, Jerry Evans. No one deserves it more.

“The only word for goodness is goodness, and it is not enough.”

- Pat Conroy


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