In reflecting on my many teachers and mentors, I’ve naturally been considering the profound influence my parents and immediate family have had on who I am. My dad was born at the same hospital I would be some 35 years later. He was born to immigrant parents, spent most of his life in the same community, and lived until his death within 1 mile of his siblings. He was functionally illiterate because at the time the local school wasn’t able to diagnose and treat his reading disability properly. When he was a young man working in a factory he applied for a tool and die maker’s job but was turned down. He was told he was the most qualified person but he didn’t have a high school diploma so they couldn’t hire him. That significantly shaped my understanding of diplomas both as paper that can open doors and also as a potentially false indicator of who is and isn’t qualified. The company recognized my dad’s potential, though, and offered to help seed him in starting a sawmill so that they could have a local supplier of pallets. My dad built much of his early equipment and continued to invent new tools based on his observations of how others did things and reflections on what was working well and not so well within his own business. From that I learned the power and fulfillment of asking good questions, observing, reflecting, experimenting, and applying knowledge in a never-ending cycle of creation and refinement. I asked my dad once why he didn’t tell someone else that he already knew what someone was telling him. He said that if he had done that he might have missed learning something new because everyone has a slightly different way of understanding things. When I came home from elementary school once with the assignment to learn about my heritage, my dad said the way to answer that was to ask the other person what their culture was and then to say “me too”. I replied but what if they’re black?, to which he said “you never know…” My dad saw every person with whom he came into contact as a potential source of knowledge and as a possible relative somewhere in the not too distant past.
My mom was born in Russia in 1936, spent a childhood fleeing war and eventually living during the time of recovery in Germany after WWII. She came begrudgingly to the United States in 1956 but ultimately came to love it here and stayed even when her mom decided to return to Germany. Her stories from her childhood leave me in awe of what it meant to live as a non-combatant during a war: the struggle to survive famine and disease as well as the harrowing escapes as the war comes to your hometown. I also came to appreciate that there was something different in the way the allies treated those non-combatants. These stories significantly shaped my thoughts on just how evil war is and how much it should be avoided if at all possible. I can’t look at any military action and not think of the non-combatants, of how the squabbling of a few have such long, negative impacts on so many who pay the real costs. I also learned that if we do engage in military action, it will only be worth it if we do so with a standard that is better than the evil that is being overcome through violence. My mom’s life in the States has by many of our traditional measures not been an easy one. She has sacrificed many of her personal dreams and aspirations in service to husband and children. But through her I’ve come to see that if this is done as a choice, as a call to be a true disciple of Christ and not just by partaking of the opiate that organized religion can be, that it can bring a deep peace and satisfaction to life. Her life has stood as a testimony to the rich meaning that comes from a walk of faith in a risen Lord, from a simple life lived in harmony with the Earth and with community, in service to others who serve in return. She steered me away from majoring in Forestry, arguing that I was too good with people, and towards a career working with people.
I met my wife, Angie, at Anderson University. Our roommates dated for a time and she and I would often join them. But when I once asked Angie if she wanted to start formally dating, she said she was happy with our relationship as it was. She doesn’t remember me asking her that, but she does remember finding my choice to let me hair (head and face) grow out as somewhat off-putting. When I returned for a friend’s graduation the year after I graduated, though, she was impressed with how I had cleaned up for graduate school and realized that maybe I was the one. She took me up on a standing offer I had for all my friends to visit the New York area (I attended Rutgers for grad school) and we had our first date going to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. She graduated mid-year and took a nanny position outside Philadelphia to be nearer to me. We married a year later. Angie has continued to help me keep from getting too far out there, but she also helps keep me from becoming too mainstream. Our approach to home remodeling has been our approach to all of life. One of us will get an idea, the other may shoot it down but come up with a related idea that is a better fit to the situation because of that initial strawman thought. We’ll run through variations, play with a few things to see what it might look like if we took it one direction or another, and before we know it we’ve dug ourselves a sometimes physical hole (in the wall, in the lawn, etc) that means there’s no turning back. But far from being a blind or reckless process, it represents a wonderful process of rich brainstorming, rapid prototyping, and applied research that has resulted in both a wonderful restoration and remodel of our physical house, and what I believe has been a successful raising of our two children and work within our communities. It is hard to find words to explain the ways in which she shapes and supports me; indeed it is hard to even fully process this in my own mind because I believe we are continually living out the statement from Mark 10:8 that “He becomes like one person with his wife. Then they are no longer two people, but one.”
In writing this I realize why some write a book to capture their memories and document their influences, for the above is but a brief summary of ways in which family has served as teachers and mentors to me.