Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Power of Family

The more time we spend with people, the more we discern who we most enjoy being around, working with, spending good times with and who we’d go into the proverbial foxhole with. Today, the youth call it their “ride or die” friends and another variation is “ride and live” friends, depending. Most people just now say “they’re family.”

The word “family” has far too long been reserved for people your parents tell you that you’re related to. I remember hearing a young cherub say, back in 2001, “Our family goes to this church. We go here.” She wasn’t even old enough to name all the members of her family, but she knew that “our family goes to this church.”

A good friend and I often discuss “family” and who is part of our extended family, the people we regard as “ours.” Now, even Hallmark makes a greeting card, “For a friend who’s just like family,” and it’s meant to show the bond that exists between a group of people beyond whatever a birth certificate says, or doesn’t.

In the world of a private school, at least the one I went to, it was one of the most beautiful microcosms, or social experiments that you could ever hope for. We were about 300 strong, from 1st through 12th grades. Later, Keystone School would add a kindergarten, once they bought a building at the end of the block in which to locate it. And, I remember that we all knew one another, at least by first and last name and which grade we were in. If someone went to Keystone, for one year for all twelve years, we were a family.

When I was in first grade, my mother and I would be walking through the halls of Wonderland Shopping Center in San Antonio. Tall boys and teenage girls would greet me by name and I’d return the greeting, saying their name. My mom would look at me in wonder and say, “How do they know you, Dawn Lee? Where do you know them from?” and in my five-year-old voice, I’d reply, “Oh, we go to school together.”

Mom did her best not to drop her jaw and I didn’t think a thing of it until long after graduation when I’d greet those who were the first and second graders when I was in high school. I marveled at how beautifully they’d matured, but I never once felt a bit older. At Keystone, we were timeless.

Our mortality was never in question, save once, when we heard of a member of the class of ’63, Ernest Holub, who’d been caught up in a current when the Senior Class was on their Class Trip. Ernest died, and a memorial fountain was constructed on the front lawn of the main building in his memory, where it remained until most recent years.

Just as we the students considered ourselves as family, so too were many of the teachers who spent their lifetimes and livelihood at Keystone teaching all of us. The salaries were not competitive in the least, and many of our teachers “moonlighted” by teaching at area colleges simultaneously when they were teaching us. Interestingly our senior classes used the same books as the college freshmen, and that made college easier. It’s no wonder that when groups of us gather at different times during the year, depending on who’s in town, we include teachers to join us if they’re available.

After classes were done for the day, those of us with parents who worked would congregate in the school cafeteria, a large room in an old historical house that would come to be known as Keystone’s Founders Hall. There was a small television in the far corner of the room, with chairs arranged in a semicircle for children to watch “Captain Gus” host his “mateys” to watch cartoons, mostly Popeye. Then, KENS-TV showed “The Flintstones" and “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” before parents arrived to pick them up.

At the other end of the cafeteria, atop long parachute-folding tables purchased from USAF surplus, the high schoolers were doing their homework or playing chess, and the elementary school children enjoyed their snacks within arm’s reach of the older kids, and the exchange of conversation was ageless. The senior kids didn’t talk down to the youngsters, who offered interesting questions and broad smiles as well as a few hugs. It’s fair to say we were one big happy family.

After graduation, for years Keystone hosted an annual holiday tea reception for alumni to come back and visit with one another. On the Friday before the holiday break, anyone in the cafeteria who wasn’t doing homework had to stop playing chess or pull away from gabbing to help out with arranging the furniture in the cafeteria. Everyone had chores and if you didn’t volunteer, there was no penalty. There was no reward or punishment if you participated in helping out but more often than not, few people sat around and watched others work. That element of family dynamics again, crowd influence by example.

It was only natural that people would collect around the school at holiday season as long as they were in college and still came back to San Antonio to see their families. But in years following that, time and distance kept the gatherings smaller and attendance faded. You have to remember that some classes were exceedingly small. By example, the class of 1973 had 10 graduates, the class of 1974 had 21 graduates (down from an initial freshman class size of 32), and the class of 1975 had 11 graduates, if memory serves. I’ll look it up later.

And yet, in the 1970s and 1980s classmates found a way to keep in touch. We wrote letters and made phone calls and stayed in active touch with many of our classmates. We drove to see each other as best we could when classes were out. In 1984 my “classmate” from 1963 (she was a senior when I was a first grader) and I worked almost a year, long distance before cell phones, to organize a reunion in 1985 and we had over 300 people attending one or more of three functions over a weekend period. In 1990, Lizzie Newman determined that as many from the 1970s of us should gather and she worked to make that happen. It did and it was lovely.

Poignantly, Lizzie passed away in 2013 and Tommye passed away in 2014, both of them far too soon with too many reasons still to be here and with many loved ones left behind in “our family.”

People react to loss differently. Some grow quiet and introspective. Others get on Facebook and write their memories. Others write far-too-lengthy blog posts. So, it’s time to get to the point of all this.

With each passing that we mark, with each loss we endure, we grieve. Our approach to grief is personal, but one thing is absolutely certain. For Keystone School, all who passed through those doors are part of a family, which actually began in 1948.

We were all impacted, for good for or bad, by our Keystone roots. Growing up in the Keystone family most assuredly defined our thirst for knowledge and our determination to pursue excellence, no matter what fun we might miss in the meantime. Others were skilled at balancing both. Of all the gifts that were imparted to us, our sense of family surely predominates as we are all today reflecting on the life of one we loved, one we knew, personally or just by virtue of knowing her brother and sister-in-law or her mother and father.

No matter where your family comes from, the ones your relatives gave you or the ones you collect into your life and keep forever, just remember to take every chance to tell people you love in your life that you love them—now. Don’t wait. Don’t assume they know.

For every opportunity you tell people in your life, “I value you’re being here,” “I cherish your friendship,” and “thank you for being my friend,” you actually see them, you hear them, and in that way they will be unforgettable. So that when, one day, that they are no longer with you all the time, your memories are rich, full and stay in your heart forever. The more love you give, the more love flows back to you. Live, love, laugh, and be grateful. That’s the best gift of family we all have to give one another. That’s the power of family.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Heart and Soul of Mary Louise Davis — Random Reflections

When I saw the newspaper announcement that longtime Bryan native Mary Louise Davis had passed away, I saw that it happened on July 4, 2017. Wistfully, I smiled to think that the gates of Heaven had opened to allow a firecracker inside, rather than Heaven projecting fireworks toward Earth. Surely hers, though, would be the kind of fire that the Holy Spirit is often portrayed as showing in the fire of Pentecost we often see. The Methodist religion often is symbolized with a cross and flame as you’ll see it on virtually every church sign in Texas (and other states).

So, to identify Mary Louise with the 4th of July, flames, and faith would be something she likely would not mind me doing. Her blue eyes and her white hair and the tall, slim figure who moved with grace and dignity were the hallmark characteristics of a southern gentlewoman who spoke deliberately and brilliantly. Now, Mary Louise was most often considered a Baptist, but first she was a Christian, with no need for labels to secure her religion.

She had a commanding, yet genteel, voice and she waited until you’d completed expressing your thoughts before pronouncing her opinion. The first time I saw her was at a gathering where the topic of discussion was golf. She’d come from her retirement life in Austin, back to Bryan to visit family and friends here, and her presence was always a delight to all who knew her and loved her.

If you were going to see her, though, you’d probably be better suited to visit Briarcrest Country Club and don’t be late for your tee time! Punctuality was a benchmark of Mary Louise’s personality. She said it had to do with respect for another person’s time.

To those who knew her far better than I, they know more about the love story and life she had with her husband, Judge W. C. “Bill” Davis, who was a brilliant, handsome attorney, educated first at Texas A&M University and then, after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he enrolled at Baylor and earned his law degree there.

In their early days together, Mary Louise and Bill called Bryan “home,” as Bill progressed through the local legal ranks to serve as Bryan Municipal Court Judge, Brazos County Judge, then was appointed judge of the 85th Judicial District Court by Gov. Dolph Briscoe, and was reelected for two more terms. He served as Judge, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals from 1978-1990, in Austin. He died in 1993.

Mary Louise chose to stay in the Lakeway area in the Austin hills, where golf courses abounded and sunshine was plentiful. She played golf as long as her eyesight would permit her to, and then she simply enjoyed being a part of the community there.

It was there that Mary Louise became an active part of education and Bible study for residents of Lakeway Church, a wonderful nondenominational church that overlooks a vista of Austin that seems like a small piece of Heaven itself. And so it was there that I really got insight into Mary Louise’s faith. She’d called a mutual friend here to invite her to a women’s faith seminar that was being hosted there, and my friend invited me to join her.

The program was lovely but it was at the luncheon afterwards at Mary Louise’s table where I first found insight into her faith. Life had been a challenge in many ways for this beautiful woman. The details are not important and if you know her well, you know what they were. I’d prefer to focus on her strength, her stalwart faith in God, and her inherent ability to trust in Him, no matter what all was going on around her.

After that luncheon, when Mary Louise came to Bryan, she’d call and we’d meet, or I’d be included where she was joined by longtime friends, and we had some great conversations about faith. Life and work had been so much of a challenging battlefield for me, and I felt outnumbered and weary.

One day soon afterwards, I opened my mailbox and found a small book by Bruce Wilkinson, “The Prayer of Jabez.” It was from Mary Louise and her note inside suggested that I pray that simple prayer each day and ask for strength and to follow the will of the Creator who’d made me. I was blown away…first that she had heard my concerns, my fears, and my worries, being outnumbered and powerless to right the wrongs I had not created, but were created around me.

Then, she went out and secured a copy of a book she was using as inspiration for her teachings of her group at Lakeway, and that a virtual stranger, now newcomer, could be showered with the protective rain of faith around me. She believed me and what I shared, something few people, even among my friends, did, even though it was the truth. Her being “older and wiser” meant she’d seen it all before and knew what I was going through. Her lovely low voice would ring, “Oh, I know!” and you knew in an instant that she did know.

The prayer of Jabez, and the story perhaps, have fallen by the wayside of shifting ultrapopular media minutes that have seen “The Secret,” “The Five-Minute Manager,” “Who Moved My Cheese,” Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Life,” and “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” They each took hold of the spotlight for a while, until the next thing came along and shoved it out of the list. But the prayer of Jabez remains, simple and true.

“Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil.”

Yes, that’s the one. Twenty-six words of wisdom and faith. And yet…it asks us to stop turning inside for answers, to look outside for instruction, guidance, and direction to a path that keeps us from evil and, therefore, harm. So often we are tempted to stop and pray, meditate, and demand that our world get better—immediately.

We beseech one whom we see as a Higher Power (one I’m comfortable in calling God) to pull the knives out of our hearts and the boulders out from our paths so we can get on with having fun and enjoying life. And our tones aren’t always particularly pleasant; they can be demanding, especially if you are a person of faith, where you expect that you are “owed” something for having your faith, and you can present a list of reasons why you should be immune from suffering.

The prayer of Jabez is one of the sweetest ways in which we are told to “Shut up, get in, sit down, and buckle up” for the ride of our life (you know you’ve seen the bumper sticker). Only when we ask to be kept from evil can we assure that we’re neither the perpetrator nor the victim of same. Only when we ask that we have our territory enlarged do we grow the kind of new and strong friendships that endure far superior to the possibly superficial ones we have here in the “now” of our lives.

The book, the prayer and the thoughtfulness was a life-changer at the time and when she came to town, which was less frequently as the drive became longer and harder on her to make, we’d visit. I saw her now and then; once when I was over in her part of town, I went to her home and met Chauncy, the white ball of fluffy joy who ran her Austin life (are we not better off when we are owned by fur babies?). She showed me on her desk that she was in the midst of preparing her Bible study materials for the coming week's lesson. Mary Louise was effervescent as she told me about what she’d been teaching for the past several months. She may not have been driving around town much, but she certainly didn’t retire from teaching, inspiring and guiding her friends at Lakeway Church.

Her sense of humor was subdued, very ladylike, but the one-liners she’d deliver were priceless. We kept in touch, at least at Christmas. I loved her wisdom and her confidence in my ability to solve anything that life may throw and as she listened intently, asked relevant and poignant questions, she helped me hone in on the feeling that I’d been heard, validated, and that she had imparted a new level of insight into my challenge at the time. In fact, she cared deeply about hearing what I had to say. How many times do we really look at the people who are talking to us, face-to-face without distraction or our mind wandering to something we simply “must do”?

Friendship, true friendship, is defined by our ability to care about our friends’ lives, keep track of the people and situations and circumstances that envelop their hopes, dreams, challenges, and then to stick around to celebrate victories or offer encouragement that “This too shall pass,” and offer the true gift of staying in touch when times are good, just as when time are bad. She called at random times, just to check on me and hear what I was doing. I cherished each call. I wrote her cards and notes and sent them by mail, not knowing when a "best time" was for her schedule.

Which brings me to another chance gift, out of the blue. A decade after our first meeting, we had the chance to again connect in person for a gathering and she learned that I was balancing caregiving for my Mom while working, volunteering, and enjoying life. There’s a certain feeling of helplessness naturally that comes along with caregiving. You’re doing everything you can and yet you can’t reverse the course of aging, no matter what they tell you on television. And it’s frustrating to feel useless to make things “better” for your loved one.

So, the day I opened my mail and found Mary Louise had sent me “God Calling,” the book by A. J. Russell, was a day that a major smile was on my face. With its simple black leather-like cover, the tiny tome was slightly larger than the average paperback book and half as thick. Each day, labeled, had a particular devotional contributed for the day, and it was helpful to read and find a simple reminder to be encouraged. When we have hope, you know, we have joy. When we have faith, we have knowledge. When we have hope and faith together, we have power to do what we need to in order to keep on going.

That was Mary Louise—she knew just what, and when, you needed an infusion of faith and she delivered it. Every Christmas, after her Christmas season birthday, she’d address her Christmas picture collage of son Craig, and her beloved grandchildren, Amanda, Jeff, and Dean and, of course, Chauncy. Mary Louise was a larger-than-life figure and role model to be sure, and her family was reassured of her love, every day of their lives.

She was fortunate to be surrounded with incredibly loyal, loving and caring friends throughout her life, the kind you’d want a loved one to have “if anything should happen to you,” to be the advocate and protector to secure your future. It’s funny to describe, in this day and time, that women of any age need advocates as the perception is that women can handle anything that is thrown at them, but face it, men and women alike cannot master all that life has to offer at all levels, and friends need friends, period, to help them make long-range decisions. Mary Louise had those, without question.

Even though others didn’t realize it, because I never spoke of it, she never failed to call or e-mail on my birthday, and we talked near Christmas each year (until the most recent years) and one day she was on my mind so strongly…long story short, I reached Amanda and I told her I had been thinking about her so much.

Amanda understood what I meant and I said, if I mail her a card, will you make sure she sees it and she assured me she would. So, I promptly sat down and wrote what I felt confident that the people in my world whose life is near ending (whether imminent or eventual) will know the difference they’ve made in my life, without ever hinting of impending end-of-life. And, I know Amanda got it to her, so I felt good about that.

It would be a holiday weekday when she passed away and I was grateful that the family had included her obituary notice from Austin in the local paper. So many who live here would want to know, and despite all the modern conveniences of electronic communication, we’re grateful to still see important things in our newspaper.

The fact that she was 93 wonderful years old is heartening—she ate healthy food carefully and for some reason, I remember her extolling the benefits of eating Wasa Crispbread, as opposed to the usual loaves of preservative-infused white bread. Funny what we recall.

I remember her invitation to have lunch with her in Austin at the Headliners Club when I was going to be in the city on business. It’s a prestigious and historic club about 62 years old and in the world of exclusive clubs, it is. By invitation only, based on references of two Resident members in good standing, you’re either in, or you’re not. She had been a member for years, courtesy of the Judge’s revered status in Austin, and more business deals have reportedly been made in that building than in many others.

Those who follow Texas news know of The Headliners Foundation, who fund journalism scholarships and award prizes for Texas print and broadcast journalists, many of whom were responsible for major, well, headlines, in the best days of Texas journalism before others came in and bought up the big papers and replaced investigative reporting with Nordstrom’s ads (I think she’d like that I said that, ha). Mary Louise knew I was a budding writer and wanted me to have a view of our state capitol that put things in perspective for me. She, of course, made no attempt to let me know what an honor it was to be there. Instead, she claimed they had a marvelous salad. That’s just “classic” Mary Louise.

So, as I sit here today, a writer that she always knew I would be, I smile to think of her. I see her quiet smile and her dancing blue eyes, I hear her voice and feel her prayers of strength and encouragement for whatever it was I choose to dream. With that kind of friend, you don’t need daily contact to feel the connectivity of regard. But there were gracious reminders that our friendship still endured, through distance and health challenges.

Today, I feel certain she has her own “best seat in the house” with “her” Bill, in whatever the Headliners Club might look like up there, and most surely there’s a golf course on site, and the words “happily ever after” seem most fitting. I’ll never forget her kindness, her consideration, her example of grace and acts of faith. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Insight Into the Mind and Heart of a Winner -- The Gary Blair Biography

From the moment you open the book, “A Coaching Life,” by Gary Blair and Rusty Burson, you’ll meet a new friend who shares his history and his heart with you. Suspend your preconceptions of who Gary Blair is or “must be like” when you prepare to hear his story. You may know him as the Head Coach of the 2011 NCAA Division Women’s Basketball Champions.

You might know him as a Marine. Or you might just remember him from being the most frequently seen Texas A&M Administrator in the Bryan-College Station area—they're all Gary Blair, but until you read this book, you don't know the extent of his patience, the depth of his love, or the wisdom of his wit.

The persona of Gary Blair has been created over the course of 14 years at Texas A&M but long before he arrived in Bryan-College Station, he was established in Dallas, in Lubbock, in the states of Louisiana and Arkansas and his impact goes far beyond women’s basketball. His passion for baseball and his ability to participate, master, and teach any sport is exceeded only by his ability to motivate, inspire and lead young adults and teenagers.

There are more than a few "famous names" you'll encounter among contemporary sports legends whose high school careers intersected with Blair's days at South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas, or his days coaching at Louisiana Tech, but the beauty is that "each player" Gary Blair coached is a star in his book, and he in theirs.

Most refreshing in this volume is the accurate reflection and statistics on the paths to the various championships he collected with each pursuit. Co-author Rusty Burson is to be commended on two counts; first, the accuracy of the facts, figures, dates and places are guaranteed accurate because of his relentless pursuit of accuracy. (I remember hearing him speak at a live broadcast of the “Gary Blair Radio Show” during basketball season earlier this year.)

Second, Burson is a brilliant co-author in that he “let Blair be Blair,” which means the original authentic voice of Gary Blair remains unfettered, and the stories they share read as brilliantly as if you’d be hearing Gary relate them in person, as he can and does, to a delighted crowd of any size. Unquestionably, apart from sports, apart from his ever-abiding spirit of competition, family comes first with Gary Blair.

In addition to his own family, every student he ever coached is a permanent member of the Blair family collective. His wonderful memory is filled with the accomplishments of his students, and he is one proud papa to the world’s largest collective family, in addition to his own children and grandchildren.

The Marine in Gary Blair is also revealed and it’s no surprise he loves history, he loves his country and he loves people, even when he and a band of brothers were put to the test in boot camp. You learn how and why the famous (+) symbol is written on his left hand before the game (if you didn’t already know from being around his radio show or Aggie basketball fan events).

And no matter how many days you have to wait until basketball season starts again, there is baseball and golf and some other sport played at A&M that seems to generate a large amount of focus. I forget what it is, but unquestionably, Gary Blair is the most important proponent of all things Texas A&M. In fact, from the earliest days Gary Blair volunteered first to do the assignments that no one else wanted, created something from nothing, and took it to the top.

His legend grew, but his ego remained modest. He’s proud of what he’s done to be sure, but he’s never forgotten the joy of why he loves sports, youth, and coaching. Nor does he forget the people in his life who gave him his first opportunities, who stood by (and around) him when he needed them most, and whether he got paid for doing it (often he did not), he was ready at a moment’s notice to step in and be a part of generating focus and enthusiasm wherever it is needed at the time (unsalaried for doing it). This just generally shines through the way he describes the people in his life.

You will find Gary Blair front and center at soccer, volleyball, track and field, golf, women’s softball, and anything that involves competition and Aggies, and he’s the best advocate for women’s sports you could ever hope to have in Aggieland. Read how generous and enthusiastic he is about the accomplishments of all Aggie teams from his very beginning days.

There’s a Bible verse that reminds me of Blair: Matthew 6:33 (“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”) That’s basically who he is and what he does. His ability to connect with people is a real gift.

If you’re a Texas A&M former student, you want this book. Peek inside to meet a vital part of the Texas Aggie family, and stay a while to get a crash course in the making of a legend. This book was a gift to me and now I’m gifting it to others. It’s one you won't want to put down, so budget your time accordingly. Here's the link if you want your own copy: "A Coaching Life" by Gary Blair with Rusty Burson