Trying to describe the significance of people when they die is, for me, a very humbling as well as a sad experience. It shows me how pathetically limited my vocabulary is, how inarticulate and unreflected-upon, how taken-for-granted is my affection for the people who helped form me – and, by extension, how difficult it is to try to pin down with words the feelings one has for any of one’s important relationships.
Two such people in my life died during the same week last month. They were profoundly important to me in very different ways.
Sandy, one of my numerous Arkansas cousins, was one of my earliest playmates. She and her sister Debbie lived with us for a time during my earliest years in Atlanta, and my family regularly visited with hers whenever we returned to Arkansas for the almost annual family reunions of my childhood.
The space in one’s psyche that one’s cousins occupy is an odd and unique part of one’s experience of one’s past and personhood. The oddness is amplified when cousins move far away from each other and see each other only sporadically, as the bonds formed between them in earlier years continue to be strong despite the great distances between them.
Sandy always seemed different from my many other cousins, but in a way that I find difficult to describe. Also, my memories of Sandy are very selective – I mostly missed out on the adult she became and the children (now adults with their own kids) who she raised after she got married (and, later, got divorced).
Still, Sandy’s specialness for me remained, and I made sure I got to see her whenever I traveled to Arkansas in later years – usually for some family funeral, such as the one a few years ago for Sandy’s sister Debbie.
I will always cherish this person, will always be glad she and I got to spend so much time together as kids, and am fairly certain that Sandy’s grown kids and grandkids – as well as her siblings and her mom and stepdad – also knew about and remember the same specialness of Sandy that I find so impossible to describe.
Sandy Roberts: August 24, 1954 – December 17, 2015
Joe Hendricks was Dean of Students when I began attending Mercer University in 1966, and had been at Mercer many years before I got there and remained there long after I’d left.
To say that Joe was a role model and mentor for many hundreds of Merecer students would be an understatement, and I have always been astonished at how he somehow found the energy to befriend and shepherd so many people while holding down his full-time job as Dean (and faculty member) and raising a family at the same time.
Joe’s integrity, intelligence, wisdom, generosity, and appetite for having fun was magnetic and contageous. I never met anyone who attended Mercer who didn’t adore and respect him, or knew any fellow student who I hadn’t seen Joe being kind or helpful to.
As he had for many other former students before and after us, Joe officiated at my wedding, which he and his sister Jean Hendricks (who taught psychology at Mercer) generously allowed us to conduct at their cabin in the woods west of Macon one February weekend in 1969.
Although I have many memories involving Joe, I distinctly remember him telling me once, when I was wondering aloud whether I should stay on at Mercer after graduating and taking some sort of job at the University, that I must not do that; that both my wife Peg and I needed to “fly away from the comfortable nest of Mercer” and get out into the larger world. Joe was right, of course, although his advice seemed alarming at the time. Once you have a Joe Hendricks in your daily round, it’s difficult to contemplate permanently giving up his frequent company.
Although we take for granted most of the time that other people have had a major role in forming our own values and abiding priorities, most of us could probably identify the handful of people in our lives who we have most admired or have been most deeply influenced by. Joe Hendricks was one of those people for me, and for countless others.
Joe was no saint, but witnessing him living such a useful life while having so much fun in the process of being so helpful and inspiring to others has been a great teaching and a great blessing. I was lucky, lucky, lucky to know him when I did and, along with a host of equally lucky others, to have been with Joe part of what Vonnegut calls the same karass.
Joe’s memorial service is scheduled for January 23rd at Mercer’s Willingham Chapel. His obituary is here.
Joe Hendricks: September 10, 1934 – December 19, 2015
Postscript: The YouTube video of Joe’s two-hour-long memorial service: