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Tue, Sep 16, 2014 09:30 AM
Issue of September 10, 2014

A hope note
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A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

Look beyond the labels

February 19, 2014 | 11:25 AM

"An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick" —William Butler Yeats

A friend asked me to visit her dying father. For the 30 minutes I was there, he coughed and sputtered and spit and wiped his nose and paced the floor and shook his head and lamented his wretched state. I left feeling thoroughly spent and, worse, fearing that my time there did him no good and even some harm. I went away feeling profound pity for an inconsolable, miserable, old, dying man.

When I read his obituary a few days later, I was dumbfounded. The pitiable old man I had known only in his death throes had once been an honorable, mighty man. He served for three years in World War II, fighting on D-Day, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, earning the Combat Infantry Badge and four battle stars.

He came home from the war and started a family, founded a successful business that expanded to five offices, taught in a university, was elected chairman of the board for two hospitals and served as treasurer and chief fundraiser for a number of charities. He was a charter member of his church, where he served as elder, deacon, teacher and Sunday school superintendent. He served without pay as a director on the board of several organizations.

He was Tom Brokaw's quintessential "greatest generation" man who, through intelligence, love for community and Calvinistic work ethic, moved heaven and earth to improve things. But all I could see — to my discredit — was a decrepit old man.

Because of him, I am learning to see beyond labels like "aged" or "dying." I want to consider that disguised inside the most tattered coat upon the most brittle stick may be a noble, exemplary biography.

Dr. Wayne Willis


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