Lessons from a caster of community shadows

My dad never missed a funeral. I can still picture him, dropping everything to bathe, shaving his everyday farmer facial stubble, setting out a white dress shirt and dark suit (except for a couple of wretched 1970s years, when my mother had him wearing an uncharacteristically trendy blue, polyester leisure suit with a pastel-colored shirt – an overly vivid memory I’ve tried to banish), and shining his black wing-tipped shoes.

Such a sight might not have stood out to those who regularly saw their fathers dress that way for work, in the years before business casual attire had been invented, or for church, but funeral dress-up occasions stood out to me, as my father rarely left the overalled orbit of his farm and didn’t attend church.

Dad would either skip or go lightly on the aftershave. “People aren’t going to the funeral to smell me.” He’d also take the time to subdue his hair, brush his teeth for longer and put on a less-battered watch from the special place he secreted it between special occasions. There was a ritual to all of it, the paying of last respects. My father believed nothing conveyed the lessons of living more succinctly than someone’s dying. And he was a rapt pupil.

Ironically, while my dad was always sure to attend the funeral, he rarely found the time to visit people while they were still alive. Possibly he viewed funerals as a “deadline” for one last encounter, albeit a one-sided one; an opportunity to catch up, secondhand, on what he’d missed. I learned indirectly from him to not make that mistake. My visits are not reserved for funeral visitations.

Curt Knowles

Curt Knowles

I recalled those things recently as I donned a skirt, jacket and pantyhose on the hot Sunday afternoon of the funeral of longtime family friend, Curt Knowles, of Athens. I knew to leave early because everybody knew Curt and funeral seats might be a hot commodity. His funeral was predicted to be so large it needed to be held at the high school. Curt had been bigger than life for the majority of his lifetime, which necessitated a bigger final venue.

Outside the school, I armed myself with a handful of Kleenex, carefully folding them and putting them in the pocket of my jacket for easy access. This wouldn’t be an ordinary funeral because we weren’t sending off an ordinary man. Remembrances of Curt, who’d lived his life to the nth degree, were likely to stir up emotions to the nth degree.

In hindsight, I should have taken the whole tissue box with me. Five speakers memorialized Curt. It’s hard to say whose words affected me the most: those of a long-time co-worker and friend; his granddaughter; or his three children. They each attested to a different dimension of Curt, opinions overlapping on the topics of family loyalty, generosity and humor. “Curtisms” abounded; laughter echoed; tears flowed. It was the kind of funeral my dad would have cherished.

Pastor Daryl Dexter batted clean-up with his eulogy. “I don’t think Curt was ever fully aware of the size of the shadow he cast,” he stated, challenging the 500 of us present to think about the size of the shadow we are casting through how we impact others’ lives.

Curt had a large sphere of influence as a teacher, coach, excavator, relative, friend and community builder. Rabid enthusiasm, storytelling, humor and volume were his chief methods of making a point. Anyone who’d been on the receiving end of one of his deliveries knew the wallop they packed. “Get the lead out, Smitty!” he’d yelled at me at a conference track meet when I was already running the race of my life. His comments rolled encouragement and admonishment into one, if that’s possible.

Politically correct? Only accidentally. Welcome? Occasionally. Effective? Absolutely! Though few would consciously seek wisdom from a gym teacher on a backhoe, it never stopped Curt from offering it – free and unsolicited. He wasn’t happy until we stepped up to the plate and swung our hardest.

You always knew where you stood with Curt because he knew where he stood – behind the people and the community he loved. His funeral was one last shadow cast lesson in living.


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