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A Coach and a Senator

A Coach and a Senator

Hello, everyone.

The past year or so has been sheer hell for Parkersburg, Iowa. About a year ago,a tornado tore through that little town. I know Parkersburg almost like I would know a life-long friend. It is 4 miles or so east of Aplington, the town where I began my teaching career 45 years ago. Indeed, the Aplington school still existed until around 1993, when the district voted to merge with the Parkersburg school district. Today the district is known as the Aplington-Parkersburg Community Schools.

Anyway, Parkersburg was hit by a tornado about a year ago, and the storm almost wiped the town off the map. Aplington was on the edge of the storm and got some of the action. But the storm did not break the town’s spirit. You see, we Iowans are tough people. We are also good people. That town rallied together, picked up the pieces, and started the rebuilding process. By all accounts, the one person who led the way in the coming together and rebuilding was the high-school football coach, a guy named Ed Thomas.

The second bit of Hell that the Aplington-Parkersburg community experienced was a few weeks ago, when a former student with the last name of Becker murdered the coach. Ed Thomas had been the coach for 34 years – he was 58 when he was killed – and in that time, he had touched the lives of a lot of young high-school boys. Indeed, when the news of Coach Thomas’s murder reached the Denver area, there was a story in the Denver Post about a guy in the area who had played for Coach Thomas. The article said that the man drove close to a thousand miles back to Iowa to honor and remember his coach. Some people have that God-given ability to impact the lives of others.

Tonight, August 28, 2003, ESPN broadcast a high-school football game – the game between Aplington-Parkersburg and Dike-New Hartford, at the Ed Thomas Field, or “Sacred Acre” at Parkersburg. When I was at Aplington, Dike and New Hartford were also separate schools, and Dike was our fiercest rival, as I recall. Before the game, there was a well-done report on the murder of Coach Thomas. I managed to get through that, but when they showed all the kids on the field who had played for Coach Thomas, that was when I lost it. I had to stop the DVD and I sat and cried like a baby. I don’t take things like the murder very well.

During the story, the coach’s sons spoke on camera, and one of them spoke of how he was trusting his faith to help him through the trauma of losing his dad. As I watched him and others speak, I though of how they all blew such a beautiful opportunity to “Jesus” us to death. But the name of “Jesus” was not mentioned once, which I thought was not only remarkable, but absolutely WONDERFUL! Instead, he spoke about how his faith, his church, the town, and the football team were helping him through the horrible trauma.

One item which the story mentioned was the fact that the coach’s family and the family of the murderer not only attended the same church, but also were very close friends in the church.

Another interesting item was the fact that the brother of the murderer is a member of the football team. And what is truly beautiful is the spirit of the team members. According to the story, when the team learned that the member’s brother was the murderer of their coach, the team rallied around the boy and let him know that they were there for him and would be there for him as he worked his way through his own trauma. That dead coach seemed to have done a magnificent job in giving his boys a set of true values. Indeed, Jesus Christ would have done well to observe this coach and taken more than a few notes, because the behavior of the coach’s boys towards the brother of the murderer is precisely the kind of behavior that we have a right to expect from followers of the dude from Nazareth.

There was a death this week of a giant, a true man among men. Ted Kennedy passed away early in the week.

OK, Christians, I already know about Chappaquiddick, and I don’t want to hear that line of bilge again so please keep your freaking mouths shut about that. Instead, tell me about Ted’s fight for national health care and all the other good things he has done for this country.

One reason that I always loved the Kennedys was the fact that they all had passions that sought to make this country a better place to live for all “the least of us, their brethren”. John and Robert were passionate about civil rights – which impact me as both a senior AND a person with a disability. Ted was passionate about national health care, so that not a single person in this country would be required to die because he or she could not afford to see a doctor or buy prescription drugs. Boy, you want to talk about being pro-life? Look at the Kennedys, especially Ted. One of Joe and Rose’s children was developmentally disabled. Guess where the Special Olympics came from.

And as for serving their country: Joseph Kennedy Jr. was killed in action during World War II. John F. Kennedy was nearly killed, also in action during World War II. Robert and Ted also served, possibly in Korea, but I don’t know that for sure. You should be able to get the picture. Contrast that with Rush Limbaugh, Billy Graham, Paul Harvey, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, and George W. Bush.

One of the greatest quotes I ever heard was spoken at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. I believe it was Ted who gave it. Here is the gist of it: “Bobby was one of those men who looked at all the suffering people and asked, ‘Why’? Then he would look at himself in the mirror and say ‘Why not’?” And who can forget JFK’s classic statement from his inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”?

I was a freshman in college when the Bay of Pigs occurred, and all of us idealistic students wanted to go invade Cuba for JFK. We would have followed that man to the end of time. I am not one of those who can be easily led around with a ring in my nose. I have to truly believe in a man and his mission before I will sign on, but if I DO sign on, I am gung-ho all the way. There are only four men who have earned that degree of loyalty from me. First is FDR. He died before I was 3 years old, but I would have followed that man anywhere. Second was JFK. Third was Jimmy Carter. He is the only man other than JFK, in my opinion, who tried to show his religious faith during his presidency. The fourth man I would follow was Bill Clinton. In my book, there was far, far more substance in the toenail on his little toe than all of his critics had put together.

So what would a Ted Kennedy presidency have been like? We will never know because there wasn’t any. But I dare say that he would have pursued peace like Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton did. And I dare say that he would have sought a better life for the Little Guy just like FDR and JFK, Ted’s brother, had. One thing I know for sure is that this country is the poorer for not having had a President Edward M. Kennedy. But then, being a powerful senator enabled him to accomplish far more than he likely would have had he won the White House. And let us not lose sight of the fact that Ted was the only one of the three political brothers who did not die by an act of violence. Had he been elected president, I am fully persuaded that he would have been assassinated just like JFK and Bobby were.

Ted’s funeral was held today (August 29). Tonight, he lies in Arlington National Cemetery at the side of his two fallen brothers. May his soul rest eternally at peace.

Barak Obama gave a eulogy to Ted Kennedy at his funeral today. Here is part of that eulogy.

“Through his own suffering, Ted Kennedy became more alive to the plight and suffering of others – the sick child who could not see a doctor; the young soldier sent to battle without armor; the citizen denied her rights because of what she looks like or who she loves or where she comes from. The landmark laws that he championed — the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, immigration reform, children’s health care, the Family and Medical Leave Act –all have a running thread. Ted Kennedy’s life’s work was not to champion those with wealth or power or special connections. It was to give a voice to those who were not heard; to add a rung to the ladder of opportunity; to make real the dream of our founding. He was given the gift of time that his brothers were not, and he used that gift to touch as many lives and right as many wrongs as the years would allow.

“We can still hear his voice bellowing through the Senate chamber, face reddened, fist pounding the podium, a veritable force of nature, in support of health care or workers’ rights or civil rights. And yet, while his causes became deeply personal, his disagreements never did. While he was seen by his fiercest critics as a partisan lightning rod, that is not the prism through which Ted Kennedy saw the world, nor was it the prism through which his colleagues saw him. He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect – a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots.

“And that’s how Ted Kennedy became the greatest legislator of our time. He did it by hewing to principle, but also by seeking compromise and common cause – not through deal-making and horse-trading alone, but through friendship, and kindness, and humor. There was the time he courted Orrin Hatch’s support for the Children’s Health Insurance Program by having his Chief of Staff serenade the Senator with a song Orrin had written himself; the time he delivered shamrock cookies on a china plate to sweeten up a crusty Republican colleague; and the famous story of how he won the support of a Texas Committee Chairman on an immigration bill. Teddy walked into a meeting with a plain manila envelope, and showed only the Chairman that it was filled with the Texan’s favorite cigars. When the negotiations were going well, he would inch the envelope closer to the Chairman. When they weren’t, he would pull it back. Before long, the deal was done.

“It was only a few years ago, on St. Patrick’s Day, when Teddy buttonholed me on the floor of the Senate for my support on a certain piece of legislation that was coming up for vote. I gave him my pledge, but expressed my skepticism that it would pass. But when the roll call was over, the bill garnered the votes it needed, and then some. I looked at Teddy with astonishment and asked how he had pulled it off. He just patted me on the back, and said “Luck of the Irish!”


“We cannot know for certain how long we have here. We cannot foresee the trials or misfortunes that will test us along the way. We cannot know God’s plan for us.

“What we can do is to live out our lives as best we can with purpose, and love, and joy. We can use each day to show those who are closest to us how much we care about them, and treat others with the kindness and respect that we wish for ourselves. We can learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. And we can strive at all costs to make a better world, so that someday, if we are blessed with the chance to look back on our time here, we can know that we spent it well; that we made a difference; that our fleeting presence had a lasting impact on the lives of other human beings.

“This is how Ted Kennedy lived. This is his legacy.”

I have shared more than once, and am likely to share it a hundred thousand more times, the song that has shaped my philosophy of life. And no! It is not about the stupid “blood”. Those two lines are:

If I can help somebody out upon life’s road,

Then my living will not be in vain.

Somehow, I can’t help but think that Ted Kennedy – indeed, all the Kennedys – have heard that song and have adopted it as their philosophies of life, just as I have.

Ted Kennedy and Coach Ed Thomas. Two honorable men who sought to make the world a better place for their being here. And they did not have to perform a preposterous spread eagle on a cross to achieve their goals either.

All of you have a great day today.



September 1, 2009 - Posted by | Politics, Religion

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