A Moral and Spiritual Presence

David-bryson2

Terry David Bryson, III

Eulogy to Terry David Bryson, III, delivered at Auburn United Methodist Church, March 19, 2017

The last picture I have of David is his walking away after we ate at Pannie George’s in south Auburn (Alabama) only three weeks ago.  Needless to say, I never expected that I would be standing before all of you today delivering a short eulogy of his life.

Life works that way sometimes.

David and I were what one might call fortuitous friends.  Good fortune brought us together.

I met David and Kathy roughly 5 years ago at a Sunday School class here at Auburn United Methodist Church.

And in the course of being introduced, I quickly learned that David and I had grown up at approximately the same time and place — northwest Alabama in the 1970s.

After we were introduced, David suggested that we get together for lunch, and we did. That’s one of the first things I learned about David.  He was not only a gentle soul but also one who seized on potential friendships.  He was one of those special people who viewed forging new acquaintances as an opportunity for personal insight and growth

As I’ve passed through life, it’s occurred to me that only a handful of people view life this way.  It reflects a healthy, confident, optimistic and vibrant view of life.  David was one of these people.

This extroversion, which seemed natural in David, may have been shaped and enhanced by his seminary training, but it was a remarkable trait and one of several associated with David that I’ve reflected on time and again.

And it was over the course of several of these lunches that I realized how closely connected David and I really were.

A Life Mosaic

I was as if David had always occupied an important part of my life mosaic without either of us being aware of it.

Let me pause for a minute to explain what I mean by mosaic.  By mosaic, I mean the rich, deeply nuanced collection of mental images that form a picture and that are comprised of all the sundry materials of life – happy memories, sad memories, memories of personal growth and achievement and, yes, memories of the occasional abject failure and the pain of starting over again.

If there is one enduring lesson associated with life that has been driven home to me in middle age, it is that life essentially functions as a sort of mosaic.

One thing I learned very soon about David was that he was from Tuscumbia but that most of his childhood had occurred about 15 miles down Highwy 43 in Russellville — my hometown — where he spent many summers with his Flippen family cousins on the grounds of a sprawling estate known as Shadow Lawn, where I attended Kindergarten, or swimming in the Summit neighborhood pool where I occasionally attended birthday and church parties.

It was as if I had constructed many of the elements of my lifetime mosaic without being consciously aware that he was indeed part of it.  It was as if he was just beyond my reach as I moved all those pieces into place.

And to add an extra layer of irony to all of this, we attended college at the University of North Alabama without our ever knowing each other.  As it turns out, he was a Methodist who was active in the Baptist Student Union, I was a Baptist-turned-Methodist active in the Wesley Foundation.

His best college friend, Bill Darby, and I were members of the University of North Alabama debate team and debated the British International team during their visit to campus in the spring of 1982.

The late Dwight Eisenhower once said that there are certain people in life who because of whatever reason – personal chemistry, temperament, or a shared history – are destined to be friends.

David and I were destined to be friends – not just friends but close friends.

The Shoals Area: A Unique Place

The part of Alabama where David and I come from — Northwest Alabama — as always been regarded by other Alabamians as a unique place, at least among people who are well informed about Alabama history and politics.

That is one of the amusements that David and I shared.  Northwest Alabama has always been a maverick part of the state both politically and culturally. And as students of history and politics, David and I always found that fact fascinating and we talked about it often.

Both of us were proud sons of this area, shaped by the people and their hymn-singing, guitar-playing, football-loving, bass-fishing culture.

That shared awareness became an important bond of our friendship.  David provided me with a tangible link to the region of Alabama that I will always call home — that shaped me and refined me and accounts for much of who I am.

We both left the Shoals many years ago – David to seminary at Emory and then to a career in the ministry, I to University of Alabama for graduate school and then to Auburn University for a career in the Cooperative Extension System.

But we never forgot where we came from.

Monday Lunches

After our introductory lunch, we vowed that we would meet every Monday at a different location each week.  We shared the same typical Southern boy affinities for down-home cooking and reserved as special love for Mexican food, authentic Mexican food, and frequented local taquerias where middle-aged Anglos were a rare sight.

Indeed, there is one taqueria in Opelika that was so far off the Anglo-treaded track that I occasionally heard “Here come some Gringos” shouted behind the counter in Spanish when David and I entered.

But it was our weekly conversations that I valued most.  We were two aging guys who shared a deep affection and sense of gratitude for having grown up in stable, loving families and in a time and place that were reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

As someone who had spent much his childhood among cousins in my home town, David had a special fondness for stories about Russellville’s town eccentrics — all small Southern towns have their Earnest T. Basses, after all, and Russellville was no exception.

Indeed, Russellville was so rife with eccentrics that David’s contemporaries in the Russellville High School Class of 1977 devoted virtually their entire senior stunt to memorializing all these lovable eccentrics.

After regaling him with these accounts week after week, David finally extracted  a promise from me that I one day would put all of these tales into print and ultimately compile them into a locally published book.

A Special Time and Place

We talked so much about growing up in that time and place — all those memories we carried with us, that shaped us and that transformed us into the adults we became.

  • That fresh, overwhelming smell of vinyl that greeted us when we when we walked into Sound City, the old record store at the Southgate Mall in Muscle Shoals in the summer of 1976 with a $10 bill on our packets that we had earned or that our parents had given us to buy the latest hit album.
  • Eating subway sandwiches at Chicago Connection at Southgate at a time when delicatessen food, even Southern delicatessen food, was something of an acquired taste for small-town Southern boys who had grown on country-style cooking.
  • Eating hamburgers and fries with a shake at Bradford Drugs in downtown Russellville.
  • Attending Saturday summertime matinees at Roxy Theater with friends and cousins.
  • Cruising the Strip in Russellville on sweltering summer night in 1977.
  • Attending revivals in local Baptist and Methodist churches at a time when they were considered major social events advertised by local radio stations and via flyers posted in the storefront windows of every business in town.

That is one reason I valued David’s friendship so much.  He was a touchstone – a tangible connection to a time and a place that were so pivotal in the shaping of my character.

But that was not the only reason I valued David’s friendship.  Friendship is about presence.  And David was a friend who was not only physically present but also one who was present both in heart and soul.

When we first met, I was completing the last couple of years of a career that were rewarding in many respects but in other ways had become deeply frustrating. Occasionally, I shared those frustrations, and David was present not only to listen but to put those excellent counseling skills he had learned in seminary to good use.

I was ready to move on and David, after a careful assessment of my situation, supplied me with much of the courage to move on.

I can’t recount the times I got into my car feeling as if every burden had been lifted after spending an hour or so with David.

Reinforcing Life Lessons

And David has reinforced another important life lessons.

Deep friendships inevitably become an integral part of you and endure long after that person no longer is physically present.  The lessons you gain from these friendships become permanently etched into your moral and ethical fiber.

David is gone physically, but he will also always be with me and he will always be my friend.  I will always remain inspired by the high standards he set as a friend, one of my closet friends.

He was someone who was not just physically present but also someone who strove to provide a moral and spiritual presence.

As a friend he was all in. And from my vantage point, this defines the highest standard of friendship

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About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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