[From Wisdom for the Ages: A Season with Ecclesiastes available as a kindle or soft cover book
Do you have a WISE ELDER in your life? There’s no better means to discover and cultivate your inner wisdom.
Ecclesiastes has long served as a surrogate WISE ELDER for me. But I had a flesh and blood WISE ELDER who entered my life as I began a ministerial career in my early thirties. He was a member of my little congregation in Youngstown, Ohio. He appeared when my psyche, in its journey of individuation, was ready to progress toward its next stage.
Dick Shook reminded me of the actor, Frank Morgan, who played the Wizard of Oz in the classic movie. A seventyish man, with a gray mustache and receding hairline, silver hair combed straight back, Dick generally dressed in dress slacks, cardigan sweater, and tie. He always seemed at ease with self and others. His wife Pat, slim and graceful, was a good match. Their home, a snug Northside cottage with a fireplace, had simple, good furnishings, a brick fireplace that burned aromatic hard wood, and unique nick knacks. The mantle had an array of Dick’s childhood iron toys and miniature steam engines. When he fired them up, they putt-a-putted and emitted little bursts of steam. Dick was happy, his dark eyes shiny like coal.
Dick had worked as a salesman and designer for General Fireproofing, a once famous Youngstown manufacturer of steel office desks and aluminum office chairs. Half a century later these pieces have become collectible, desirable representatives of a golden age of industrial America. By the time I came to Youngstown, however, General Fireproofing had gone out of business.
For a few of years my wife Ellie and I spent a couple of hours every week at the Shooks, while our daughter took piano lessons from their next door neighbor. Dick knew how to mix cocktails. At the beginnings of our visits, he exited into the kitchen and in a few minutes returned with a tray of four glistening drinks. His servings were generous, always a double shot for me. After two glasses of bourbon on the rocks, everything settled into a warm golden glow. Dick’s warm and friendly eyes took on an extra twinkle. The Port Salut cheese that Pat served on a plate with a mound of stone ground Canadian crackers became extra tangy-rich.
On those mellow afternoons, little twilight eternities, we had easy and wonderful conversations about words and language, books, world events, Youngstown lore, and the unexpected. Once, the subject of dirigibles popped up. “Come with me,” Dick said. “I’m going to show you something in the garage.” Up in the rafters above his car was the frame of a pewter-hued metal chair. He lifted it down and said, “Here,” presenting it to me.
I nearly dropped it, because I’d expected it to have a certain heft. However, it was as light as a feather. “It’s from a dirigible. It’s made of magnesium.” Dick then explained how he’d acquired it, telling yet another of his signature stories of being at the right place at the right time.
As a child, he sat at the family dinner table while they entertained all three hundred pounds of William Howard Taft. While attending respective Cleveland colleges during Prohibition, Dick and Pat, when they dated, had rubbed elbows with notorious mobsters in speakeasies. At the 1933 Century of Progress in Chicago, Dick had watched Sally Rand’s beguiling fan dance. I ceased to be amazed, but was always interested, when a topic of our conversation led to yet another of Dick’s fascinating first hand tales.
The domestic tranquility of their home, the comfortable affections of their marriage, their unpretentious good taste and septuagarian handsomeness, their treasure of memories of people and places, their continuing pleasures in continuing pursuits struck me as how I would like my life to be when I was seventy.
Dick taught me about death, too. Cancer claimed him toward the end of my Youngstown sojourn. He dealt with dying with considerable dignity. He breathed his final breath in the home he’d crafted and loved. I sat with Pat in the familiar living room, as Dick’s body in a blue, zippered bag was carried out of the house, into the ambulance. I gave his eulogy and wrote a poem of remembrance for him.
Dick provided a worthy example for me on how to truly live an ordinary life to its fullest, in whatever time and place I might find myself. He offered an example which I appreciated then and used as a guide thereafter.
Ecclesiastes’ wisdom, the WISE ELDER example of the Narrator, isn’t as intimate and warm as a living mentor, such as Dick Shook was for me. But on an intellectual level it works. At least it has worked and continues to work for me.
In our youth and when we begin to grow our psyche, we need WISE ELDERS to stimulate what we already have within us. In literary and intellectual ways , Ecclesiastes serves this universal purpose.