Words of Remembrance and Hope: in Honor of John Williams
Rev. Dr. Steve Runholt
October 18, 2017
What do you say about a man who rarely spoke? What words do you use to describe someone so quiet, who used so few words, as John Williams?
Turns out, the range of possibilities is surprisingly wide.
Allee just gave us some of the mains words one might use, some of the best ones. You stole my thunder, Allee, and I could not possibly be prouder of you for doing that. I’m sure you offered those words for Evan and Gretchen, too. You did a great job, and I will remember what you did here today forever.
But just to reiterate, when I asked the kids this same question — what words come to mind when you think of your dad, the response was immediate and unanimous.
Fun! they exclaimed. Loving! Silly!
These words didn’t surprise me. Well, actually they kind of did surprise me.
I knew John was a fantastic father. I saw his skills and devotion as a dad on display on a regular basis. How he played with his children, getting down on their level and rolling around on the ground with them, or chasing them around as they squealed with delight.
How he made them laugh, and how he encouraged them to climb trees and scale walls. I mean that literally–the trees and the wall right outside of the Chapel here. Seriously, I would often look up as I drove through the parking lot after church on Sunday, and there they were, up in the trees, looking like the von Trapp children.
But I think John did this figuratively, too, encouraging them to scale new heights in their own young lives — a lesson that will likely stick with them for the rest of their lives.
So I believe the words Allee and Evan and Gretchen used are a true and accurate description of their dad. But they are not the words I would use to describe John Williams.
Mine would come from a different end of the character spectrum: Thoughtful, comes immediately to mind. Sensitive — that is, tuned into the suffering of the world. Reverent. Faithful.
I saw and heard these qualities in our adult Sunday school class, when John shared stories of what it was like to grow up in a mixed raced high school, in a part of NC that was perhaps not as progressive on issues of race as Asheville is.
I heard in his own carefully chosen words how much racism pained him, and how angered he was by white privilege, even if he had not yet heard that phrase and did not then know what it meant.
But he knew it when he saw it, even as a teenager, and it pained him.
And, yes, I saw John’s reverence on display here in church on Sunday mornings. But I also saw it on display again right here in this chapel in ways, and on days, I did not expect.
John was going through some personal struggles in recent weeks, as we all do from time to time. And I would sometimes come into the chapel in the late afternoons to check on something or other, and I would find him here in the sanctuary, here on these front steps in fact, quietly praying.
But John wasn’t praying just for God’s grace to sustain him through a hard time. He was praying because praying was part of who he was, part of his regular spiritual practice. Part of his deep reverence, his deep faith.
This is really no surprise. John’s faith was always important to him, going all the way back to when he was a mainstay of the youth group at the Raeford Presbyterian Church. And it remained that way to the very last.
So, thoughtful and sensitive, reverent and faithful all come to mind when I think of John Williams. But in a sense, those words are overly fancy, maybe overly theological. More simply put, John Williams was a good man. And a loving man. And a loyal man.
Whether you’re a member of John’s family, or a member of his church family, or a member of his inner circle of close friends — the friends who’ve known him since Raeford days — I would have said that this range of words — from fun and silly, to thoughtful and sensitive and reverent and faithful, to loving and loyal and good — that these words would have fully described this quiet man.
But when I met with Kristin and the kids to think through this service I learned some new and, yes, some very surprising words about John. Or to be more precise, I learned some new and very surprising names associated with John Williams.
For example, here are a couple I’d not heard before: Mae Young and the Fabulous Moolah.
If you’re unfamiliar with those names, those are two different people. But they share two things in common. One, Mae and Moolah are both members of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. As in Hulk Hogan-style professional wrestling hall of fame. And I’m not making this up. You can confirm this for yourself on Wikipedia.
And, two, as a famous tag-team duo, Mae and Moolah both squared off against — and trust me, I find this as hard to believe as you do — as a famous tag-team duo, they both squared off against none other than John Wesley Williams.
But I’m getting just a little ahead of my story. It turns out that in middle school and high school and into college, John was a devoted thespian. He was passionate about theater, and he loved inhabiting characters and playing them on stage.
One of the characters he brought to life was, yes, a professional wrestler who went by the stage moniker, the in-the-ring moniker, of . . . wait for it . . . Lefty Peabody.
Which brings us back to his face off against Mae Young and the Fabulous Moolah.
Apparently the match did not go well.
For starters there were two of them and one of him. And Moolah in particular was a good bit, let’s say, larger than John.
And well, that’s also just how professional wrestling works. When your name is Lefty Peabody and you’re going up against two members of the pro wrestling hall of fame, things are not going to go well for you.
But apparently the match did leave an impression. Kristin told me that during the time John lived in Boone, he really didn’t even need a car to get around town.
People would randomly pick him up as he walked along the road. Complete strangers would just stop and ask him if he needed a ride.
I haven’t yet fully worked out why this was, exactly. Surely part of it was a result of the fame John garnered during his legendary match with Mae and Moolah. But I think some of it might have just been a function of his overall look at the time.
Kristin has made several collages and memory books available in the fellowship hall for you to enjoy during the reception.
In those, you’ll see that as a younger man, John had really long hair. But you’ll also notice that even as young twenty-something guy, that hair went with a slightly balding pate.
So just walking around town John looked sort of like a combination of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, all in rolled up in one person. Which is to say, he looked like a really famous folk rock musician you don’t quite recognize, come to Boone to hang out and play some of his hit songs. I probably would have picked him up, too.
But that’s not all. We all know that still waters run deep, so there are a few more words to describe John.
He was a lover of the outdoors and of adventure. He always wanted to go to new places and explore new towns and have new, exciting experiences.
The really notable part of John’s love of new places is that he never needed a plan to guide him on these adventures. He just launched out on them, trusting that in the end everything would be okay.
Kristin may have found this out about John the hard way, when her brand-new husband approached their honeymoon in exactly this way.
Sweetie, do you think we might need a plan for our honeymoon?
Pffft! Of course not! We’ll just go with the flow and everything will work out just fine. You’ll see. Everything will be okay.
Which was all well and good, and even a little romantic, until the newlyweds ended up at a motel in FL which they happened to be sharing with several hundred, let’s just say, very loud college students on spring break.
The din was so loud and so unpleasant John and Kristin were forced to abandon their room and head out in the middle of the night to find some peace and quiet.
Which also would have been fine except that they searched fruitlessly for a place to land until they grew so tired they ended up spending the wee hours of the night in a Walmart parking lot. In their car. On their honeymoon. That their marriage survived this first crisis I think says as much about Kristin as it does about John.
The good news is that even borderline catastrophes like that can lead to bright, hopeful futures.
Perhaps in his attempt to recover from and redeem the Walmart debacle, John launched a new plan: they would drive through Asheville.
Or maybe that was the plan all along. Either way, this young couple immediately fell in love with this groovy town — which you would expect of someone who looked like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young all rolled up into one, and of someone who married him — and by the time they left, they both vowed they would be back.
And here they all are, the Williams family, now deeply rooted in a place they’ve all come to know and love as home.
Which leads me to my final point. This is a hard day, and a hard loss, there’s no denying it.
There is no map for the days ahead. Kristin, there’s no obvious plan for getting from where you and the kids are right now, in this time of loss and grief, and transitioning to a better place.
Many days are going to feel normal, like everything is fine and you’re all going to be okay. And then other days are not going to feel that way. And you’re just going to have to get through those hard days one day at a time, one breath at a time, and, when they come, one tear at a time.
But it also occurs to me that John Williams modeled the skills you’ll need to meet this challenge.
First, of course, in his sense of reverence and his deep faith. So, whether on Sunday mornings as you normally do, or at the close of a hard day, come to this place to pray for God’s grace to sustain you.
And know that the people surrounding you in the pews right now, and on Sundays, will do their part, too. We will all do our best to embody that grace, and to embody God’s love.
And when you leave this place, follow John’s lead and head out on the road ahead, trusting that everything will be okay.
Head out, trusting that even in those dark moments when it feels like you’re shanghaied in a Walmart parking lot and the future is uncertain, the sun will come up again, and you will find your way forward to the place that you already know as home.
For those who would like to help Kristin Williams and her kids during this hard time, please visit this site: https://www.mealtrain.com/trains/n2y7nd