Remembering is Honoring

Homily by The Reverend Dr. R. Dennis Macaleer ‘71

May 27, 2016

Thank you all for coming this morning to remember our classmates who have passed away.  

My brother Steve, who was not from our class but the class of ’63, owned a beach house with his wife and for children.  His wife told this story about him.  The beach house had two bathrooms, one for the parents and one for the children, but the children were using both indiscriminately and leaving things all over the place. So Steve decided to bring them all into his bathroom and settle who owned what once and for all.  He held up the white toothbrush and asked, "Whose toothbrush is this.” No one claimed it so he threw it in the trash.  He held up the red toothbrush and asked, "Whose toothbrush is this?” Again, no one claimed it and he threw it in the trash.  He went through all of the toothbrushes like that with the same result. When he got to the last toothbrush he said, "Whose toothbrush is this? All four children raised their hands.  Steve said, "No, this is my toothbrush.”

Well that is a cute story, but what it makes it relevant for us is the context in which his wife told the story.  She was in an ICU unit in a hospital with Steve and their four children.   Steve was in the hospital bed, unresponsive.  A few minutes earlier his wife, after consulting the family, told the doctors that since there was no hope of recovery, it was okay to stop giving Steve the blood pressure medication that was keeping him alive.  They were watching the monitors and seeing his vital signs slowly decline, waiting for him to die.  Thirty minutes later he was gone.

Why would his wife tell that story at such a difficult time? She had already come to grips with the fact that her husband was dying and she had begun to grieve. One of the things we do when we grieve is remember the person for whom we grieve.   That is what she had begun to do.

I come from the Christian persuasion that believes in life after death, yet we still grieve and remember.  Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that, "We believe that Jesus died and rose again and it will be the same for those who have died in Jesus” (Jerusalem Bible). That is a very reassuring claim for Christians.  Christians are adamant about that fact that there is a heaven and the way to get there is through Jesus Christ.  Christians grieve for the loss of the one who died, but also know that he or she lives in eternity in a rich and wonderful way.

Our Jewish classmates may practice stages of grieving in their tradition.  Shiva is a seven day period of staying home and receiving friends and relatives who may share about the one who passed away. A second stage for Jewish persons in grief is a thirty day period of gradual reentry into the pace of life.  Sometimes one might morn for a longer time in the loss of a parent.  

In Islam mourning is a significant part of dealing with the death of a loved one. After preparing the body, the deceased is immediately buried. Then a three-day mourning period is observed for families and friends.  A woman who has lost her husband might observe a lengthier period of grieving. Of course, not all adherents to these three religions follow their religious traditions perfectly.

Our classmates come from a variety of religious traditions, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or no particular religious philosophy at all. However, one thing we all have in common is the need to remember as we grieve the loss of people we knew. Every religious tradition allows for a period of mourning where mourners can talk about the one who passed away.  When we grieve we remember.


We remember the person, not just the accomplishments.  We all read those memorials in the PAW, secretly glad that none of our classmates are listed in that issue.  We have lost seventy-two classmates in the last forty-five years. Those memorials, like obituaries in the newspaper, often describe what a person accomplished. He was the CEO of a large company. She taught at this college for 30 years.  He earned two doctorates.  Yet those are not the things that we talk about when we gather together to remember a friend, a relative, a colleague, or a classmate who has died.

We remember the person.  We tell stories, some poignant, some profound, some funny. We recall the person’s values, his or her priorities in life, and what was important to the one who died. We talk about the things that made him or her a person of value in our lives. We remember the person.

More recently we remember Bob Schiffner, a humble guy who excelled in baseball but never talked about how good he was. Further back we remember Don Matheson’s bringing back the salutary address at graduation, when he opined about, "The ignorance and barbarity of the Dark Ages.” I think he was referring to the Medieval Times, but he might have been talking about our four years at Princeton, I don’t know.  We recall Steve Powers, whose sharp wit was only exceeded by his keen mind. He dubbed me the "Class Vicar” one time, a title I wore with honor.  We remember the person.


We all showed up in the fall of 1967, over eight hundred strong, knowing no one or very few of our new classmates.  Yet each of those eight hundred has had an impact upon us.  Some made a significant impact on us, some less so.  I would not have survived freshman Physics without Alan Usas’s notes from his high school physics class which used the same book we had as freshman at Princeton.  We took classes with these classmates who have passed away.  We studied with them, partied with them, we protested with them, and sometimes protested against them. 

Since those days many of us have continued to feel the positive affect from our classmates.  This affect upon us did not stop at graduation.  One of the things we remember when we think about a person who has passed away is the impact on us.  I often tell people at funerals for their elderly parents that they are probably more like their parents than they want to admit.  Many want to deny it, but when they find themselves saying the same things to their children their parents said to them, it seems too real.  I go around my house turning off lights that were left on in part because when I was growing up my dad would go around our house turning off lights that were left on.

The names on this list are names of people who have had an impact upon us and in remembering them we remember the impact. We remember what changed in us in a positive way because we knew those people. Did we adopt a better work ethic? Did this classmate help us sort out our career goals? Did we learn more about compassion and care for people just by being around him or her?  Did we admire this person’s dogged determination and choose to adopt the same? There are as many stories like that as they are classmate relationships. I was privileged to be able to attend the memorial service for Jack Hess a few months ago.  We all knew Jack as a gifted class mate and a real friend.  I did not know until that service the significant positive impact he had on so many people as one after another shared about the difference Jack Hess made in their lives. 

We honor those who have died by appreciating the impact they have had upon us. I hope during our few days together here when one of those names surfaces, we can recall with integrity the impact these classmates have had upon us.


Anyone who follows sports hears sports journalists often waxing eloquent about what an athlete’s legacy might be.  These always same to be premature arguments since these athletes are still fairly young and active in their sports. The people in our class who have passed away have led lives of significance and relevance to those around them.  They have left a legacy.  They have left behind ideas, values, concepts, and programs that effect people long after they have died.  My oldest brother Jim passed way last fall at the age of 81.  He made a ton of money in the health care information field, but after he retired he spent his time giving it away.  His philanthropy has become a model for all who knew him.  His legacy does include co-founding what became a $2 billion company, but his real legacy is how he gave it way.

All of those classmates who have died have left us with something significant. We may not know what that is for each of our classmates who passed away but we do know what it is for some of them. Rich Williamson demonstrated integrity in politics in a way that our nation desperately needs.  How different would this election cycle be if there was still a Rich Williamson in politics?  Keith Rabe took his engineering and MBA degrees and spent a lot of time helping out Native American tribes in the west. That is a legacy worth talking about.  

We remember the legacy that our classmates have left for us.


Most of us have heard of the story of Job.  He was that character in the Hebrew Scriptures that suffered so much.  Job was a righteous man whom God chose to test.  So the Sabeans took away Job’s oxen and his donkeys and killed all of his servants who tended them. Then his sheep and their shepherds were all burned in a fire.  Then the Chaldeans stole all of his camels and killed the camel herders.  Then all of his children died in a terrible building collapse. That is when Job in anguish utters these well know words, "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.”

For us and our classmates, the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.  But let us not forget the next line that Job utters, "Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  That is a testament to his faith that he could say that in the midst of his greatest heartache.  We can say the same.  For believers, we can say blessed be the name of the Lord. And the blessing for all of us regardless of our religious persuasion, is having known and been affected by these our classmates who have passed away.


Our desire is that these classmates while they may be gone are not forgotten.  We remember the person, the things that made each one special and unique. We appreciate the impact, the ways in which we have been changed by our interactions with them. We continue the legacy so that the paths they carved out of the cultural wilderness shall not be overgrown, but endlessly trod by those of us who knew them and loved them.

We say with authenticity, thank God that these classmates were a part of our lives.

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