Home for the Holidays
(Talk of the Town photo provided) Below, Susie, at center with son Roy Sexton celebrate the approach of Christmas in downtown Columbia City.
By Susie Duncan Sexton
Huge pink rollers in hair, barefoot, wiping my hands on a tired t-shirt, I responded to the door-bell. Son Roy stood shivering in the brisk November afternoon breeze with his duffel bag in one gloved hand and his laptop snuggled close to his chest. Within 20 minutes, both of us seated around the tidied up kitchen table near an electrical outlet, we set up a tiny makeshift studio for another "skyping" operation -- not the first time! Earphones now attached to my hastily coiffured head, I smoothed my rumpled V-necked sweater newly purchased for this occasion. Noteworthy German-born Thomas Janak, holistic healer/animal activist now living near Birmingham in the U.K., commenced his crisply intelligent interviewing of Roy's mom. Within a few hours, our fun friend Keith Kleespie joined our family to listen to the results, as if we'd gathered around an old-timey radio to listen to FDR's Fireside Chats!
Day two of our Thanksgiving get-together: Picture the Sextons, on that mandatory day of gratitude, traipsing about Thorncreek Township petting goats, feeding left-overs to kittens, observing chickens strutting about the premises, and all of us conversing with Bob Wight's terrific kids --Zach, Sam, and Erin -- and his San Francisco based brother who works in Silicon Valley and their pop who divides his time between Vermont and Florida! Off to The Guest House in Ft. Wayne for dessert prior to a rather grudging viewing of "The Life of Pi"… 3-D version no less! Our immediate review? An annoyingly indecipherable film! Beautiful, yet puzzling and odd. "Lincoln" and "Skyfall" behind us now…"Pi" had beckoned as our third choice, and we felt we had wasted our money until the next day when, upon collective review, its powerful message leaped into our psyches not unlike fierce Bengal Tiger "Richard Parker" pouncing almost literally onto our laps!
On Friday, November 23rd at 2:00 p.m., a most meaningful Thanksgiving experience began to take shape. Seated in a Columbia City United Methodist church pew, between Pam Thompson and Don Sexton, I focused upon larger-than-life, happy slides projected onto the chancel wall. My very special C.C.J.H.S. United States/World history teacher Mr. Bob Berry, who died on October 18, 2012, smiled at us, a twinkle in his eyes. Captions such as "Let my work speak for me" and "I just called to say 'I love you!' " brought that very special gentleman to life, his presence felt by each of us in attendance. Meeting Bob for the first time 50 years ago when I was 16, I recalled my delight in the late eighties and nineties that our son Roy also would receive instruction from this lively, kind, fair-minded, authentic, and intuitive scholar whom our town must always count as one of our superior educators.
First, perpetually friendly, retired social studies educator Jim Thompson eulogized Robert Lee Berry with accounts of shared academic experiences -- throughout many years as a colleague -- and antics outside the classroom setting as well. What apt images the speaker created! "Each individual in my department will behave as a professional at all times, and the gentlemen are expected to wear ties," boomed Jim quoting chairman Bob while pointing to his own red tie from his momentary station at the pulpit.
Next, Roy Sexton struck a serious chord with his vivid description of his esteemed professor: "Mr. Berry celebrated our talents, believing us while believing IN us, treated us as adults, and never undercut us. He changed my life and prepared me for college and two graduate degrees. No one was as challenging, but I also realized that as hard as I was working, he was working harder in dogged preparation. And he taught me the most important thing -- be loyal, stand up for what is right, and have the back of those you respect and admire." A quotation from the Shakespeare play "As You Like It", concerning how the past sweetens the present, seemed to conclude Roy's presentation. However, Roy had recently met with his teacher one last time when Mr. Berry accompanied Don and myself to Michigan to enjoy Roy's portrayal of Curly in the musical comedy "Oklahoma". An unexpected, crystal-clear, acappella rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' ", dedicated to the supportive spirit of Robert L. Berry, unleashed a few tears.
Beautiful Liz Berry Schatzlein, former WANE-TV news anchor, followed with her poignant recollection of a high point in her father's life -- and hers as well. As a young child, she watched breathlessly as her daddy participated in a basketball game with his C.C.J.H.S. faculty teammates versus a squad of WOWO hoopsters. Achingly close to the final buzzer, Mr. B. attempted one of his signature long shots while it seemed "the entire town boo-ed his effort from bleacher seats only to turn on a dime and cheer loudly when the ball sank almost magically…nothing but net!" All of us in attendance at his remarkable and uplifting memorial service joyously sang in chorus our "Eagle Fight Song"!
Buoyed by this exceptional moment in time spent reminiscing about one of Columbia City's finest citizens ever, several of us chatted for a while longer in the foyer. Keith Kleespie, whom Liz lovingly introduced as her "manager" -- during her reign as Miss Northeast Indiana -- to her son Derek, and Roy and I drove to Northside Grill, ordered some delicious sandwiches, then stumbled upon Santa's first ever "starry starry" nighttime arrival into Columbia City! Across Van Buren Street we rushed to the tiny red "Kris Kringle" house on the courthouse lawn, to scratch reindeer behind their ears, to wave at St. Nick himself, to enjoy laughing with witty Tony Winebrenner and his talented wife Jill, and to recall with Jayne Mullendore Oliver the golfing escapades of a couple of special fellows we both knew quite well, named Stanley "Mully" Mullendore and Roy "Governor" Duncan, our dads!
Holiday break time concluded, our son backed his car from our driveway onto Line Street to head for his own home, immediately after participating in an interview for Deb Lowrance's Whitley County series of oral history recollections. Don and I turned to re-enter our house. A final Thanksgiving memory in the making awaited us. Friend Laura Gater requested assistance to retrieve her ragdoll cat who had leapt from Laura's rolled down window in the Lake City Bank parking lot! Armed with flashlights and Nine Lives canned cat food, chivalrous pet enthusiast Don drove to aid in searching for "Tuki" -- over hill, dale and the harsh concrete pavement of busy highways. Two hours later, the wayward feline surfaced, huddled and cuddled under the van's back seat…never having escaped her vehicle after all?
Yuletide season now upon us, stay tuned for an account of "Home for the Holidays--Part Two", no doubt about it! From Mr. Berry's memorial service pamphlet -- entitled "Each Life Has A Story": "Today's little moments become tomorrow's precious memories."
Epitaph: "The best teachers teach from the heart."
Read more of Susie’s writings and order her book at www.susieduncansexton.com – happy holidays, everyone!