Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"Let us now praise famous men"; In Memory of a Great Man

This one is hard to write.

I rise to honour the memory of a great man; my friend, Leroy Yarbrough.

I can't speak for the ladies, but for men, male role models growing up are a critical part of our development. We watch them; we want to be like them; we emulate them.

When the role model is a positive one, we owe them a large debt of gratitude. If, as adults, we can also count our role models as friends, that means even more.

Leroy was the Minister of Music at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, during the 1960's and 1970's. He was a strong influence for literally hundreds of young people (including me), an impeccable role model; indeed, the strongest male role model in my life after my Dad, his father, and Robert's Dad. He served that role for ALL of us in the youth choir (125 strong at all times), and was a friend and companion to all the adults with whom he had contact.

He was a true Southern Gentleman, a Christian of the highest order (I don't throw that one around lightly).

Leroy had more energy than anybody I have ever known. He was "more fun than a barrel of monkeys"; always instigating some kind of fun activity, always cracking jokes, always clever and witty.

He was an absolutely brilliant musician. The finest. He had impeccable taste and class, was a fabulous organist, and fantastic conductor. He was also one of the most organized people I've ever known.

He was born and raised in Georgia, married his high school sweetheart (the only woman he ever dated) Edwyna, and they had two nice little girls, younger than me, Melody and Gina.

After he left Trinity, he wound up at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, where he influenced ANOTHER generation of young people.

He retired and planned to just come "home" to San Antonio and live, but First Presbyterian was without a Minister of Music and begged him to come on an "interim" basis while they searched. The "interim" stint lasted 11 years, through three senior ministers (all of whom begged him to stay on "just one more year.")

Leroy loved to travel. He literally went around the world more than once; was well-known in Europe and especially England. He finally reached the point where he could tell First Pres, "No, this time I mean it." They had his retirement party in February, 2008. He and Edy planned to hit the road; they had a number of stops to make in the US but were planning to hit some of the more exotic locales they had missed along the way. After 52 years, their kids were grown and married, they finally had enough money and time, and were going to "do it right." All that remained was a trip to the doctor the next day. At that visit, the doctor told him he had a fast-growing, almost always swiftly fatal, abdominal cancer.

Leroy approached everything he ever did with as much energy and intensity as he possessed (and he possessed a formidable amount of both). When he was directing us, he demanded no less than perfection. Now, if your best gift was to "make a joyful noise", that was ok by him---but he demanded that you make your BEST noise. WOE unto he or she who slacked, or didn't quite make the right pitch, or entered or cut off at the wrong time. Memorably, he stopped us more than once DURING A PERFORMANCE, turned to the audience, told them we were going to try again, and started us over. He delivered nothing less than his own personal best every single time, and expected no less from everyone around him.

When he got the cancer diagnosis, he attacked it with his customary freight-train-subtle manner. Unfortunately, this time he had run into something that was impervious to his icy glare, his razor-sharp criticism, or his gentle correction. He fought valiantly, but lost. After San Antonio exhausted their bag of medical tricks, he was transferred to M. D. Anderson here in Houston.

I was privileged to see him one last time at M. D. Anderson, just last week. He was very weak and tired, and I humiliated myself by bawling openly throughout the visit; nevertheless, he greeted me with his usual warm smile, twinkly eye, and humorous remarks.

Leroy: Nick, it's great to see you, man! How have you been?!

Me (crying, but smiling): Oh, Leroy, you know, the usual, fat, dumb, and happy (patting belly).

Leroy: Well, you sure don't want to try the diet I've been on...

Here's his obituary from the San Antonio Express-News.

By the way, the SA Express-News and Porter Loring Mortuary had better be glad Leroy's in Heaven, instead of here. They called him "Harold", which was his real first name. Want one of those icy stares? Go ahead and call him "Harold" and see what happens. If you do, though, I want to know ahead of time so I can be away from the general vicinity when it happens.


The "Celebration" of Leroy's life (which he planned down to the last note) is this Saturday, so back I go to San Antonio.

I don't know what they're thinking, having it at First Pres. They'd better see about the availability of the Municipal Auditorium or even Freeman Coliseum. We're all going, and so are all his kids from Seminary, and at least 1,000 from the old Trinity congregation.

A life truly well lived.

Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 44

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.
Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:
Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions:
Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:
Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:
All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.
There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.
And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.
But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.

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