A good man's reminder

Don Rist died on May 20 and was memorialized one week ago by a crowd much too big for Grace Lutheran Church. We watched his pastor model a stylish little sports cap like Don's &

"rakish," he called it &

and listened to an affectionate chronicle of Don's life. We ate cookies and sandwiches and visited with people we hadn't seen for a while. Then we filed out to go about our business.

The pause helped me remember. That was supposed to happen &

they call these gatherings "memorial" services for a reason. But what I remembered went beyond Don's life.

Don was born in Nebraska, but had already lived here 20 years when he helped us buy our first house in Ashland in 1984. He seemed straightforward and genuine and very likable, and I soon discovered that what you saw was what you got.

We talked politics enough to know we saw the world differently, but that didn't matter to him in the least when I ran my first campaign for county commissioner. What mattered was that he liked and trusted me, and if I wanted to be a commissioner, he was going to help make it happen. He did.

Don stayed plugged into politics ever since and really ramped it the last few years to fight tax proposals that, in his eyes, subsidized government waste and dishonesty. He believed his positions completely. Not many letter-writers teeing off against government are willing to dig deep into their own pockets to pay for campaign advertising. Don did.

If you knew him only from these campaigns, from the steam rising from his public letters, "lovable" is probably not the first word that comes to mind to describe him. Based on some his scorching prose on library levy and real estate transfer tax proposals, "likable" would be a stretch. Don's anger about what was going on in the world turned in a different direction than mine. It challenged me.

When I don't know the author of a letter railing against taxes and local government, it's easy to write him or her off as a shriveled grinch who doesn't give a rip about anyone outside of their immediate family. But personally enjoying Don Rist's big-hearted friendship for a quarter-century blew that theory to smithereens. Pretty rude of him to bust up my sterotypes like that.

I wondered how many of the hundreds of people packed around me in the Grace Lutheran Chapel had the same kind of experience. As I scanned the crowd I recognized some of Ashland's most tenacious activists, including a few that shared Don's penchant for very strong, very public opinions. And I'm talking about all kinds of opinions, from every cranny of Ashland's political spectrum you can imagine.

I saw people who had called one another idiots and worse on this newspaper's letters page and online forums. Before it came time to honor Don, there's no way some of these people had been in the same room at the same time. But there we were together &

sad, contemplative, all missing a good man, all appreciating who he was.

That was the moment I remembered something that reaches beyond any one life. You've heard or read it before, maybe even in some edition of this column &

though writing about it doesn't keep me from forgetting. It's just this: As vicious as our squabbles can get, they don't run as deep as the human membrane that connects us. If we get to know each other in community, what we remember &

when we have a chance to slow down and breath &

is the person who reflects who we are rather than the opinions that don't.

It's possible that last paragraph has the sound of a Hallmark greeting card. I started editing it to accommodate our cynicism about touching each other, trying out a couple phrases that sounded less corny. But as a parting tribute to you, Don, I'm leaving it be. To tell your truth, you didn't mind hanging your unvarnished crankiness out in the public square for all to see. I figure I can risk a little corn.

In that chapel it didn't seem corny at all. Carving an hour out of our so-important, so-realistic lives to let ourselves feel who you were, Don, shifted some barrier between us.

Then we all went back to work.

Thanks for that hour, Don. And if you're sitting someplace where all the answers are clear, just tell me this: Does someone we care about always have to die before we get hours like that?

is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at )

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