Repaying a Debt

by Jim O'Hare

It is a trap! Unfortunately, it is a trap that is all too accessible to those of us who find a strange propensity for sentimentality. The trap springs when we make someone larger in death than they were in life; create a person who is unrecognizable in the words that form the eulogy. Whether from an instilled respect for the dead or just a wish to add light to an otherwise maudlin occasion, the trap is fraught with danger as we attempt to remember one departed. I eluded the trap on the afternoon of August 4, 1994, as I sought to remember a legend. . . and a friend of thirty-seven years.

On Sunday, July 31, Dean Williams died at University Hospital in Iowa City. I stayed with my parents the following evening and I was awakened Tuesday to the gentle nudge of my father who said that I should look at the morning paper. With his eyes unable to meet mine, I realized that the obituary page was, most likely, the object of his silence. It was then that I discovered that Dr. Williams had succumbed to a "short illness." Those of us who knew him, knew better, because following the tragic automobile accident that had taken his wife only a few months earlier, this man, whose heart was larger than the life he lived, never recovered from her loss.

I am forty four years old and I have no reticence in relating that I cried all the way from Cedar Rapids to my work in Iowa City. It is still difficult to discern whether my tears were for Dr. Williams and his family. . . or for myself! As I had told him, nearly four decades after our first meeting in what was then called the "White House," and long before the construction of the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic was even a dream, I owed him a debt I could never hope to repay. The success that I have enjoyed in public speaking after uncountable years of stuttering so severely that I could not say my own name, is, in the main, HIS success. I can remember vividly, so vividly that the smell of his pipe tobacco still seems to linger, being asked by this man, "Jim, do you think you can change the way in which you speak?" I could not sound out a "NO," but, rather, shook my head from side to side. "Well," he said, as he peppered his remarks with expletives that I will leave to your imagination, "it looks like we have some work to do!" I was twenty-four years old then, and my fluency was no better than it was when it first began to haunt my every waking moment and when I was too young to realize what Dean Williams was striving to do. I believed with all my heart and soul that change of any kind was impossible and that I was seeking therapy...again ..... to appease my graduate school advisor. Dean Williams, however, was a man of his word! He was also a hard taskmaster, but no one I have ever met was as kind and patient as he. From that day forward, although the road was not without numerous pitfalls and sharp turns, my life began to change. Dean Williams was the man who changed it! He was a big man by any standard, but, in my eyes, he grew to be immense.

It can be called fate, chance or any of a dozen different nouns, but I believe that my move to Iowa City, following Dr. Williams' accident, was more than coincidental. It was simply meant to be. Immediately after the tragic event, Dr. Williams was placed in the Neurology Clinic at University Hospital as he had incurred brain damage. (Although the joy was to be short lived, I learned from his physician that most of his faculties would return in full.) The severity of his injuries . . . and his desire not to receive visitors... presented me with a challenge that I could not deflect. How could I get past the legion of doctors and nurses that guarded his room and wish him a rapid recovery? The answer was not long in coming! I dressed in my "best attire" and walked toward the nursing station with my Arid Extra Dry hopelessly overpowered. I explained that I was a visiting doctor from Michigan and had been asked by the patient's family to "assess his progress." Without hesitation, I was led to his room and, sadly, I wish I had been refused. Dean Williams was always a man of great energy. He loved to swim, to sing and to play with his grandchildren. The man who sat slumped on his bed was far from the man I remembered. It was difficult to see him like that, but I wanted to repay only part of my debt to him. Even with a defoliated head, he knew me and, as always, he was genuinely interested in my life and the lives of my family members. He said that he experienced a "little tough luck" but was on the way to recovery. We talked until I had to return to my office and that was the last time I saw Dean Williams. I thank God that I was allowed the chance.

Dean Williams was a Welshman. . . and very proud of it... and was buried from a Welsh Congregational Church in Iowa City. The service itself, was quite pleasant and the pastor, in what is a custom in that church, invited anyone present to say words of remembrance if they chose. The seven-year-old child still residing in me tried to hold me back, but the forty-four-year-old man felt this was his last opportunity to repay, in only a minuscule way, a debt he owed. I walked to the podium and mixed humorous tales with more serious recollections but, at last, I could tell everyone what Dean Williams meant to me... and untold numbers of other children and adults. The kindness, the warmth, the care and the interest he showed me never diminished, and my love of him lost none of it's strength. The reason that I was able to speak to those present... the reason that I was able to speak at all. . . was rooted in the work of Dean Williams. Finally, I said to the crowd, I can give back some of what he gave me.

As I walked from the funeral home to my car and past the assembled family members, I recalled the words of Thomas Merton. Merton, a Trappist monk whose own kindness was known and admired, wrote an autobiography entitled, The Seven Story Mountain. There is a passage from that book that has remained with me since first I read it. On the occasion of the death of his father, Merton wrote, "If there is, indeed, a God ... and I believe with all my being that there is... then I look forward to the day that I will meet my father again!" With an equal amount of sincerity, I look forward to the day when I will meet Dean Williams again. The world is less because he is gone, but his legacy lives on. It will never diminish. The spirit of generosity and compassion that he leaves behind never can!

from Letting Go, Volume 14, Number 10, October 1994 reprinted with permission of the NSP