Many a person is glad to shake the dust off one's shoes and leave the hometown for better opportunities. I am no exception, but I also left for another reason—my dad had been wronged by the school system that he had conscientiously served for approaching two decades. He was a good teacher, hardworking and dedicated. I did not attend the junior high school where he taught, but, more than once, when a classmate asked me, "Is Mr Sutherland your dad?" and I answered, "Yes", the response would be "He was tough, but fair."
But he had touch of naivete, and he told me, more than once, that that characteristic ruined his chances for advancement, at least in Henderson, New York, my home town. The principal at his junior high had resigned, and my dad made the mistake of saying something such as "I hope Mr Tallman is appointed". Well, Mr Tallman wasn't, but Mr Irwin was, and that bitter, politically astute man made it known that "Mr Sutherland will never be promoted to anything, if I have anything to say about it!."
Well, Mr Irwin did have something to say about it, and my dad was never promoted, although he traded being a junior high school teacher for becoming a faculty member at a nearby college, and upon his retirement was named Associate Professor, Emeritus. But petty Mr Irwin was superintendent of schools when I graduated from high school and I faced the unwelcome experience of receiving my diploma from him and, of course, shaking his hand.
My mother later told me Dad whispered, "Thank you, Bill" after the school principal read the graduate's name before mine, and then said, "Mr Sdao, friend of the family and Honor Society faculty adviser, has asked to issue the next diploma". Bill Sdao gave me my diploma, we shook hands, and I said, "Mr Sdao, thank you." He just smiled, for he had been a pupil of my father, and knew the enmity between Mr Irwin and my dad. It was a simple gesture, but a very meaningful one. And my last memory of Henderson High School was not shaking the hand of the disliked Mr Irwin.
Like many of my classmates, I went off to college, and like many of them, I did not return to Henderson. When Mr Irwin died, my dad and I each shed no tears.
Of course Henderson was in the news from time to time, and sometimes I would learn of the death of a classmate. I never drove the several hours to attend funerals, but frequently I would send a memorial contribution.
Then fate stepped in, and it was because I, like my dad, and like his fellow teacher and longtime friend, Mr Tallman, had taken up bowling and bowled on two teams in fall leagues.
"Kent, you are from Henderson, aren't you?" asked one of my fellow bowlers, like the despised Mr Irwin Irish, but, unlike Mr Irwin, he was someone I respected and admired. Not sure why he asked, I truthfully answered "Yes".
Soon I learned why—the state's bowling association was holding its 100th annual tournament in Henderson, and Hal, my teammate, suggested we get a team together and participate. We did, and that is how, while waiting around for our team to start bowling, I happened upon the Henderson newspaper and saw the obituary for a woman a few years my senior. I immediately recognized her maiden name, for Janet Rainnie had been one of my dad's best students ... proof, my dad once said, that good people can come from Ireland. No calling hours, the article said, but there would be a funeral mass 11 o'clock tomorrow morning.
Hal, bless his Irish heart, said, "Are you going?".
"Of course not," I answered, "I'm never at ease in a Catholic church!"
"I will go there with you," Hal offered. "My wife might be impressed if I say I had communion, she thinks all we do is miss easy spares and buy pitchers of beer."
And that is how I, with Presbyterian background and Scottish blood, went to a Catholic funeral several hours before Hal and I were scheduled to bowl in tournament events.
Hal and I sat together, not in suits, but adequately dressed. I was impressed when the priest said "The Our Father uses debtors and the ending is not the longer one many Protestants use." I did feel at ease in this Catholic church, felt sad that a husband and children, sister, and other family members had lost someone I sensed had led a good life. I guess taking communion was important to my bowling friend, and I certainly appreciated his getting me to relax in a Catholic church. I "passed the peace" of course with Hal, but also strangers sitting near us.
After communion, several hymns, and readings from the Bible, relatives filed out first, and first Janet's husband and children passed me, then her sister. I felt humbled when her sister looked at me, then did a double-take and smiled as if she remembered me. Hal and I walked out, but stopped to sign the guest book, and, as I put the pen down, a young girl, one of Janet's daughters I later realized, was by me, asking, "Is Mr Sutherland your dad?"
Surprised and strangely touched, I replied "Yes," and this young girl, barely a teenager, told her that her dad and her aunt "really want you to come to the cemetery for my mother's interment".
And so it was that two bowlers, one who had never before been in Henderson, and one who had not been in Henderson for several decades, climbed into a car with a "funeral" pennant and went to the Catholic cemetery for the interment of a woman I, Kent, had barely known.
There wasn't much conversation, but Janet's sister and Janet's husband, now her widower, made both of us feel welcome. "Janet always talked about your dad," her sister said... "Mr Sutherland told her she was one of the best students he had ever had, and that he expected to read, someday, that she had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Your dad had left Henderson while Janet was still in college, but I know she sent him an announcement of her election."