No More Obscurity
Don't cry for me, Argentina... or, more to the point, Bob Howard.
Many a Memorial Day, and sometimes on or around November 1st, I've read to a gathered congregation the non-canonical psalm, not in Protestant Bibles but in the 1964 edition of the United Methodist HymnalNB, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Since that doesn't exactly describe me, I had obsessed on a following stanza that read in part, "And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived." I shed a self-pitying tear at that thought, muttering in my mind, "Yeah, that's Bob Howard."
No more. Throw away the ancient canticle text ("Let Us Now...") inserted on cardboard in my Book of Worship. Wipe away the indulgent tear. I can smile with another verse from the same text, the one that reads, "There are some who have left a name." Pastor Howard for one. Here it is:
And here it is how I got to be immortalized in brick. Five years ago we decided to retrace the tire tracks of our mid-twentieth century Sunday pilgrimages for the Lord in Central Connecticut. From June 1954 to July 1955 I was what the Book of Discipline said I was supposed to be, an itinerant preacher. Sunday at 9 AM I held forth in the pulpit at the Long Ridge Church in West Redding CT; at 11 AM I was scheduled to preach ten miles to the northeast in Newtown CT. My trusty Super Six Hudson delivered me without fail to the doorstep of the Sandy Hook Church, which quite literally was only three feet away from the curb. My gathered memories of that year and that church can be found on this website at Sandy Hook Methodist Church. No need to repeat them. Nearly sixty years later the run-down church of 1954 has been moved across the street and, I offer from personal eyewitness, has been beautified, sturdified, and modernized.
Returning to old ecclesiastical haunts is disappointing business. One finds out just how swiftly time flies and how forgettable one is. No one remains in Sandy Hook from those distant years of Hudson Super Six adventures. My return in June 2008 elicited mostly "Duhs" from those who heard me describe myself as a former pastor of their church. I resolved to fix that institutional amnesia. The church has a walk of faith made of brick running past the front door. I phoned the church office a few weeks after our visit and ordered a brick in my own honor, which see above. I think it cost $50.00. Now my cousin's children on their way to the church's nursery school can step on me.
No problema, I am one of the some who are leaving a name.
I came close to achieving that distinction twice earlier. In Brooklyn, after officially and unofficially merging four congregations, two Methodist, one Presbyterian, and one Reformed, it was semi-seriously proposed to name after me the meeting hall of one of the buildings. It didn't happen, perhaps because of my reluctance to have that room called Robert Hall, that it might be taken as invitation for those who didn't know better to walk in and try on the clothes hanging on the racks in the vestibule.
After twenty-nine years and twenty-five coats of Hillyard's polyurethane gym floor finish, a rumor circulated during my last year at Grace Church, Valley Stream, that the all-purpose room (aka, gym) might be renamed The Howard Room. Certainly I had provided the congregants with sufficient hints about my proprietary interest in that space by frequently referring to "my gym floor," and the indignities that would be visited upon anyone who would defile that sacred ground by cavorting on it sans sneakers. Alas, eleven years have elapsed since I retired when the last protective coat of gym floor finish was applied. To do a proper job of refinishing that floor to its former brilliance will cost $10,000 and the use of a jack-hammer to penetrate the layers of polyurethane. Ah, well, sic transit gloria gymnasium. In its present condition I would hesitate to have my name associated with it. A brighter, if erroneous, consideration of my being remembered in this context is the presence in each of the parish house's rest rooms of a towel dispenser labeled Fort Howard.
Of course, everything eventually turns to dust and ashes. Ebbets Field (home of my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers) and First United Methodist Church at the corner of River and Main, Stamford CT (where Barbara and I were united in marriage) are long gone. The brick in Sandy Hook will disintegrate, probably while I'm still alive. Hardly any students at my alma mater can tell you who Washington Gladden was, even though they, including my grandson last year, live in a dormitory named after him. Memory fades. Even when we leave a name, posterity forgets. Money and fame may purchase a few years of notoriety, but those years are numbered.
At which point it would be appropriate to offer the humble and faithful thought that all that really matters is that we are remembered where it counts, in the mind and heart of God. Were I a giant of corporate finance with a dozen college buildings named after me, I would still do well to repeat the prayer of the thief on the cross to the fellow impaled beside him, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom." He's where to leave a name for yourself.
But I would be a liar (or, if not that flagrant a sinner, a poseur) were I not to confess that, laying piety aside, a little earthly recognition flatters my soul.
NB. The Red hymnal, to be distinguished from the Black Hymnal (1939 or thereabouts) and the Dark Blue Hymnal (1989), was published before corrective editing on behalf of feminism, ageism, and handicappedism became the norm in mainline churches. The offense of the non-canonical psalm should be obvious to anyone educated in modern linguistic prohibitions.