Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Virginia Kirby Nickels

This week, in fact, the last month or so has been a truly good memory “maker” for yours truly. Today I had the privilege of serving as a pallbearer for one of my teachers in high school, Virginia Kirby Nickels. Doesn’t sound like a “memory maker” to you? Well, allow me to share an encouraging page from my book of experience with you.

When I was a teenager in high school I was a shy young man who had difficulty speaking in public. The trouble I had had with grammar as a child did not help me at this point either. I, therefore, took Mrs. Nickels’ classes in English and Spanish with some trepidation, but soon found her combination of genuine care and infectious spirit bringing me out of the “shell” of protection I’d built around me. Her assignments requiring us to stand before the class and give oral reports were my initiation into public speaking. My past 45 years of ministry as a speaker before large groups, though faced with some inner residue of that shy teen, has been blessed by her encouraging influence. Even my later entrance into drama and historical portrayals had their young roots drawing life from her inspiration.

Her Spanish class, too, was to be an exercise in learning that I would find very helpful as I later pursued a missionary’s career in two different countries. There my task required learning completely different foreign tongues, in order to survive and be effective in my work. Early in my language classes I saw my early grammar difficulties resurface, but I believe my time in her classes gave me the basics to carry me through to successful communications with those with whom I worked.

Over the years since high school, I have often been reminded of the encouragement and special place this lady has had in my life, as in the lives of many others of her students. Her love of teaching, for her students, and the important place the classroom held for each life was always evident. I recall the time that, after 26 years, as I returned home for a year’s furlough from my work in Asia, Mrs. Nickels contacted me to invite me to share a mission’s program with a group she was leading at her church. This was not unusual in churches of my own denomination, but her church was not one of these. It was her contact with me as a former student that prompted her. It said to me, that in spite of the many students she had taught over the years, each one of them was so special that when the occasion gave her opportunity, she was there to affirm their life. I have treasured the memory.

I returned to the U. S. in 1991, to take up the task of a missionary “stateside”, though still away from my home town in Arkansas for another 18 ½ years. During this time my opportunities for local contact with others outside my immediate family have been limited. Among other special people in my heart and mind, my former teacher, Virginia Nickels, retained a special place, and my wife can attest to the fact that I would periodically comment that I needed to make touch with her. I tried to contact a couple of times without success, perhaps due to her own schedule or travel at the time.

In December of 2008 I finally retired and with my wife, moved back to my hometown. About a month ago, early in March of 2009, while in town for a few errands, again Mrs. Nickels came to mind. Perhaps it was stimulated by the sight of the old high school building I passed on my way into town. I’m not sure of the tangible stimulus, but I am convinced about the spiritual providence of the moment. I had to pursue a contact with her. I had called and discovered that her phone number had been disconnected. Where would I continue my search? I knew she had been quite involved in the community, so I went to the local historical society’s museum in my former junior high building to inquire. There, the volunteer not only knew her but gave me some disturbing news of her present state. Her husband, Wallace, and her were residing in one of the local nursing homes. She, now in her 80s, for some time had been diagnosed with a progressing Alzheimer condition.
My first thoughts were, “I’ve waited too long!” Still, however, I felt that perhaps I could make contact and share with her husband my appreciation and support during these, certainly difficult days of their life. I proceeded to the home, and knowing I might not recognize her after so many years, inquired where I could find them. I was directed to their room, which was empty, as it was nearing the close of lunch time. Asking again at the nurses’ station, they pointed out a lady seated in a wheel chair, just visible down the hall and in the dining room.

I confess, as I made my way the few yards to the place where she sat talking with another resident and her husband, I had the same sense of, “what did I say – trepidation?” that I felt when I was called up to the front to give a report in her class.
As I drew near her chair, the movement caught her eye, and she looked inquisitively at me. I immediately excused myself for interrupting their conversation, then introduced myself as one of her former students. Her face brightened with remembrance of her teaching years, but no recognition of me personally, which I understood might be the case. My own father had the same affliction prior to his death two years before. Undeterred from my purpose to share, in spite of her memory’s failure, I took several minutes to tell her and her husband how much she had meant to me over the years. Talk of Spanish class revived some hidden memories for her and they spoke very animatedly about their experiences in Mexico, Wallace dropping in amusing anecdotes of the time. She spoke of her teaching by saying that she taught about any course they asked her to teach.

When I specifically shared with her about how she had affected my life work and how meaningful she had been as an inspiration to me, her face took on a look of honest disbelief, and she replied, “How did I do that?” I saw in those words, not so much her memory’s loss, but her true characteristic humility shining through. Such affliction may cause one to react quite differently at times, but I am convinced that a life well lived will still retain the foundational elements that will burst through the clouds that surround it from time to time. It is my hope that the contact in those moments might not only have provided a therapy for her memories and an affirmation of her worth as a life well lived, but another testimony to her husband and family about her life’s gift to others. I know it has renewed my own determination to try to be such a blessing to others I encounter in my pilgrimage.

The next time I visited the nursing home and went to their room, I found Wallace, their son, Tom, and his wife, in attendance. As I entered, I introduced myself and was told that Mrs. Nickels, whom I saw fitfully sleeping, had had a bad day and was medicated to help her rest. As I visited with the three, I recounted my earlier visit and talk with them, and this prompted Wallace to recall for them some of our conversation. After visiting with the family and getting a little more update on where they lived, my wife joining us from a visit with her aunt in another room, I asked if I could have prayer with them before we left. This we did, with a continued promise of prayer and offering of any way I could be of service. Tom assured me that he’d be in touch.

When I returned to the home next, I learned that Mrs. Nickels had been taken to the hospital with pneumonia. Seeing her son in the hall, I learned from him that the doctors were giving her very little time, and that she was being “made as comfortable” as possible, and as I understood, only slightly conscious, though unresponsive. It was two days later, on Sunday morning, that I received the call from Tom that she went peacefully to sleep for the final time on Saturday, April 4th. On Monday, with the completion of funeral arrangements, he called me again to ask if I would serve as a pallbearer. I was, in a moment, grieving over what I considered lost time I might have had, but with deep appreciation that I was invited to participate in such a memorial recognition of her life. Maybe, in a small way, I could give some “payback” to those family members who follow her modeled life.

Now, as I bring this narrative of memorial and experience to a conclusion, I desire to share a valuable lesson I continue to learn. Indeed, “MEMORIES ARE TO BE MADE, NOT MISSED.” My point. Our lives are made up of contacts with persons who have so impacted us for good, that our paths are forever changed, and we are the better for it. But how often do we stop to consider that person that made the difference for us? How often do they face periods of time when they question whether or not their lives have made a difference? Are they not deserving of an affirmation to encourage them to continue their path?

I recall years ago when I was in seminary, that I was impressed to call a former pastor of mine from years before, when I was in the Navy in California. In my beginning understanding of what God wanted me to do in ministry, this pastor was my mentor. Remembering him on that occasion and what he had meant to me, I called him on the telephone. At that time, he was serving as the Executive Director of the California Baptist Convention of churches. When I reached him in his office and shared with him my appreciation, I told him that much of what I had accomplished I could lay at his door of influence. He told me later, in a time we had together, that he had been so touched by my call that he immediately picked up the phone and called his “mentor”, then an aging minister in a nursing home, to express his own appreciation. He told me that the man wept over the phone as a result of his “state leader” laying such personal accolades at his feet.

Indeed, we are challenged and encouraged to strive toward the example of God’s Son, Who loved perfectly the “agape” kind of love, which is that which is given regardless of whether it is returned or not. We are to be mentors that focus on building others up to be “the best they can be” and do it without thought of payback. This, in the best modeling of such, was the unselfish striving of Virginia Nickels, for as I later learned, her inspiration had its roots in her faith and practice of that love. So should it be in my life, which can be realized as the real “payback” to her. Oh, to consider that there might be myriads of folks who have been aided on their best way by contact with you or me.

But standing in my shoes today, having been blessed by a life, I am still challenged by the missed opportunities to give back a portion of the accolades that I may have received, to the ones who helped place my feet on the stage where I received them. Thank you, my teacher.

I Thessalonians 5:12-13 “And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake…”

Dear friends, be encouraged today with these words of memorial and challenge.


Mich said...

Great story, Dad. I'm glad you got to see her before she passed on.

Love ya!

Jo said...

Yes, she certainly was a memorable lady, wasn't she? I'd had a lot of teachers that I liked well enough, but she was the one that stood out and the one that I respected more than any other.

I just wish that I had felt well enough to visit her before she ended up in the hospital.

Amber said...

I'm so glad that you got to see her and speak with her before she died. And what a great honor to be asked by her family to be beside her at her burial.

Love ya.