I recently got the news that an old friend, Rick, that I haven’t seen or heard from for 30 years or so, had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The person who told me mentioned that Rick didn’t want anyone to know about his diagnosis. I was shocked to hear the news and flooded with memories of our times together and was reminded of what an important part he had played in my life some 40 years ago. I asked if they thought a general “I was thinking of you and wanted to let you know how important our friendship was to me when I was a young man”, message to him without mentioning that I knew he had cancer would be ok. They thought that would be just fine.
I wanted to write and tell him the impact his friendship had on my life. I wanted to recall the story of how we met. I wanted to remind him of how it all happened. I wanted to remind him of the two times he was there for me when the pain of going on put me in a place of wanting to give up.
We first met when I was a very young 28 year-old high school teacher. My principal told me that I had been asked (and he expected me) to show up at a meeting that I later found out was a mayoral development committee, whose charge it was to see how our community, might do more to help meet the needs of the young people of our little town. As I entered the room for our first meeting and sat down, I realized I didn’t know anyone else at the table. I was, by far, the youngest one there. We were asked to introduce ourselves and thankfully, being a shy person, the gentleman on my right went first and providence arranged that the flow of the introductions moved away from me and allowed that my introduction would be the last. After hearing the credentials of the others attending the meeting, I was sorry I hadn’t gone first. One by one, the Dr.’s, attorneys, politicians, and businessmen introduced themselves, talking about who they were and what they did and the positions of power and authority they held in the community. I was totally intimidated by the time it came for me to introduce myself. I was pretty convinced that the invitation for me to join this committee had been a mistake. Finally, it was my turn to introduce myself and I said “My name is Ted Klontz and I’m just a high school teacher and coach.” There was total silence for what seemed like the next hour, but probably more like 10 seconds.
Then Rick, who was chairing the meeting, looked at me and said, “You are more than just a teacher, I invited you because I have heard for several years how you touch the lives of kids. The kids you teach are baby sitters for my children. They mow my grass. They go to my church. They talk about you and what you mean to them, you are more than just a teacher, never forget that. You are here because we need you to tell us what you know about them. You’re our expert.”
I honestly had no idea what he was talking about, but it made a difference. I was able to see myself as a little bit bigger than I had ever allowed myself to imagine. I had grown up in an environment that did not focus on a person’s strengths, but rather we were taught to focus on the ways we didn’t quite measure up to the idealized standard, whatever that was.
As I thought about Rick and the news I had just received of his impending death, I began thinking about other times in my life where someone saw something in me that, at the time, I couldn’t even imagine, let alone see, in myself. Every one of those times was a “Who me?” “Why me?” “Of all the people you know and could have asked, why me?” those radically life changing moments.
There was Dr. Stouffer, a college professor, who asked me to and helped me apply for a rare fellowship that resulted in getting an all-expenses paid Master’s degree at Michigan State University.
Pat, a gentleman I met, who helped me see that some of my skills could be transferrable to the world beyond education which resulted in my first consulting work with a major corporation.
Sharon and Joe who invited my wife and I to take over their business where for nearly 20 years we were part of a process that touched thousands of family’s lives all over the world in a positive way.
MaryAnn, who suggested that I had something to offer those in the professional sports, politics, and entertainment world, which has allowed me access to and to be able to have an impact on an incredible scale.
Each one of those encounters introduced me to a world, in some cases, I never knew existed and in other cases never imagined I could ever be a part of or make a contribution to. Each one of those encounters, always unexpectedly, sometimes quite joltingly, pulling me through a portal into a world and way of life that I never imagined possible for me. Each encounter totally changing the trajectory of my and my family’s life.
I’m guessing that you have been one of those angels for others. Perhaps they have told you. I have had people tell me something to the effect "I'll never forget what you told me or did for me” going on to relate a specific moment in time where I had said or done something, that I may have long forgotten, yet was life changing for them.
I’m guessing also that you have had those people and moments come into your life where THEIR presence or message has been critical. Your own personal angels, if you will, who have taken you by the shoulders and pointed you in a direction that has led to a life unimagined before your encounter with them. Hopefully you have told them what a difference they made.
When I received the news about Rick’s medical condition mentioned at the beginning of this story, I was traveling at the time and thought I would wait until I got home to compose and send the letter. I wanted to do it right. Four days later, the same day I arrived home, I received the news that he had died. He never received the letter. I never wrote it. Until now.
There are three other letters I HAVE written since then.
How about you?