A Eulogy for My Friend and Mentor, Mervyn Hackney

Eulogies are not meant to read; they are meant to be heard. The cadence, the prose, and punctuation that follows are not how I would have written this sentiment, but it was constructed to be read aloud. I'm probably being a bit neurotic but 'tis the burden and prerogative of a writer to do so. By the way, "Bob" referenced in the eulogy is not me, but Merv's lifelong friend. The eulogy was delivered as follows:

I am not a preacher, Bob is an ordained minister, my three bothers are preachers, but fair warning, I am not a preacher.

I thought it was fitting that Merv would ask me to do this, he seemed to have a knack for putting me into positions I’m not qualified for.

I should explain for those who don’t know why I am up here, who I am. I was one of Merv’s first employees over 25 years ago. For the last 15 years, along with Larry Sharp, I ran his company. He was a father figure to me and my mentor.

The poet John O'Donoghue says there is a reduction of identity to biography …. it’s the eulogist's job to fight against reductionism and attempt to share, out of his poverty of language, the breadth and width of a life fully lived, like the life Merv had.

Merv was born in 1933. He was born into a depression era family. World War II would begin and would continue until Merv was twelve. These times would cast a long shadow over his childhood and teenage years, a testament to just how positive Merv could be in the face of adversity.

He lived 84 years. We are all tempted to think that we know someone so well but even when I worked with Merv closely for 25 years it would be presumptuous to think that I really knew him, fact is, I only knew Merv 30% of the time that he was alive, that means for 70% of his life, a full life, I did not know him.

I bring this up because the writer Richard Ford uses a phrase called “the permanent period” to describe that period in your life that, when you die, people will most remember you for. Tragically, for many elderly, that is our most recent memories and often these are the most difficult times, as it was with Merv, with sickness, stress, and the tensions that inevitably exist when someone goes through the last season of their life.

We forget who they were 20-30 years ago which is the obvious reason for memorial service.

Merv’s life was much richer than the personal memories we each ascribe to him.

So this reflection of mine today, is just mine, from my limited perspective.

For me, my perspective, I had the privilege of watching Merv and Koleata Jane build a company, and I was privileged to build it with them.

I enjoyed watching them interact with our clients. He was jovial and disarming; she was elegant and attentive. Both of them helpful and magnanimous personalities. They exemplified what it was to be Oklahomans, they were from hardy soil, strong, but full of grace. And they were charming. If you had ever seen them dance together, you witnessed our version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

And may I say, to honor Koleata (as Merv would like for us to do here today), they were an incredible partnership.  

In business, he was the gregarious, friendly salesman, she was the meticulous and ordered detailist. What many do not know is that our business requires a surprising amount of exactitude, there are a myriad of details to get right, a job that requires obsessive attention and if anyone could be obsessive, it was our Koleata Jane. Robyn still use procedures and principles that she and Merv instilled in the business over 20 years ago. You wouldn’t know it but those two opposite poles of personality comprised an imperfect but important business partnership. The would grow that business to be among the top 5% in a $23 billion dollar industry.

As I mentioned, Merv was my mentor. Now, when I use the word mentor I'm not speaking of that synthetic, disingenuous concept, the watered down idea of some wizened old man meeting the young pup weekly for coffee, who shares life lessons from a distance. I’m talking about the iron sharpening iron type of mentoring, which is up close and personal. Have you ever seen iron sharpen iron? It’s brutal, messy, hard, but honest work. And Merv would be painfully honest with me. 

As a mentor, he left me with so many lessons; I thought I would share just a few of those here with you today (as a reminder, this is just my perspective, I’m sure that if you were to deliver this eulogy, you would share different things he taught you):

Life Lesson #1: Espirit de Corps - as a former military man, espirit de corp, the spirit of the troops was vitally important to Merv. Keep in mind, this was long before the word “culture” became common coinage in the halls of corporate America. Raising the spirit of the troops was a critical principal that he instilled in me. 30% of your workforce can be going through a difficult moment at any time -illness, divorce, death of a loved one- Merv knew this, and he was so conscientious of our lives outside of work. Espirit De Corp: always raise the spirit of the troops.

Life Lesson #2: He once told me that if you “take care of a soldiers family, you’ll earn yourself a soldier.” Merv was constantly helping our employees and the people around him. Paying for a flat tire, for an engine to get fixed. It was such an important principle, that as the years progressed and health care costs escalated into outrageous proportions, he insisted on paying for the vast majority of our employee's health care coverage. Sounds like such a small thing but it was so important for him to take care of a soldier's family.

Life lesson #3: Risk living generously.

Merv was a risk-taker.

No, not a financial risk taker, he was a risk taker in the issues of life that matter the most, he was a risk taker with people. He took risks on people when they were not worth taking risks on. He knew that investing in people is not a gamble but a long-term commitment.

- He risked being misunderstood for the sake of kindness.

- He risked being seen as a fool because he chose to live generously.

- He risked trusting people that the world deems untrustworthy because he believed in second and third chances.

- He taught me to see through the person now to the person they could be. 

- He risked loving people regardless of class, race, or social status and, by example, proved that our commonalities are stronger than our dissimilarities. To him, there was no hierarchy. There were no have and have-nots.

I can't tell you how many interviews I've had through the years with people.

Merv would call and say ”I want you to interview this person." 

And I would say, “But Merv we don't have any jobs.” “Find one,” he’d say.

This was Merv's greatest gift to us. His generosity of spirit. To treat others with compassion and kindness. And to laugh generously. They said at Express headquarters you could always tell when Merv was visiting because you could hear him and Bob cackling from down the hall.

You rarely left Merv’s presence without both you and him laughing.

He was incredibly positive. When I went to see Merv once in these latter days when he was in and out of delirium, he seized me by the arm and said, “this is a fantastic world.”

It’s ironic that he received so much criticism in his life for living so generously when that seems to be exactly what God requires of us.

The torch is being passed to us to risk ridicule for the sake of compassion. To laugh often, to love much. To risk being misunderstood for the sake of kindness.

His last lesson he gave me was a surprising one.

His lesson was: follow your heart.

Do you know how mortified Merv was of the nursing home? Of living his last days in a place where it seemed no one cared and where he couldn’t visit friends, freely. (Because we all know he couldn’t be still for very long).

Merv was rich in relationships, in friendships, but he was richest in love.

He not only had Koleata Jane in his life but he then met LeeAnn. And LeeAnn, I know you know this, but you were a beacon of hope for him at first, and then you became his friend, and then - his love. And I’m so thankful for you, and I’m thankful that his last lesson to me was to follow my heart.

He showed me what it meant to love.

I would like to end this eulogy with two passages, both Merv’s favorites.

Over twenty years ago, Merv walked back to the warehouse with his Bible in his hand, pointing to a passage and said to me, "Bob, I want this read at my funeral." (What’s astounding about that statement is that he knew I’d be hard to get rid of and would be standing here today).

This was the passage:

John 14:6, Jesus *said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

The other passage I want to read might surprise some of you.

Merv was fond of citing poetry. He memorized "A Psalm of Life" by Longfellow and, “Thanatopsis” by Bryant, and Riley's “When the Frost is on the Pumpkin,” but the one that sticks out to me and is most relevant today is Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.”

The metaphor of "crossing the bar" represents traveling serenely and securely from life through death. When a ship would leave the shallow waters and head into deeper waters, the hull of the ship would cross the sandbars, and when it did, it made a moaning sound, like grief. There’s an important part of this poem that Merv would love for us to consider. Twice in the poem Tennyson refers to “no moaning” “no crying” “no sadness of farewell.”

Of course, we will, grief is a bridge, we will travel back and forth on it, from joy to sadness, and back and forth again. But Merv would want us to stay on the joyful side of the bridge as much as we can.

Also, in the poem, the pilot was always on board, the ship was never without a pilot, it just seemed so at times. The ship sailed often in the dark, or at least dark enough that the pilot was obscure - we find this very same sentiment uttered beautifully by the apostle Paul when he says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”  Tennyson explained the pilot as "That Divine and Unseen, Who is always guiding us."

I was asked once to speak to a roomful of young people at a cancer camp; the chaplain asked me to tell my story and not to be shy about speaking to these kids with cancer on the subject of death.

Two of our own children had cancer. Up until that moment, I was just another counselor, none of the kids in the room knew my story. Among the kids, emotions were raw because there was a camper that was very special to everyone who passed away and did not make it to camp that year.

I was shaken by what I would say. I realized at the last minute that what they needed to hear, and what I needed to hear, and what Merv would want us to hear, is that there is only one way to honor those who have gone before us, and that is to not squander our lives in regret and resentment but to live our lives fully, on their behalf, for to do otherwise would be a dishonor to their memory.  

Wendell Berry wrote that “The best teachers teach more than they know. By their deaths, they teach most. They lead us beyond what we know, and what they knew .... the dead abide, as grief knows, we are what we have lost."  

I’ll read Tennyson’s poem that Merv memorized, in conclusion, and ask you to try and imagine with me, Merv, his voice, that deep baritone/bass, reading these words:

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,

     And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

     When I put out to sea,

 

  But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

     Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

     Turns again home.

 

  Twilight and evening bell,

     And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

     When I embark;

 

  For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place

     The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

     When I have crost the bar.