By Ken Trainor
Rev. Roger Simpson, of Virginia, Ill., died last week at the ripe old age of 88. He was born on Christmas Day, 1925. Reportedly, his mother's first words were, "Maybe he'll be a priest!"
The Simpson clan was a pretty tight-knit group. The cousins in that generation, which included my mom, grew up together and remained close friends. A portion of the clan congregated each July at Keeler's Resort on the shore of Lake Metonga, just outside the little town of Crandon, Wis. (think Rhinelander/Eagle River), carved out of that vast arboreal ocean known as "the North Woods."
Fr. Rog (as in "lodge") was an indispensible participant in those vacations. A friendly bear of a man with a honeyed voice, he had a highly developed sense of humor, matched by a vivid imagination, which kept us entertained.
Since the Archdiocese of Chicago just released records on pedophile priests, you might be bracing yourself for where this story is going, but never fear. The only hug Fr. Rog ever gave me taught me an important lesson.
In fact, I entered the seminary in 1966, inspired by positive priestly role models, and Fr. Rog was at the top of that list. He celebrated Mass every morning during vacation in the living room of the "Square," the cottage he shared with his parents, which was transformed into "St. Xenobia Church" for the occasion. I always thought the name was a play on the word "xenophobia." I figured "xenobia" was the opposite — universal love conquering universal fear. He told one of my cousins that St. Xenobia was "the patron saint of vacations."
Every morning, my father and I trudged sleepily up the hill to St. Xenobia to listen to Fr. Rog's sonorous delivery in the candlelit cabin. Latin never sounded so good, and the liturgy never felt so intimate.
Afterward, my dad and I would drive to the bakery in town to buy sweet rolls for anyone who put in an order. The smell of a bakery has been sacred ever since.
After breakfast, Fr. Rog took up his usual post at first base on the ballfield for our daily game of "piggy move-up." He and my father (the pitcher) formed a daunting pickoff combination, sending many a hopeful runner to his doom (i.e. back out to right field to begin the long odyssey, position by position, toward home plate and our next at bat). They were just trying to give everyone a chance at the plate, but we were too young to understand.
After lunch, as the kids went swimming and water skiing, Fr. Rog, chief prankster, would remind us that at some point during the two weeks, a victim, fully clothed, would be chosen as a sacrificial offering to the god of the lake, and in biblical fashion, we would not know the time or place. We kept an eye on him, but the "man overboard" moment was always a surprise and always memorable.
He was also, I'm pretty sure, the mastermind behind the legendary "pregnant woman water skiing" prank that still lives in family lore. When his sister-in-law was seven months pregnant, one of my cousins (the best skier in the bunch) donned a maternity swimsuit with plenty of padding upfront, plus a bathing cap to seal the disguise, and skied past the lounge-chair assembly on the beach, at which point Rog turned to his notoriously excitable mother and said, "Hey, isn't that Lulie?"
The expected gasket blew, to the delight of all.
Fr. Rog was ordained on May 31, 1952, about a week before I was born, and he baptized me eight days later at Ascension Church, where his funeral Mass was celebrated this past Monday, on one of the coldest days of the year (a final prank?).
I can't remember the last time I saw him. Regrettably, it's been decades. I have this bad habit of writing about how much someone meant to me after he or she dies. One of the reasons I hope there's an afterlife is so people can eavesdrop on their eulogies.
Last Friday, my mom and I spent a couple of happy hours reminiscing about Rog and Crandon with his sister, Eileen Muriello, and her husband Frank. I learned that Rog had somehow survived a broken neck, the result of a head-on collision with a truck, c. 1954 (pre-seatbelts).
He was a priest in the Springfield Diocese, including more than two decades as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Edwardsville, but I never managed to make the four-hour trip down for a visit. To be honest, I don't know if I ever saw him after 1969, when I stopped going to Crandon.
Not surprisingly, my favorite memory comes from that time. One year as we were getting older and more full of ourselves, several of us got fed up with being picked off first base and stomped off, accusing him of cheating.
Our parents quickly informed us we would have to apologize, which the others quickly did, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. Ashamed? Proud? Let's just call it immature. On the final day, as everyone was gathered around to say goodbye, I finally found the words but only managed to sputter "I'm sorry" before I was swept into the biggest bear hug of my life.
Fr. Rog played an important role in my life. He inspired me and made me laugh. But the best thing he did was teach me that asking forgiveness isn't so hard after all and that forgiving is as easy as a great big hug.
Remembering him also made me realize how lucky I was to grow up imbedded in such a large, laughing, and loving family.