My brother Mike turned 60 the day before yesterday. He’s my oldest sibling, and since I’m a mere two years behind, that got my attention.
A friend, mentor and priest, Rev. Bill Burke, formerly at Ascension Parish, turns 70 on April 1.
The teacher who had the biggest influence on me in high school, Alex Rakowski, turns 80 on April 7.
And Jeanette Fields, who has done as much as anyone to preserve our architectural and literary heritage here in Oak Park and River Forest, turned 90 on March 23.
An odd convergence of milestone birthdays – 60, 70, 80, 90 – all within a couple of weeks. When you’re two months away from turning 58, that definitely gets your attention.
But all four have had my attention – and admiration – for a long time.
My brother Mike, 60, inherited “the most reliable man alive” title when my father died, and he’s never disappointed. A model of consistency, he ran Oak Park T-ball for 30 years, has bowled in the Ascension Holy Name Society league for at least that long, and makes sure there are always enough people to give out communion at 9 o’clock Mass on Sunday – every Sunday. I don’t mean every Sunday when he’s not under the weather. He never takes a sick day.
If he says he’ll pick you up at 5:30, he’ll be there at 5:28. If he’s not there, you know the world is coming to an end.
Mike is a man who keeps his counsel unless asked, but he’s been a supportive godfather to my son and was instrumental in enabling my dad to live the rest of his days at home in spite of Parkinson’s disease.
Bill Burke, 70, is flat-out the best homilist in the Archdiocese of Chicago. OK, I haven’t heard every preacher in the archdiocese, but even if you could match his content, which would be tough unless you can match his biblical scholarship, you’d be hard-pressed to outdo his passionate delivery. His is a loving, compassionate God. His God is not demographically selective. “God loves us like a fool,” he tells his listeners. “You don’t have to earn it.” When he preaches the “good news” of the gospel, it actually sounds like good news.
A seminarian in Rome during all four years of the Second Vatican Council, he has carried that spirit of idealism and openness through his four and a half decades as a priest – even though the institutional hierarchy of his Church hasn’t always stayed faithful to that spirit.
Retired now, Bill has battled depression, written a well-received book about the experience (Protect Us from All Anxiety) and emerged with his soul intact – enlarged, I should say.
Alex Rakowski, 80, as one member of my high school class put it at our recent reunion, taught us to question and think beyond whatever box we happened to be caught in. He left the priesthood and married a former nun shortly after we graduated, so he was applying those same principles to his own life. He is funny, gentle, and almost telepathically insightful. He nudged me out of my emotional isolationism and made me realize, as he wrote in my yearbook, that “no man is an island.”
Good softball player, too.
These days, he’s the lead volunteer at the International Friendship Gardens in Michigan City, Ind. Whether gardening or advising, he continues to show how to grow.
I saw Jeanette Fields, 90, at a recent Hemingway Foundation forum and marveled at her commitment, energy and longevity. She has taught me what it means to stay intellectually alive and active. She continues to demonstrate that when it comes to the life of the mind, you never retire.
These role models trace the arc of the rest of life and fill me with hope for the future. Each proves that no matter how old we are, or feel, there’s always someone up ahead testifying that it ain’t over till it’s over.
Turns out it’s never too late to respect our elders.
I’m not sure how many 100-year-olds Jeanette looks up to at this point, but I’ll bet we could find at least one.