As I am losing my Mom… these kinds of stories help settle me. I hope, if you need this story, too, it reaches you today.
Throwing My Loop…
BREAKFAST WITH JERRY
In 2003, sportswriter Mitch Albom wrote a book called Tuesdays With Morrie. Albom, while sitting out a newspaper strike, found himself free on Tuesdays. He spent fourteen of those days visiting with his old professor who was dying of ALS – a disease it is said that “leaves your soul perfectly awake.” That book touched me. It touched me because I had someone like Morrie. Not just for fourteen days though, but for fifty years. His name was Jerry Lytle.
Jerry was born in the East Texas town of Commerce. He went to high school there, worked at his daddy’s dairy, played football, and during all that time, his team never won a game. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the local East Texas State University and played football as well. During his time there, his team never lost a game. A bruising all-conference fullback, he also led the nation in punting in the early fifties. After receiving his degree, he taught school and coached for a number of years before returning to his alma mater. After a time, a new program opened at the university and Jerry was selected to be the administrator. The position was called “Director of Financial Aids.” A short tme later, Jerry Lytle fell right in the middle of my life. The year was 1969, and I wish I had another word for this but there is only one…I was just a mess.
At age 18, I had achieved the rank of “rodeo bum” and not a very good one at that. Blessed with really good parents, I was an irresponsible ne’er do well. Not evil, not in trouble with the law (well, not much) but silly, immature, and completely without focus. I had achieved one thing though. Somehow after attending college for two years, I had managed to make thirteen…13…consecutive Fs. Still a record somewhere, I’m sure. Then my daddy died suddenly at a very young age. Black despair.
If there was one thing my father wanted more than anything on this earth, it was for me to do well in school. I never did that for him. He never saw me do that. Sliding down into a frightening grief after his death that was lasting too long, I came up with a plan. I would make it up to him! (A bit late you might say, and I agree, but a typical plan for an 18 year old.) So I loaded my cowboy hat in my old truck, along with two pairs of jeans, two shirts, and my boots and set sail for East Texas State 100 miles to the west. I arrived at 5:00 p. m. on a Friday afternoon.
I made my way to the Financial Aids Office and asked the pretty lady there behind the desk if I might talk with a counselor. She informed me everyone was gone for the weekend and I should come back Monday. As I turned away for two more nights in my truck, a voice said, “I’ll talk with you.” That was the first time I saw him.
He was a handsome young red-haired man – maybe ten years older than me. You could tell from the way he carried himself that surely he had been an athlete considering that powerful body. “Come on in and sit down,” he said. Let me stop here and ask you a question…
How many people do you know at any university, business, or large church who would talk to a rather unkempt 18 year old at 5:00 o’clock on a Friday afternoon?
For the next hour I told him my story. I concluded by saying, “That’s it, Mr. Lytle. I want to make my daddy proud.” He hadn’t said a word the entire time. He just listened. Finally he said, “Let’s take a ride.” We got in his truck and drove eight miles out in the surrounding country finally coming to rest at an old farmhouse.
Hay was visible jutting from most windows.
“This is mine and my daddy’s,” he said. “We can move that hay out this weekend. It’s not a bad place at all. This old house has running water, electricity, and heat. We have two large ponds on this place. You can catch some fish. There’s plenty of rabbits and squirrel if you want. I’ll pay you a dollar an hour to help us work cattle. It’s really more fun than it is work. Lot’s of people come to help. There’s my farm gas tank over there. Don’t steal me blind, but you can get enough to make it to class. I’ll come get you Monday morning and we will start work on your financial aid.”
As he spoke those words so fresh in my memory now and so long ago then, thoughts ran through my mind…”Why is he saying these things? Why is he doing this? If I could run a hundred in ten flat, I could see it. If I was a math whiz, yes. If I was a violin prodigy…but I have nothing. I truly am the least of these. The only thing I have is 13 Fs. Why is he doing this?” Little did I know that now five decades later, I would still wonder about his words and on this day, still feel the magic and mystery in me I felt then. And on that day as we were about to leave, he turned to me and said, “You know what we are going to do?”
“No sir,” I said. “What are we going to do?”
He was standing next to a small tree in front of that old house. I drive out there sometimes now…where the house was and that little tree was. They are both gone now, but not while I’m standing there remembering they’re not. He pointed his finger at me and he smiled.
“I’ll tell you what we’re gonna’ do,” he said.
“We are going to make your daddy proud.”
And now it’s today, fifty years from that first day with him. I’m sitting beside his hospice bed. His grown children I have loved all my life are in the room. The room is still and quiet. We are all thinking about our time with him. My thoughts are about breakfast with him most every day for the last ten years at the local cafe where all the old cowboys go. I notice that red hair is gone now. So is that athletic body. Parkinsons and dementia have taken them both. He opens his eyes and points at me. He wants to tell me something. I lean down to hear him whisper. “You are a good boy,” he says.
I take his hand and kiss it for the longest time. “If I am a good boy,”
I say back to him, “it is because of you.”
Ed. note – In 1969 Michael began his journey with Jerry Lytle. In three years Michael graduated with his Bachelors With Honors in Psychology. After receiving his Masters from Texas A&M in Kingsville, he returned to Texas A&M Commerce for his doctorate in 1974. After eight books, two national literary awards, and 1200 stage presentations to educators about the value they have in the lives of others, in 2008 Michael was named a Distinguished Alum of Texas A&M – Commerce University. The award has been given to approximately 100 of the 100,000 graduates of the institution.
At the presentation ceremony, Dr. Jerry Lytle sat on the front row.
“Like the Son of Man, he did not come to be served but to serve. To give his life as a ransom so that others could be set free.”
In honor and memory of Dr. Jerry Lytle.
October 1933 – August 2019