My Eulogy

(Like they say, if you want it done right you'd best do it yourself.)

By way of celebrating the life of one Richard Joseph Willis we come to celebrate all life, including each our own.


For Dick was one of us, a member in good standing in the company of all-of-us.  For him, gender and form and age and race and language simply manifested the wondrous complexity and diversity of our species and the miracle of our existence.  For him, skin was not an outer boundary but an inner one; his physical form, though hardly a standard of beauty, mirrored the beauty and mystery and perfection of this universe, and of all of us in it.


Dick was grounded by what he called his ‘cosmic sense of humor’, truly a gift.  From a young age he accepted his mortality[1] and the fragility of life, and as a consequence he experienced profound joy and wonder in contemplating our place—albeit brief and passing—in the vastness of the cosmos.[2]

Pondering the origins and dimensions[3] of all existence, how could Dick possibly have taken his fleeting life seriously?  He couldn’t and he didn’t.  He had no great ambitions, no great plan, no sense of self-importance.  He found joy in the moment from performing the simplest of accomplishments and even the smallest of kindnesses.


That’s not to say, though, that he considered his life inconsequential.  On the contrary, he welcomed the challenge of living a principled life, a good life.  He felt a kinship with all living beings including the wildlife he fed daily and the pets he sheltered.  But he felt a most special kinship with every one of us whom he came to know.  For him every human alive provided a unique window into the profound and the miraculous.


Though he was raised lovingly by devout Roman Catholics and was educated for 17 years in Catholic institutions, religion just didn’t stick for him[4].  There were simply too many unanswered—and unanswerable—questions to merit a blind faith.  But Dick did gain an abiding appreciation of the teachings of Jesus[5], and he remained christian (small ‘c’) all his life.[6]


At the same time, Dick took comfort in being Jewish[7] and Muslim[8] and Buddhist[9] and a secular humanist[10] and maybe even Wiccan if he could ever figure out what that was.  Any teaching that had the ring of truth and integrity about it became a welcome part of his acquired wisdom.


Dick always loved fine (“classical”) music.  While all his Fifties friends were into Buddy Holly and Elvis and then The Beatles, he was into Bach and Mozart[11] and Beethoven[12].  Later he taught himself to play the piano just so he could perform the Moonlight Sonata in imitation of Arthur Rubinstein[13].


Dick was a family man.  He cherished his roles as son, brother, husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather.  While he joked that being a husband and the father of daughters was a lifelong exercise in confusion and awkwardness, he derived great satisfaction and fulfillment in support of the women in his life. 

Kathy and he found strength and comfort in each other through hard times[14]; their marriage was rock solid from the start and they prevailed through the many vicissitudes of their life together as well as through the lives of Michelle and Christina.  And Dick was privileged to be active in the lives of his grandchildren, helping them in their studies, teaching them life skills, accompanying them on marathons and celebrating their many, many accomplishments.


While his family can attest to his occasional flairs of displeasure during his years of parental responsibility, Dick lived nonviolently throughout his life.  He was motivated by a strong love for all those around him and by the humane principles that formed his always-evolving world view.  His family and his many friends can attest to his quick wit, his explosive laugh and his innate desire to serve enthusiastically—a trait Dick called his ‘inner golden retriever’. 


Dick was a hugger.  There was nothing half-hearted or hesitant about a hug from Dick. If you were a family member or a close friend, you got a hug coming and you got a hug going.  And if you weren’t that close, often you got a two-handed handshake from him.  No matter what, Dick wanted to let you know viscerally that his relationship to you meant a lot to him.


Dick lived by what he called the Rule of the Campsite: always leave a place in better shape than you found it.  Michelle and Christina can attest to the transformation of the rickety old house where they spent their teen years, into the very comfortable place it is today.  And while paving his entire yard may not have been environmentally cool (but then again, the maple tree might argue in favor of pavers), Dick’s vegetable gardens were places of wondrous bounty.


At heart Dick was a man of peace[15].  Though strong willed by nature, he was never prone to violence, and his experience in combat[16] engendered an abhorrence of all weapons and implements of destruction, but especially of guns[17].  Implements of construction, on the other hand, were a delight… Dick had tools and he developed skills. 


Though he was a degreed engineer, Dick was somewhat impulsive when it came to projects, preferring to dive in and risk making mistakes rather than take a more conservative, cogitative approach.  His personality was an interesting hybrid of those of his two grandfathers, one a manual laborer of many trades and skills, the other a hobbyist with exceptional intelligence, patience and precision.  One of Dick’s crowning achievements was the restoration of his grandfather’s 100-year-old clock, which had fascinated him endlessly when he was young.


Dick’s dad had been an accomplished athlete early on, and afterward he officiated in several sports.  He permitted young Dick to tag along and watch college football and basketball games close up, and at an early age Dick gained an appreciation of the skills and stamina required of players in those sports.  Dick’s first choice throughout his life was the same as his dad’s: baseball, which Dick claimed is the most ‘cerebral’ of team sports since it demands incisive, original thought from all players. 


Baseball provided all the elements of competition that Dick desired: cooperation, precision, situational awareness, quick reaction, physical strength and a healthy dose of randomness—no two games were ever alike.  However, he reluctantly gave up playing the game after he herniated a disc for the second time diving for a line drive at the age of 42; he had herniated the first one two years earlier swinging for the fences (and kept on playing).


Late in life Dick found a way to get back onto the ball field… as an umpire[18].  And once again baseball was able to satisfy his needs, this time by allowing him to hang out with young players[19] and officiate the game, where he was expected to react immediately and correctly to anything happening on the field.  It was a great challenge and at the same time great fun.  Whenever Dick pointed to the pitcher and called “Play!” to start a game, he really meant the word.


Not all his work with young people was fun.  In 1992 Dick joined a volunteer organization that mentored at-risk teens.  He worked first as a mentor, then as an active board member, and finally as board chair.  He found this work keenly reminiscent of his final year in the Army commanding a training company, influencing young lives by example and direction and preparing disadvantaged adolescents for the realities of an unforgiving world.


In 2000 and for almost fifteen years after, Dick was a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a guardian ad litem in cases of child abuse and abandonment.  The work involved many of Dick’s interests (child welfare and safety; Oregon social services and family law) and skills (independent yet engaged observation; succinct and comprehensive report writing; a strong and assured presence in potentially difficult domestic situations).  Dick derived a great sense of fulfillment in this work.


Later on he began driving Meals on Wheels routes several times a week in Washington County and a Meals4Kids route in east Multnomah County. And Kathy and he became certified as Oregon long-term care ombudsman, advocating for the rights of residents in a nursing home, an assisted living facility and a residential care facility in Multnomah County. Also, Dick volunteered in the state prison system, which he found to be fascinating and highly rewarding.


Clearly, serving others was high on the list of Dick's priorities. On his website he spelled out his evolution from privileged childhood to volunteering for the infirm and the impoverished and the traumatized. His motto was "Ease Their Way", and that's where he lent his strengths.

If Dick were to write an end to this eulogy, he’d state that while he was a deeply flawed man he had a loving spirit: loving his family, loving his friends, and loving all of life.  And in return he enjoyed the profound and grace-filled love of those around him.  His was a joyous life, a life that lives on in the smiles and memories that we hold of him. 

If you listen closely, you can still hear him laughing.


[1]    For Dick, mortality was made real and devastating by the passing of his younger brother Timothy Joseph (1954-1963).  It was clear from an early age that Tim was a special child—brilliant, gentle, funny, courageous.  Months before his death from cancer Tim revealed to casual acquaintances on two occasions the precise date of his passing, and he waited patiently and courageously for its arrival.  While his death was a great loss to all who loved him, Tim’s humor as the hour approached taught Dick that he need not fear his own death.


[2]   Our universe contains approximately 10 trillion galaxies, each galaxy averaging 100 trillion stars.   That’s 1027, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars (an octillion) .  If one one-trillionth of one percent of those stars has a planet with water, it would mean that ten trillion planets are potentially viable.  Awe-some!  Odds are we are not alone, and Dick would have welcomed the company.  Our universe, 13.8 billion years old, fills a bubble 47 billion light years in all directions, and according to physicists it may be only one of several parallel universes, or it may be a ten-dimensional hologram


[3]   Each of us is composed of trillions of Cells, each of which is formed by Organelles which are formed by Membranes which are formed by Proteins which are formed by Amino Acids which are formed by Peptides which are formed by Molecules which are formed by Atoms which are formed by Protons, Electrons and Neutrons which are formed by Quarks and Leptons which are formed by Strings (maybe).  Awe-some again in the other direction!  And the irony is… we’re mostly vacuum.


[4]   “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi


[5]   Dick considered the Old Testament a collection of campfire stories that had long since served any useful purpose, and the New Testament to have been written long after Jesus’ death by old men with fading memories.  But the detail of Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount had the ring of verisimilitude for Dick and he maintained a deep appreciation of the Beatitudes his entire life.


[6]   One of the advantages of being taught by Jesuits was Dick’s introduction to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.  Of particular resonance, in view of Dick’s wonder about the origin of the universe, was Aquinas’ treatise on essence and existence, and how he proved through logic that there must be one and only one existent whose essence is all existence.


[7]   Dick found resonance in Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed, particularly as the scholar wrote against the fallacy of anthropomorphizing the concept of the Creator.  From early on Dick was uncomfortable in grandiose religious buildings and with the statues and rituals therein.  He was most successful in seeking the divine under the open sky, and he experienced it most spectacularly under the blanket of stars in Vietnam’s clear night air.


[8]   Dick’s knowledge of Islam came to him principally through his friendship with Aazer.  Aazer taught Dick through example what it means to be a devout Muslim: being a loving husband and father willing to sacrifice everything for his family, raising his children to live lives of excellence and humility, and honoring the traditions and values of his parents and ancestors by applying them successfully to life in this country in this time.  As a CASA Dick also worked with Mamadou, an imam who chose as his secular career improving the lives of abused children.  Mamadou is a caring, gentle, loving man who taught the members of his mosque by example to live exemplary lives.


[9]   Dick was introduced to Buddhism in the 1970s by the writings of Alan Watts.  Buddha’s teaching had a pragmatic wisdom that appealed to Dick’s search for a world view that encompassed and explained and guided all his varied experiences.


[10] Dick was most fortunate to have been born in a time of great secular thinkers.  Early in his life he was influenced by the brilliance of Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Jacob Bronowski, Richard Dawkins, Rachel Carson, E.F. Schumacher and John Von Neumann among others.  It was clear through his exposure to profound and brilliant thinking that dogma of any kind can’t support the process. He was particularly struck by David Eagleman's treatise on what he calls "possiblianism".


[11] Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist and had a special preference for Mozart, of whom he said, "Mozart's music was so pure and perfect, that one felt he had merely found it -- that it had always existed as part of the inner beauty of the Universe, waiting to be revealed."  It took Dick years to comprehend the depth of meaning of that expression.


[12] When Dick was nine years old, he watched Leonard Bernstein’s first appearance on the television series Omnibus, teaching about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Dick was hooked for life. 

His great regret, though, was that he was never flash mobbed.  (That last is “Asimbonanga”, written by Johnny Clegg.  The chorus, in Zulu: Asimbonanga [we have not seen him]; Asimbonang' umandela thina [we have not seen Mandela]; Laph'ekhona [in the place where he is]; Laph'ehleli khona [in the place where he is kept].)


[13] Here are recordings of Rubinstein playing Beethoven’s Moonlight” Sonata and his Piano Concerto No. 5, performed elegantly and lyrically in 1975 when Rubinstein was 88.


[14] Dick married Kathy, who later gave birth to Michelle, all while Dick was still in school.  Dick had had to earn his way through school while supporting his small family, and on the day of his graduation they had exactly twenty dollars to their name.  But they had made it, debt-free, and on that day they celebrated the beginning of their financial independence.


[15] When Dick bought his truck a few years back it occurred to him that the big white tailgate was like a billboard.  He decided to put up thought-provoking bumper stickers that conveyed facets of his world view.  He wanted to ensure that people realized there was a serious thinker in the driver’s seat, so he obtained an Oregon veteran’s license plate (which displayed his bronze star medal) for the truck.  Then he pasted reflections of his philosophy on the tailgate: an anti-war quote from Benjamin Franklin and an anti-mediocrity one from Einstein, a quotation by James Clarke (“A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation”), another that said “Not in my name” about Iraq War era abuses, and one that invoked the Fifth Commandment.  Ever since, every stop at a stoplight became an opportunity for the driver and passengers behind him to reflect.


[16] Army training was the first time Dick fired a weapon, and it was obvious from the outset that he was exceptionally accurate with a rifle; his superiors talked of possibly placing him in training for a spot on the Olympic shooting team.  Then, one night in Vietnam in the utter chaos of a firefight, Dick assumed he was cleared to shoot at what turned out to be one of his own men (to whom Dick apologized later). While he was praised by senior officers for the accuracy of his shooting under duress—he did hit what he was aiming at from a considerable distance—the incident convinced Dick that it’s just too easy to make a mistake in the simple act of squeezing a trigger, even when the shooter is well-trained and the situation may seem clear and justified.  And really, how often is that ever the case?


[17] Over one million fellow humans have been killed by gun violence in the United States just since the murder of John Lennon.  (This interactive visualization of gun deaths gives some idea of the immensity of the tragedy in just a single year.)  Dick never owned a gun or any other kind of weapon.  He maintained that an instrument capable of firing a projectile at three times the speed of sound—a projectile optimized to pierce flesh, shatter bones and destroy organs—must be severely controlled.  He held that (contrary to the Roberts Court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller), gun ownership is a privilege not a right, and he maintained a strict interpretation of the intent of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, that in a sane world the only way to possess a gun legally would be for the owner to be a member in good standing of a well regulated militia—the National Guard. 


[18] Dick’s dad umpired his entire adult life and he mentioned to Dick several times that he should consider doing the same.  As Dick put it, “I said some incredibly stupid things to Dad about umpires, like ‘the only people I hate worse than pitchers are umpires’.  So at the age when Dad finally had to give it up, I started to train to become an ump.  I had no idea how complicated this game within the game is—it gave me yet one more reason to respect both my dad and the game of baseball.  Now I understand what he was telling me all those years ago, and why he loved umpiring so much.  I often hear his voice when I’m behind the plate.  He smiles and I smile.  It’s wonderful.”


[19] A few years ago Dick was umpiring behind the plate, and following the tradition that the umpire introduces himself to each catcher during the first inning, the home team catcher shook his hand and told him his name was Aiden.  Dick said to the boy, “Aiden, that’s a wonderful Irish name.  I have a great-grandson named Aiden.”  At the end of the half inning, the catcher went back to the dugout and whispered to his coach, “Coach, that umpire is really old!”  Dick loved telling that story to parents and grandparents at games… it always generated appreciative laughs.