Neil invited us to visit him in Moline, Illinois. He was excited about a condo he purchased on the Mississippi River. It was near his hometown of Erie and it would allow him to have his own place for extended family visits. Of course, being Neil, it allowed him to serve as host in a town where people were dear to him. He breathed in his childhood history with each breeze off the river. We promised him we would make a road trip to see his new digs.
We made that trip this past September. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to stay with Neil at his condo. Wanting to honor our promise to him, we headed to Moline to visit Neil at his final resting place. He died suddenly of a stroke nearly four years ago. We were deeply saddened. Our history with him went way back and we weren’t ready to let him go. Garrett looked for the names of relatives listed in his obituary. I remembered that he had lots of sisters and that some of his family was at the service at First Unitarian Church of Chicago. Garrett made contact with a nephew he found on Facebook. The nephew connected us with his mother who lives in Erie and we introduced ourselves. I suspect it’s not very often that a stranger stalks you on Facebook, suggesting you meet them at the graveside of their departed loved one. But that’s what we did and two sisters and one brother-in-law gave us their address. We plugged it into our GPS on a hot Thursday morning and turned on the AC for a five hour drive.
Garrett’s and my first date was to one of Neil’s parties. He was the librarian at the Chicago Theological Seminary and Meadville/Lombard Theological School. He was an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister but spent his career immersed in books. Garrett met him his first year in seminary and I started my theological education a year later. Garrett got up the courage at the end of one of our Old Testament classes to ask me if I wanted to go with him to Neil’s party. I had settled nicely into the North Side of Chicago but I was game. I was intrigued with this guy who wore red-framed sunglasses and a yellow canvas hat, standing out from other seminarians. The average age of incoming students was 55 and we were three decades younger than that. So it made sense to connect with this displaced Dutchman for a few reasons!
Neil loved to have people over even though he didn’t cook. He was a Harvard grad who was modest but loquacious. It wasn’t about the food or the decorations for Neil. He loved good conversation. He laughed easily. His space was your space and you could bring in any kind of refreshment and he wouldn’t feel insulted. When he had us for dinner he gave us several possible entrees from which to choose: Swedish Meatballs, Lasagna, Stuffed Peppers, or Chicken Cordon Bleu. Once we placed our orders Neil started working them through his microwave. His freezer was always loaded with Stouffer’s frozen dinners and we enjoyed great conversation over Neil’s Melt-a-Meals which he always put onto real plates before serving them. That first date party went longer than I expected. By 1AM we were down to about five people. By 2:30 there were four of us left: this guy who had asked me on a date, Neil, and another new seminarian who left a job as a Red Lobster security guard to pursue ministry. Conversation never waned and we finally ended up at a Golden Nugget Café near my North Side apartment at 5AM. I was dropped off at my place around 6AM, after a hearty meal of pancakes and eggs. “Did you like him,” my roommate asked me later that morning? “Yes,” I said, “but let me get some sleep first!” I also have the distinct memory of walking into a White Castle on the South Side of Chicago at 2AM with Garrett and Neil because sliders sounded good at the time. Neil wore his sunglasses into the elite joint and we got the feeling that we should order and get out quickly.
Neil came to our wedding. He wasn’t afraid to dress with flair and you can see that with his tie. I wonder how many weddings and ordinations he went to over the course of forty years at the two seminaries. Unlike many faculty members, he fraternized with students and became a beloved part of our theological education. When I was expecting our first child we took a trip to Dixon, Illinois with Neil. I don’t remember why we went there but Garrett told me it was to dig into Ronald Reagan’s roots. I remember we stayed at some sort of campground that had rustic cottages. There were two bedrooms, a living room and a sink. We had very little money and it fit within our budget. I remember two things about that trip (and it wasn’t related to any museums we might have seen). We sat around our cabin table getting splinters and playing scrabble. Neil had the first turn of the game. With his crooked grin, he triumphantly laid down all seven of his tiles, spelling out the word TOILETS. He received 50 bonus points for using up all his tiles in one turn plus a tripling of the value of his tiles. We laughed about that for years. The other thing I remember is making my way across a dark campground in the middle of the night, a pregnant mother-to-be who needed to use the toilet in the camp bathroom. The days of using that sort of accommodation in our marriage were short-lived.
After three years of serving a suburban Chicago parish, Garrett and I moved to Grand Rapids with our 15-month old daughter, Lisa. Neil came to visit numerous times. He was an easy guest and interacted readily with our children. I remember Lisa eating a fruit roll-up with a very unnatural turquoise coloration. She was clutching it in her warm hand, eating it while playing. It probably had some hair sticking to it. Neil asked her what it was and she offered it to him. Before I could stop him, he leaned over to her extended hand and took a bite. Ughh! “That’s good!” he exclaimed. Lisa toddled away, happy to have shared. He visited another time with a seminary friend from downstate Illinois. Karen was funny! She threw herself a spinster party when she turned 35. She and Neil agreed that they would marry at age 65 if they hadn’t found anyone else by then. The weekend they came to stay with us our boys had other little boys staying in tents in our backyard. They ran in and out of the house all night, disrupting our conversation and filling our living room with gangly, flying insects. I was horrified as a host but the two of them sat there happily while chaos swirled around them. For two individuals who didn’t have any kids that was extraordinary.
But Neil was one of seven kids. He grew up in farm country. Erie is about twenty minutes from Moline, where Neil bought his condo. Moline is right across the river from Davenport, Iowa. As you drive southwest from Chicago, where he spent his career, the land stretches out in lush fields and stately old barns. Neil traveled “home” often to be with his extended family. He was beloved Uncle Neil to nearly 20 nieces and nephews who, no doubt, offered him molten fruit roll-ups and other delicacies. He left his quiet bachelor pad in Hyde Park to enter effortlessly into the energy of his family in the small town of Erie and the big metropolis of Moline. No wonder he could handle our kids so well. His last visit to us was over Memorial Day weekend in 2016. He stayed with us for four days. So we hit some museums. We ate good meals at our home and in the city. We played games with our grown children. He and I sat on our front porch one morning reading our respective books. When we said goodbye to him we were certain that our next visit would be to his condo on the Mississippi River.
We traveled to Neil’s church in Hyde Park for his memorial service on November 12, 2016. The sanctuary was packed. Various people spoke and we learned that Neil was family not just to us but to countless others. One former seminarian said that Neil kept up with him after he left the Chicago area for ministry. So this former student invited Neil to join him and a few others on a camping trip. Neil said, “Sure.” When Neil met up with the guy and transferred his gear into the guy’s car, he hung a bright, summer suit on the hook in the back seat. His friend laughed and told him he didn’t think they would need a suit at any part of the camping trip. Neil told him that he thought there might be an evening when they would leave their tents or cabins or whatever and go into town, whatever town they would be near, and then it would be nice to have something dressy. The suit traveled with them to their campsite. I don’t know if he found the occasion to wear it but I suspect he did. The point is, Neil didn’t camp. He wasn’t one to go on hikes or put on spandex or sweat pants. He readily agreed to go on this trip because he loved being with people. He had countless good friends whose kids, like ours, knew him as Uncle Neil and offered him prized treats from sticky fingers. And he communed with them.
Neil’s family hosted us well when we stopped by to visit him in the Erie Cemetery. We stood at his gravesite with two sisters and his brother-in-law, sharing memories. We could see where his gift for good conversation came from. The heat index that evening was nearly 100 degrees and the sun shone hot. But we lingered there, feeling like we were honoring our commitment to come see him in his new digs. His brother-in-law told us exactly where his condo was in Moline. After a river boat ride up and down the Mississippi River in Moline we looked for it and found it. We saw the third-floor balcony where he would have brought out a steaming hot plate of Swedish Meatballs, fresh from the microwave. We would have squeezed together on the balcony, overlooking the river of his childhood and talked well into the night.
Happy Birthday, Neily. We miss you.