Humor from Start to Finish: Tribute to a Friend

What makes this post different from all my other posts is my reference to a personal matter: I am making this exception to honor a very close friend who died just about two weeks ago. I hope this tribute will also comfort friends and family. Jack Rodney, 57, died of cancer on April 4th, 2014, near Seattle, Washington the same age as I.

Jack was adept at spotting humor in absolutely everything, including death, and I owe some of my own humor radar to him. Shortly after I was ordained in 1992, he would joke, “Does this mean you can now officiate at my funeral?” Little did we know that this practically happened, much much earlier than we had in mind. Instead, there is this post, as well as an “in memoriam page” the publisher let me add to the book just two weeks before it was due to “go live.” Upon hearing about that, our mutual friend Ross couldn’t resist saying, “Jack got the last laugh: he died just in time to get his name in your book.”

Jack not only joked on any subject, but also used humor as a weapon to disarm. If anyone insulted him such as by calling him a jerk, he would simply say the magic word, “thank you.” I would call him “jerk” or worse just to hear his rejoinder. You gotta admit: that is pretty original.

He had various odd jobs –very odd; one was unwittingly working at the same radio station with Rush Limbaugh before he was well-known. Rush was a disk jockey under an alias, and Jack was finishing up high school. It so happened that Rush had asked Jack to get something for him from his car, and Jack saw his real name written on some papers in the trunk. Years late, Jack remembered the unusual name when he heard of Limbaugh’s fame.

Then Jack Rodney settled on teaching high school. His career was an especially rich source of material to regale his friends with. One great anecdote had to do with substitute teaching. One time he reported to a unique situation, where he was instructed to show up at a special room for several students without being told what subject to teach. Jack looked around the room, which was nicely decorated and comfortable. And the students seemed cheerful and friendly enough, especially to a sub. Jack figured that they were being rewarded by not having to study, and so he thought up some ways to enhance their reward. He called in for pizza and ice cream, and played Beatles songs on his guitar for them. (By the way, other than wife and children, the Fab Four were his passion, and he wrote a book about life lessons he had learned from them.) So the students and Mr. Rodney himself of course, had a fabulous time. There was just one little “technicality” though in how he carried out this substitute teaching assignment: the school principal had sent those students to that room for punishment.

I paid tribute to Jack by saying these few words at our local synagogue just before Passover: “Holiday times can be bittersweet. On the one hand, we remember the good times we had with loved ones at Seders and other events. On the other, these events can trigger our grief anew, and make their absence all the more keenly felt. We want to remember them, but by doing so we pay the price of engaging in more grieving. But this remembering keeps them alive in some sense. What I mean is this is the time to stop and take stock of the lessons they have taught you, the blessings they have bestowed upon you, and what they have meant to you in the past and now…Their good deeds are like ripples, whose effects have spread throughout the cosmos… As we express our grief, and by virtue of that expression, the seeds of spiritual healing can begin to quietly grow.”


PS : My husband has subsequently (April 30) written a tribute to Jack on his own blog. The link to the tribute is:

An Offbeat Collection

“Normal” people collect stamps or coins or certain kinds of art. Not an “offbeat” person like me. When I was a child, instead of letting candy wrappers flutter into the trash and disappear like their contents, I gave them a new lease on life via a scrapbook. The idea was to collect such wrappers from as many locations as possible, preferably ones from other lands. As an adult I’ve made a collection of another unexpected sort: eulogies. The first one I gave dates from 1990, and I still keep every eulogy I have written. A eulogy is a genre of literature in its own right, and certainly has historical interest. Eulogies strive to portray the essence of a person, and may contain advice on how to grieve, as well as comforting allusions from a family’s faith tradition.

For those reasons I occasionally include a eulogy in my posts. (As well as the fact that new visitors to my blog regularly stop in to read the eulogies, itself a curious matter. I would love for them to tell me why.) Excerpts from the one I am including this week is also of general interest because of a reference to a famous person as well as a humorous incident. (Only the famous person’s name, not the deceased and her family, is  real.)

I gave this eulogy in October 2008:

“Like Marcy herself, this is a family who knows how to speak up, and as Donald so delicately put it to me in private, they speak up with ‘no bull.’…The family then delightedly told me the story of when she wanted to visit her friend Placido Domingo—and I am not kidding; they were dear friends—to visit him at the Metropolitan Opera House armed with her signature blintzes to fortify him before the performance. Security guards scoffed at her as a nut who had to assume her proper place in line. She made it clear that she belonged at the head of the line and would most certainly not be deterred from seeing her friend. Upshot of story: the blintzes were dutifully delivered, and I suspect promptly consumed post performance….”

“As for modern things, she was at the head of the line for being among the first to own a personal computer and read emails in 1983. ‘You can’t imagine,’ as Marcy would have put it…”

“She was so well-versed in fashion; she knew what fabrics and styles were in or out in a given decade. Before her imminent death she said, ‘Too bad I’m dying soon; I’ll miss all the new fall fashions.’….

“There is so much to celebrate about Marcy, so much to mourn, so much to admire, so much to emulate and wonder about and marvel over… you will never, ever, completely imagine.”

A Student Prank

Usually my stories are true, but one time as a gag I wrote a fictitious dialog, putting one over my chaplain school supervisor and the other chaplain interns. I dated the dialog April 1st, but nevertheless they were fooled. The heart of the program at the school (called Clinical Pastoral Education) was for students to write word for word as accurately as they could remember, some of their visits to patients. Afterwards with our supervisor, we would analyze the dialogues and look for ways we could serve patients better in the future. As the true dialogs I wrote are too full of embarrassing flaws from me as a rookie chaplain, I now share this invented story to amuse you and to give you a taste of what it was like to be a chaplain intern.

                               The Dialogue

(Context of visit) I was on my regular rounds at Cornell University Medical Center when I visited Norman. The patient was seated on his bed, with a bandage near his elbow. As I enter, he is reading A Farewell to Arms. I notice a fixed look in his eyes. One of the social workers had told me that Norman is a “strange bird.”

Karen: Good morning. I’m Chaplain Kaplan.

Norman: Oh, are you and Charlie Chaplin related? Then you’d be Chaplain Chaplin. (K: I laugh. that SW had something there.) You won’t believe why I’m in here. It’s kinda ridiculous really.

Karen: No, no, not at all. Tell me your story.

Norman: You’ll think I’m pulling your leg. It’s not important enough for being in a serious hospital.

Karen: Not important enough?

Norman: I’m here because a cat helped itself to a portion of my arm for lunch. (K: I grimace  and say, ooh, ouch!) Now see that?  Here I am now having to comfort the chaplain.

Karen: (Oops. What went wrong here? I was trying to reflect back his feelings and show some empathy.) Oh, it’s not that. I…

Norman: Well, I’ll give you another chance. (K: How nice of this clown and out loud I say, “Oh, I see.) Anyway, this arm hurts like hell. And you know what? I’ve been a major patron of the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals for many a year. But after what that worthless scrawny tabby did to me, that’s it.

Karen: That’s it?

Norman: No more donations from Yours Truly to the SPCA. Not from this victim.

Karen: So you feel betrayed. Bit to the quick. Angry.

Norman: Sure! There should be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Humans.

Karen: (Is this guy for real? I laugh. I join in the fantasy.) I wonder how many dogs and cats would join?

Norman: (Is this girl for real?) This has gotta be the most unusual conversation I’ve ever had.

Karen: (as he dozes off, I make my getaway.)


In my next post, I will follow up with a theological analysis and an evaluation. No, no, just joking.