My friend swam in the Colorado River and raised a family, he hiked the Appalachian Trail and built a business, he was an engineer who loved people and a point of joy no matter how grim times became.
Robert Harrell, Sr., of West Point, rarely missed an opportunity to teach and forever sought new chances to learn, and maybe the last is what I’ll remember best. He was a 16-year-old whose 77-year-old body gave out on him this past Monday. I’m sure he wasn’t meaning for it to. There was always something else he wanted to do.
Everyone who travels long enough assembles something of a fortress for themselves in the place they call home, a stronghold where they can draw up the bridges and seal the gates, a place to be alone with their thoughts or share the company of family and guests. For some, these are actual places with walls and ceilings and doors. For others, they’re simple byways just off the beaten paths of life, alcoves only their own trained eyes can see. Robert’s was something of both. Last summer on a tour of his land, he showed me the small chapel he’d built here, a log home he’d restored there, pointed out the trees he’d planted by hand in between. Each of these was a physical place and, for Robert, each also sheltered memories strong and dear.
Nearby, inside one end of a barn he counted as home base, he’d created a reception and dining area fit for society’s finest. In the other end he maintained an engineering artist’s workshop where the possibilities of the mind’s eye could be explored. He’d crafted an outdoor living room beneath an overhang on the building’s leeward side to top things off. In many ways, the barn was a tangible part of life he had made in his own image. Propriety, curiosity, camaraderie. If you were looking for a motto to put on a crest, you could do a lot worse than that.
God’s great bounty is a wonderful thing, an endless fount of satisfaction for those who will but see it. A desire to learn and the joy of discovery are the rewards of an intelligence kept sharp by application of a whetstone made of the same. From people and through books, by experiences shared and opportunities taken, Robert never stopped exploring. The joy that resulted grabbed bystanders and pulled them in.
I visited with Robert at lunch in West Point last Thursday. As he walked away he asked, “Did you ever read that book by the famous tracker who said he could track grasshoppers through the sage?”
I said I hadn’t, withholding my first thought that the famous tracker must also be a shameless liar.
“That would be a wonderful thing, wouldn’t it?” he continued from an entirely different point of view, imagining the possibilities, “to be so in tune with nature that the sage a grasshopper had disturbed would leave a trail you could see?”
I allowed it would and said “see you next week” as he went out the door still smiling, still thinking, following a path to a harmony only the most inquisitive may hear. If we’re lucky, those of us who knew him will get to follow. God speed my good friend.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.