For years my brother-in-law had spoken of his co-worker Walt with such high esteem that his very essence almost seemed implausible. Walt, it seemed, was the kind of guy who naturally elicited phrases like “salt of the earth” and “a good egg” whenever spoken of. I had heard about him so much and in such endearing terms I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to relate when I finally met him. I remember the first time I met him, too, and to compensate for my own feelings of comparative inadequacy I think I made a few cracks about needing to roll out the red carpet for the famous Walt. But then I spent a little time with him, and right away I got it. No one had been exaggerating about Walt.
Over the years, I got to know Walt a bit, here and there. There were the occasional gatherings at one place or another. A couple of the gatherings were even at Walt’s house, and it was fun to peel back the layers. This was a guy who had some serious interests. Baseball, Coca-Cola memorabilia, rockets, robots. So cool, I thought. I need some interests. How does that even happen, getting some interests? I have no idea. But Walt had a bunch of ’em.
So fast forward a good two or three years, and several of us were assembled for my brother-in-law’s birthday at the Mineshaft of all places. My friend and I were playing some of the silly games and drinking beers. We were chit-chatting and making cracks at one another and doing what people do in those scenarios. Walt popped by to say a quick hello and we did our cordial thing. As he walked away, I said to my friend, “That’s Walt. He is such an interesting guy. He’s all into rockets and robots and all these fun things that I don’t get.”
My friend stopped cold in her tracks. “Wait a minute. His name is Walt. And he likes rockets. Is that what you said?” I confirmed that indeed I had, and my friend put it all together. She told me she was pretty sure he had been coming to one of our agency’s group homes on a regular basis for years to take one of the residents with mental illness to the hobby shop to work on model rockets.
We quickly called Walt back and he confirmed that yes, he had a friend who lived at Jackson House and that for years he had been helping with model rocketry. He had initially met this friend at the local rocket launches and had quickly realized he was “different” from everyone else – and sometimes, sadly, he was not so well received by others in the group. Walt took it upon himself to take this man under his wing and lead by example. He didn’t just decide to help him at the monthly rocket launches and protect him from the scrutiny of others, he decided to get involved in a bigger way. Almost every week from that day forward, he picked up his friend, took him to the hobby shop and spent hours with him working on model rockets. He even arranged for the hobby shop to let them use a special room that was quieter and less stimulating. As time went on, Walt got to know his friend’s family and brought them Christmas gifts each year. He took phone calls at odd times and sometimes repeatedly so. Walt confessed that he was pretty sure that he got more benefit out of the friendship than the man he had befriended.
It takes a lot to blow me away, and in my line of work I sometimes think I have seen it all. But I hadn’t seen it all, it turns out. I had never seen anyone do this. Deciding to befriend one of our clients, without expecting anything in return. Getting involved, and staying involved for years on end. Becoming not just a friend, but an extended family member. And doing so, for all of these years, so quietly and unassuming, without any call for recognition. This, I thought, is the kind of human spirit we are all surely capable of, yet few achieve. This is love.
Years more have passed, and I still see Walt every now and and again. I always ask, and he always confirms: he is still going to the hobby shop every week with his friend. I have to admit, I look at Walt differently than I did in those first few years I knew him. I look at him with a warmth and a respect on a level I don’t often feel. He reminds me of the good in the world and makes me want to do better. And while that kind of good just doesn’t happen every day, Walt has reminded me it should.