One of My Yodas Died this Week

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It is a busy week and I am a bit melancholy, realizing that it is in large part due to the passing of one of my most important life mentors. From 1979 to 1987 RA Harlan was my manager/mentor in business and life.

Having just written “Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters,” the story of a young man who could not discover his destiny until he found his mentor, the point is not lost on me that I am a very different person due to RA’s influence.

My mother died in February after slipping away for a few years in the fog of Alzheimer’s and during the same time RA was disappearing behind a cloud of a rare degenerative brain disease. The man who was the world’s quickest wit and a genius when it came to numbers, in his last year RA could no longer add a simple column of single digit numbers and worked laboriously to spit out a sentence–in his last months he slipped deeper into incoherence broken only occasionally.

I guess I didn’t realize how my every day thoughts are shaped by my experience with him. At his memorial service Pete told of a basketball game in which RA’s team got behind by 8 points in the opening minutes of the game. He called time out, said these guys don’t play like a team, they can handle the zone but will collapse if we go one on one–we can beat these guys. He was right-his analysis was keen and his quick strategic adjustment meant a win. He did this at ABC in their record division (back when there were records!)¢â‚¬¦he did it at Crista ministries¢â‚¬¦he did it in life.

I’m at a board meeting for the CS Lewis Foundation and I’m hearing RA’s voice in my head as I analyze the situation¢â‚¬¦and I miss him.

Below is the eulogy I wrote at the request of the family¢â‚¬¦Do me a favor—think about who your mentors have been–call them today before it is too late—and say thank you.

[You knew by his name he was going to be unforgettable¢â‚¬¦ R.A.

What kind of name is RA? He sometimes said he was born in the Great Depression to parents so poor they couldn’t afford a full name. Or he’d say the initials stood for “resurrection and ascension,” a bit over the top even for a man who gave the impression of an expansive ego. In his later years one friend looked at his graying hair and faltering step and said it stood for “really adorable.” Everyone who knew him had a favorite RA story because his quick wit, restless, inquisitive mind and outsized, exuberant personality made him a memorable character; yet those who knew him best also saw a quiet, thoughtful side, which in his last years mellowed into an almost childlike tenderness.

Most Iowa farm boys retain a certain swagger in life and manly activities and displays of physical strength remained disproportionately important to R.A., whose deteriorating knees precluded actually walking, yet somehow to his way of thinking were still ideally suited for basketball and baseball. Despite a busy career that took him to the pinnacle of success in New York City with the American Broadcasting Company, he never lost his love for the simple things like Fern’s warm chocolate-chip cookies dipped in a cold glass of milk. He liked to mow his own lawn, wash and wax his car, which is another way of saying he thought he could do these things better than anybody else and as a Midwest farm boy was frugal, a polite way of saying he could be cheap. Maps were unnecessary to R.A. because he could give directions just about anywhere by directing you by way of his favorite milkshake stands.

He was a life-changing manager and a mentor before the term became a business buzzword, making decisions collaboratively and revealing his own opinions through the questions he asked of those he managed. He understood leadership requires taking responsibility for fixing problems one did not create and he demonstrated this on more than one occasion, most notably at Crista Ministries, which he described as some of his most enjoyable years professionally; it was there he saw the merging of his business expertise with his passion for serving God. He was a sacrificial leader who put institutional concerns ahead of his own and in so doing earned the respect and admiration of those whose opinion mattered to him. He was a reluctant churchman who stayed with it because Christ loved the church and died for it, an unfathomable mystery to him in light of the flawed and imperfect institution he saw the church to be.

This was a complicated man whose closest friends always sensed beneath his laugh a pain of unknown origins, a pain modified by his knowledge of God, but never quite erased. Talking about his feelings did not come easy to R.A., yet when he expressed them they ran deepest for his wife Fern, his children Cindy, Rod, Autumn and Scott, their spouses and of course, for Adam and Ben, Tiffany and Rod Jr., Sivona and Troy, his grandchildren from whom he never withheld his unreserved affection. The Harlan family flowed from the loving union of teenage sweethearts who met in Stockport, Iowa and committed to each other for better or for worse without knowing exactly what that meant. Their fifty-two years of marriage is a tribute to the depth and tenacity of RA and Fern’s love for each other, and to the grace of God.

R.A. will be remembered and missed, but we sorrow not as those who have no hope, for when we see him next, he will have finally earned the RA in “resurrection and ascension” and will dwell with those he loves in a place where there are no more tears, sorrow or sickness, where he will run, and not be weary; and will walk, not faint. Every pain of unknown origin will be erased and every empty space filled with the loving presence of God.]

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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