The Eulogy for Carl Cole
November 6, 2004
Carl Cole was my friend. I met him about seven years ago shortly after an accident he suffered that nearly took his life. He survived by the grace of God — a miracle really. I am grateful for having known Carl.
Carl’s life wasn’t about making a lot of money, or climbing the career ladder, or keeping up with the expectations of the rat race as to what life should be all about. Carl had clarity about what was truly important in life. It was time spent with his beautiful daughters. It was being kind to whomever God chooses to place on your path.
Carl walked through life keeping beat with a different drummer. In a world frequently characterized by repetitious monotony — a world too often seen from the same drab, tedious perspective, Carl found delight in viewing life from a unique angle — in discovering the original perspective — in creating something new that had never been seen or said before.
And those of us privileged to know Carl were constantly blessed by his originality and his kindness. Carl made us laugh. He was a very funny man.
The last couple of years Carl worked at Home Depot. Although it wasn’t a job that gave full expression to his zany creativity or his dramatic flair, it was a place where his simple desire to be of service to fellow human beings could find expression. Carl found pleasure when he was able to help a customer solve a problem. He enjoyed the camaraderie he felt with the people with whom he worked. A co-worker, John Thomas described Carl this way: “He was always cheerful and inspiring. He had a great sense of humor. If you knew him, you had to like him.”
I once spent an entire week with Carl as we teamed up together to direct a drama camp made up of ten teenage girls, who, as it turned out, arrived at camp not especially interested in drama. For the most part, the impression I had was that their parents had told them they couldn’t lay around the house — that they had to go to church camp, and somehow drama camp seemed preferable to swimming lessons, and so here they were.
Now a couple of things impressed me about Carl that week: First, he had a heck of a lot more patience then I did. Ten, moody teenage girls weren’t a problem for him. Where I got irritated, he stayed serene. He was, I’m sure, the girls’ favorite.
Second, he was, as I’ve suggested before, a fountain of creativity. The expectation of the week was that we would produce by the end of the week some kind of play production to show the parents when they came to pick the girls up, and since it was a church camp, it was assumed the play would deal with religious themes. So we asked the girls to flip through the Bible and suggest a story we might dramatize in some form. One girl, who later admitted she was simply being a smart aleck, suggested a rather obscure parable of Jesus’ about the ten virgins, five of whom were foolish, and five of whom were wise when it came to having oil in their lamps to be ready for the arrival of the bridegroom when the big party would begin.
Well, Carl took that weird little story and ran with it, and together we hammered out a script that was both exceedingly wacky and uncommonly profound, which the girls quickly got enthusiastically on board with, working together to create something that was both funny and beautiful, and which, I’m absolutely sure, they remember to this day. The message of the little play was essentially that the present moment is a gift from God, so have your oil ready to seize it. You never know when the bridegroom coming.
In college Carl received training in theater. Later he mime school, and throughout he adult life acted in countless community and semi-professional theater productions.
He loved the whole process of developing a character and working on a show with a community of people. He had a delightful singing voice, which was highlighted in three different productions of the Wizard of Oz, first as the chief munchkin, and then graduating up to the scare crow.
Carl could do serious drama as well. He spent one summer working on a Passion Play. He once played Cyrano de Bergerac, an extraordinarily challenging part, expressing magnificently mot only the humor of the part but the pathos and pain as well. He performed a Holy Week chancel drama with me in my church once that my congregation awestruck as together we relived the agony of Jesus’ death.
Carl truly was an extraordinarily gifted actor, whose talent was more than enough to have been a professional actor. He might have been one, I think, but for the fact that Carl was too gentle a soul to endure the often brutal lifestyle that often comes with the territory.
He was also, however, a truly wonderful teacher.
Carl taught a range of elementary grade school classes in a variety of settings, with the common denominator throughout being that any child who was fortunate enough to have Carl Cole as his or her teacher found subjects simply coming alive. School was not boring under Mr. Cole’s tutelage. Carl believed very much in “hands on” learning, so together they carved pumpkins, made apple dumplings, baked donuts. There was the time the vinegar and baking soda volcano erupted so dramatically that a ceiling tile was dislodged. Children quickly learned to pay attention in Mr. Cole’s classes.
Carl had an endless supply of humorous songs stored up in his brain with which he amused his charges, like the Armadillo song, about an Armadillo that meets with a sorrowful end, all set to the tune of “O Christmas Tree”.
As the only man teacher at the rather staid and stuffy Montclair Academy, it fell to Carl to deal with the problem of little boys peeing on the walls in the bathroom, and so he taught the boys the “Wee Wee” song, which raised a few eye brows among the finer sensibilities of Montclair’s upper crust, but it got the little boys attention and fixed the “peeing on the walls” problem.
Carl could connect with children who were often beyond the reach of other teachers. There was, for instance, a little boy named Anthony who wasn’t officially Carl’s responsibility, but Carl was the only one Anthony would listen to, so Anthony became one of Carl’s charges.
Carl’s gifts for teaching and drama were brought to bear in the endless hours he offered himself as a Sunday School teacher. To emphasize the theme, “We are the church”, he built this large contraption in which the Sunday School kids of his class could be wheeled down the center aisle of worship like some sort of ecclesiastical Trojan horse.
He took Christmas pageants and chancel dramas to a whole other level, pouring himself out in the making of props, making old stories come alive in a way children could literally climb inside of. He often, it seemed, found himself playing the part of Jesus. There are countless young people who have grown up in a church where Carl was a Sunday School teacher for whom their primary image of what Jesus was like comes from none other than Carl Cole. Carl with his kind and gentle heart, his wry smile, the twinkle in his eyes. Carl as Jesus, calling down out of the sycamore tree wee little Zaccheus the despised taxcollector, saying I must come to your house today, where together we will have nachos and apples for dinner.
As good a teacher as Carl was, he was an even better father. Bed time for Ruthie and Mary became a treasured time for the reading and telling of stories. When Carl read a story, the actor in him would come out, giving each character a distinctly different voice. When the story line struck Carl as a little thin, he would elaborate and embroider, so that when on some other night Carol would read to the girls the same story, they would complain about her leaving out the details Carl had ad libbed.
And then there were the stories that Carl would completely make up. The girls would give him an animal and a setting, and he would be off and running, until either the girls — or Carl himself — would trail off to sleep. Mary inherited this gift from her father, and together they became a team — Mary dictating to her father, who would function as scribe, and him barely able to keep up with the story-generating power of his daughter.
In Mary’s kindergarten class, on the last day of show and tell, they were given permission to bring in anything at all that they wanted to show off, so Mary took her Daddy, dressed up as a clown, who put on a mime show and gave out balloons — a “show and tell” session not soon to be forgotten.
Carl’s mime abilities were put on display on other occasions as well for his daughters’ classes. He teamed up with his daughters for talent show recitations, he baked turkey cookies for Thanksgiving and delivered them to class parties wearing his classic bird coat.
No kid ever had as wonderful a homework assistant as Ruthie and Mary. Together with their father’s help dioramas were brought to a new dimensions of creativity: Indian Villages put together with log cabins, spray paint, little cowboys and Indians wearing fake leather, real dirt… The Boston Tea Party with Star War figurines made up to be revolutionaries disguising themselves as Indians… Rain Forest posterboards that would make you stand up and take notice.
The girls have countless memories of their Daddy helping them meet deadlines for book reading and essay writing that would take them late into the night together.
Since there was a rule that said men couldn’t lead Girl Scout troops, Carl served as the assistant girl scout leader for his daughters, bringing the same imaginative flair to the endeavor.
Carl was a Dad who would ride the roller coaster three times at Dorney Park even though it evoked from him delirious, terrified screams, because Ruthie was sitting next to him, enjoyed it so.
And how you will miss him, as will we all.
I have a nine year old son named Bobby whose eyes would always light up when he saw Carl. One evening a few years back when Bobby was about six Carl came by the house to visit. He and I were sitting talking together in my living room; the conversation ran to spiritual matters — a contemplation of heaven and the afterlife. I asked Carl what he thought heaven was like and he said, “Disney World.” And that’s not hard for me to imagine: Carl with Ruthie and Mary going on all the rides, with no lines to wait end.
The curious thing that happened that particular evening was that Bobby came into the room, a couple of minutes later, having missed our conversation. Bobby sees Carl, and suddenly gets it in his head to give his friend Carl a gift. He sneaks off and comes back with something wrapped up in tissue paper, and hands it to Carl to open, which in his typical gracious manner he did.
Do you know what was inside? A souvenir Mickey Mouse that Bobby’s sister Kate had brought back for him from Disney World. And Carl smiled, and his eyes twinkled, and he said, “Thank you, Bobby.”
I am certain that God whispered into my son’s ear, “Go get Mickey Mouse and give him to my friend, Carl.”
Yes, God has good things in store for us. Really good things. Yes, there really is a heaven, and it’s wonderful there, more fun, even than Disney World, or Dorney Park, or any of the other fun places there are to experience in this life if we have but eyes to see them.
There is a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans that speaks to me: “I consider that the sufferings of the present age in no way compare with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Which is to say, that when the time comes when we take our last breath upon this earth, the beauty and the joy of what we will witness on the other side will make all the sufferings of this life seem as nothing in comparison. Which is pretty amazing, because indeed, life can be pretty painful at times in this world — as it is now in the loss of a beloved father and friend.
Carl took his last breath in this life this past Tuesday night, and I believe he has entered into something so beautiful that we could never find adequate words to express it. The Sheep has come home to the Shepherd who made him and loves him and will never, ever let him go. I believe that from the angle from which Carl now views the mystery that is life, the sufferings of this life seem but like a drop of water in comparison to the infinite ocean of God’s light and love.
And one day we will all be united on the far shore. Everything is going to be all right.
In the meantime, how shall we live?
With kindness, like Carl has lived his life.
With gentleness, like Carl has lived his life.
With a sense of humor, and creativity, like Carl has lived his life.
With courage, as I believe Carl has lived his life.
Be not afraid. Keep your lamps filled with oil, and let your light shine. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.