The Eulogy for Russell Freerks
Psalm 100, 1Corinthians 13, and John 14:1 – 3, 6
Russ was born on April 20, 1921 in Paterson, New Jersey. He was the second of three sons born to Hilda and Henry, hard-working first generation emigrants from Holland and Denmark. At age three Russ was hit by a car; fortunately he sustained only a mild knee injury, but the event inspired his parents to move out of the congestion of Paterson to live in nearby Hawthorne.
At ten, Russ first learned how to swim when his five-year-old brother Ferdy fell into a pool, leading his mother to push him in as well in order to save his little brother, which he did. It was a close knit family. Living through the depression, Russ did what he could to help support the family, delivering newspapers and shoveling snow to earn money to buy coal to keep the family warm in winter.
He loved to ice skate and play hockey. His real passion, however was music. He took up the guitar, teaching himself how to play. At age twelve his parents figured it was time for Russ to begin formal guitar lessons, but his first lesson promptly became his last when Russ found himself correcting the way his teacher played a song. With his enormous natural musical talent, Russ had already taught himself more than the teacher knew.
On a trip with his parents to Atlantic City, Russ first heard a Hawaiian band playing, falling in love with their style of music, and developing a life long romance with the pedal steel guitar.
In high school Russ played in the school orchestra and chorus. With his imposing physical stature and his natural athletic ability, the football coach tried to recruit Russ for his team. But when Russ witnessed a teammate get hurt – his arm mangled – Russ walked away from football. He needed his hands to play music, and wasn’t about to to risk losing the ability to play music by a football injury.
Russ always loved to be out doors and go on adventures. At age fourteen he bicycled all the way from Hawthorne to Flemington. In his parents’ basement Russ built a kayak which he used to explore the Passaic River.
Russ graduated from high school and soon afterwards was drafted into the army. The United States was on the verge of entering the war. Although playing in the army band was an option open to Russ, in this instance patriotism led Russ to risk life and limb, joining instead the infantry. After training in Maryland, Texas and New York, Russ was sent overseas to fight, first in England, and then travelling by foot across France, Italy and Germany. Trained as a sharpshooter, Russ saw a great deal of bloodshed and misery close at hand, having a close brush with death himself at least once. When the war in Europe ended, Russ was going to be shipped over to the Pacific to continue fighting. The war there, however, came to an end, so he was discharged in 1943 having served his country for three years.
Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Russ enrolled in college at Farleigh Dickinson at the Rutherford Campus. In addition to being a student, Russ worked selling silverware and then insurance. He also gave music lessons. He began playing in various bands. After graduation Russ took a day job working with Metropolitan life, pursuing his musical passions in the evenings and on weekends.
Eventually Russ began “The Music House”, a school he ran out of his home for over forty years. At the peak of the business, the Music House was the center of the music scene in Parsippany, with several teachers providing instruction in a variety of instruments, and Russ personally giving instruction in guitar to seventy students a week. In the words of his wife Ruth, “Russ was patient, expert and innovative, teaching hundreds of students in the course of his lifetime.”
Russ’ first marriage brought forth three children whom he cherished: Bruce, Susan and Laurie. The marriage, however, didn’t survive, but after it dissolved Russ was blessed to find his soul mate in Ruth. After a lengthy courtship they were married on July 4th, 1983, in a lovely, simple ceremony in the back yard of the house in Parsippany. Ruth had four children from a previous marriage, Donald, Garrett, Andrea and Lynelle, to whom Russ opened wide his big heart. Their children became his grandchildren – they affectionately referred to him as “Pepa.”
Ruth became Russ’ “roadie,” and together they spent their weekends traveling from Connecticut to Maryland playing gigs with his various bands. In the summertime they would head to the beach where Russ loved to swim and to fish. Ruth and Russ’ adventures took them to New England, Virginia Beach, Florida, the Bahamas, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand. Locally, they enjoyed going out to local venues to hear their musical friends perform.
Russ’s creativity extended beyond music. He could draw, making subtle charcoal renderings. Russ had a huge work bench in his basement where he would do household repairs as well as fix broken musical instruments. He loved to cook, but not to measure, experimenting with every spice he could get his hands on.
Russ also loved to talk, and made friends wherever he went. All the local shop owners were charmed by Russ.
He was just a very loving person. Russ loved Ruth dearly. Even when he’d get mad at her, he’d still say these utterly romantic things like, “I don’t know why it is, but I just adore you!” He’d buy her flowers and sing her songs.
Russ wasn’t raised in a church-going family, but over time a deep faith grew within him, a trust in a God of love who holds us tenderly in life and in death. His favorite verse, of course, was “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into God’s presence with singing!” (from Psalm 100)
For Russ, music was a way to express that innate joy and thanksgiving that lived inside his big heart.
To live in this world is to know heartbreak; Russ knew this well. He knew the sting of death up close in the war. He knew it other times as well. Soon after his return from the war, at the age of twenty-six he went to visit his beloved younger brother Ferdy, who once upon time he’d saved from the waters of swimming pool. Ferdy was hospitalized for what was supposed to be a relatively minor health matter, but the heart of Russ was broken when he discovered that Ferdy had suddenly died of an aneurism in his abdomen. Fifty three years later Russ’ heart broke again when he went with Ruth to visit his son Bruce at his apartment, only to discover that his beloved son had unexpectedly died.
Through it all, Russ trusted that the love did not die, and that one day he would be reunited with Ferdy and Bruce, his parents, and all the many friends who along life’s way have touched Russ’ big heart.
Two years ago on November 11, 2007 Russ was so very pleased and proud to come to the altar of this sanctuary and, alongside his bride, profess his faith in Jesus who he knew loved him, and to become a member of our church family. And we were pleased and honored to know this wonderfully warm-hearted man.
In recent years, Russ struggled with a gradual memory loss that was often very frustrating. Through it all, the love that Russ and Ruth shared was steadfast and constant. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
In these final two weeks of Russ’ life, his condition deteriorated so rapidly, and there were at times much pain to endure. It was a truly holy thing for me to witness the sweet tenderness with which Ruth cared for Russ, and in turn the sweet tenderness with which Russ expressed his love for Ruth. He’d sing to her of course. “Have I told you, lately, that I love you?”
Russ got to come home from the hospital to spend the last hours of his life on earth in the place where so many happy memories were shared. This past Saturday morning, as he rested in the ocean of God’s love, Russ breathed his last breath in this life.
He came home to his Father’s house, in which there are many dwelling places.
There’s a place prepared for you there too.
Love never ends; the Apostle Paul reminds us. And it’s all that really matters, in the end. We were put on this earth by God in order to love like Jesus, to follow his way, to make a joyful noise with what God has given us, to follow the path of openhearted love that is willing, when necessary, to suffer for that love – to have one’s heart broken for that love – for the joy comes only in such love as this.
“12For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” write Paul, * “but then we will see face to face.” It can be so very confusing, this life. What we see, we see dimly. But, says Paul, one day we will see face to face, see the very face of God, and that day has come for Russ.
It is so very beautiful what Russ gazed upon when he passed through the veil this past Saturday. There are no words to describe it. Elsewhere Paul says that the sufferings of this age –- and sometimes those sufferings can seem pretty overwhelming, in no way compare with the glory that is to be revealed to us – the ocean of love and light that Russ now beholds.
One day we will behold the glory with Russ. In the meantime, we carry on in the school of love, learning what it means to love in the day in and day out moments of our lives. To rejoice, and to weep, to laugh, and to sing, to forgive and to persevere in gentle faithfulness with one another.