The last time I talked to Keith Sommers, he had me belly laughing after Easter service at the Potwin Christian Church. Little did I know it would be our last conversation.
Keith smiled and shook my hand; “You remember that story you told your first year in the pulpit about the cow and the calf?” I chuckled remembering when I bombed that joke nearly thirty years ago. It was not an appropriate joke to tell in church, but, in a rural community, I assumed any joke about livestock was fair game. I was wrong. The little old ladies were not amused.
Keith continued, “Well, I think I can honestly say it’s taken 30 years but today I heard one worse than that! But you were young and didn’t know better!” I doubled over in laughter.
I was traveling when I heard he passed. I am deeply saddened for the loss of a great man and that I never told him how much he shaped my life. If I had to use one phrase to describe Keith it would be this: He was a pillar of the community. I’ve heard that cliché numerous times, but never really contemplated what it meant until after Keith passed.
This is why Keith was a pillar of the community:
- He was a family man.
- His marriage; One of my favorite mental images of Keith and his wife, Carlene, is when they dressed up in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” for a party at the church. Their marriage was so solid and sweet that simply to be around them had a powerful influence on people. Carlene, one of the godliest women I have ever known, was a beacon of faith especially as she endured a long fight with cancer which finally took her life.
- His children; I had the pleasure of watching his children grow up. From watching them play biddy ball to watching them get married, I watched Keith be an incredible father to Jim, Tom, and Ginger.
- He was a man of faith.
- Keith was not only faithful to attend church every Sunday morning, he was a man whose faith was as important to him on Wednesday as it was on Sunday. And I loved to hear him sing!
- He was involved in the community.
- His leadership was unique because he was a quiet leader. Whether it was president of a church board or the school board, Keith didn’t always have a lot to say, but when he did, everyone listened. Keith carried a lot of weight with his opinions because he observed first, then spoke.
- He embraced change.
- I introduced a contemporary music to the church and some of the old folks were grumbling. Keith was the linchpin in getting it accepted in the congregation when he said, “I always thought you were supposed to have a long, sad face in church, but now I realize it’s a place of joy.” Keith later joined the praise team and was a voice of comfort and challenge for the congregation.
- He was able to work with those with whom he differed.
- Working with Keith in the church, we didn’t always see eye-to-eye but he always treated me with respect. Keith once said to me, “I might not have liked what Rick McNary said or did, but I always liked Rick McNary.” I often think of that phrase when I relate to people with whom I disagree. That is a principle of leadership that is more powerful than I realized at the time.
- He was a hard worker.
- If you ever heard Paul Harvey’s, “So God Made A Farmer,” then you know Keith Sommers.
Our community is not as strong as it was while Keith was here. I drive by the old brick church with its stained glass window and feel the hole that is there because Keith is gone.
I wonder who among the young people will be the next pillar of the community. His kids have a pretty good head start, thanks to him and Carlene. I wonder if that person will wear a silver Stetson cocked a bit to one side, smile with a bit of a turn of a turned up smile in one corner of their mouth, and shake your hand with the firm and calloused grip of a person who lived his life on the land.
They’ll have mighty big boots to fill.
But Keith would want them to try.
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