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Friday, December 23, 2016

Jesse T. Byler, 1928-90, Beloved Mentor And Friend

With two-year-old grandson Holden (photo by Daryl Byler)
Twenty-six years ago today the world lost one of the finest men I have ever known.

Jesse Byler died at 62 of a respiratory condition he had since childhood, when nine bouts of pneumonia in succession left his lungs permanently scarred. He left behind his good wife Betty and three grown children, Cheryl, Daryl and Judy.

I will always miss him as a memorable mentor and valued role model.

I learned to know Jesse when I was a student at Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU) and a dorm assistant for junior and senior guys attending Eastern Mennonite High School, where Jesse was then the school's principal.

It was Jesse who offered me my first career job in 1964, teaching upper level high school social studies and Bible classes and serving as Dean of Boys at EMHS. Fortunately for Alma Jean and I, newly married that summer, he selected her to teach Home Economics.

A year later, Jesse was instrumental in my receiving a call to serve as his assistant at Zion Mennonite Church near Broadway, where he was then their part time senior pastor.

This was my first experience in that kind of role, one I scarcely felt qualified for. But I couldn't have chosen a more understanding and supportive mentor, someone from whom I learned so much by his example as a caring pastor and Bible teacher.

One of the things that made his life so remarkable was that he accomplished all that he did in spite of his health condition, overcoming great odds in pursuing excellence as an educator and pastor. When he was advised to give up preaching in order to conserve his energy for a new assignment as head of EMC's education department, he encouraged me to accept an invitation to become senior pastor in his place on a half-time basis.

For the next twenty years, while I served in the dual roles of pastor at Zion and teacher at EMHS, Jesse and his good wife Betty remained loyal members of the congregation. When faced with a difficult challenge, I often turned to him for counsel or would ask myself, "What Would Jesse Do?".

Pastors staying on as members after resigning from a senior leadership role isn't usually recommended. And in deference to me, Jesse would have been willing to attend elsewhere for  an interim while I took over the lead pastoral role at Zion, taught some high school courses, and tried to find quality time with our family.

Needless to say,  I urged Jesse to stay, as the kind of person I felt I could ill afford to do without. And what a gracious friend and support both he and Betty proved to be, not only to me and to our family but to the whole congregational family he remained loyal to his whole life.

His wife Betty now lives at Park Place at the Virginia Retirement Community. One of their pastimes was putting jigsaw puzzles together. The following is a poem his oldest daughter wrote after her father's death.

Daddy, we'll put together
   your Christmas puzzle.
The one with the snow-covered
   peak, steep and stark.

You feared that last peak,
   afraid you might not
have the courage to battle
   up its slopes, not
have the strength to go on
   to the summit, that
your endurance would run
   out like the last
precious drops of your life-
   sustaining oxygen.

But Sunday when you stood on
   the foothills and looked
at the climb ahead, you smiled.
   You could do it, you said.
It was no different after all,
   from the other peaks
you've scaled, the other fears
   you've faced, the other
vistas that beckoned. Your
   last climb blended into
each preceding one and you
   entered dying with
the wholeness of your living.

So as we put these 3,000
   pieces together, we'll think of
you striding the ridge,
   breathing with delightful ease,
running with abandonment
   through the snow, freed of your
scarred, worn lungs.
   And we'll laugh with you.

Cheryl Byler Keeler
December 26, 1990
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