Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vernon Zehr 1934-2011

Our brother-in-law Vernon Zehr died Sunday at age 77 in Greenwood, Delaware. His obituary appears in today's Daily News-Record.

One of the many blessings of being married to Alma Jean has been inheriting 14 (yes, fourteen) wonderful in-laws, and Vernon, married to my wife’s next older sister Freda, was one of our favorites. They spent most of their adult lives in Wilmington, Delaware, where Vernon served in a dual role as a pastor and a special education teacher (and later principal).

As my wife commented to me this morning, there was so much of Jesus in this man. He loved everybody, reached out to the under served and ignored, saw every human being as special, wasn't afraid to question the religious establishment, and was as friendly, open minded and open hearted a man as one could find anywhere.

One of his nieces, Mary Ann Yutzy, daughter of another of my wife’s sisters, posted this on her blog Sunday in memory of her beloved uncle. I asked her permission to share this excerpt, which captures so well the kind of person he was:

I remember one time when Uncle Vernon and Aunt Freda come to visit us, and I was in the throes of young adolescence ('Addled Essence" would be more accurate, to be sure!).  My hair was a mess, and my dress was dirty.  I had been trying to clean up the kitchen, and I was talking to Uncle Vernon.  We stored the frying pan in the oven at our house (Still do in my house, to this day!)  But I had put a cake in to bake just a little before, and it was almost done.  I was talking animatedly to Uncle Vernon, who always engaged me in conversation, and without thinking, I grabbed the frying pan and put it into the oven without looking, right on top of that almost baked cake.  I felt an unfamiliar thud and then I looked in disbelief at the flattened and scrunched cake.

My Sweet Mama was not happy with me for ruining the cake.  We had plans to use it for a dessert the next day that is similar to Cherry Delight.  The only difference is that you use the baked cake as the bottom layer instead of a graham cracker crust.  It was all the rage back then, and I am pretty sure that Mama was expecting company for lunch the next day.  I don't know what she must have thought, but it WAS a result of not paying attention.  (Something I was, unfortunately, quite famous for.  Still am.)  Uncle Vernon and Aunt Freda were the current company, though and so she didn't scold me too hard.  But I felt awful, and I cried.  We tried hard to repair and salvage, but it was still rather sorry looking.

Later, I was back in the kitchen, and Uncle Vernon came up to me and said, "Mary Ann.  Come here."  He took me to where our living room and dining room met, where there was a large, full length mirror, and positioned me in front of it.  "Take a good look," he said.  I did.  Didn't particularly like what I saw, either.  "What do you see?" he asked.

It really wasn't much to look at.  My hair was stringy, falling down over my face.  I reached up and tried to tuck it behind my ear.  My dress, made of the shirtwaist pattern of the day, was an aqua gingham, rumpled and dirty.  I was dreadfully self conscious.  "Um, I don't know.  Me?"

"Now, Mary Ann," he instructed kindly, "I want you to straighten your shoulders.  Don't slump.  And I want you to smile.  You can smile."  He took my hands gently in his and crossed them over my tummy.  "Hold your hands just so.  Like that.  Now look at you.  I see a beautiful young lady," he said with energy, confidence and enthusiasm.  "Look at you!  You really are a wonderful young lady.  You are intelligent and you will go far."

I looked in the mirror.  I smiled at the girl in the mirror and she smiled back.  I felt a surge of confidence like I had never known before.  I didn't feel beautiful, but I felt capable.  I knew I wasn't gorgeous.  I certainly didn't have a reason to be vain, but I really did feel like I could meet the challenges of life, and that I had something to offer this old world, and it felt really, really good.

I have always blessed him for that day.  It was pivotal in my life.  It was many, many years before I understood how "Uncle Vernon" that was.  He lived and breathed encouragement.  He looked for something to praise, something to give hope, something to affirm. 

I pray that part of Vernon Zehr can live on in each of us.

May he rest in peace.
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