Sunday, October 25, 2015

Love's Legacy in Leadership

"I wasn't supposed to be here."

This was the refrain we heard again and again on Friday night, as present and former Augustana Residence Life staff gathered in a Camrose church to remember Mark Chytracek and pay their respects to his family.

This feeling of displacement was a common sentiment; I myself had planned to transfer to the much larger University of Alberta after a year or two, and other people had similar stories: one young man transferred from engineering at the U of A to math at Augustana based on scholarship availability. Another fellow moved into residence at the urging of his friends, despite his misgivings. A current employee had thought he was on a bus to a campus in Canmore until he realized they were heading north and not west, and had no idea of where Camrose even was.

However we had arrived there, we had made connections, we had laid down roots, and we all felt compelled to contribute to the community we had discovered; a community that felt like family, and the heads of that family were Mark and Brandi Chytracek.

When Audrey and I and our friend Angie had first arrived at Bethel Lutheran Friday night, it was emptier than we had expected, with none of Mark's family in attendance. Rob, a classmate who had worked with Mark for 25 years now, assured us that they were coming, but they had been asked to attend the basketball game at Augustana that evening. I knew Mark had been a vociferous booster of our Vikings, but was still a bit surprised, until I heard the details.

First of all, Rob explained, the visiting team had respected the home team's wishes and allowed them to switch out the traditional white jerseys of the home team for the mourning colours of black. Then the announcers explained that a plaque had been placed on the wall in the southeast corner of the gym, depicting both Mark's animated support and his willingness to challenge officials on calls that were not of the highest standards of observation, rules knowledge and contextual understanding:

Well, if that doesn't bring a lump to your throat, give my regards to the other replicants.

Brandi, her children Jonathan, Amanda and David, and other family and friends arrived before too long and we gathered in the sanctuary. Once everyone had assembled, Rob, now the senior Student Services official, smiled sadly and said, softly, "Welcome home," words most of us had heard whispered in our ears while being hugged by Mark when we had occasion to return to campus.

Next, he explained how he had approached Mark with the idea of creating a challenge coin for the Residence Life program, and asked everyone who had one to come forward and form a large circle,with those who had not yet received theirs in the centre. One by one, they came forward, received the coin and a big hug from Rob (Mark was an infamous hugger), and moved to the outer ring. He also explained how Mark had given away many coins after encountering Res Life alumni on the street or in the grocery store, and would need replacements after having given them his own.

Afterwards we sat, and one by one, people came forward and told their stories, almost invariably with that element of surprise that they had come to Camrose, or stayed longer than expected at Augustana, or had been accepted for a Residence Life position. None of us, it seemed, were supposed to be there.

A young man spoke of how much he had grown at Augustana, but nowhere more than under Mark's tutelage, and at no time so much as when Mark said they were creating an Aboriginal Student Advisor position, and wanted this person to apply for it. When he resisted and said he didn't have what it would take, Mark told him, "I know you do, I can see it in you, and I just want you to trust me until you can see it for yourself."

A young lady told her story about joining the program mid year, after the training had been done in the summer and the other Res Life had had a chance to bond. Mark called her into his office to ask how it was going, and dismissed her glib assurances that things were fine, saying, "it's okay, I know it is hard coming into the middle and I really want to know how it is going." She started to weep, saying she didn't know either what she was doing or why she was there, but Mark, in complete assurance and confidence, told her that the girls on her floor needed her smile and her positivity, and that was why she had been hired.

One person talked about his resistance to moving on campus, being a native Camrosian, summing up his attitude with "Me and people? Not such a good idea." But he came, reluctantly, and applied to Res Life, and that is where he really started learning. He paused in his recollection, as many that evening had, but not to weep. After reflection, he said, "I grew up with a lot of hate in my life." I was shocked; this individual didn't seem any more out of step with humanity than I had been at that age, but he continued. "Mark was one of those people that showed me it didn't have to be like that, that there was a better way, and I will always be grateful for that."

I hadn't come there to speak, but having heard so much, I felt compelled. I wish I could remember what I said, but it seems everything went from my heart to my mouth, with very little involvement from my brain, and I can recall only vagaries.

I can tell you that the struggle to keep my voice under control was even greater than it was delivering my father's eulogy, and I did not always succeed, and that I could barely make out the faces of the people I spoke to through the tears. I thanked the other speakers, and Brandi for sharing Mark, and his family for living in a dumpy dorm wing for much of their lives so we could feel like a part of their family.

I explained how much Mark's death had devastated me, despite not being in frequent contact with each other. I asked how many others had struggled to explain their relationship with Mark: employer, mentor, teacher, coach, example, friend, brother, father, colleague, confidante.

I expressed wonder that one man could have such a profound effect on so many people at such a formative part of their lives that 8 colleagues from my time with Residence Life a quarter century ago would be in attendance. I remember I said that Mark didn't teach me to care, but taught me how to do it well.

I described the home and life that Mark and Brandi and their children shared with us during their 17 years of living on campus as less of a job, and more than an example, but mostly as a ministry; a masterful tutorial on examined and loving and respectful living that influences me to this day in how I interact with others, and no one more than with my wife and children.

I described Mark as a lens that focused love, and how grateful I was to bask in that warmth, even for a little while.

(Just writing the words now is turning me into a soggy and misshapen mess, and I am perhaps finally beginning to understand why so many great writers drank as much as they did.)

After the speaking was done, we gathered together to share some food and fellowship, and relate some recollections in a happier state of mind. There were still tears, but fewer of them, and leavened by the accompaniment of laughter, which I know Mark would have loved.

I suggested that we Resident Assistants of an '80s vintage should get a photo together, and they agreed that this was probably a good idea. There are already plans afoot for an RA reunion where hopefully those who couldn't come to Mark's memorial from all across the country and the globe could perhaps do so, and also hear that whispered, "Welcome home."

The pain is hard to bear, but not hard to explain. When Dad died, he was in poor health and declining faculties, even though 79 was still too soon for him to go. With Mark, a man preparing to retire in the next couple of years but who died just weeks short of his 57th birthday, it is an injustice of Olympian proportions. That a man who gave so much of his life to others should not get to spend a decade or three with his beloved wife in retirement is ghastly, and criminal, and unfair.

Mark's memorial should have been another 25 years from now. We should have heard tales about the travels and adventures he and Brandi experienced after a lifetime of noble service His grandchildren should have been among his eulogists, explaining how inspirational he had been in his faith, and in his actions and in his beliefs. The iniquity of his sudden passing is galling, and the solace we draw from the tears and laughter in the tales of those whose lives he touched, going back to his earliest days at Camrose Lutheran College, is a stringent balm to what all of our hurting tells us is The Truth, and The Truth is this:

None of us was supposed to be here today.

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