My name is Jane Acker, and for nine years, we lived just through the meadow and up the hill, and although we didn’t get to know Pat, Buzz, McHale, Alex, and Adam until the last few years of our time in Corvallis, once the connection was made, we sure made up for lost time.
Our family moved away from Corvallis in 1995, and although we’ve maintained a close friendship in the intervening years, the period when I knew Alex best was thus his middle school years. Alex was unlike many boys in that 12-14 age group in some significant ways. At a time when it’s pretty common for noses to be the wrong size for faces, and for arms, legs and feet to lead uncoordinated lives of their own, Alex was both strikingly handsome and possessed of natural athletic grace, qualities that shone throughout his life.
And in the past several weeks, I have been reflecting on more profound aspects of Alex that were evident in his young adolescence but revealed their significance far more fully in his adulthood. Like most of you, I have been rereading some of Alex’ blog posts and other writings, and one that Pat brought to my attention, from the Dolomitesport blog in 2009, captured some powerful themes for me. Alex’ contribution to the blog describes vividly and very personally his rides over some of the most challenging passes in the Dolomites, and in his introduction, the blog’s editor comments insightfully on Alex’ remarkable strength and incredible attitude.
And that brings me back to Alex’ 8th grade year. I will summarize one aspect of it that, in retrospect, is powerfully evocative: Alex, wearing shorts, and our daughter Katherine, rode their bicycles to school every day for all of 8th grade. I’d like to take a few minutes to deconstruct this statement for you.
First: “Wearing shorts.” For whatever reason, Alex had decided that his emerging identity required abandonment of long pants, and he persisted in this commitment through cold, rain, snow, and ice. Frankly, on many occasions, it seemed ridiculous, but he was indifferent to appearances, the opinions of others, or indeed, to common sense. There is a fine line between teenage irrational stubbornness and mature courageous adherence to conviction, and Alex as an adult knew where that line was. He was truly intentional in his thoughts, words, and actions, with a passion that animated every hour of every day. Although tolerant of the beliefs of others, he was unafraid to hold tight to what he knew was right for him.
Secondly: “With our daughter Katherine.” When we first got to know Pat and Buzz, I asked Katherine, who was in Alex’ grade at school, if she knew him. “He’s in my band class, one of the percussionists, SO annoying!” I guess Alex had noticed the impact loud and unexpected noises could have on classmates and took full advantage. Nonetheless, they became good friends, and when Alex came up with this bike riding project, Katherine signed on. I will note that Katherine was not at that time an eager riser. Morning was a tough time of day for her, especially as she was still too young to drink coffee.
Yet for that entire year, she was up and out extra early on her bike, knowing that Alex was waiting at the end of Jackson Creek Drive for their ride. His vision of this undertaking, his commitment to the project, and his belief in both the satisfaction and the fun of the ride, got her going, and indeed, they even recruited a third friend to meet them for the last leg of the trip. Even as a boy, Alex was truly a charismatic person, and he continued through adulthood to inspire others through his teaching and the extraordinary example he set in so many ways.
Finally: “rode his bicycle to school.” Unless you came by helicopter this morning, you will have noticed a very significant hill that lies between here and the flatter ground to the south and east that leads to Cheldelin Middle School, and that’s the route they took every single morning. It’s not the Dolomiti, but the strength and determination that Alex brought to the Italian mountains were evident all those years ago.
Most of us, cyclists or not, are willing to put up with the challenge of going uphill for the sake of what you see at the top or how easy and pleasant it is to go down. Certainly Alex appreciated broad views and the effortless speed of the descent. Yet Alex also embraced the ascent. The pain and difficulty of going up were precious to him. He did not limit his joy in life to the parts that were easy or even happy, but extended his full acceptance to all that was hard, finding there the possibility of growth and increased understanding and self-awareness.
With legs burning, sweating, gasping for breath, Alex scaled the heights and reached the loftiest of peaks. He sought challenge and did not shy away from what was daunting or even frightening. So now, facing the truly awful challenge of life without Alex, it is time to summon our courage and endurance and emulate him to the best of our abilities. Even as a middle school student, Alex was ready to confront the rigors of going up. Inspired by his example, perhaps all of us he left behind can do likewise.