He served meals to students with a smile, never revealing what he was feeling inside
By George Valadie
Not too long ago, Nancy and I had the opportunity to return to Memphis, where we had spent 14 wonderful years of our lives.
There, I had the privilege of serving as a Catholic high school principal, she as an administrative assistant. We had returned to attend a Sunday afternoon ceremony where we were blessed to reconnect with many old friends who had made our time there as memorable as it was.
There were stories galore of the school’s past, paying special tribute to its founders, their vision, the people who followed, and so many others who had been part of writing her history.
As for our family’s small chapter of the story, my tenure there included the window of time when the current school campus was constructed.
Truth be told, I had never even built a shed out back of my house. And “handy around the house” is not a phrase my wife will ever use to describe me. Deservedly so, even though I did use a hammer once . . . but only to get the last titch of toothpaste out of the tube.
Thankfully, as the school’s building process unfolded, I was tutored and guided by many whose gifts and talents deserve all the credit for piecing together a puzzle of disparate dreams into a hallowed home for doing God’s work.
“Master craftsman” has become an infrequently used term in today’s get-it-done environment. But these guys were. It’s as beautiful today as it was when the bishop blessed its opening.
Honestly though, as the building rose up out of an old hayfield, I recall my role as primarily one of saying “yes” to this and “no” to that with the occasional “how much extra would it cost if we tried this?” thrown in to complicate the matter.
God takes care of children and fools.
Once back home, I realized that having been there to walk the halls of our past was inspiring me to take a similar journey through other memories we’d created there, though now dormant. So I set out on a tour guided by a few old yearbooks, all in hopes of recalling names and faces I had long forgotten.
Like getting lost in a box of old family photos, you can spend a lot of time with the who and what and where of your past.
Each new page recalled an old story, when, don’t ask me why, I suddenly went on a hunt for a picture of James.
James, the French fry guy.
Likely years younger than his haggard appearance, James worked a year or two for our cafeteria catering company. I never could find his photo and worse, I couldn’t recall his last name either.
But James cooked our French fries. He did it well, too, because our kids ate thousands of pounds of them. We even had a contest once to guess how many our students had consumed. We were all astounded.
His day-to-day life outside the confines of our kitchen was a hard one. He wasn’t homeless, but he wasn’t far from it. He had very little, if he had anything at all. Except a personality and smile that shone brighter than the stainless-steel counter he polished every day.
The man never had a bad day. Every kid knew him. Every kid loved him.
On occasion, he would secretly ask for and I would loan him small amounts of money. We were both violating employer policy—his and mine. I never shared his sin with his boss; he never shared mine.
One day, his supervisor informed me that James’s wife had died. As a sign of his dedication—or more likely his need to earn a paycheck—he missed but one day of work following her loss. He was back at it the next.
His smile, his joy, his kindly manner of serving the fries for which our kids could be known to clamor impatiently—none of it ever revealed her illness, her passing, or whatever he was feeling inside.
A week or so later, he appeared at my office with a wooden cross, one he’d most likely fashioned himself. Not quite three feet tall, rough, bare wood with scruffy edges, nothing inscribed. I’d have tossed it in the dumpster if I’d seen it lying around campus.
He asked if it might be possible for our art department kids to paint his wife’s name on it. Turns out she’d been buried in an unmarked grave in the city’s cemetery where paupers lie. He could though—if he wanted—mark it in whatever fashion he could devise.
When the teacher informed her kids of their newest project, word instantly spread among all the rest. And our students were face-to-face with the human condition most had only seen at a distance—imagining this grieving man standing over his wife and her woeful wooden marker.
They were good kids—they ate too many French fries—but they were good kids and spontaneously began collecting funds for a marble marker to honor his wife, one resembling those they’d seen for others. It lies there with her today.
I’m certain James never knew all the conversations that followed in our classrooms. Some were about him and his wife; but some were about poverty and want and what can we do.
For these students, hardship now had a face they knew and loved, the concept no longer theoretical. Nor would the ideas of adversity and impoverishment be limited to the lazy, the homeless, or the addicted whose wretched fate many presumed was a making of their own.
James, the French fry guy—his kindness made us better.
Each Lenten season offers us opportunities to give up or take up something that stretches us beyond where we like to be. If you’re struggling to be faithful to your recent pledge or perhaps still casting about, trying to decide what it is you might do with your 40 days, maybe you can do what James did with his every day.
Just smile and serve and make the world a little bit kinder place. Not a bad Lent for anyone.
Dear God—May we view our lives with the same joy as do many who have no reason. And may we be that reason for others who can’t. Amen.
George Valadie resides in Chattanooga and is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church.