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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Forgetting and Remembering

Yesterday would have been Steve Wilkinson’s 76th birthday.  And I forgot.  He would have been ok with that.

One of my favorite memories of Steve was his wandering the courts in the Swanson bubble with the list of all 100 campers’ names in his hands.  Learning the names somehow came easy to me, and that ticked him off.  (I would say, “Yeah, and your kicking my butt in tennis ticks me off.  I’ll trade you.”)  He would forget names and daily have to work really, really hard at it.  It’s one of the only things with Steve I ever saw that did not come easy.

He would often stop me and ask, “Ok, is that Sarah or is that Jennifer?”  I would say “Jennifer”.  He would say, “Thank you”, then go back to concentrating on his list.  It was sweet, it was funny, it was brave, it was incredible.  It was – in a word – beautiful.  He never gave up.  And it was important he knew everyone’s name.  Because he required us all to know them.  He knew that calling someone by name gave them something powerful.  It meant they were “known”.  He cared enough to know.

Though I forgot his birthday, strangely, all day long I was thinking of him.  Much more than normal.

People tell me all the time that Steve lives on in his book.  In his teachings.  In the people he loved.  In the legacy of Tennis & Life Camps.  In Gustavus tennis.

I’m sorry, that is not enough for me.  I miss laughing with him.  Arguing with him.  Learning from him.  Asking his advice.  Being exasperated by him.  Hugging him.  High-fiving him.

It’s not enough for me that he “lives on”.   I want him here.  And that’s not going to happen.  He used to practice the Serenity Prayer every day.  “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  And now I do.  Every day.  Not in a way that is attached to a particular religion.  In a way that is attached to all humanity, those who practice a religion and those who do not.

And here is where Steve and I would disagree: sometimes I cannot accept the things I cannot change.  Sometimes I cannot accept the fact that he is gone.  Sorry, there it is.  Call me a bad person, call me weak, call me stubborn, call me a fool.  But you cannot make acceptance happen.  You can work towards it, but you cannot force it.

But I realized this morning as I was lying in bed thinking about him, I still change the things I can, often thanks to him.

I practice what Steve taught me the most: the practical application of love.  Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk I often read, talks of one of the grounding principles of Buddhism:  our actions are our only possessions.  Steve, a practicing Lutheran, I thought of as a Zen Master (he was steeped in Eastern religion and was a World Religions professor at Gustavus before starting TLC in 1977).  He took the amorphous, dreamy wishes we all have when we say “I just want the world to have more love”, and put it into practical terms (Steve was nothing, if not practical), and said, “If you just want the world to have more love, then do it. Here’s how.”


We talk about love all the time.  Steve taught thousands of us it is not so complicated.  It is in our simple actions.  It is learning someone’s name.  It is carrying someone’s luggage.  It is eating a meal with a lonely camper and bringing them out of their shell by asking questions until you strike on the passion in their voice and the light in their eyes.  It is by high-fiving.  Anyone.  Anywhere.  It is by complimenting your opponent.  Even when they are cheating you.  It is in reaching out to your enemy.  Even when they may cut you off at the knees.  It is by calling out and doing something about injustice in the world.  Even if it might be unpopular to do so. It is by changing the only person you can.  Yourself.

So, no, Steve, today I do not accept a thing I cannot change.  You’re gone.  But I can change what I can.  And I will.  I will go relearn someone’s name that I forgot.

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