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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Seven Years Gone, And Still Changing Lives

I was snuck up on yesterday. By sadness.

I had been going along at a lovely pace of “accept what you cannot change and work towards changing what you can” for the past three months. Pretty content. Envisioning the future of TLC and the wonderful things unfolding, as well as the challenges we face like all organizations in a pandemic. And I was quite happy in these endeavors.

But yesterday, sadness came up from behind and tapped me on the shoulder. It was a specific sadness, not the sometimes-nebulous sadness that depression or anxiety can bring. It had a name and a face.

Steve Wilkinson. Seven years ago today, Steve passed away. Seven years. How can that be? Someday someone will be saying that about you and me. But not today. Today I say it about Steve.

Looking back can be both beautiful and painful.

I remember years ago sitting in the kitchen eating Cheerios with our daughter, Madeline. I said to her, “I am sad today.” She asked why. I said, “Steve is going to die.” This was when he first got his terminal diagnosis. She loved Steve, he was always kind to her when she visited camp. But she kept eating her Cheerios, and then said, “Everyone is going to die someday, Dad.” Another bite. Silence. “You’re going to die.” Another bite. Silence. “And I’m going to die, too.” And finished her Cheerios. Not without compassion, but clear-eyed, even as a ten-year-old, about the reality we all face.

And Steve had that same mentality. He did not ask “Why me?” H e said, “Here are the cards I have been dealt, how do I want to play my final hand?” Ultimately, he asked what he asked all the time before his diagnosis, “How can I serve others with the time I have left?”

He taught tennis until he couldn’t teach anymore. He put smiley faces on until he couldn’t put smiley faces on anymore. And he wrote his book, Let Love Serve, which is the guide of the TLC philosophy we used before he wrote it, but has become the textbook for going forward as a camp and as people since.

I’ll never forget Steve’s last days in his hospice bed in the living room of his house, the house that sits right next to the dorm where every camp for the past 45 years has been lodged (save the tornado summer in Winona in 1998).

If I have written this before, forgive me. But the imprint is indelible.

Everyone wanted to see him before he died. He had such a parade of visitors that Barb had to act as gatekeeper so he wouldn’t wear out.

Steve’s whole life was about service. It was his goal.

So, as he was in the process of dying, he had an idea. He could not get out of bed, he barely had the strength to talk, he could not do really anything that healthy human beings can do, but he could still serve.

And what he did, in his particular “Steve” way, was match up people who never knew each other, but who Steve thought should know each other. Should be connected. To light a spark of friendship that could double the impact of serving others in the world.

He scheduled these strangers together to sit by his bedside. And he would listen to the conversation and smile as he saw another bridge built before these two people left the room as friends.

I wrote above that looking back can be painful and beautiful. The painful part is we will

not see each other again. The beautiful part is we get to see him in almost every staff member and camper who attends TLC, leaving camp having built bridges all over the place, with people who you would not expect necessarily to bond in that way.

Today, I miss Steve, and I see him clearly. As always, he is smiling and offering a high five. Whether you met him or not, you have been impacted by who he was.

So, today, in honor of Steve’s memory, build a bridge with someone.

We need it now more than ever in this world, in this country, in our lives.

And today, though I am sad, I am grateful, determined, and hopeful. All the things Steve taught through his actions to the very end.


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