The other day I attended the funeral of a friend.  I met Billy over a decade ago on a fly fishing trip on the Deschutes River in Oregon.  At that time, he was in his late seventies and looked like a small version of who I imagine Moses to look like.  He had a big white beard and calloused hands that were a dead giveaway of a lifetime of getting stuff done!  He was kind-hearted and took an immediate interest in getting to know me, among the other men in the group. Needless to say, we hit it off pretty quickly as I realized I was in the presence of an uncommon man. 

During our time together, we enjoyed talking about matters of God, marriage, children, and the art of fly fishing.  Bill never mentioned it, but I learned from the other guys that he was a renowned engineer and inventor with several US patents to his name. Apparently, he had cleared the orange groves that Disneyland sits on and when the flooded, underground city of Seattle needed to be drained and cleared, Bill supervised the job.

The biggest moment from that particular trip, though, was sudden and scary – we realized Billy was having a heart attack while we were camping in the middle of the Deschutes River Canyon. We had no cell service and only two rafts!  As luck (or Providence) would have it, we had a physician on the trip who confirmed what Bill was facing. Bill came out of his tent and quietly shared about the troubling night he endured.  One of the men asked him: “Billy, why didn’t you say anything, or wake us up?  We’re all here for you.”

To that, Bill replied, “Well, it was just me and Jesus in that tent, and… well, He was enough.” At that moment, we all knew that we were standing in the presence of an uncommon man. 

We loaded Billy up into one of the rafts and our most knowledgeable guide began to take him and the doctor out into the river.  Even with low wind, it would take them five hours to get to the takeout.  Another man climbed a mountain to make the emergency call so the rig could be shuttled days ahead of schedule and get Billy to the hospital, and to his wife. 

One on-going tradition of this trip is to stop at the local watering hole just eight miles north of the takeout for an ice-cold, old fashioned milkshake.  I later learned that while Billy was enduring his heart attack, he asked the guys to stop because he had his mind set on enjoying a blackberry shake!  Billy made it to the hospital some three and a half hours away, had multiple bypass surgery and then lived another twelve years. We had been standing in the presence of an uncommon man.

That trip launched a friendship that endured.  As Billy’s body continued to break down, he refused to let it break down his faith, hope, and love.  He and I spoke on the phone every month, with him doing most of the calling.  He was always interested in how the family and the business were going and would add anything I cared to share to his lengthy prayer list.  Billy was faithful to take up our concerns with God.  I love him for that. I was humbled to be in the presence of an uncommon man.

At the funeral and memorial service that eventually followed Billy’s death, I saw what I thought I would see.  One after another, I listened to Billy’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren share about how their dad/grandpa/great-grandpa changed their lives.  His presence, care, and wisdom had been an undeniable force in that family. However, the remarkable thing was that Billy’s life (earlier on) had been one of struggle, as he battled alcoholism for at least a couple decades. His adult daughter, who was a grandmother in her own right, spoke of how she was so proud of her dad.  Though they had a broken relationship (because of Billy’s addiction) for a period of time, I heard her tell of how her dad found Jesus and became a different man. With tears, she spoke of how her dad turned toward her, sought to repair things with her, and found personal healing and freedom from the bottle. They built a new and lasting relationship.  Remarkable!  She said he was the best influence on her kids and grandkids, and that the whole family changed for the better because he decided to let Jesus take over.  She then encouraged the audience by saying that if redemption and healing were possible for Billy and her, then it was possible for anyone!  And that’s when I lost it. 

Leadership guru, John Maxwell, may have said it best when he said, “Success means having those closest to me love and respect me the most.”  After letting go of the controls and letting Jesus take over, Billy was a changed man. The fruit of that change was in the legacy that stood before me…the people that had come from all over the map to pay their respects and to testify of how Billy changed their lives. Billy knew true success.  He gave his life away to serve and lift up others.  Those calloused hands were more from labors of love than anything else! Like Billy, I want to be an uncommon man. 
Written by Jeff Mattson,  MA ORGL
Owner/Founder of Living Wholehearted, Leadership Consultant
*Photo taken of Jeff & Billy in 2010.