This past week Wess Stafford, the President of Compassion International appeared on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast. Wess, as a child, lived in a missionary boarding school (it just so happens that our daughter Bethany is currently a counselor in a missionary boarding school) where he suffered abuse at the hands of his teachers. It was during this time, when he was 10 years old, that he sensed his calling from God to establish some means of ministering to children around the world who were neglected, abused or just simply ignored. He said that God has convinced him that adults have the capacity to bring lasting change to the lives of children around
the world even if their contact with that child is for only a moment.
Wess’ comments reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ word in The Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses”
Wess encourages us to view every opportunity we have to spend with children, no matter how short, to be an opportunity to impact a life for eternity. It got me thinking about who in my childhood (apart from my parents) impacted me in a way that changed my life. It did not take any time for me to come up with a name, to know a man who in a brief moment impacted my life in a way that has lasted until this day. It was my Little League baseball coach, Dave DuPree.
As long as I can remember baseball has been my favorite sport. I loved it as a kid but then one summer around 1967 or 68 I became a devoted fan. My best friend’s sister was dating an American Legion player and we went to several games with her and watched him play. Later that summer our church youth group to Atlanta and she persuaded the adult chaperones that seeing the Braves play was just as important as going to 6 Flags. After that I was hooked. But a few years before that I was in love with the game as a player. For 3 years I was a player on the Scottish Rite little league team at Satchel Ford Elementry School. I loved the game but I was not very good. To be honest I was lousy. But at that time the purpose of Little League baseball was not to produce major league contenders but to produce young men who understood the importance of honesty and hard work in sports. My coach, Mr. DuPree was a strong believer in this ideal, though he certainly loved winning as well.
For me, however, the major concern in Little League baseball was seeking to avoid embarrement and humiliation as much as possible. In the field this meant hoping that no batter was able to hit a ball that reached me in the outfield (the safest place to put a clumsy player) and while at bat never to strike out swinging. You could strike out looking (Ferguson’s rules for baseball) because you could always glare at the umpire and act like he had made the wrong call: “Are you blind ump! That was way outside! Certainly not my fault that we now have another out”.
My own solution to this perplexing problem was what got nicknamed “the Fergie smile”. I would simply make ridiculous faces at the pitchers and hoped they cracked up enough so they could not pitch straight. As memory serves this was not the best strategy but it seemed to work about half the time. Each time I did this, whether I got on base or not when I got back to the dugout Coach DuPree would always say something like: “Would you cut that out! You are here to learn how to play ball and an important part of that is learning to hit”.
Then one day I was at the plate giving my “Fergie smile” to Cliff Rivers who I think was pitching for Kester’s Bamboo House (any of you Satchel Ford or A. C. Flora alumni who remember which team Cliff pitched for I would appreciate an update). Cliff was a great pitcher and I usually did not succeed in getting his shaken up but I always made him laugh. Well after the first pitch I heard Coach DuPree yell real loud “Time out Mr. Umpire”. He came over to me, grabbed me by my shoulder, got down on my level, looked me straight in the eye and said: “Fergie, I don’t care if you strike out everytime you get up here if you are swinging but you are not going to do this smile anymore! You swing at that ball! Thank you Mr. Umpire” and walked back to the dugout. Though he yelled the time out, he spoke the other part in a voice that only I could hear. Well I swung away and … well I struck out. I don’t know how many more times I struck out before I first made contact. It seemed like forever but looking back it was only 3 or 4 games. Then one time at the plate I swung and felt that tingling, telegraphing vibration that comes from nothing else except hitting a baseball with a wooden bat. Well the ball sailed over the oposing team’s dugout behind me. You would not have known that by Coach DuPree’s reaction. By his reaction and the eventually reaction of the parents on the bleachers you would have thought I hit a homerun. I will never forget him running out of the dugout and yelling: “Thats the way to do it Fergie!”. Well I never became a great ball player (but I have become one of the greatest baseball fans anywhere) but I did end up getting hits regularly. I ended up playing my last year (all three years with Coach DuPree) on second base rather than right field. Coach DuPree’s word had made a change in my life, and not just in terms of baseball.
I have thought of that day often over the past 40 years. The first time I really realized how important it was was when I was the PCA campus minister at the University of South Carolina and taught a class, University 101. It was an acutal class for credit that they allowed chaplains to teach that helped freshman adjust to life at the university. One of the icebreakers we did to help student get to know each other and to help them get comfortable with public speaking was an excercise where they were to tell of three people who have had a lasting impact in your life. Faculty were to be the first ones to do this and from the very first time I did this exercise I thought of Coach DuPree. He really had taught me the importance of trying, the importance of not caring how foolish you think you might look in doing something in public, the importance of really learning to play a game with all your heart. Later on as I reflected on it I learned about the joy that adults can experience with they see children succeed at something that they were either intitially afraid to do or something that they just didn’t know how to do at the start. I thought of Coach DuPree the other day when I heard about Wess Stafford’s book Just a Minute: In the Heart of a Child, One Moment …Can Last Forever. In the book Wess says these moments that can last forever can be wicked things like abuse or they can be good things, encouraging things. He encourages adults to view every opportunity with a child, no matter how short, as an opportuunity to have a positive impact. I think it is a great idea, one I plan to put into practice.
One last thing though, it is too late for me to tell Coach DuPree how much his one moment has meant to me even after all these year. I would really love to be able to tell him, to let him know that all those years of struggling with coaching little league had more impacts than he ever knew. Is there someone in your life did something that has had a lasting impact on your life and they never knew how much it meant to you? Don’t wait to thank them, don’t wait to offer them a word of encouragement. They did something great for you, they deserve to know.