This is the eulogy I wrote for my friend John McLaughlin, which I read at his memorial service at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, on December 12, 2014.
I met John about 14 years ago. He and Barb wandered into this place not long after Jen and I did, and we hit it off right away. As friends, the four of us clicked. Ryan was maybe 6 at the time, and Evan would come along a couple of years later, and the kindness Jen and I enjoyed was extended to our boys too. We loved the old house, the yard, and that big old swing in the back. We connected.
When I joined the Cedar Lake Seven in the fall of 2000, we were between guitar players. The previous guy has moved to Hawaii, and while we didn’t have too many guitar numbers back then, when he left, we were all a cappella. Our lead tenor had recently left the group too, so we were a little undermanned. After John strolled in to this place, he was quickly recruited by Greg – He was a twofer — he could play guitar, and he had a lovely high tenor voice, both things that we needed badly.
I really wanted to play guitar for the Seven. I was not too great at the time – you could argue that I’m still not – but in those days I REALLY wasn’t that great. John though, he could do some things on the guitar, and with him being the new guy, taking a job I thought I wanted, I found myself feeling something that resembled …. jealousy. Handsome guy, voice like an angel, and guitar to boot. I have competitive streak, but how was I gonna compete with all that?
John fit right into the Seven, and with an infusion of new guys, the next incarnation of the group was off and running. But it was still nagging at me, I really wanted to play guitar, so once day I mustered the courage to just ask John – do you mind if I bring my guitar to rehearsal one of these days and just play along? I thought, just playing along with someone else would be a good thing. People who play instruments know how great it is to play along with someone else, particularly someone with is a better player than you – it helps push YOU to be better. John was kind and gracious and of course he said yes.
So we would play together. Often at choir rehearsals, and sometimes at this house. We’d go down in the basement. I’d help him with his computer or some other electronic device (which by the way I was still doing for him right up to the end, being his personal IT guy) and we’d wind up playing songs together. The funny thing about this is that John and I played very differently – he had a very up-down thing, a style that you hear in a lot of traditional folk, whereas I defaulted to more of a swingy country strum. The upshot is that it was sometimes hard to play together because our strum patterns were in conflict with one another. So sometimes we’d alternate –I’d do a song, and then he’d do one. Sometimes when we played together it was a little disconnected, like two little kids who play near one another, in a parallel fashion, who look like they are playing together, but who are really playing different games. Sometimes playing guitar with John was fun, sometimes it was frustrating.
So, sometimes we’d just put the guitars down and talk. About music, very frequently. Despite John’s folky tendencies, he had a pretty broad palate when it came to music, Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, Kris Kristopherson, Willie Nelson. We’d talk about groups that he loved, and maybe that would flow into a personal anecdote about to a personal experience he’d had, about how a song jarred loose a memory of his. Music was a place where we bonded, and found common ground, which often led us into conversation about things other than music.
In my life I’ve had people who I go to for advice, or consultation, or to just bounce an idea or experience off of. Particularly around the time I met John, when I was still a relatively new father. Going through so many experiences for the first time, it’s a helpful thing to have others around that you can talk to, to get an experienced voice to help you evaluate whether you are on a good path. Jim has played that role for me, being a few years older. And John did as well.
He was 17 years older than me, and was always willing to share his life experiences with me, to tell me a personal story, or to bust my chops when he thought I was being silly or just plain dumb. The thing I learned about John over the years is that there was a certain edge or darkness to his ministrations. They were flavored with an openness about his life experience, both the good and the bad. His honesty was refreshing. It was not always easy to hear, but it was very compelling.
John was very open with me about those things in his life that he wished he’d done differently. Mistakes he’d made. Personal or work relationships that were challenging, frequently because of his own actions. There were generational aspects as well – he knew he’d repeated some of the same mistakes his parents made, despite his good intentions. He had a deep candor, a willingness to acknowledge and embrace not only those aspects of his life that were positive, but also his regrets. Sometimes he’d suggest a certain path; other times he’d just say “don’t do what I did.”
John was a complex guy, and things didn’t always come easy. But he never ran away from his regrets. He owned them, and they informed him. I think that is what drew me to him, and was the source of my respect for him.
There was a lot to like about John. He had this friendly, smiling curmudgeon thing working for him. He pulled that off well. There mischievous glint in his eye. The way he would complain about gardening, but love it at the same time. His passion for music and politics. The way he sung a folk song. And I loved the angry way he would start to rant whenever the topic of Richard Nixon came up. All of these were very enjoyable to people who knew John.
So he was this great guy, and he was a great friend. He loved my family, and we loved him back. Between us, we’ve had relationships where we could be really honest with one another, to talk about things that were hard to hear, or hard to say. John lived a life of high integrity, and he showed me that living with such integrity means that it is not always going to be easy, and that it requires an open heart, one willing to listen to both the good stuff as well as the things we’d rather not hear.
John gave me the gift of his friendship and his life experience, which in turn has made be a better father, husband, and man. I met John in this room, back when he was just a little older than I am right now. I look around and I am hopeful, hopeful that someday I’ll be able to take this gift he gave to me, and pay it forward to someone else.
Rest in peace, brother…and thank you.