“The next best thing to being great is to walk with the great,” my mentor, Elton Trueblood, would say. He was referring to the fact that we can walk with the truly great men and women of history through the written word. Plato may have lived in the Fourth century BC, but his famous dialogues are more available to us in the Twenty-first century than they were for his students because they were written down and we can read them. Through the written word (books) I can choose my companions—and thus, walk with the great.
A recently found photograph, however, reminds me, that the “great” persons of this world are not only those who have written books, but also those with whom we have had the privilege to know and walk with on our journey. The photograph was taken on a Veterans Day at a little country church in the village of Zion, Maryland, probably in 2006. I had the privilege of being pastor there from 1968-1971 and then again from 2001-2009.
On the day of the photograph, some of us who still had them, donned our uniforms. I was the youngest in the group—most of the others were World War II veterans—a group that Tom Brokaw has named “The Greatest Generation.” “General” Bud, Bob, Jack, Alfred, Larry, Ernie, Byron, Ray, and Mr. Parks (as I always addressed him) were great people. They may not have been great in the same way we consider John F. Kennedy or Plato and Socrates to be great—but they were great in my book. I listened to their stories, shared meals with them, visited with them in their homes, invited them to my home, knew their families, visited them in hospitals and nursing homes, and this morning I suddenly realize that I officiated at all their funeral services.
I have walked with the great through the written word, but I have also walked with these men of “The Greatest Generation.” They were men, every one of them, great men. There will be no written words to tell of their journey, their perplexities, their hopes and dreams, their contrariness, their sacrifice, their care for others, and for the country they served so proudly and honorably. They were just ordinary men, but in walking with them along the way, I came to know their greatness. “The next best thing to being great is to walk with the great.”