GENDUSA COLUMN: Those perfect strangers we meet

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, February 1, 2023

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Seven years ago, I submitted my first story to my adopted hometown newspaper, The LaGrange News. I was elated when the editor called to say he was publishing the piece, and soon, I became their contributing columnist. Today my fingers continue typing weekly stories for several American news outlets and magazines.

But this story isn’t about me; it is about those who encourage others to try, be motivated, and march onward. And sometimes, like me, you may never touch the hands of those who pushed you to achieve a dream and cheer for your every accomplishment. 

I agree with the poet William Yeats; a stranger is nothing more than a friend you have yet to meet.

Such was the case with Jake Behr. Soon after my first column appeared in his local newspaper, I received a message from this remarkable, respected LaGrange resident expressing his appreciation for a story, “I hope you don’t mind, Ms. Gendusa, but I used the basis of your last article in my Sunday school class this morning.” I replied with an attached laughing emoji, “I pray God doesn’t punish you for doing so!” 

I was honored and humbled that Mr. Behr took a moment to write. But it would not be the last time I heard from this gracious man.

Always a leader, Jake moved from LaGrange to establish a business in Alabama after college and military service. He happily returned home after 29 years. And with his usual infectious enthusiasm, he began to serve his community with a commitment to supporting others. He became what I always called him “Mr. LaGrange.”

Since the day I sent the smiling emoji, I received a message from Jake every Wednesday morning after he read my column. He usually ended with final words such as, “You are improving,” or “This could be the best one yet!” He always warmed my soul and moved me to keep typing the words.

I was indeed not the only beneficiary of Mr. Behr’s kindness. From mayors to ministers to all he met, he became genuinely interested in knowing the stranger who would become his loyal friend. 

Jake promoted and worked for anyone he believed in.  When I wasn’t so sure about anything I was doing, he was sure. I was determined to personally meet Mr. LaGrange and thank him, but sadly, it was not to be.

His health was declining, forcing him to stay home most of the time. Yet, it never stopped him from using the computer to boost us to keep working in service for others. His physical body was failing, but nothing could stop Jake’s spirit from soaring.   

In the city he loved, a beautiful fountain surrounds a statue of Marquis de Lafayette.  The famed Frenchman loved America so much that he served with General Washington in the Revolutionary War, helping to secure our independence. Lafayette once stated, “Serving America is to my heart an inexpressible happiness.”

Jake believed in that same spirit of assistance and generosity. Giving his aid to a friend or stranger with dignity, respect, and love until the very end. Mr. LaGrange was God’s faithful servant who set the Lord’s words into action throughout his life.

On Nov. 30, after my column was published, I looked forward to Jake’s message. When I didn’t receive it, I was a bit worried. A few days later, I learned Jake went home to serve the Lord.

A memorial service was held recently under a beautiful clear January sky. As people entered the sanctuary of the First Methodist Church, I stood in line to sign the guest book. Many were given a gift from the family, and I was included. Inside the red bag was a lovely handkerchief with an embroidered navy replica of the statue of a hero, Marquis de Lafayette. 

It is amazing how God works and the people he places in our life’s path. Through writing, I have met many I would have never been able to know. I will never see most of them face to face, but viewing a person is nothing compared to meeting their soul.

How many of us leave a footprint like Jake’s? To live honorably in the service of all we meet is how we lead a good life. In doing so, leaders are born, inspire, and become an example to others to become the best they can be. In 2021, the city of LaGrange honored Jake by placing a bench inscribed with his name near the square he loved. I plan to sit on the bench when I visit and ask a stranger to join me who will become my friend.  

In loving Memory of God’s wonderful servant and my buddy, Jake Behr: 2/14/1937 – 11/28/2022