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Greg Asimakoupoulos | What I learned from Bert and Ernie

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bert and ernie photo
Image provided by Greg Asimakoupoulos Caricature drawing of Bert Pound and Ernie Dawn

 

Last month, I officiated the memorial service for a friend who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Bert Pound moved into Covenant Shores about the time I began working there as chaplain. As I became acquainted with Bert, I also began to spend time with a retired college professor by the name of Ernie Dawn who was two years younger.

Bert and Ernie were remarkable men. In spite of their advanced age, they had a childlike enthusiasm and an ability to unwrap each day as if it were a gift. The more time I spent with them, the more I discovered aspects of their life I wanted to incorporate into my own.

While my three daughters watched Sesame Street religiously as preschoolers, they are not the only ones who owe a debt of gratitude to characters by the names of Bert and Ernie. I can honestly say my life is richer from the lessons the Bert and Ernie on Fortuna Drive modeled for me. Let me identify a few.

1) Celebrate Past Achievements

Bert never tired of talking about being part of the University of Washington marching band. Bert took pride in knowing he was part of the UW during an exciting time in school history. As “The Boys in the Boat” were taking gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the boys in Bert’s percussion section were providing a cadence that found the football team headed to Pasadena. Bert proudly displayed his Husky letterman’s jacket that included a patch commemorating his participation in the 1937 Rose Bowl.

Meanwhile, the wall in Ernie’s apartment was lined with framed certificates and awards documenting his 40-year career at the University of Illinois. Dr. Dawn often reflected on his graduate work at Princeton which included periodic encounters with Albert Einstein on the city streets. He loved to reference his extensive research overseas that qualified him to write a book on the cultural and political influences of Islam.

Both Bert and Ernie looked back on their lives with gratitude and a sense of accomplishment. I want to follow their lead.

2) Invest in Present Opportunities

Bert refused to let retirement define his mindset or his lifestyle. He regularly signed up for trips to museums, soda fountains and Mariners games. Bert continued to perform with the Husky alumni band until a month before his death. As recently as a year ago, he amazed spectators at Husky Stadium with his signature one-arm push-ups whenever the Dawgs scored a touchdown.

And Ernie was no couch potato either. Although crippled by a spinal injury and forced to use a walker, the professor was an active member of our investment club and a political think tank. Reading the New York Times and watching cable news programs were essential ingredients in Ernie’s daily diet. He found joy in a good debate on current events with other residents.

Watching both men taught me the importance of remaining engaged with the world around me.

3) Let Faith Guide Your Future

By his own admission, faith had not played a key role in Bert’s life. His wife had been the devoted churchgoer. But when she died, my friend recognized a vacuum. Bert expressed a desire to explore the spiritual dimension of his life and became a regular participant in my Sunday services. Offering unsolicited critiques of my sermons, Bert often noted I spent too much time challenging my flock to love the Lord and not enough time encouraging them to love their neighbor. Rather than being defensive, I was grateful for his growing insights. After all, both “loves” were part of the Great Commandment. Perhaps it was his many years at Boeing that found him focusing on the fact that it takes two wings of a plane to fly.

Meanwhile, Ernie let me know he was agnostic the day I introduced myself as the new chaplain. I told him his faith perspective wouldn’t interfere with my desire to get to know him. As I left his apartment that day, I noticed a painting on his wall. It was of a marketplace in Iran where he and his family had once lived. The painting featured a woman holding the hand of a little boy. The scene triggered a thought. I suggested to my new friend that the child in the scene just might be a picture of him holding the hand of faith unsure of where it might lead him. Instead of being insulted, he congratulated my insight.

As Ernie’s health declined, he allowed me to pray with him. Death’s lengthening shadows found my diminutive friend trusting a God he’d questioned since college.

Both men taught me the importance of keeping an open mind and heart as the finish line of life comes into focus. 

Greg Asimakoupoulos is a Wenatchee native living on Mercer Island, where he is the Faith/Values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter.