Saturday Diary / Two good men depart too soon

There's no getting around the fact that death stinks

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Regardless of your religious views or if you even hold a belief in an afterlife, there's no getting around the fact that death stinks. My pastor, Rick Wolling, said that the other day while I attended the memorial service of a dear friend whose life we gathered to celebrate, and Rick as usual had spoken the truth.

That is the appalling reality of the human condition: death does indeed stink. It stinks under any circumstance. It is a terrible and unwanted intrusion. It stinks when it strikes someone of advanced age, and middle age, and youth, and it stinks most of all when it strikes someone young. The death of an infant, toddler or child seems grotesquely unfair -- it violates our sense of normalcy and equity.

It stinks when you know death is all but inevitable, perhaps even welcome, and it stinks when it is sudden. It came unexpectedly to my wife's father before his 50th birthday and it came to my father by his own hand when he was 83 years old.

What place does faith hold amid this dreary circumstance? It certainly does not and should not eradicate grief, but those who mourn will be comforted.

*

My thoughts about death and grief are prompted by the recent passing of two friends who were members of Beverly Heights Presbyterian, the church I attend in Mt. Lebanon. They died five days apart, each of the same cause (heart attack), each in the same hospital (St. Clair). Heart attacks so massive not even immediate efforts could revive them.

The first to pass was John Ferguson, age 75. I'd spoken to John just 12 hours before he died, when he said words I will never forget. While still reeling over news of John's death, another member of the Beverly Heights community, Marvin "Goose" Goslin, passed away at age 64.

Both John and Goose were men of accomplishment whose public profile was significant enough to merit "news" obits, causing me to notify the news desk when I learned of their deaths.

As our obituary of John pointed out, his was a name familiar to Mt. Lebanon residents, even to those who'd never met him. He served as the municipality's tax collector for 28 years, and it was his signature that appeared on tax bills.

In the case of Goose, he'd been part of the famous radio K Team for 20 years. As John Cigna's popular sports sidekick on KDKA, Goose also put his wonderful baritone to use singing the national anthem before Penguins, Pirates and Steelers games. In recent years, life hadn't been easy for Goose, wife Shelley and daughter Jen. His career in radio had ended and he'd been juggling multiple jobs while caring for a spouse with special needs.

My wife had visited Shelley days before Goose died, just as I had seen John hours before he passed. It's this close proximity to death that makes it seem all the more abrupt and unnatural.

Both men had forged significant legacies outside of their worldly laurels. They were men of deep and abiding faith, of gentle character and disposition, caring husbands, loving fathers and characters, too (in the best sense of the word). They were the sort of men whose passing is truly mourned and grieved, because the world is a lesser place without them.

John and I were regular pew neighbors in church for nearly 20 years, he and his wife Carol (of 46 years) sitting behind Louise and me. John and I would joke with one another after the service, in part because of our respective professions: he the despised tax collector of Mt. Lebanon, me a member of the supposed stinking liberal media. In truth, John, a lifelong Republican, enjoyed wide bipartisan support from both parties, which seems unimaginable in our age of dysfunctional politics.

I would kid him about the latest large check I had sent him and what he planned to do with my money; and John would throw a sweet jab right back at me, about some stupid thing the Post-Gazette had just done or just published. And Lord knows, we certainly provided him with some good material.

He provided us with good material, too. The memorial service for John at Beverly Heights was packed and it was such a joyous celebration of his life and memory, in part because of all the good moments he'd given us throughout the years.

*

I don't have a vivid recollection of my last conversation with Goose, but I'll never forget my final encounter with John. It came at the end of our Sunday worship service on Oct. 6. As I was stationed at the exit door, John strolled up, stuck out his hand and greeted me with that big impish grin that was always on his face.

He'd noticed that my daughter Cara and her new husband Ben were now singing in the church choir, joining Louise and me. And of course he instinctively knew how notice of that would please the proud papa.

"They might have to rename Beverly Heights the O'Boyle family choir," John said with his signature quip. "It sure is good to see the four of you up there singing together."

It was such a sweet comment, from a very sweet man.

Amid all the tears that have been shed mourning the loss of Goose and John, we cherish those good memories. And the sweet thought that one day we will meet them both again.

Tom O'Boyle, a former Post-Gazette business and assistant managing editor, is the PG's senior manager of audience (toboyle@post-gazette.com).


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