Friday, February 20, 2009

Eulogy for Allan Shontz

[I delivered this eulogy at the "Celebration of Life" service for Allan Shontz on January 30, 2009. The family requested that I post it on-line so that it could be shared with family and friends around the country.]

Whenever I am given the honor of speaking of the life of a man of Allan’s age and time, there are often certain similarities that I hear in the stories of these lives. Men like Allan were born into a very different country than the one we know today. Their childhoods were marked by the small town farm and the one room schoolhouse. They came of age in a country thrown into turmoil by the Great Depression and a world thrown into crisis by the evil of fascism. And these men, these men sacrificed for and served our country and then returned to make a life in the growing cities and suburbs. From the lessons of hard-work they learned on the farm and the discipline and self-sacrifice instilled by service to our country, men like Allan entered a burgeoning world of industry and science. They lived by an other-centered ethic and believed in duty and hard work.

Allan Shontz was born in Jerome, Iowa in 1920. His parents and his ancestors came from German, Dutch, and Swiss stock. On a trip to Europe later in his life, Allan looked at the phone-book in a small Swiss village and found it teeming with Shontz’s. Allan attended, for one year, a one room school house in Jerome and then his family moved to the Kansas City area and took up residence in and around Blue Valley. Allan graduated from Paseo High school and was an Eagle Scout.

In 1941 he both graduated from KU with a degree in electrical engineering and married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Brandt. Together they would have five children. During World War II, Allan would put his science and engineering skills to use stateside. He was trained in the latest technologies at Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then served stateside working on radar for the Atlantic submarine fleet based out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Following his service, he returned to Kansas City and went to work for the Vendo Company doing research and development. Ambitious, and embodying the work ethic of his childhood, he also earned an MBA degree and designed and built two houses with his father.

In 1973 he married Lillian. Their blended family included 8 children. Three years later, at the age of 56, Allan founded a telecommunications consulting company. He ran this company for the next 17 years before retiring at age 73. Did I mention hard work?

In his retirement, Allan and Lillian enjoyed international travel. When here in the Kansas City area, Allan was a devotee to the religion that is Jayhawk basketball. He owned a tape of the 1988 KU championship team starring Danny Manning. It is fitting that, at the time of his death, the Jayhawks are the reigning national champions.

Beyond basketball, Allan had wide and varied interests: he loved his volunteer work with the youth symphony. He passed his time singing and whistling. He loved ice cream shamelessly. It is said that when he was offered a choice of ice-cream flavors, Allan would answer, “Yes.”

But more than any particular interest that Allan had, there was a sense of curiosity and restless determination that he embodied in his activities. In his shop he held his own handiwork and others’ to a high standard. He was a learner and a searcher.

He thought of his own life as being on a journey. This fact may explain his religious views. In St. Louis, Allan belonged to the Ethical Society. When he moved to Kansas City, he was involved at All Souls UU Church and then later in this congregation. Theologically, Allan was a humanist. He believed in the potential of human beings to better themselves and to improve the lives of others. He believed that human beings had an ethical duty to give back, to improve how they interacted with one another, and to serve each other.

Many aspects of Allan’s character were most evident in how he treated his family and in how he treated Lillian. Allan was generous and thoughtful, concerned with how he could serve and bring out the best in other people. As a family man he delighted in seeing his daughters engage with activities like the Girl Scouts. He had a perfectionist streak in him. This came out, for example, one summer when the family was outfitting their station wagon for a camping trip and installed curtains for car camping. The curtains were flawed in their construction and Allan insisted that they be re-sown.

But, more than anything, Allan was dutiful and protective. Lillian told me the story of how one Halloween the children had planned to go out and make some minor form of mischief. Allan followed stealthily in his car, just to make sure things didn't become dangerous.

Allan never wanted to burden anyone. In his last days, he would live out this tendency. As his body and his mind began to deteriorate, Lillian was faced with hard decisions about how best to care for him. It is a blessing that at the point where his life would have been a hardship on others, where he would have been living a quality of life marked by pain and loss, he died peacefully in his sleep. A final gift from one who was always looking out for others.

In Allan’s final years and final days, his family tells me that he dredged up from the recesses of his mind some funny and spirited old songs. One song he sang was, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” a tune recorded by Al Jolson and based on a piece of graffiti found written in a jail cell. Another song he sang was, “Lovely bunch of coconuts.” Those of Allan’s generation knew hard work. They knew sacrifice. They knew what it meant to live for others. They also knew to hold life lightly, and to rejoice in its silliness and its playfulness. They knew, Allen knew, humanness... what it means to be human.