His name is Terry and he could be a character right out of a Robert B. Parker mystery novel.
Ex-military, having served in Viet Nam. Once quit a job rather than wear a tie to work. But also a devout Mormon, serving as an LDS bishop for a number of years. Loved his wife. Loved his children. A therapist by profession, Terry’s job was to listen to people and help them turn darkness into light.
He found quite a challenge that November afternoon in 1986 when the young college professor stumbled into his Tulsa office. Divorced and drinking heavily, the man was quickly hitting rock bottom, leading a self-destructive life in Oklahoma, pretending to be something he wasn’t. He had to leave teaching before it destroyed him.
Terry listened quietly and asked a series of questions, culminating with the most basic one of all. “If you had your choice, where would you like to be and what would you like to be doing?’
The young man didn’t hesitate in responding. “I’ve always wanted to live in California and I’ve always wanted to write.”
Terry smiled. “Well, this is going to be easy,” he explained. “The solution to all this seems fairly simple. You need to leave teaching, move to California, and start writing.”
The young man needed convincing. “Just like that? I’m supposed to walk away from my career, load up my car, drive halfway across the country, and live in a place where I don’t know a soul other than my ex-wife?”
Terry nodded. The young college professor was blown away by the enormity of the challenge, but the bond between these two independent spirits was immediate. They met weekly, then bi-monthly, then monthly until June, as Terry slowly weaned his client off of his care, building up the man’s confidence, assuring him that California would be the Promised Land. “You’ll do fine,” Terry said at their final meeting. “Just write something sometime with a Mormon bishop in it.”
They never saw each other again.
You can find almost any American male on the Internet in a matter of minutes. It hardly took any time at all to locate Terry, now living in a suburb of Salt Lake City. I had been thinking of him for years, wanting to connect, but never making the effort. But that Monday morning in April, I reached for the phone.
A young man answered and I asked for Terry. A few seconds later, he was on the phone, sounding quieter, weaker, than the robust Terry I knew in Tulsa. We hadn’t talked in 21 years and I started to remind him who I was.
He didn’t need the prompt. “Did you ever become a writer?” he wanted to know up front.
We talked for about ten minutes and I gave him the creative rundown: Newspaper columns, magazine articles, a pair of books, the radio show. I could literally hear Terry beam over the phone. He said he was proud of me.
“But you have to understand something,” I insisted. “You changed my life. None of this would have happened without you.”
The focus shifted to him and I quickly learned why a man in his mid-60s was at home on a Monday morning. Agent Orange had caught up with Terry from Viet Nam and he’s on disability. His health is not good. I didn’t press for details. His voice said it all.
He thanked me for the call. I promised to send him some clippings and I let him go with one last heartfelt thank you. In truth, we’ll probably never talk again, but I’m glad I made that phone call.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once claimed that, “there are no second acts in American life.” I and so many others have proved him wrong over the years, following our dreams, reinventing ourselves completely in the process.
My first step began in Terry’s office back in Tulsa 22 years ago. I shudder when I think about what might have happened if we hadn’t met. My life is better, so much better, as a result.
Thanks, Terry. I promised you one day that I would write about a Mormon bishop. Here it is.
There once was a Mormon bishop in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He fought in Viet Nam. He refused to wear a tie. He loved his wife. He loved his children. He was one of the greatest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. And this Mormon bishop changed my life.
SLO City News (May 2008)