In the Jewish tradition an “unveiling” ceremony takes place about a year after a loved one’s passing. At graveside, the headstone of the deceased is revealed, among family members and friends and special prayers and remarks are offered. It publicly honors the departed and marks the end of a part of the mourning process. Although Christians don’t have the same custom, it almost feels that way, as we remember the anniversary of the death of the Jonathan Hicks, the great journalist, and family member and friend to countless people. So many folks have taken to social media, and elsewhere, I’m sure, to offer words of support, tribute, and condolences to this uniquely wonderful person.
Jonathan Hicks passed on November 3, 2014 after an unusually long and courageous battle with pancreatic cancer, among the most deadly forms of that dreaded disease. He embraced his last days with what the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III, the minister leading one of his memorial services, called his “Farewell Tour.” Unafraid of death, but recognizing that his days were most probably limited, he continued to serve his family, travel, visit friends, write about politics for BET and other news outlets, worship at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, mentor countless young “Nupes,” his college fraternity, and sing….he loved to sing with Manifest, the men’s Gospel group that he’d started years before.
Some days after his death, I—along with hundreds of others—went to his homegoing at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In my life, I will never attend a more powerful celebration—I know it in my bones. I was lucky enough to work with Jonathan’s cherished wife Christy for years at a liberal public policy think tank in New York; long ago, she transitioned from being my “boss” to become my “friend.” Because she loved Jonathan so much, my appreciation and affection grew for him, as well.
Through Christy, I came to know quite a bit about Jonathan….his family’s rich history, college days at Mizzou, the tour of duty at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and, of course, his important job at the New York Times, first covering business and then politics in Brooklyn. But he was much so more than that. He was a hopelessly devoted father to their precocious daughter Lindsay, an actor, a foodie, world traveler, philanthropist, mentor, life-long learner, and much, much more. He was taken too young, but it wasn’t the years he lived….it was the life that he packed into his time on earth.
As I recall the celebration of his life, I still break out in goose bumps. The Manhattan service, followed one in his beloved Brooklyn and culminated with a service in Washington, DC, one of his childhood homes, where his body was laid to rest. Even as a Celebrant, I’d never imagined that a funeral would be so heavily attended that the organizers would need to arrange for it to be live-streamed, so that people could watch remotely!
It was a lengthy program, filled with laughter, tears, innumerable recollections, and music from his choir Manifest. Friends and family members spoke beautifully, as did the many political dignitaries and journalists. Their remarks were not banal condolences, but authentic expressions of grief from people who really knew him. Each story was unique,, combining the levity and gravity embodied by this complex and lovable soul. The service culminated with the scores of “Nupes,” members of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, standing arm in arm, singing their hymn, in Jonathan’s honor as he entered their “Chapter Invisible.” We will simply never know how many young men he helped and nurtured over the years. (In one of many great moments, I recall one of his NY Times colleagues saying, “We never understood why Jonathan had so many young brothers coming to his office all the time….but we figured it had to be something good.” Other speakers, of course, gave specific testimonials about how he loved them radically and turned their lives around.)
A year or two ago, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a moving piece on the so-called “Moral Bucket List.” In it, he writes about those special people we run into from time-to-time, who simply make us feel better after being with them. They think about others and make the world a better place. These people have lived their life by “eulogy virtues” rather than “resume virtues.” Resume virtues—alma maters, jobs, awards, and such—are the accomplishments that will bring one professional advancement and accolades. Eulogy virtues are the moral characteristics that are the finest attributes humans have to offer in this life: kindness, compassion, empathy, honesty, and the rest. Eulogy virtues are the ones that people will remember when we are gone. It strikes me that these are exactly the things that people spoke of at Jonathan’s extraordinary funeral. While eulogists made general references to his great professional accomplishments, it was the “other stuff” that was front and center: his love of family and God, his optimism, a willingness to encourage and help, fearlessness in the face of difficult times, humor, hospitality, generosity, openness of heart and hand—and that crooked smile. Rest in Peace, Jonathan. But your Legacy lives on and on.