When I first met Michael, I was impressed by the grin on his face and the strength of his grip. He had, as his family wrote, an infectious smile and he radiated good humor. He promptly steered me towards the Rotary Club of Springfield and began to introduce me to everyone. Michael obviously relished that role as much as he enjoyed being around people. I joined Rotary and made the occasional prayer or presentation. Ever the encourager, he would compliment me after each talk. In due time, he also introduced me to several other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.
Each year, Michael would assume the role of an auctioneer during the congregation’s live auction, quick with words and quite animated. Occasionally, he preached from the pulpit, sharing aspects of his faith with humor and humility. I came to appreciate Michael’s wisdom and his innate desire to promote harmony, especially when he became president of Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I also came to appreciate his impressive collection of ties – business attire, gaudy Christmas spectacles and some that subtly promoted his faith or causes he supported. After he died, Martha invited me to choose a few for my own wardrobe. I have already worn several, accompanied by feelings of gratitude and loss.
In April, both of us serendipitously prepared papers articulating our respective end-of-life considerations; since it was mutually convenient, we signed one another’s forms. Consistent with his values, Michael had originally intended to donate his organs and tissue to benefit any person who was in need. Not long after he died at home of a heart attack, we learned that new health restrictions created due to the pandemic would derail that wish.
When the time arrived to scatter some of his cremated remains on church grounds, his daughter read an excerpt from a church newsletter article he had written a few years ago: “My body is made up of atoms created inside long-ago exploded stars. Those heavy atoms, as opposed to hydrogen and helium, traveled through space and got ‘caught’ in the birth of our solar system and the Earth. My body has temporary use of these atoms; that stellar material that made me and made you. After I am dead, that stellar material will continue; will become the building blocks of other people. I see symbolic meaning in this cycle of life experience. I understand how some people may see spiritual meaning; I do not. For me, there is no ethereal, otherworldly involvement. There is no supernatural consciousness of the material involved. But, the symbolism, for me, is a concrete expression of our seventh principle. By mixing my ashes with soil of the planet, we are showing respect and importance of the web of nature, and demonstrating we are a part of that web. All the other six principles are abstractions. We can point to examples of how we affirm democracy, support equity, or encourage others (and ourselves) to grow. But the physical process of mixing my ‘star-stuff’ material with other stellar material on the planet is a tangible expression of my unity with the universe.”
When Michael died, a unique and wonderful man ceased to be – but some of the magic that he created lingers yet, borne in the hearts of those who cherished him.
Rev. Martin Woulfe has served the Abraham Lincoln UU Congregation in Springfield since 2003. He is married to Angela Aznarte and they have one daughter, Celeste, who is now a senior at Saint Louis University. Martin is one of 43 White Sox fans currently living in Springfield.