The influence of Gladys

This is the fourth installment of this series by Patrick Riecke, director, Chaplaincy and Volunteer Services. Patrick is exploring the five people who’ve most influenced his career.

“You asked for half a cup of coffee.”

This joke was pasted on a ceramic coffee mug in my grandma’s kitchen. More accurately, it was on the rounded edge of half a coffee mug. It was a gag. It was literally half a mug. (This mug now sits on a shelf in my office to remind me of my grandmother.)

My grandma, Gladys Riecke (where have all the Gladyses gone?), was a diminutive, but powerful woman.

I didn’t know her well – she died when I was 12. My grandpa, her husband, died when my dad was only 13. As a widow, Gladys finished raising a daughter and five sons. (My aunt was the oldest, which I am sure was a godsend because she was like a second mother). She finished raising these boys. On the farm. In the ‘50s.

She kept them faithfully active in church. I can imagine her faithfully hustling along those roughneck farm boys — fresh from doing morning chores — and stuffing them into church clothes before Mass each Sunday.

Only a few memories remain of when we would visit her when I was young. First, I remember driving from our home in Fort Wayne to her home in Columbia City and thinking that it took forever. Remember how when you were a kid, a 30-minute car ride was the equivalent of a 30-year prison sentence? It gives me an ounce of mercy now on my kids when they complain that a 30-minute car ride takes forever.

But back to Columbia City. In my grandma’s tidy home, there was a little coat closet that had a small box of toys for us kids when we came over. Since I was the youngest grandchild, by the time I was 5 years old they were pretty much just for me. However, I am not sure I realized that until I was writing this post.

When I got to grandma’s house, I would give her a quick kiss and head to the closet with the toys. As I did, I would pass a little plaque she had on her wall.

“I know I’m somebody, ‘cause God don’t make no junk!!”

Now I realize that the mischievous looking boy on the plaque probably reminded her of her own boys, raised on the farm by a faithful mother. As a boy, the verse “I know I’m somebody…” stuck with me. I haven’t seen it in about 26 years, but I remember it clearly today.

This blog is the third in a series about people who built my roller coaster. I didn’t know it, but Gladys Riecke was one of the ones who put me on the track I am on today. You might remember me telling you a bit about my interview when I became a chaplain a few years ago.

What I didn’t tell you was that I was not the most qualified candidate on paper. And, at the time, they interviewed 10 other candidates. But I got a call back, did some more interviews and some shadowing, and got the job. I wondered, at the time, what made my name stick out on the pile of applications. Although I am sure 15 years of ministry experience and having the right degrees helped, a few weeks later I found out that someone else had a hand in my new opportunity as well.

After getting the job, going through orientation, a couple weeks of training, and a few weeks of work, one day I was in my boss’s office when she asked, “So, how are you related to Gladys Riecke?” I was taken aback. I hadn’t been asked that in a long time. Grandma had been gone for more than two decades. And she never lived in Fort Wayne.

“She’s my grandma. Why?” I stammered.

“I wondered,” she smiled. “When I was a young mother, struggling to get my kids stuffed into church clothes and to Mass every Sunday morning in Columbia City, your grandmother gave me hope. She took me under her wing, told me we would make it and that she knew it could be hard sometimes when the kids are little. She led me not only in my faith, but as a mother as well.”

I felt like the floor had fallen out beneath me. My grandma did that? For my boss? Years and years ago?

What she was telling me squared with everything I knew about Grandma Riecke — faithful, loving, a great mother, a devout woman. But, of course, I had never seen her that way. She was just … Grandma.

A couple weeks later I was thinking about all this while driving down the road and I wondered out loud, “Would my application have been noticed in the stack if my last name had been ‘Smith’? Would I be where I am today without Grandma’s faithfulness three or four decades ago?”

Sometimes we don’t know the impact we are having. Sometimes we don’t know what will become of that snotty kid getting toys out of the closet. Sometimes we don’t know that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before.

But one thing I can tell you I know for certain.

I know I must be somebody. ‘Cause God don’t make no junk! 

 

Need to catch up on the series? Read about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Kami

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