What are your plans?
There are dozens of ways to take a walk from our house in Auburn. Occasionally my path will take me by the Ralph Brown Draughon Library. That is when I will pass by the tree.
This particular oak tree is not one of Toomer’s Oak fame. It has nothing to do with school athletics or folklore. Chances are that unless you tailgate near these particular trees you would not be aware of them at all. They are large, but non-descript. They are just part of the landscape with nothing unusual bringing attention to them.
The trees, one in particular, hold a special place in my memory. It was here, on a weekday afternoon after class during my Freshman year that I was asked by a contemporary about my plans for my own life.
His name is Paul Thomas and I am 100 percent certain that he would have no recollection of our conversation. I was a pledge in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity, and he was a couple of years older than me. Each pledge had to get every “brother” to sign their “brother book”.
The book, which would fit in your pocket, listed every brother, where they were from, what they were studying, who their girlfriend was and other miscellaneous information. You would often be quizzed about the information in the book. You were expected to have it perfectly committed to memory.
Paul asked me to meet him after class. I was expecting another quiz. Instead, under this oak tree, we talked about the fraternity and my expectations. Paul wanted to know what my plans for my life were and how the fraternity fit into those plans.
Paul was a devout Christian who balanced fraternity life and spiritual life easily. Frankly, he helped me to see that they were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, along the way some of these fraternity brothers became my closest male friends, exceeded only the by the bond I shared with my own brother by blood, Ernest.
Many decades later, I passed by this tree and the memory of our meeting came flooding back. Now I think about it every time I walk by the tree. It was a meeting that impacted me more than I ever would imagine and helped ground me firmly on the path of my future.
What are your plans? What do you want from the fraternity and the young men you have associated yourself with? How does your faith guide you? His questions reflected his own grounding and faith, yet he never knew what that conversation meant to me. Nor did I until many years later.
As we gather tomorrow with my Mom, siblings, children, nieces, nephews, spouses and the fourth living generation, I wonder if the youngest of them will have a friend along the way ask the same questions.
Will they have someone to hold them accountable? Will they have an older mentor give them guidance and even permission to live a life of faith in a world that seems increasingly faithless?
I have often written about New Year resolutions on this first column of another year. 2019 was a year of extraordinary change for Mary Lou and me. Retirement. Leaving our home of 37 years. Spending more time away from the community that we have called home since we were married. Frankly, 2019 has brought more changes for us than any since the year we were married and the years we had children.
Paul Thomas asked me what my plans were. I could never have imagined that it would have all turned out like it did.
So, what are my plans for 2020? One year after selling our company, I am looking forward to finally retiring. I am looking forward to continuing to meet new friends while I cherish those I have had for years.
I look forward to seeing more of the extraordinary world we share with people who are so different from you and me. I am looking forward to clearly finding the path that this new phase of our life will take.
And in some small way, I want to make sure that someone asks my own grandchildren at some unexpected moment how they plan to live their life. Thanks, Paul, for the gift you never knew you gave.
May the new year bring each of you love, health, peace and prosperity as you plan your own path to the future.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org