A man died this week. He was 47 years old. He was not famous. TMZ never wrote about him. He was never invited to the White House to meet the President. He spent most of his time in a small office stocked with pastry and fruit juices when he wasn’t running back and forth to a school gym or coordinating lunchtime activities. But, there was something charmingly unique about him. I knew that from the first time I saw his shining eyes and warm smile. His name was John Sawaya and he was my friend.
What is the measure of a man? Is it his accomplishments that define him? If a man achieves fame and celebrity or displays greatness in reaching goals beyond the pale of human endeavor do we honor him high above the mere mortals of history?
Or do we look for someone who defines a milestone that benefits others on a historic level such as Jackie Robinson or Louis Pasteur?
Maybe that measurement should contain political or iconic greatness as in the case of Abraham Lincoln or Oprah Winfrey?
John Sawaya never approached the same threshold of anyone we would instantly recognize upon hearing his name. He labored in relative obscurity outside his realm of expertise. If you wanted to experience his brand of genius, you had to meet him at the Denny’s in Corona, California. It would be there he would enchant you with his stories, warm you with his smile, inspire you with his courage and possess you with his friendship.
Have you ever had a friend that made you excited to see him? You knew that the instant you saw his face you would begin laughing with the joy of his presence. John made the most mundane aspects of an encounter come alive with his quick wit and incomprehensible wisdom that made every word mean more in a conversation. An hour seemed like five minutes. John simply made life pleasant. A refreshing rarity in a world filled with complexity, pain and stress.
His legacy is thousands of high school students who experienced his unending encouragement and hundreds of student leaders now dotting our country preparing to be the leaders of our century thanks to a man who prepared them to be men and women of ethics and character. Always.
I will fondly remember our last time together. Over pancakes and salads he told me about his incurable cancer and all the people who had come together to help him survive it. His lovely wife, his young daughters, his school family and friends that stood by him and did all they could to squeeze every minute of life into his time here on earth. He was never bitter. In fact, he embraced God for the trial that he said, “changed his life for the better.” As his body got sicker, his faith got stronger. A remarkable attitude from someone who would never consider himself a saint, yet showed all of us what being one was all about.
How do you forget a friend who touched you in so many ways in hour long intervals? John Sawaya was all about quality, not quantity. You not only felt his mortality, you felt your own. But, as he told me that day, “Death gives meaning to life. Without death, there is no appreciation of our time here.” He knew. He understood. He saw the near future and it did not include him in it.
Go hug someone you love today. Make a phone call to a special friend or family member. Make a decision to do something with your spouse or partner sooner than later. Do it for life. Do it for love. Do it for John.
Go make your life important now. While you have it.
A friend taught me that once.
His name was John Sawaya.
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