Eulogy for Grover Mills Mundell by Matt Bergles

When Sam asked if I’d deliver Grover’s eulogy, I of course said that I’d be honored, but added that I was sure there were others closer to Grover – and better speakers on top of it – who might be better suited. And in that loving, gentle, empathetic way that only Sam has, he said: I’m sure you’ll be totally inept, but we’ve made the decision and it’s too late to change now, so you’re it! He’s probably right, but I promise I’ll put forth my best effort. He then asked if a half hour would be enough time for me to talk and I said that 5 to 10 minutes would surely suffice. But, as we discussed what to say, it became evident that it would take longer. After all, Grover was not, by any means, a simple guy. But, don’t fear, it won’t be that long, I promise.

Ideally, we’d like to just open the floor for you all to come and contribute your memories of Grover as a eulogy, but obviously we’d be here for days if we did that. So, I’ve been asked to reflect on the small parts of Grover’s life that I was able to share with him and draw out those amazing, unique traits that he possessed. As I do that, we’d like you – in your own mind – to apply some of your memories to those themes. Then, you can add to what you’ve already written, or write for the first time in the memory book, and/or go to the Facebook page where the tributes to Grover are continually growing. And please remember, that while there’s an inevitable air of somberness here, this is a celebration of a life well-lived and a congratulatory salute to the next stage of eternal life!

Now, it doesn’t come as big news to anyone here when I say that Grover Mundell wasn’t your ordinary, average guy. In fact, I’d bet that if a total stranger driving down the highway were to see the crowd assembled here and walked in to see that school had been cancelled and a high school gym set aside for a funeral and the crowd in attendance, they’d think that this must be a pretty important, special person; and of course, they’d be right. Until now, I’ve certainly never known anyone who had enough sway to get school cancelled for their funeral – even presidents – thank you Superintendent Hebberd!

I first met Grover Mundell exactly 32 years, 6 months and 3 weeks ago today, right out there on that football field. I was an assistant football coach here, he was a junior slotback/defensive back and he stuck out from the other players immediately – and we had some great players, and a great head coach – some of those players are of course here today (man you guys look old). If you don’t know much of the history of Walsh’s storied sports tradition (and shame on you – you should), let remind you that the 1980 football team went 11-0 in the regular season and lost the state championship to Hoehne. Anyway, I think Grover stuck out first of all because of his name. I, of course, knew about Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president of the United States, and that little purple guy on Sesame Street, but up to then I had never met a real live human named Grover. I thought that was really cool. In fact, we had lots of cool names on that team – Elmer, Clete, Zane, Rollins – just to name a few. And although not the fastest guy on the team – I believe he was very close second to Mark Rainey – or the biggest – that of course was your current superintendent of schools – I dare say he was the most intense. I can still picture that black, curly hair and those wild, youthful eyes focused on every word any coach would say. He went 100% in every drill and he was a pretty good slot-back as I recall, but he really made his mark, actually several marks – literally, on other people – as a defensive back who loved to come up and put a lick on ball carriers. If my favorite football coach of all time – Fisher DeBerry – had coached Grove,r I’m sure he would – in that great southern drawl he had – use his favorite phrase for big hitters and say something like: that dad gum Grover Mundell had a little bit o’ nasty in him. That’s a complement if you’re a defensive back!

But that’s where the nastiness in Grover ended. Having him as a student in the classroom, it became obvious that – like the rest of the Mundell clan – he was not only blessed athletically, but he had a fine intellect and musical talent. But beyond that – and this is what I think made Grover so unique – he had a curious, inquiring mind that absorbed and processed every bit of information available and then applied it to the situation at hand, especially concerning history, government, politics and poetry. After 33 years of teaching, I can honestly say that of all the thousands of students I’ve attempted to teach, none were more inquisitive than Grover. Now I’m not gonna lie to you, he had some smart aleck in him too – actually, that is a lie – Grover had a lot of smart aleck in him. But it was a clever sort of smart aleckness that I learned to roll with. What could I do anyway? Unlike the huge schools that I later worked in with 14 or 15 other Social Studies teachers that you could move problem kids to, here, I was it, there was no escape, and Grover knew that!

As many of you recall, Grover had an injury that prevented him from playing football his senior year and he wasn’t happy about it. In fact, he became downright surly. But one day I got a piece of mail in my box that looked like just another piece of junk mail, but it was a flyer for teacher-sponsored trips to Europe. Now I grew up thinking that going to Europe was about as feasible as going to the moon, but I figured I’d give it a try and of course Grover’s hand was the first one to shoot up and shortly thereafter he had a check for the exact amount. So, with a few other kids, off to Europe we went.

Again Grover’s curious intensity stuck out as we visited churches and museums in Rome, Florence, the Vatican, Paris, the Swiss Alps and of course the Hoffbrau Haus in Munich. We toured with other school groups, many of whom were not very attentive, much to the disgust of Grover who was not shy about telling them so. A couple days ago, Sam reminded me of one particular incident in London that he said Grover often talked about. An exceedingly pompous Englishman upon finding out that we were Americans proceeded to give us an unrequested lesson on all the wars the empire had won. After listening patiently and politely for several minutes until the man finished, Grover simply replied, I know one you didn’t win! One other quick memory from that trip, in a very Bohemian section of Paris where Jim Morrison of the Doors is buried, Grover and I began an impromptu Doors concert with vocals and air guitars and people actually started handing us money – he loved that. In later years Grover and I saw lots of the old rock bands in concert, BTO, 3 Dog Night, the Animals and his favorite and mine, the Eagles. In my opening, remember I said that Grover was no ordinary average guy, that was – not coincidentally – the title of a song written by one of the Eagles, appropriately, with the last name of Walsh. Anyway, according to Sam, the Europe trip didn’t cure Grover’s appetite for travel and adventure, it only whetted it.

I believe it was shortly after we returned that the school held an auction of the school’s coaches and athletes for day labor. Well, nobody bought me or Grover (I still have issues with that) so, feeling sorry for us, Bill & Joyce Mundell put down $5.00 or $10.00 I think, and sent us us out to shock feed. Now I’m sure everyone from these parts knows what that’s all about. If you’re not from a rural area, suffice it to say that it is the most mundane, mind numbing, eternal activity you could ever imagine. After about 10 hours of that, Grover and I became a little – shall we say – loopy, and we began to communicate using lines from movies we had both seen, Little Big Man, the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry as I recall. We laughed hysterically! Inexplicably – and much to my wife’s disdain I might add (she’s rolling her eyes right now) – Grover and I communicated for the next 30 years mainly in movie metaphors. In fact, I have a string of texts between he and I on my phone as recent as just a couple weeks ago that are hilarious – everything in movie lines! I’ll never delete them. But more about that in a few minutes.

Well, shortly thereafter, Grover graduated and moved on to college and I moved on to the big city to resume my teaching and coaching career, and that was that, so I thought. Then, about 10 or 12 years later, at about 3:00 AM on a Tuesday morning as I recall, I was awakened by a call from San Francisco with a mysterious voice saying “I’m gonna give you three clues, see if you can guess who this is.” Well, the movie lines gave him away and I never went back to sleep that night and soon we were talking once a month or so on the phone. I think he came to Denver a few times on business in that time period and we’d get together for lunch. About that time I decided I wanted to go on Safari to Africa and was asking everyone I knew to go with me only to be met with that “are you crazy?” look. After a few days of this, all of a sudden one name hit me like a ton of bricks – GROVER. Needless to say, when I called him, I think he was now in Philadelphia, without hesitation, he said yes and we were off to Kenya!

It was on our first layover in Chicago that Grover conversationally recited every line to me from his new favorite movie, Platoon. Needless to say, that was the theme of the rest of the trip. Once in Kenya, as always, Grover wanted to know everything about the land, water people and wildlife. He waded into the huts and villages of the Masai tribes people trying to ask them – mostly in sign language – how they cooked, what they ate, what they studied in school, what they thought of the British etc. etc. He wasn’t content with viewing elephants, hippos, rhinos, crocodiles, giraffes and even lions from the safety of our land cruiser, he wanted to get out and walk among them! Fittingly, if you look at pictures of Grover on that trip with his wire-rimmed glasses and bush hat, he had a striking resemblance to the great intellectual-conservationist president Theodore Roosevelt – whose Harvard, aristocratic classmates contemptuously referred to as, “that damn cowboy” because of his love of the open spaces of the American West and Africa and their wildlife. I’ve often thought of Grover as a contemporary TR incarnate. In fact, I wore this African wildlife tie in honor of that trip and in honor of Grover, and also because when I did a quick Google search on the elements of a good eulogy the first thing it said was “Although it is no longer necessary etiquette to wear black at funerals, we strongly suggest that you not wear bright colors.” Grover would love the gesture I’m sure!

It was on that trip that I asked him how he got his sense of adventure and curiosity. He told me about the “Raleigh Man,” who came down the country roads to the ranch house every few months or so peddling trinkets. Now according to Sam, the guy probably wasn’t from any place further than Lamar or Boise City, but to Grover’s 7 year old eyes he must’ve looked like the Wizard of Oz and apparently had stories of the exotic faraway places he’d visited and Grover knew that someday, he too would be a world traveler, and of course, he was. Sam said that as soon as he could ride a two-wheeler he was off, riding the 7 or 8 mile circuitous route to see Joe Bob & Don and beyond while Marilyn followed him, trying to remain unseen, in the car.

Denver was soon added to the growing list of Grover’s residences and I saw him often to discuss politics, music, the latest books he was reading – he was always in the middle of 2 or 3 – and of course, poetry. Grover wrote poems about everything, and quite frankly, they were a little too deep for me. If it doesn’t start with “Roses are red…, I’m probably not gonna get it. But I read and I listened and I was struck again by the depth and breadth of his thinking. It was about this time that he began to focus on Langston Hughes, a black intellectual of the Jazz Age and an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance. I was struck by the unlikeliness of a ranch kid from Baca County studying and emulating the writing of a Harlem Renaissance hero. So, I thought it was fitting when Grover moved to Atlanta – the heart of the civil rights movement. And indeed, he would call or text me every once in a while to tell me he was at Martin Luther King’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church, a lunch counter where there was a 1960’s sit-in or a bus stop along the route of the freedom riders. Grover never saw skin color, religion or politics in people, he just saw people. Well, maybe he did see politics. Like so many other things, Grover and I seemed to be kindred spirits when it came to politics (tell your dad I’m sorry Sally) and even attempted to start an on line satirical cartoon strip.

But soon the political discussions turned to something different as he started sending me photos of a good-looking red head – always with an accompanying narrative about how this could be the one etc. Soon I was informed that it was now he and Sally taking the trips to Paris and other great destinations. The next thing I knew I was in a vineyard near Grand Junction, privileged to be a member of he and Sally’s wedding party. Well, we all know that when a guy gets married he’s not much fun to his old buddies any more and then Ruby and Matilda came so Grover got real busy. He would gush all the time about “his girls,” Sally, Ruby and Matilda, and although I wasn’t around to witness it first- hand, I’m sure that he had to be the greatest dad in the world. I did get to see Grover a few times when he lived in Atlanta, hiking part of the Appalachian Trail with him and sitting on busy street corners watching him sing and play the guitar.

The speed of Grover’s illness was unsettling to us all. He texted me just a few weeks ago to tell me something wasn’t right and that the prognosis wasn’t good, but he spoke of years, not weeks. I think the way he handled it is a lesson to us all, not just about illness and dying, but about living. A lot of you read this e-mail I’m sure, but I think this excerpt is in order, in fact, it says a lot about Grover.

He said:
I get the question “what can we do to help” and I am willing to work with you and welcome the opportunity to make positive things happen not just for myself but for my family and for you and yours and for as many as possible. The answer is to be positive and to generate positive energy and send it to me. I will bounce it back to you 2 fold. This will make even more people smile and together we will change the world for the better.

As my family and I – and I’m sure all of you – did all that he suggested, and as Shelley requested us all to pray fervently for Grover’s recovery, it wasn’t meant to be. As hard as it is, I think we must take comfort in the Old Testament scripture of Isaiah, in which God made it crystal clear when he said: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”

Sam said it best, Grover really wasn’t a religious person, but he was very much a spiritual person. His faith was practiced more in everyday life in his concern for others, the love of his family and his gentle spirit than it was in a church, a temple or a synagogue. But again, I think we can turn to scripture for comfort, this time from the New Testament First Corinthians: “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love him.”

When I got Sally’s text Wednesday morning saying that the doctors could do nothing else, I sat in my school office facing a hundred things that had to get done, but of course I couldn’t. So like many of you I’m sure, I put my head on my desk and sobbed, wanting so bad to do something, but I was powerless to do so – just like all of us were. After a few minutes I semi-gained my composure and did the only thing I could. I sent a text to Sally and Sam and asked for a big favor – that if they could still talk to him, could they please tell him 3 things: that in over thirty years, he was my favorite student – even if he was a smart aleck, that I loved him and of course I had to end with a line from a movie – right? So, I chose what I think was his favorite line from his favorite movie. In the last scene of Platoon, Private King is standing on the runner of a medevac helicopter as it is set to lift off of this terrible battlefield and the hell that was Vietnam, taking him back to the world for good. He yells to Private Taylor – the movie’s main character and who still has several months and battles to go – that it’s all gravy from here on out. One final Grover metaphor for leaving the struggle, pain and uncertainty of his illness for eternal life.

I offer my most sincere condolences to Sally, Ruby, Matilda; Marilyn, John, Sam, Shelley, Grover’s extended family here in Walsh and Sally’s extended family in Atlanta; along with all the friends here and around the country – and probably around the world.

With that, I’d like to close with a Jewish funeral prayer. Most of us likely don’t know it, so if you would bow your heads in silent contemplation of the words and of Grover while I read:
God full of mercy who dwells on high
Grant perfect rest on the wings of Your Divine Presence
In the lofty heights of the holy and pure
who shine as the brightness of the heavens
to the soul of Grover Mundell
who has gone to his eternal rest
as all his family and friends
pray for the elevation of his soul.
His resting place shall be in the Garden of Eden.
Therefore, the Master of mercy will care for him
under the protection of His wings for all time
and bind his soul in the bond of everlasting life.
God is his inheritance and he will rest in peace,
and let us say Amen.

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