A College in Common

Illustration by Scott Bakal To anyone unfamiliar with church politics, the gathering at a Lutheran church near Reading, Pa., looked like nothing more than a social event. It was, in fact, a job interview. The hundred or so people I was meeting over coffee and cookies would return the next morning, listen to me preach and then vote on whether to call me as their pastor. And because I wanted the job, I emphasized my local credentials: my years teaching at a nearby prep school, my wife’s degree from Penn State, my seminary work in Philadelphia.

But one conversation was different. A senior couple approached, and the man said, “You and I have a college in common. I went to Amherst right after the war.” The couple were Robert Snedeker ’49 and his wife, Grace. The war was the Second World War. And that short conversation was the start of a gracious relationship.

The war had been key in shaping Bob’s life. He was an infantryman in Europe, and he fought on the front line. One day his unit was struggling to retake a German town. A mortar struck a building as he came around its corner. He raised his arm to protect his face, and shrapnel badly mangled his left hand. He made his way off the line and, ultimately, back to the States and a Purple Heart. Only after many surgeries was he able to keep the hand, and the injury pained him for the rest of his life.

When Bob told me about the day he was injured, he called it his second birthday. He saw it not as a tragedy, but as the event that gave him a new life. I marveled at this attitude, and in the years to come I would call him every March 1 and wish him a happy second birthday. It was in little gestures like this that our friendship grew. We enjoyed sitting together over soup suppers in the church’s fellowship hall, talking theology. He attended my adult Sunday school class and teased me for sounding like such a young man.

In his last few years, as his health declined, I visited him in his room at The Highlands retirement community. Often Grace was there, and the three of us would chat and banter before sharing communion. Bob and I had favorite topics.

He liked to talk about church committees he had served on. That was a way of sharing his past. We both liked to talk about our congregation’s building campaign: it was how we spoke of hope and the future we would leave for others. If conversation lagged, I would turn us back to Amherst. He would tell me what it was like before all the “new” buildings had been built. I would try to shock him with my stories of being on the first­ever coed hall.

Bob died April 15, 2016, with his family around him. He recognized me until just the last visit or two. I had time to pray with him; I had time to tell him I loved him. His funeral was a gift in many ways, but it was hard to get through, especially the part of my sermon that touched on our common ground:

“Bob and I loved to talk about our shared connection to Amherst. Our experiences were wildly different: he studied economics and mathematics at an all­-male college; I focused on English and religion at a school recently gone coed.

Bob was a war veteran who had seen the world; I was a naïve teenager who felt Amherst to be a million miles from his northern New Jersey home. We graduated a full 40 years apart. And yet, here in a congregation and community that is endlessly focused on Penn State, our love for ‘the Fairest College’ was a real bond, and whenever I wore a touch of purple (such as my socks today), Bob knew why.”

I concluded by speaking of “that day when Christ grasps Bob—wounded hand in wounded hand.” His widow and children nodded.

That might have been the end of this part of the story. But a month after Bob’s funeral a package from his daughter arrived at my home. My children know that I cry easily, but even so my sudden gasp and my tears drew them to my side. Inside was Bob’s varsity letter, framed.

That purple A now hangs in my office at the church. Often I am busy and walk past it without looking. But just as often I am quiet and my eyes settle upon it. I think of Bob, that dear man. I think of the college that shaped us both. And I remember what a privilege it was to have been his pastor.


 

Mark R. Rigg ’89 is pastor of Advent Lutheran Church in West Lawn, Pa.