Saturday, I attended a funeral in a somewhat-cheerful mood. It was a celebration of the life of Ralph Denny Sr., and he would have wanted it that way.
More than 350 people filled First Christian Church’s sanctuary and foyer. Ralph was not a celebrity or public figure, and few such folks were there — just the heart and soul of our communities in abundance.
He was a fine man with such a great and joyous impact over 50 years on so many folks that most came in the same mood as me: sad to see Ralph gone, but feeling so much richer for knowing him, and wanting to celebrate him.
Amid the words of family and friends, my mind wandered to another funeral that had haunted me for some time. It was the service in the 1983 film “The Big Chill” for Alex, the gifted former physics student. He had lost his way in the 1970s, drifted through a series of pointless jobs and experiences, and then committed the suicide that brought his old college friends back together to discover how much they and everything had changed.
The film is considered by some a parable of the Boomer generation born into a seemingly ideal world after World War II and sidetracked by the turmoil of the 1960/70s, before becoming 1980/90s yuppie careerists. (And in this century still trying to decide what to be when we grow up.)
But it also has a timeless focus on the problems of youth and forging one’s identity. The problems are distilled into one question asked in bewilderment about the suicide by the gaunt old preacher who didn’t know Alex but officiated at his funeral: “Are not the pleasures of being a good man among our common men enough to sustain hope?”
Although Ralph Denny was thoughtful and even opinionated about serious matters, he never showed such existential angst.
He was a big old lug with a bald pate and an infectious toothy grin for as long as I knew him. His picture on the coffin showed he was handsome, athletic and radiant when he came here from Kentucky to serve in the Air Force. After service, he was a Reno police officer before becoming an outstanding third-generation cabinet maker and producing five great children — apples who fell right under the tree.
Ralph loved Jesus, God, the church, baseball, trains, fishing, singing — he was a co-founder of the Chorus of the Comstock — travel, woodworking and crafts, football, volunteer work, people and especially children. He was ideal for Kiwanis, the service organization where I met him and which he led actively and enthusiastically. He had a great sense of humor, cheerful as the butt of jokes as well as a purveyor of them.
He embodied exactly what the movie preacher had in mind when he spoke of being a good man among our common men. And the mixed emotions — tears and joy — of scores of such good, productive, cheerful and strong men and women at Ralph’s funeral answered “The Big Chill” question resoundingly.
Afterwards, as Kathy and I hugged his longtime petite companion Nora, I understood. While some people are haunted by demons they can’t escape, for most folks in Nevada’s small towns and rural areas, living as a good person among our common folk not only sustains hope but is what life’s about. Ralph’s beautiful life is a perfect example.
Ron Knecht is an economist, law school graduate and Nevada higher education regent.