Loving the Unlovely: Old George

This is an essay I wrote a few years ago (with a few minor edits).  Given how fractious and judgmental our interactions with others have become, it seemed helpful to share these cherished memories of a lovely – if eccentric – friend….

– Pastor Allen

Although I may not have a lot to say about my ex-wife, one quality of hers that I admired was her ability and willingness to reach out to others from all walks of life.  Today, I’m particularly remembering the friendship she initiated with “Old George”.

Old George was a bitter, foul-mouthed old man who lived in a very cheap apartment near the center of Rochester, MN in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  (I am not denigrating the owner of that building, who had a personal mission to provide low cost housing for those who in Rochester had no other place to go, but that’s a story for another time.)

He spent most of his time in and around the downtown of our hometown at the time: Rochester, MN – or at the nearby Apache Mall.  He rode his old bike each day to and from his apartment.  He always dressed the same: a worn and heavy coat apparently made from lambskin which was held closed with an old rope tied around his waist.  Completing his outfit were rarely washed worn pants, a flannel shirt, and old shoes.

Each morning, as she took a walk around the mall with our daughter, my ex-wife would see Old George sitting in the common areas begging for money.  He was usually loudly cursing those who walked by.  Sometimes she’d see him elsewhere: collecting cans for recycling, and collecting and reselling golf balls he found outside the local golf course’s fence.

He was definitely unpleasant: he smelled bad, looked disreputable, and was mean spirited.  Not someone anyone would want as a friend.  Yet, one day, my ex-wife walked up to him with our young daughter in the stroller, and offered to take him to breakfast.  He accepted, though with some suspicion I think.

She took him to the Woolworth’s restaurant there in the Mall.  The staff refused to wait on their table until my ex made it clear (rather forcefully) that she expected just as good service when Old George was with her as when he wasn’t.

That was the beginning if a friendship between George and my family that lasted for the rest of his life. We would occasionally run into him at the mall and even visited him at his apartment a few times.  We’d bring him clothes, take him out to eat, and often just listened to him and his stories.  We called him “Old George” to distinguish him from another “George” we knew, and because he refused to tell us his last name (or even his age).  Sometimes, when I saw him from my downtown office window as he wandered about, I would go out and buy him a treat.  (He had only a couple of teeth, so his favorite foods were ice cream, peanut butter, and other things that went down easy.)

We looked forward to our visits with Old George.  He really took to our daughter, and would find toys or balls to give to her as presents. As we got to know each other better, we became, in a way, his family: he told us a lot about his life, and seemed to really enjoy our occasional visits and company.

He was a bit eccentric, including that old coat, which he wore no matter how hot it was.  He refused to go to see the doctor, and for some reason, though he liked going to the ice cream shop with us, he always refused visit our home for dinner: even when invited for Holidays.

Perhaps he thought he was not the right sort of person to visit our home. I think he thought of us as being “rich”, because we owned a car and a house.   He once told us that his monthly Social Security Check was about $5 more than his rent, which explained why panhandling and scrounging for aluminum cans was so vital to his survival.

I came to really like George.  Though he remained scruffy looking, and never parted with that coat, he did start to bathe every so often.  He cleaned up his foul language, and he became much kinder to those around him.  He took a real interest in the Bible we gave to him, and told us stories about how strong, hard-working and religious a woman his mother had been.  I think he spent most of his life in Minnesota.

I remember the last time any of us saw George: it was on a midsummer afternoon in 1993.  I saw him from my office window as he was sitting on a window-ledge in front of a store across the street.  I couldn’t get down to visit with him right then, and didn’t see him later, though I looked as I left work for the day.  I remember that he looked tired.

A month or two later, we began to wonder where George was: we hadn’t seen him for quite a while, which was unusual.  We stopped by his apartment building and asked a woman we knew there where we could find him.

She started crying and said he’d died a few weeks earlier from cancer.  It was only a week or two after he went to a doctor and was diagnosed that he died.  She started reminiscing about how he’d changed.  She said he’d become a kind and caring man, and that he was missed.  She cried, and others nearby got teary-eyed, too.

From our relationship with Old George I learned that no matter how unpleasant a person may seem on the outside, and no matter how hard they may be to reach, there is, somewhere deep down inside, a person worth knowing; someone others can appreciate and love.  Everyone has value as a human being.  Christ taught us that, too.

A few months after he died, I did some searching on the internet (which was a very new thing at the time) and discovered that Old George’s full name was George K. Alexander. He was born on September 26, 1906; and died July 17, 1993.

He was a man whom few knew existed, but who was well worth knowing.

I miss you George, rest in peace.

– Pastor Allen

Copyright (c) 2018, Allen Vander Meulen III.

Author: Allen

A would-be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is the proud father of a daughter and son, and enjoys life with his wife near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/.

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