To a Tee…

It’s been so cold these past few days that the ice-fisherman have abandoned Monona Bay.  This is a big deal.  Last Wednesday, when a foot of snow dumped here in Madison and all of the schools were closed, they were out in force.  That day, Janice, Pete, and I took out some of the demo snowshoes as the snow fell, and there they were.  But they aren’t there now.  It’s THAT cold.


By contrast, Saturday was a perfect day to be out.  We took the kids (no, I don’t mean Janice and Pete) to Governor Nelson Park on the north end of Lake Mendota to play in the new snow.  I was even able to do some skate-skiing.  If you’ve been following along, you might remember that I’ve picked up some new toys in the past few months:  Skate skis, snowshoes, and a cross-bike, to be exact.  I’ve even been out on them a bit, too.  That doesn’t make me very good at using them, though.  (Well, except the snowshoes; just about everybody’s good at that right away.)  Saturday, it was warm with a light wind, the snow on the ground was still soft from Wednesday’s dump, and the track was groomed just so.  It was a true hero day, and – as I’m still learning to skate-ski – the great conditions suited me to a tee.

“To a Tee…”  That turn of phrase is my mind’s cue to me to write about someone else, today. Tee was one of my oldest and strongest mentors, and he passed away early on Super Bowl Sunday.  He was one of those lucky people who could have done just about anything – and, for him, doing nothing was also an option – and he chose to be a high-school football coach.  Some might say that he missed one of the biggest games ever.  Personally, I think he just wanted better seats.

Aside from being a high-school football coach, Tee was also a volunteer at hospice care facilities.  He was active in his church, and sometimes he was a counselor and mentor for those who were going through treatment for substance-abuse.  He was a generous, complicated, dynamic man who – like all people – also had his own demons and eccentricities.  Unlike most of us though, most of these things seemed to bring people to him, rather than push them away.  As with meteors sometimes, he was magnetic even as he was falling.

Tee’s given name was Frances, and he didn’t like it much.  “Frank” didn’t suit him either, so he went by his middle initial,”T.”  I never called him that, though.  For me, he was always Mr. Feeney.  He was never my football coach, or even ever my teacher.  Still, what I learned from him goes beyond what he could have passed to me on the field, or in the classroom.  

We all encounter many types of mentors and guides, at all stages of our lives.  There are mentors you reference, and mentors who weave themselves into you.  Mr. Feeney was the latter, for me.  At times, I sit around thinking,”What would Bob do?” or “What would Todd have to say about this?”  Tee was a passionate, loving, and authentic father.  Sometimes when I interact with my own kids, I have flashes of reference in retrospect:  “Man, that’s right from Mr. Feeney.”  He wove threads into the tapestry of who I am today, and – from time to time – I get glimpses of these threads that show the man beneath the man I am.

My favorite stories from Mr. Feeney really can’t be repeated.  Out of context, they just wouldn’t play.  (One of them involves a thrown fork…)  Anyway, he was too large to be contained in any one anecdote.

“I’ve always been the type of person who doesn’t like to trespass,” sings Bob Dylan,”But sometimes you just find yourself over the line.”  I should mention that we had a falling out many years ago.  We never reconciled.  There’s no regret in admitting this.  It’s just what was.  Looking back, what happened was a really big deal, and I’ll just have to leave it at that.  Still, neither one of us could have done anything other than what we did in the moment.  Even though the dust eventually settled and the planet kept spinning with both of us on it, our paths had already diverged.  They never came back together.  Sadly, this happens.  I didn’t go to his funeral, in part perhaps because I had long since grieved for the loss of the man.  

“If there’s an original thought out there I could sure use it right now.”  (Dylan has a line for everything…)

Well, this isn’t an original idea, but it’s an important one that keeps coming around:  Some people say that we’re put here on this earth in part to learn the lessons that we need to learn, and we keep learning these things until they finally sink in.  The lesson that keeps repeating for me is that people are only in your life until they are gone, and then they are gone.  Many folks that you mean to spend more time with – or to get back to, sometime – won’t be there when you are ready, or when you have the time.  

Someone may have gone through Catechism with you.  Someone may have taught you how to do a J-stroke, or to portage a canoe.  Someone may have been the first to let you take the wheel of their boat and drive it around at top speed.  Someone may have met you mornings three days a week before school in order to train for 10K races, and then met you at these same races to run them with you.  You may model someone – consciously or unconsciously – every time you interact with your own children, or with the people who are close to you.  Everybody has this someone in their life.  In my life, every one of these people was Tee Feeney.  I’m very, very thankful for having had him in my life.

So, in honor of Mr. Feeney, pick up the phone and call the person who filled one (or all) of these roles in your life.  Send them a card, or write them an e-mail.  If you’re not good with words, just drop by.  They’ll be glad you did.  And, you will be, too.

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