In the world of sports there are the stars and then there are the role players. The stars get the attention, the glory, while the role players work quietly behind the scenes, and yet would Michael Jordan be famous without his supporting cast?
This past week one of those supporting cast men died after becoming infected by Covid-19, having succumbed on Tuesday of this past week, on the same day as another regular during my growing up days, Lenore Miller, 89, who loved to use testimony time at church to sing, and passed after becoming ill of the same disease.
John Kenneth Metzler, 82, better known as just “Ken,” had been in poor health for the past decade and really seemed to be living on borrowed time as it was. He was born in 1938, February 15, in Lancaster County, the faithful husband to his wife of 60 years, Arlene, and proceeded in death by his daughter Brenda.
I almost didn’t write anything about Ken. I mean, the Mennonite denomination is my past and Ken was simply Ken. A deacon in the church. But an awkward and common man. He ran a muffler shop for years, lived in a little ranch house beside it, drove a Chrysler minivan for years (completely practical like him) and spoke with his totally unsophisticated dutchified drawl.
Not really the kind who gets invited to speak in front of the crowds nor mentioned as someone noteworthy, and yet someone always willing to serve.
I’ll admit, as a teenage punk, who knew nothing and prioritized ‘coolness’ over substance of character, Ken was annoying for his self-effacing style. He would literally apologize for himself while sharing a devotional, for his lack of education and many shortcomings.
He also held some odd views, like the time he confessed to enjoying the comics page and acted as if it was some sort of terrible transgression. He would also, while teaching youth Sunday school, ask questions that would be more suitable for kindergarten students, which would leave everyone confused thinking he was asking rhetorically and him frustrated (or “fuss-trated” in his persistent Lancaster dialect) thinking we weren’t paying attention.
But in the end?
Ken was a man with a golden heart, who became more and more endearing as I matured and, despite his slightly stooped posture, had all the true qualities of a hero.
There are plenty of flashy Mennonites, big fish in their small ponds, who act as “missionaries” or “evangelists” and are roundly praised for their efforts. Many of them have the perfect hair, the superior intelligence, the pedigree and popular families. They travel to the exotic places, some have the academic credentials too, they have the wealth (or access to resources) and reputation for their wonderfulness.
Ken had none of that pomp and pizzazz. He wouldn’t want it even if he were capable. Instead he, slow and steady, like the persistent tortoise compared to the haire of children’s book fame, he worked mostly unrecognized for the good of others. If it was to cut someone a break on a repair bill at his shop or consistently running the canned goods distribution, you would hardly have noticed his contribution.
When crowns in heaven are distributed, I believe there will be many surprises. But it will not be a surprise to me if Ken received a reward bigger than that of the known names. No, he did not lead the church outreach, but he supported it wholeheartedly, and remained long after the charismatic movers and shakers chased after that next new and exciting project. He stayed, stayed true to his commitments, and is a hero in a world full of vain and self-serving ‘good’ men.
Ken also died as he lived. He could have, given his poor physical health, cowered in fear and never left his home. Nobody would have criticized him for doing this, he was clearly in that most at risk category and could not be faulted for hiding out the pandemic. But then why miss out on life when you already know that your days are numbered? He got out instead, remained a part of the community, and that is a choice that I respect—even recommend.
Ken’s death was not a big surprise to me. My initial reaction when I heard he had been at church when a visiting chorus was there, basically a Covid super-spreader event, was to think, “oh, Ken,” and question the wisdom.
But, on second thought, Ken made the right and heroic choice. Ken knew that risk of death isn’t a reason to stop living. He had been on death’s door before and made a deliberate choice.
Ken, unlike many in this age, understood life is difficult and every day is a gift. He may have lived a year or two more, possibly, but was not long for this world by any reasonable assessment. Sure, he likely suffered, he spent his last days alone because of nonsense policies created by administrators, but he was a man who never had it easy and lived a life of faith and sacrifice.
Real heroes don’t wear capes or live in the pages of comic books, most of them do not die in some grand saving-the-world deed, many of them pass unnoticed. They quietly play their role, in the background, until it is time to go home.