My Friend Nathan

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Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

My friend Nathan died this past week. He was 67 years old. I was close enough to know a little of him, but removed enough to see some of the broader arc of his life from my mostly outsider vantage point. Though it is impossible for me to do the story of his life any justice in just a few words, there are words enough to share some of the man I experienced and, along the way, gift some of what he gave me to you who may read this.

On the morning of January 25, I was sitting in a church pew a little after 8am looking at the coffin of a man I did not know, as the bells began to ring. I had no idea that my friend Nathan had likely already passed. As I sat there, John Donne’s poem came to mind:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

I found out later that night that Nathan had passed. Do you believe in signs? I do. Knowing Nathan as I did, it seemed completely Providential. The minute I heard the news that evening, I felt diminished. For whom does the bell toll? Today, it tolls for all of us who knew him.

Gentle. Unassuming. Quiet. Faithful. Honest. Sincere. Humble. Calm and measured. Affable. I just liked him. Reading over the many, many comments on his obituary page, others used many of the same words. He was a man who had touched many people over many years in many ways. Lesson one from this man: your legacy is built one person, one moment, and one choice at a time. It seems that Nathan invested well in many people, many moments, and many choices.

I first met him eight or nine years ago but knew of him long before, as we both played in the same professional space within healthcare. Our first encounter was in a presentation in which I was working to earn business from the company in which he worked. The meeting was fine, he and his team were courteous, and we were unable to win the day.

Later that week, Nathan took the time to share his feedback. “You need to focus,” he said. I was struck by the fact that this man cared enough to be honest. He reminded me that I was playing the long game. Though anyone trying to build a business often feels that there is an ongoing conspiracy to restrain, deter, block, or undermine all of our good work, the process is necessary to make us stronger and help us improve our game. It was counsel Nathan conveyed without having to say it explicitly. I was always grateful for his gentle delivery of the tough messages.

Over time, I learned that Nathan and my professional journeys had paralleled and crossed in numerous places. Just a few examples: a Butler professor of mine who I discovered was a close friend of Nathan and Susan, one of my aunts who knew Nathan well and had worked with him at a consulting company, a client and friend of mine who was also close to Nathan. These were all reminders of the many threads that connect us that often remain unseen. He was well known and so very well respected.

Some of my favorite conversations with Nathan were over breakfast at Another Broken Egg, located across from his office on Meridian Street here in Indianapolis. I imagine many who read this will have met him at this cafe over the years. I discovered that Nathan was a devout Christian and we enjoyed some great discussions on this topic. As I consider his passing John 14 comes to mind:

1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?"

Nathan was fascinated by Sally and my decision to walk the Camino de Santiago. We talked of it before Sally and I left in October of 2019. We talked of Luke’s story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus and a sense of accompaniment and ongoing conversion. When we returned, I was happy to learn that Nathan had followed along via blog posts I shared along the way. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. He asked me what I discovered on the journey. I told him that I went seeking to be closer to God and discovered that it was He who found me along the way. I still see Nathan’s smile and the deep faith in his eyes in that moment we shared.

I was also blessed to know Nathan long enough to encounter disagreement with him, as well as the gift of moving past it. As gentle and affable as he was, Nathan was responsible for a big business, many employees, and numerous strategic client relationships. Nathan could make a decision, own it, and still look you in the eye with sincerity, acknowledging that it wasn’t in your favor, and maintain the conviction that it was the right decision for those who counted on him. That is true leadership and I still respect him for it.

Nathan was a smart and nuanced leader. He was a student of people and situations, deft in his anticipation and reaction to rapidly changing circumstances, and able to see the entire board as he acted within and upon it. He frequently counseled me on movements in our industry and was always willing to share his wisdom. Nathan didn’t have to, he didn’t owe me anything or need me to do something for him. He just cared. That is such a beautiful form of love, willing the goodness of someone else for no reason other than you want good things for them. I am so very grateful for those moments.

I knew enough of Nathan to know that he loved his family intensely and watching his joy at becoming a grandfather was heartwarming. He loved his kids and he adored his grandchildren. Showing up for breakfast one day, he told me that he and Susan had impulsively bought a lake house; laughing out loud, he talked of it like a guilty pleasure. Of course, I’m certain there was nothing impulsive in it and saw the loving logic in other conversations as he told me of anticipating upcoming moments at that house with his family or of returning from a week-end of good times sharing it together. His eyes lit up like a little boy when he spoke of his grand daughter and grandson. It was pure joy.

Nathan was my friend and I am a better man for having known him. Should Susan, Adam, Anna, or Abigail read this, I suspect it’s a bit surreal to see the perspective of someone they have never met share stories they have likely never heard of the man they loved so much. Or, maybe they’ve grown to understand the deep way in which their Nathan engaged with the world, impacting others effortlessly along the way. Hopefully, the many stories they hear over these days of loss will help assuage some of the hurt, and bring more smiles at the gift of him in their lives.

And now, we move on. The loss is real, but so is the gratitude. The tears are a gift and a tribute. To be touched by such a loss, to truly feel it, is so very special. Tears and smiles. May we all be remembered in such a way.

To weep is to make less the depth of grief.

Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III
Showing 2 comments
  • Gregg J Stefanek

    A beautiful tribute Phil. Yes, the bell tolls for all of us. We can only hope that we leave such a wonderful legacy of love.

    “Love is when you extend yourself for the purpose of nurturing your own or someone else’s spiritual growth”
    Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

  • Frederick W McClaine

    I did not know Nathan but in your descriptions of your conversations with him I feel as if I have I have met him…..thank you for sharing….his legacy will go on through your memories of him…..

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