I have just returned from a memorable trip to Valdosta. I went there to speak to the Rotary Club. The members laughed in all the right places, which not only was memorable, but downright remarkable. What made the trip even more special were two visits I made while there. I dropped by to see my beloved college professor, Dr. Raymond Cook on his 93rd birthday. My detractors will find little comfort in this but I would not be where I am today had I not been assigned Dr. Cook’s English Literature course in the Spring term of my freshman year at Georgia State. I was not exactly shooting the lights out academically and had found myself on academic probation.
I really didn’t care at the time whether I stayed in school or not. My high school buddies had already quit and gotten jobs. I think the only reason I was still around is that my older brother had finished college — the first in our family to do so — and I didn’t want him to one-up me. Otherwise, I would have been long gone. In what can only be described as a miracle, Dr. Cook’s method of teaching and his insistence that we remember what he taught us inspired me to continue my education and, as they say, the rest in history.
I have four members of my family who are school teachers. I pray that they have had or will have the kind of life-changing influence on young people that Raymond Cook had on me. I worry because of the abysmal lack of support teachers receive from politicians and bureaucrats these days. If it is any consolation, school teachers, just remember you will have changed more lives for the better than all of our ethics-challenged politicians put together. That will be your reward.
While in Valdosta, I also met John and Tammy Eunice. You may recall the story of their son, James. The 17-year-old, a senior at Valdosta High, had told UGA football coach Mark Richt during his visit to recruit a couple of highly-rated prospects in 2010 that he was going to walk-on and make the football team in the fall. A free spirit, James happened to be wearing a Florida Gator T-shirt at the time. Eunice was an honor student and a two-sport athlete and had already been accepted to the University of Georgia on the basis of his academics.
That all changed in January 2011, when James drowned while duck hunting near Valdosta. At his funeral service, Jay Rome and Malcolm Mitchell, the two athletes Mark Richt had come to recruit and who had signed with the Bulldogs, read a letter from the coach addressed to the Eunice family and expressing his profound sorrow. The letter ended with this: “Oh yeah, James made the team.” With that, Rome and Mitchell pulled out an official Georgia football jersey with Eunice’s name and the No. 23 he had worn at Valdosta. It was a class moment by a class individual.
John and Tammy Eunice are working to keep James’ memory alive through a charity foundation established within the Community Foundation of South Georgia. “James was a young man who loved God and lived with urgency,” Mr. Eunice says “He made every minute count in his young life.” They plan to make his life have a positive impact on others in the years to come through the work of the foundation.
Prior to James Eunice’s death, he had reflected in a remarkable Facebook posting on the death of a fellow student. He talked about the fact that sometimes it takes a tragedy to get us to understand that our days are numbered. He said, “Take time to love someone. Today. Tomorrow. For the rest of your life. Because when that unexpected day comes that they pass on, you’ll be left wondering what you could’ve done better.”
As we were returning from Valdosta, a deranged soul burst into a crowded Colorado theater, set off gas canisters and opened fire. At this writing, 12 people are dead and 58 wounded — 11 critically. I thought immediately of James Eunice’s words. Our days are truly numbered and we must take time today to let someone know we love them and appreciate them.
I was glad I had gone to see Dr. Cook to thank him for all he has meant to me. Life is fragile and there are no guarantees we will get a second chance to do the right thing.
You can reach Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.