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The Importance Of Carrying On

June 9, 2001

The following is Mark Matlock's speech at the 2001 luncheon. Mark Matlock, an editor with The Greenville News, became an integral member of the Byrnes family when he married 1976 Scholar Elaine Russell.

There is one word that comes to mind when I hear two of the sweetest words in the English language – Byrnes Scholars – and that word is: family.

Just listen to what some Byrnes Scholars through the years have said about this family: Kristine Hobbs, a 1989 Scholar, said: "They provide stability in a world that's pretty chaotic."

Hal Norton uttered these words: "There are always going to be young people who have lost one or both parents who are going to need what we have to offer, and they will discover that what we offer is much more than money."

Brian Few, another recent scholar, said: "It's still meaningful for me to come down to Super Weekend and share fellowship with those who suffered the same loss. Maybe I can act as a bridge for someone or share some piece of information that can help somebody else."

And on the lighter said, Roxanne Poston said this: "Our class is the reason you can't go on the pier at Garden City during Super Weekend."

Personally, I had seen what a sense of family the Byrnes Scholars created. Going to Super Weekend seven straight years will do that to a person. I had seen the games, the laughter, the sharing, the meals, the reuniting of old friends, the discovery of new ones. I had seen. But I did not understand.

For me, all that changed on the third weekend of March 1997. It was one of those clear days of early spring at Garden City, with that wonderful mix of warm sun and cool ocean breeze that help define Super Weekend. If you had seen me that weekend, you would've seen a man lost. Emotionally, spiritually and completely lost.

It had been almost five months since my wife, 1976 Byrnes Scholar Elaine Russell Matlock, had died of a rare lung disease. I really don't need to outline the emotional havoc that event can bring to someone's life. All in this room have felt the pain of losing someone so close. But not everyone has experienced what I did that weekend in 1997.

The minute I pulled into Garden City, I felt better. The minute I saw Hal Norton, I felt better. The minute I tasted the barbecue Friday night, I felt better. The minute I saw the Scholars past and present, I felt better.

But it was a conversation I had with Carol Ann Green that helped lift the fog I was in. Carol Ann is, unfortunately for her, an expert in this. She has experienced the pain of widowhood not once, but twice. She and I took a seat outside the fellowship hall and talked about the previous five months: the loneliness, the fear, the sadness. It's strange, but I can't remember exact details of that conversation. But I do remember that the tightness in my chest, that panicked feeling, began to ease.

What Carol Ann and all the Scholars from LeAnna to Brian to Henri to Charles to Roxanne to Dee to Lois to Dal to Jeannette and many others, what they did that weekend was help me see that I was NOT alone. I was part of a very special family that embraces all its members with love, hope and faith.

After that weekend, I knew the emotional work I had before me. A non-Byrnes friend of mine told me that the first year after a family member's death is a lot like trying to find the right place on the wall for a favorite picture. After Super Weekend 1997, that's what I started doing. I found the right place on my life's wall for Elaine.

What's that mean? It means remembering not just how she died, but how she lived, who she touched and why she meant so much to so many. But the other part of the process is very difficult: it's called letting go. Because like it or not, the ship is sailing. Life is not stagnant; it's evolving, changing constantly though many times we wish it wasn't so.

Many times, we think "Why me" when things go wrong, when life takes a scary and dramatic turn. Oddly enough, a notebook of Elaine's I found a few weeks after she died spoke to that plea "Why me?" Mind you, she wrote this about a month before she died.

"Why me?

"Why can't I breathe well? Why am I virtually housebound hooked to an oxygen machine? Why have I had three major illnesses in my lifetime when some people breeze through the years without setting foot in a hospital?

"Believe it or not, these are questions I have NOT asked myself as I've struggled with my most recent bout with sickness.

"A more appropriate question might be 'Why not me?'

"In times of frustration, despair or indecision, it's easy to look to the heavens and ask God 'Why me?'

"But if I ask that question in troubled times, shouldn't I ask it when things are their sunniest, when life is easy, when everything is going my way?

"Why was I born into a wonderful, caring family when so many children are unwanted and unloved?

"Why have I been blessed with many friends in many places over the years?

"Why did a find a wonderful man to marry and, with him, have a beautiful daughter?

"Why do I live in a comfortable home and have plenty to eat while the world is filled with homeless and hungry people?

"Why me? What have I ever done to deserve even one of the blessings I've known?"

One of the few constants in my life during this time was my daughter, Rachel. I feel that she was a bigger help to me in that first year than I was to her. I kept going because she needed me to. Children remind us of what's important, and how day-to-day life truly is.

I think if Pop Byrnes was here, he would stress to us the importance of carrying on, even when we think we can't. This sleight little native of the Lowcountry didn't pack it in even though he grew up without a dad. Pop Byrnes had the moral fiber and the tenacity to keep going. Franklin Roosevelt was glad he did. Harry Truman was glad he did. The people of South Carolina and the United States were glad he did. And the people in this room are glad he did.

And carrying on is what Rachel and I did. We got through that first year with the help of God and many in this room, especially Sheri Gordon, Elaine's sister, and her husband Steve. Sheri herself is a 1980 Byrnes Scholar. What they meant, and continue to mean, to our family is beyond measure.

But a funny thing happened on my way to years of single parenthood. God touched me again. My faith in Him grew, so much so that I became an elder in my church, Westminster Presbyterian in Greenville. God also quieted my thoughts of loneliness and opened my eyes. And when I opened them, I met a wonderful new friend who soon became my wife.

My wife, Kathy Christman, is an amazing woman. First and foremost, she's a warm, caring person who radiates goodness and Godliness much the same way that Elaine did. And that radiating energy serves her well in her calling as a doctor, an oncologist to be exact.

It's a tough road of medicine that Kathy chose. Oncologists not only get into the technical aspects of cancer, but the emotional ones as well. Sure, this disease gets her down sometimes but, as she has said on many occasions, she draws strength from the resiliency of the human spirit she sees in her patients. I suspect they draw strength from her spirit as well.

Coincidentally, Kathy has a bond, of sorts, with the Byrnes Scholars. Her mother died of cancer when she was in medical school. Both Rachel and I had told Kathy about the Byrnes Scholars. So, after we married in December 1998, my daughter and I took Kathy to Super Weekend in 1999. I think Kathy was a little apprehensive about what to expect, but the reception was warm and friendly, just like I knew it would be.

Of course, Hal Norton is the one who really, shall we say, "welcomed" Kathy into the family. It happened during the "Name That Hymn" contest Friday night. As usual, we gathered in the fellowship hall and the group was split into freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors and alumni. Carol Ann plinked out a few notes, Kathy's hand shot up and she exclaimed "Church's One Foundation!" And Hal, master of ceremonies, said, "Wow! That was fast. I mean, you didn't even hesitate! You just shot that hand up and blurted out the answer. That was fantastic? That was also wrong."

My wife had been anointed. She was one of us, a part of the Byrnes family.

Speaking of family, we added to our own immediate family in September 1999 with the birth of our son, Robby. And that's really what the Byrnes Scholars are doing here today. Adding to the family Pop Byrnes started in 1949, the one Elaine joined in 1976, the one that Kathy was welcomed into in 1999.

To the class of 2001, I would give this one piece of advice that I believe Pop Byrnes would endorse: It's not so much what happens to you in life that matters most; it's what you do with what happens to you, how you handle challenges and changes that will define your life. Take it from an adopted member of this wonderful family, the Byrnes Scholars will help you handle life's curves. After all, it's the Byrnes way. Thank you, and God bless you all.

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