Trips & Tales

JJ's funeral

by "Seattle Bob" Meador • February 28, 2007

I sent the following email to the flyers two day's after JJ O'Doherty's funeral in Chicago - S.B.

Dear Flyers,

Barbara O'Connell suggested I relate to all of you the story of JJ's funeral. I'm no journalist, so I'll simply try to translate the memories and feelings I have from this day. I'm writing this at about midnight the day of the event, trying to get it down before it fades too much. If I missed anyone in the addressees feel free to forward.

We arrived the night before the funeral, around 11 pm Sunday February 25th. Kevin Ward retrieved us from O'Hare in the VLV (Very Large Vehicle - a white Ford Excursion) and drove us through the falling snow to the Wards' beautiful farm in Barrington, about an hour outside Chicago. The wind was blowing and the snow had stuck to the trees, and all the branches were a beautiful white. Philip Richter had arrived earlier Sunday, and he and Kevin, Karen and Eric (the Ward's son) Ward went directly to JJ's wake. There they waited in line nearly two hours to view JJ and speak to Mary. They said the line was so long that the wait was one to two hours from 3 pm until 10 that evening. I don't know how many people came to the wake, but estimates are in the thousands.

The Ward household was asleep when we arrived around midnight, and (after sampling Kevin's amazing homemade on-tap beer) we quickly followed suit. I spent most the night tossing and turning, half-dreaming about JJ and the Flyers. The alarm at 7 am this morning came too quickly, but it was great to see Philip and Karen. Talk over coffee and quiche was quiet but positive - mainly JJ and motorcycles (what else?) We left early to ensure good seats, but as it turned out the Flyers (along with the riders who'd been with JJ and Kevin in Texas) had two rows reserved for us near the front. Shortly Hedwig and Bob Golant arrived, and just before the ceremony began Frank & Barbara O'Connell slipped in.

My only prior experience with the Catholic church has been from traveling, touring Notre Dame or churches in Italy or Spain, and through movies. I always thought of the church's ceremonies and rituals as some of the richest and most beautiful, and JJ's funeral lived up to that. Over the opening organ music we began to hear another sound - the wail of bagpipes - as a piper preceded JJ's casket into the church. The pallbearers rested him on the altar and the ceremony itself commenced - readings of scripture alternating with hymns led by the most clear-voiced tenor you could imagine, and joined by a small, sweet choir behind and above us in the balcony.

When the formal program was finished, the faithful took communion, and then the priest called for certain of JJ's closest friends to come forward and speak. The stories we heard painted a picture of JJ as an incredibly devoted husband and father, steadfast friend, fearless adventurer, and tireless supporter of everyone who asked for his help. We heard from those who had worked and played with him for decades. From his niece, who he "adopted" after her own father passed away, we heard how he considered it a given that he'd be taking her to her school's father-daughter dance - and how he stole the show with his Fred Astaire moves. And finally his own children spoke. Taylor first, with a raft of stories about growing up with her dad. Morgan was next, but she only managed a few words before tears took over. Finally tall, shy Jack confessed that public speaking was more JJ's thing than his own, but he let us all know how important it was that we were all there.

After the kids spoke, the priest finished with an admonition to follow JJ's example and seize the day, and live life to the fullest. Then he called the American Flyers and those who were riding with JJ in Texas to stand and come to the front of the church, where we led JJ's casket back up the aisle and out the door. Outside we waited in two lines on either side the stairs leading down to the street. Below us the hearse waited, the roof piled high with flowers, and snow fell lightly on us while we stood. Then we heard the piper start up again with "Amazing Grace". He emerged from the church followed by JJ, in the hands of eight close friends, and finally the children and Mary, who stopped next to each of us for hugs and tears.

We returned to the VLV and drove a few miles to the Saddle and Cycle Club, a green oasis (when not covered with snow) in the middle of the city. The club actually used to be on the lake, but subsequent landfill and the building of Lakeshore Drive set it back from the water. We milled around for an hour or so, talking, sharing JJ stories, making liberal use of the bar and, in the case of Philip and the O'Connells, meeting for the first time. We fed ourselves at the impressive buffet. We looked at dozens of photos of JJ doing the things he loved in life - diving, skydiving, hunting, relaxing, traveling with Mary and the kids, and even a few with the Flyers. We had another chance to talk to Mary, and she was doing so well. She wants to travel with us again (at least in the chase vehicle). We even joked about her Talledega Nights rainsuit from Salmon Run. And finally we returned to our home-away-from-home at the Wards.

As I sit here, I am wondering "how do you wrap something like this up"? Which is also of course the big question of the day as far as JJ is concerned.

I have always felt one of the tragedies of being human is that we can never truly connect with one another. We can never get inside another's head to understand who they really are. But in an experience like this, we get a chance to see deeper inside someone than we may ever otherwise get. The many diverse elements of the funeral and reception each provided clues to who JJ was. This was especially important for me, as I feel like I only started to get to know him. But it was bittersweet - I also learned how much I missed in not getting to know him more, or sooner. The beautiful church and powerful ceremony showed us a hint of the bond their faith gave the family. The 800 or so friends and relatives, and the many more who attended the wake the previous day, told better than any words how many lives JJ touched. The testimonies of friends, the stories at the reception, and the photos all filled in pieces of the puzzle.

Perhaps it's sad that we almost never get to experience so much of a person while they're alive, but despite the circumstances it was good that we were able to touch JJ's life in this way, and good to have the chance to know a tiny piece of him, even if only for a little while.

Ride safe.

- Bob

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