I know for many, attending a funeral is difficult—knowing what to say to family or being around grief can be uncomfortable. For me, there is a closure that occurs at funerals that I find helpful. What I have invariably learned at funerals is the things we often view as frivolous are actually the things that resonate with people. They are things that connect us to each other and specifically to the person we have lost and come together to honor.
This past week I attended the funeral of Chris Collaros. Chris was the principal at Wickliffe, the elementary school my kids attended. My youngest is now a freshman in high school, so it’s been awhile since we have been active members of the Wickliffe community.
Nevertheless, the evening before the funeral my daughter (now a junior in high school) and I paid our respects at the funeral home. We weren’t alone. We arrived around 6 pm and wound our way through a line that took about an hour and a half to reach the family. Apparently, it had been this way the entire calling hours which began at 3 pm. Throughout the funeral home were mementos of Chris’ life. Most poignant were the notes, cards and pictures from Wickliffe students some with encouraging messages, and others just reporting on the current happenings at school and letting him know he was missed. One wall was decorated with some of the colorful ties Chris wore including his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers—as a Browns fan it reminded me even Chris Collaros had his flaws. We saw alumni families like ours, younger families with kids still attending Wickliffe, and we hugged past teachers that nurtured my kids and taught them about things like compassion and empathy that come in so handy at moments like these.
When we reached the family, I recounted to one of Chris’ daughters how our family was nervous when Chris became principal at Wickliffe. We had gotten to know the previous principal, Dr. Fred Burton and loved the community he had created at Wickliffe. But it didn’t take long for us to realize what Dr. Burton already knew--that Wickliffe was in good hands.
The next day at the funeral, I learned a lot I didn’t know about my kids’ principal. Back in the day, Chris Collaros was a football star in blue collar Steubenville. Mellancamp’s Jack and Diane running through my head—for Chris was Jackie—he was “a football star”. Good enough (and smart enough) to earn a scholarship to Princeton.
I learned Chris took the work he did quite serious, but I never felt like Chris took himself too seriously. Promoting progressive education in Upper Arlington is probably not as easy as Chris made it look. It wasn’t always clear to me what progressive education meant. But I knew it involved experiential learning, celebrating all kids, and respecting and tolerating all their differences. The result of which created a special community that our family is proud and grateful to be a part of.
I did know Chris played the guitar. Chris played in a band along with Fred Burton and a few other school administrators and they called themselves Principally Speaking. The band was a staple at the annual Wickliffe fundraising event. Chris brought his guitar to Wickliffe Town Meetings, Golden Star Choir performances, and occasionally on his visits to classrooms. The funeral was filled with music. Beautiful, uplifting music performed in part by the Upper Arlington High School choir.
The funeral was poignant and sad (I’ll admit I cried) for we had lost a great man who provided a wonderful learning environment for our kids, but I also left grateful to have known him. And even more grateful for the impact he has had on my children, my family, all the kids that graced the halls of Wickliffe, all the kids that then are affected by the spirit of Wickliffe when those kids move on to middle school and high school, well the impact is immeasurable.
Often what is written in pencilstorm can seem frivolous or beside the point. Somebody’s top five concerts, the Buckeyes prospects this season, or which Cleveland team is about to break my heart. But music and sports have a way of connecting and uniting people. It’s often how we explain our connections to our close friends and loved ones. That’s the exact opposite of frivolous—it’s vital and makes life worth living.
I wish Chris was still around to greet kids as they enter Wickliffe with that gapped-tooth infectious smile of his. Frankly, I wish he was around for next football season so he could witness the pounding the Browns are about to inflict on the Steelers and get a small taste of what it’s like to be a Browns fan for say the last 40 or so years. Thinking about Chris the song Forever Young keeps running through my head—not the Rod Stewart song, but the one by Alphaville (I had to look that up). I guess a job that requires you to be around kids all day can do that for you. He was a lucky man.
So next time someone who has touched your life passes, take the time to attend their funeral. You will be reminded of why they meant so much to you and you may learn something new about them. It will likely give you a chance to reflect on them, perhaps laugh about some anecdote, and cry a little too. I did all that at Chris’ funeral. And as the wise coach Jimmy Valvano said if you do all those things you’ve had a full day, you’ve had a heck of a day. - Scott Goldberg