Column: Reflections on John Becher, Riverwalk rockAugust 25, 2017
By SCOTT SAALMAN
Laurie Becher texted: “Can we meet by the rock 6ish?”
She was ready to talk about her late husband John.
You know the rock. The one at the Riverwalk with John Becher’s name engraved on it, along with a quote: “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”
The quote originated from Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer, during a speech before the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1968. At some point, John had seen the words and wrote them down. Laurie was surprised to find the quote on a piece of paper just before the funeral.
“John wasn’t one to write things down,” says Laurie. “I knew the quote must have been important to him even though he never discussed it. It had to be for him to have written it down. If you really look at those words it says a lot.”
When friends informed Laurie of their intent to place a stone in honor of John at the Riverwalk and asked her for ideas on what to include on it, Laurie suggested the quote.
“I was touched by their effort. It was really sweet,” she says. “The rock came about because people felt nudged to do something for John. All I did was suggest the words.
“The whole event with John, it was quite a shock. Especially in the weeks that followed.”
John Becher died six years ago in July. He lost control of his Triumph motorcycle on an S-curve on State Road 56.
“You are in kind of a different space of consciousness because you are dealing with an emotionally traumatic experience. It was at a point in time when I didn’t feel strongly about anything. I was in an incubator state,” says Laurie.
The Riverwalk was a logical location.
“He loved the Riverwalk,” says Laurie. “John really loved nature and animals. He was a soft-spoken environmentalist.”
As she sits on a bench by John’s rock, a West Highland Terrier, unleashed, stays close. She calls the dog her shadow. The dog, named Lily, and John were inseparable. They were popular fixtures on the Riverwalk. Now Lily sticks by Laurie. Several times, Laurie says hi to people who walk by. She’s easily recognized in public though she credits this to her association with John, who, by nature of his occupation, small-town funeral director, was well-known.
“John was very loved in the community. He helped people in their most emotionally challenging times. He just had that unique way of making them feel comfortable in an uncomfortable place. I have heard this from many people,” she says. “He loved people. He didn’t know a stranger.”
She laughs, recalling how John’s popularity was evident each time they had a date at The Schnitzelbank Restaurant.
“John knew everybody. He would go to the salad bar and not come back to our table for a while. People would sit with me since I appeared to be eating alone. I’d just joke and tell them, ‘Oh, John left for the salad bar,’ and that was explanation enough.”
Laurie was in Louisville when John died. John had stayed behind in Jasper because he was on call with the funeral home. That morning, he attached a new rearview mirror on her SUV. In Florida, just a few days before, Laurie had accidentally knocked the original mirror off pulling into a narrow garage.
She recalls his last words to her before leaving for Louisville: “I can’t guarantee the mirror is going to stay on but it’s on for now.”
“He wanted to make sure I was going to be safe,” she says.
A jogger recognizes Laurie. He’s a widower now married to an acquaintance of hers. He empathetically asks how she’s coping. They exchange pleasantries, a few laughs. He jogs away.
For most of the years since the tragedy, it was too tough emotionally for Laurie to visit the rock. That she’s at this spot talking about him today says a lot.
“No one will ever remember John over time but maybe words and stones can be good reminders. People look at the rock, what’s written on it—it’s deep but it’s simple. He was real. He was present. He was simple in the best of ways. He had a huge heart. Everyone had fun around him. He was fun.
“I’ll tell you where I am right now. I think I crossed my way onto the other side of it. I understand that joy and pain can be bedfellows. It’s been an incredible learning experience, incredibly humbling, but I was up for the task. Being in the funeral business, we were both keenly aware about how quickly things can change.
“We always expressed the way we felt. What I am so grateful for is that there was nothing unsaid or unfinished between us. That’s a really good thing. We took care of business while we had the time.”
On their final day together, perhaps Laurie saw John’s reflection in the newly-installed rearview mirror while driving away, a final glimpse. Perhaps they kissed—she can’t remember, but it’s very likely. “He always kissed me before we left each other. He always called it the ‘coal miner’s kiss’ because coal miners never knew if they would come out of the mine.”
Will Read and Sing For Food will hold a benefit show, open to the public, to raise money for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 25, at Klubhaus 61. Admission is a $10 donation.
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