I was asked to speak at Dr. Tom Corts' Memorial service on February 8 at Samford University, Birmingham, AL. Tom Corts was a good, good friend and he died quite suddenly of a heart attack on February 4, 2009. The larger community has been in shock over his sudden and lamented death. Here are the words of my tribute to my good friend and his memory just as I gave them at the Memorial service.
The Apostle Paul opened his letter to his beloved friends at Philippi by saying: “I thank my God for every remembrance of you.”
And so what I want today is to open up some of my remembrances of Tom Corts. And I begin with a poem by Mary Oliver that goes like this:
Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift. (from Thirst, “The Uses of Sorrow”)
We hold in our hands today a box full of sorrow. It is heavy and it is dark—could this box really ever be a gift?
Dear Tom and his family came into our lives in 1969 when he was Chair of the Search Committee of a Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky. The first time I visited their house Rachel was in an infant seat on their kitchen counter—I still have that memory. Jennifer was a little older…and Chris was not yet born. But when he came along we dedicated him one Sunday morning at the Faith Baptist Church.
Tom was working on his doctorate at IU and was Assistant to the President at Georgetown College, Dr. Robert Mills. Tom cut his grass with a push mower that had no engine. I would ask him why he didn’t get a real lawn mower and he would just look at me with that Tom Corts look. So I changed the subject. But through the years I would say: “Do you remember that old lawn mower back in Georgetown? And he would say: “I loved that lawnmower.” And the subject was closed. Can you imagine being Tom Corts’ pastor? I was young and green and thought that he might be foreboding. But very soon he opened up his heart and took us in. We were there together for six good years. No one could have been more supportive or encouraging than Tom and Marla. And every Pastor here that had the Corts as members can say the same thing.
We followed Tom’s career from Georgetown College to Wingate and then to Samford. We would meet from time to time—somewhere between North Carolina and South Carolina just to catch up.
He invited me to have part in his installation at Samford that special day in 1983. Nobody knew what would happen with this new President. But those of us who knew Tom Corts did know that whatever would take place here on this spot—that it would be good and fine and rich and rare. And we were not wrong.
We moved to Birmingham in 1993 and picked up where we left off as friends. One of the many wonderful things that he did was to establish the London Centre hoping that students would learn to love the England and the larger world that he loved. I remember reading that when Sir Christopher Wren, the great English architect died also in the month of February he was buried in St. Paul’s one of the many churches he designed. And on his grave stone in Latin were placed these words: “If you seek his memorial, look about you.” Holding this box of sadness today I would ask you to look around you at the memorials Tom Corts left behind. I’m not talking about the buildings that bear his name or books he wrote--his fingerprints that are all over this campus. No, I would ask you to look around this room: for this is his real memorial: Faces from all over—a myriad of connections—Governors, College Presidents, teachers, administrators, friends and students and students and students. But most of all--his real memorial sits on these first rows: his family. My how he loved you.
He prayed a beautiful prayer at my retirement. The word master that he was—his prayer was beautiful and breathtaking. I remember one phrase even to this day. He prayed: “We offer thanks for those who cannot remember his name…but remember Yours (Lord) because of him.” Dear Tom, I give your words back to you. For in the years to come students will walk across this campus and some may not know the name Tom Corts …but they will know the Father’s name because of what he did here. And the people of Alabama one day may not ever know his name but they will know something of the Father’s love because of that new Constitution that will one day, one day bring equity and justice for all in our state. Tom worked tirelessly on this effort.
I say a word to dear, dear Marla and Jennifer and Rachel and Christopher and all the family members who sit here today holding your own boxes full of sorrow. But how lucky you have been to be part of that family that grew up under the roof of this good and kind man. And we will lift you up often to the care of the one who said: “I came to heal the brokenhearted.” And we claim that promise for you not only today bur for the days to come.
Tom loved quotes as much as anybody I know. Years ago in Kentucky he gave me this quote. And today I give it back to him. It comes from The Brothers Karamazov:
“And even if we are occupied with important things, even if we attain honor or fall into misfortune, still let us remember how good it was once here when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us better perhaps than we are.”
The old box of sorrow that we all hold in our hands is difficult and heavy today. But after a while when the tears do not come quite so quickly and the grief is not so hard—may we remember Tom Corts and his time with us and we will be glad.