I want to begin today by reading part of a poem called: “How to Live With Your Dash”. I think it is appropriate for this service as we come to remember Bill Portman.
“I read of a man who stood up to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth
And spoke the following date with tears.
But said what mattered most of all
Was the dash in between those years?
For that dash represents all the time
That she had spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved her know
what that little line is worth.
For it matters not how much we own,
The cars, the house, the cash—
What matters most is how we live and love
And how we spend our dash. (Author Unknown)
Bill was born in Lexington, Kentucky July 23, 1931. He died at the Sumner Regional Medical Center February 22, 2014. But we have come to talk about today is what happened between that birthday back in Lexington and that sad day when he died.
For you see his life was filled with many, many things. That dash was chuck-full of so much and you have come because you were part of what happened during these years at one time or another.
First there is Helen, his wife of 55 years. Loren Eiseley was a great writer from Pennsylvania. And when his wife died he spoke at the grave service. And he looked down at that casket and that carved out piece of earth—and he spoke to his wife. And he said, “You have been with me all the way.” Helen Portman has been with Bill all the way. He didn’t want her to leave his sight those last hard days. And she stayed. And she crawled up in the bed with him and held him. What a gift—what a gift.
Marriage is an up and down affair. There are good days and there are hard days. Bill has been seriously sick for two years. And dear Helen has cared and loved and helped and did the dirty work when nobody else was around. I don’t know a wife anywhere who has done a better job. I think we ought to give Helen Portman a standing ovation. Would you join me? Helen, I know you will protest—but this is richly deserved. And anybody who knows your story—knows what I am talking about.
Bill grew up in Louisville in a house with a Mama and a Papa and a brother, Bobby. He went to Male High School and first played trumpet at University of Louisville. But he transferred after a year to Georgetown College. He felt God calling him to be a preacher and he went to Seminary. He served one church outside Charleston, South Carolina. One of my favorite stories is about that little country church where one of the members was notorious for her lack of sanitation. And she kept asking Bro. Bill to come eat with her some Sunday after church. And he kept putting her off. Bill was squeamish and he didn’t want to eat with her. But one Sunday she cornered him and he went to her house. Little house, no screens on the windows. Lots of flies. And it was about as he had expected. Maybe worse. And he didn’t want to eat anything. But he had to do something. So—as she waddled off into the kitchen to get something else—Bill would throw the food on his plate out the window. She never knew.
But God’s calls are not confined to preachers. And Bill knew that. And he probably knew he could not suffer some old deacons telling him what to do. He did have his strong opinions. And so it was a good idea he went into Y work. I don’t know anybody better suited for a job. The old Y motto was body, mind and spirit. Bill was a committed Christian and he never forgot that spirit was part of the YMCA. And out of that commitment he influenced hundreds of young men and women. And lives scattered all over are different because of Bill Portman.
I met him first in Louisville. He and Helen had recently married in 1959. And we had recently married two years later and we struck up a friendship that lasts to this day. In Seminary I worked at the Louisville Y—and Bill was my boss. I followed his work in Louisville and then Danville, Virginia and then Marietta, Georgia and finally here in Nashville. Along the way he knew country music stars and business people—and kids and people of all ages.
But if you really want to know the character of the person—you have to look at those closest to him. And so we watched him and his attentiveness to tiny Pamela. I have a picture of Helen pregnant with Jody in Danville. Walking out of the house—big, very big, wearing flip-flops and laughing. So we knew Jodi. And he talked about them endlessly. Until, that is—the grandchildren came along and I heard all these stories of you and your accomplishments. You all called him Pup. And Pamela has three daughters: Sarah and Kelli and Laura. And Jodi has two boys and a girl. Reid, Ashlyn and Parker. What a gift to give one’s family—for them to know they are loved and cherished above all else.
There was a brother, Bobby—there was his cousin, Cherrie Ann—and then that was that larger family. The hundreds he coached. All those he took time with. The programs he arranged. All the people he was mentor to. They wanted to be like Bill Portman. He left his fingerprints all over the place.
We drove from Memphis to Nashville when he retired. And he and Helen returned the favor when I retired in Birmingham. He spoke that night and told everybody about what a lousy driver I was and about that trip we made from Louisville to Rome in my Volkswagen and how terrified he was. I told him I would get him back if I ever had his funeral. But you know, Bill--I can’t do that.
He was always one of my favorite people and I hated to see his last years when his body began to break down. This active vital man. This terrific athlete. It was just too much for him. Still that great heart kept beating long after the Doctors thought it would stop. He wanted to stay for he loved life.
The Apostle Paul wrote to some of his favorite friends in Philippi: “Finally, bretheren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is anything excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
For in between that day of his birth and this last week when he left us—Bill Portman’s life was crammed full of many good things that are worthy of praise.
But there is another word I want to say today to all of us. We have a dash, too. Something is going on between the day of our birth and that time when it will all end. And what are we going to do with this time we have left? I want to say to Helen and Pamela and Jodi and these fine grandchildren and Bobby and Cherrie Ann. When Jesus stood up as a young man in the Synagogue—they asked him to read from the Scriptures. And he unrolled the Isaiah 61 scroll. And Jesus told them what he had come to do. And one of the things he said: “I have come to heal the brokenhearted.” We know that healing takes a long, long time. Jesus also said in one of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted.” So I claim this promise for Helen and for all this family.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a Catholic nun named Jessica Powers. And this is what she said: “I came upon earth’s most amazing knowledge—someone is hidden in this dark with me.” Jesus told his disciples as he was to leave them: “Let not your heart be troubled... neither be afraid...for I will send the comforter, the Holy Spirit to be with you forever.” And they did not understand that—but in those days and years to come when slowly their grief was not so hard—they would remember what he had told them. And they wrote it down and they left it for us, too. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” they remembered he said,” neither be afraid.”
The tom-tom beat all the way through the Bible is one simple promise. On good days and bad. When they rejoiced and when they didn’t think they could stand it—the old promise would come back again and again. “I will be with you...I will be with you.” It works its way out in different ways for all of us—because we are all different. But we can all hang on to those words because they are true. “I will be with you.” Someone really is in this dark with us one and all.
Bill, we thank you for sharing the years between the day of your birth and the day you left—with us. We are better people because we knew you. You made us smile and laugh and sometimes want to strangle you—but you made a difference and we thank you for that. And we thank God for sending Bill Portman our way.
I want to close with a prayer that comes from the Roman Catholic Prayer for the Dead. “Into paradise may the angels lead dear Bill; at his coming may the martyrs take him up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead him to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light.” Amen.