Where is the Glamour Now?
Memoir by Michael Usey
December 20, 2008
A couple of weeks ago in a sermon right before Thanksgiving, I talked about the first funeral I did in 1985 in Texas. Before the service, one of my colleagues gave me some good advice, great advice then, now shown to be very wise now. He said, just remember three things, you are there to give thanks for his life, to tell him goodbye, and to commend him to God. We are here to give thanks for his life, I thought, how strange. The boy we were burying was dead at 17 and we are here to give thanks for his life, not to argue that it should have been longer, or easier, or different in any number of ways. Just to give thanks for what there was of it, to be glad we knew him and to say a blessing over as much life as he had before commending him to God.
So that is what I did that cold winter day, laying that young man’s body to rest, and once we did everything changed, at least for me. I have searched for adequate words to describe what changed and have failed, but it had something to do with trusting God to be God and to run the world. I gave up my notions of the way life ought to be and recognized the obvious: that people do die, sooner or later, for all sorts of reasons, but they never die to the love of God, and that in between the cracks of that great truth there are a thousand reasons to say thank you to God and to one another, for the gift of every moment of life and love in this world and the next. Annie Dillard says it better in her Pulitzer Prize-wining book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please’ but ‘thank you,’” she writes, “as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air …”
It is with that same attitude of thankfulness I come this morning to our mourning of Barry Shoemaker. At the committal service this past Wednesday, one of Barry’s close friends, Lloyd, shared that when Barry had finished putting up a hot window treatment, and they were both standing at the bottom of the ladder, Barry would commonly remark, “Where’s the glamour now?” It’s a great story, very Barry, and I’ve been asking God that question all week. I have this strong feeling that Barry is decorating the hell out of heaven, which helps when I miss him so.
This past week one of our long time members said to me about Barry, “You know, before Barry was deacon chair, I thought of the church as them and us, but I can’t do that now. With Barry the church is one WE, united. You couldn’t know him and miss that his unconditional acceptance extended to everyone he knew.” It’s true: Barry was our deacon chair and under his leadership the church grew and thrived. He had a vision for the way College Park could be more of what God was calling us to be, and his care for people helped bring that vision to fruition. Tony told me about a woman at Outdoor Advertising who had an abusive doctor dad, and had live through two failed marriages with abusive men. She told Tony not so long ago: “Barry was the first man that ever made me feel loved.” Barry had that ability. And, as Alan reminded me, Barry was probably happiest last January first, when his term was over and he was no longer deacon chair.
Probably Barry’s best quality was that he was generous. Never flashy in his generosity, Barry could see a need and meet it without a need to be noticed. Alan told me of a young boy in his classroom a couple of years ago who came to school with dirty and moldy clothes. Naturally the other kids made fun of him. Alan told Barry about the boy, and Barry bought the boy $200 worth of clothes at Wal-Mart, which will buy a lot of clothes. (Actually, that’s a moment I wish I could have seen, Barry shopping at Wal-Mart). Alan kept the clothes at school, and had the boy change in the restroom when his clothes were dirty or moldy. By the end of the year, Alan still had clothes left over, which he bundled up and sent home with the boy. Barry saw a need and met it. I would frequently come into the building, only to notice a new planter, or piece of furniture, or cool piece of art, that Barry had found, bought, and donated.
His brother, Tony, remembers a time in which he helped out one of his secretaries. This woman’s husband was a manager of a restaurant, and he dreamt of opening up his own someday. Barry gave them the money for the down payment, and helped them design the restaurant too. Barry was there for opening day, putting fresh flowers on every table. I can’t tell you how many of these kind of stories I’ve heard about him in the past week. And the great thing is that the way Barry gave enabled people to accomplish their dreams. His giving enabled them to live the life they dreamed about, as in the time Barry paid for Alan’s teaching certification at Greensboro College. I know many of you have similar stories.
It’s fair to say that Barry raised Tony, and they both saved the other one’s life. Tony’s earliest memory of his life is Barry wiping Tony’s nose after he had been slugged. Tony remembers being 4 or 5 years old, being in Sunday school at a near-by church, without remembering how he got there. Barry had gotten him up and dressed and put him on the church bus. Their parents both worked two jobs, so it was often up to Barry to see to Tony’s needs. Tony remembers that Barry dressed Tony up in outlandish outfits, when he was small. Tony recalls waddling around the house with his father’s underwear pinned to him, more of Barry’s playfulness and mischievous nature. It wasn’t uncommon for Tony to accidentally call Barry Mom or Dad. One of Tony’s favorite pictures says it all, when they were both younger: Tony is in front; Barry is behind him with his arms around his younger brother. There was always, always such great love between these two brothers.
You know the facts about Barry’s life: born in Lenoir in 1964, he had a rough childhood. Barry skipped 11th grade and was out on his own when he was 17. He learned design from his classes at Western Piedmont CC, but most of his thoughts about beauty and comfort came from within him. He moved to Raleigh where he got his realtor’s license and flipped houses. Barry was about 20 at the time, and his business partner was 50. He showed Barry the business, but he also used Barry as a front for his fraudulent activity. When his partner was arrested on charges the police, realizing Barry was innocent, wanted him to testify against his former business partner, who had threatened Barry horribly. He said if Barry testified against him, he’s serve Barry’s mother’s head to him on a platter, and kill Tony too. Despite these threats, Barry did testify against him, and the man was convicted on fraud charges. Barry moved back to Lenior by this time, and so giving his testimony involved traveling back and forth to Raleigh. This whole incident reveals perhaps one of Barry’s less obvious qualities: his courage. Those of us who have been around him the past year have seen it clearly in the way he faced brain cancer. Barry was brave.
Back in Lenoir Barry went to work for Outdoor Advertising, where he became a sales manager and tripled sales. Nevertheless, his boss, listening to rumor, made Barry train his own replacement, then fired Barry. Tony said it was a difficult night from them both, as he sat up with Barry while he cried. And of course it worked out for the best, since he ended up making much more money on his own.
When Tony went away to App. State, Barry found him an apartment near campus, which of course he furnished and designed. After a while Tony met his new neighbors, a gay couple, and Tony noticed some similarities between the men and Barry. So one day he asked Barry on the phone, “Are you gay? Cause if you are, I want you to know that I love you.” Barry didn’t know what to say back. Tony had said to his best high school friend, “You know, I think Barry’s gay.” To which his friend responded, “Well, duh.” Why didn’t you tell me, Tony said; I thought you knew the friend yelled back.
Barry never understood why his sexual orientation was an issue to any one else, nor did he hate those who hated gays—he simply didn’t have any hate in him, I believe. After all, he would say, I’m only gay 15 minutes a week. His mother believed he was gay because she allowed him to do the housework. Both his parents were motorcycle riders, part of a gang of riders, black leather and all, which pretty much shoots down the theory of environmental causes of homosexuality. As his pastor and friend, I considered his gayness a part of his giftedness from God, woven into the fabric of who Barry was, how he could some easily deeply empathize with the outsider and those who were rejected, and his love for creating beauty wherever he went.
I love the spaces that Barry created. I think the phrase simply elegant described his style best. Never overcrowded, the places and spaces he designed were made to make people feel comfortable, not to draw attention to the designer. Some designers use a variation on the same themes over and over again, like dolphins, because the designer likes dolphins. But Barry listened to his clients; he heard what was important to them, and designed from there. His style was French Country, relaxed, warm colors, with subtle refinements that were not always noticeable quickly. His ability to listen was one of his best character traits and it sprung from his humility. With Barry it was never “me first.”
Which is the reason I chose the proverb on the cover of the bulletin: “The human spirit is the candle of God.” It’s the verse over the children’s portion of the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, commemorating the 1.5 million children who died in it. As you might know, Barry designed our youth room here, had it painted to his idea, and added this phrase to the room: We can’t all be stars, but we can all twinkle.” Realizing his time was short, this became our Advent theme this year, as you might notice the twinkling stars around. Which is what Barry did, twinkle with the light of God, glow with the candle of God’s spirit within him. The last three years for him were filled with up and downs: his beloved mother’s death; a very long and difficult IRS audit; a wonderful spread in the June 07 Southern Living; homes bought and sold here in Greensboro and elsewhere; then starting a wonderful job at Old Hickory Tannery. It was a future filled with excitement, beauty, and promise—which all came to halt with the diagnosis of brain cancer in January of this year. He lived longer than the 6 months they gave him in February, and he worked hard most of the time, and fought the good fight. And so where is the glamour now? Not with us I’m afraid, but with God. The glow from his candle brightens us still, and so on this day before the winter solistis, the day winter starts to move towards summer and the days get longer and brighter, we say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you …”
Opening Prayer from Memorial Service
“Creator God, in the season of Advent, we typically look forward to the coming of a baby in a manger. But this year, our joy and anticipation are muted by grief at the loss of our loved one and friend, Barry. Each person here was touched by Barry in some way. In our universe he was a star that twinkled brightly, shining your light and love. Holy Comforter, we need you to be Emmanuel, “God with us,” as we mourn. Send your spirit to envelop us in love and carry us through the coming days, so that we are not alone in the darkness of our grief.
“But even as we mourn, we are so very grateful to have had Barry in our lives. He cared deeply for others and led by example. He was a protector of the weak. He modeled extravagant generosity. He believed in others and their dreams, and acted on those beliefs. He was the embodiment of perseverance despite prejudice and unfair treatment. And he loved beauty—he used the talents you gave him to create it wherever he went. Truly, as a star’s light continues to be seen across the universe long after the star itself has faded, so Barry’s presence and influence in our lives will be felt for many years to come.
“Finally, eternal God, we cling to your promise that this life is just a preliminary step to the life that is to come. In our hope, we believe that Barry is with You, that he has returned to the divine love from which he was created, from which we all are created. As we leave this place today, may we, too, become stars shining that love on those around us. Amen.”
Barry Ellis Shoemaker, 44, passed away on Sunday, December 14, 2008, at Beacon Place in Greensboro, N.C.
A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, December 17, at Green Hill Cemetery, 901 Wharton St., Greensboro, N.C. A memorial service to celebrate Barry’s life will be held 11 a.m. on Saturday, December 20, at College Park Church, 1602 Walker Ave., Greensboro, N.C.
A native of Lenoir, Barry was a long-time resident of Greensboro, living most recently for a short period in Newton, N.C. He owned and operated his own design firm, Barry Shoemaker Interiors for 10 years. Previous employment includes Appalachian Outdoor Advertising and most recently at Old Hickory Tannery. As an interior decorator, Barry enjoyed making homes and businesses fabulous, but most importantly making people smile with his talent. He was featured in Southern Living and North Carolina Design magazines. Barry graduated from West Caldwell High School in Lenoir, N.C., and Western Piedmont Community College. He was a faithful member of College Park Church, having served as Deacon Chair and a member of the Decorations Committee.
Barry was preceded in death by his beloved mother, Dorothy Ann Shoemaker.
He is survived by his loving partner, Alan Jenkins of Greensboro, N.C. Barry is also survived by his loving family; father, Rex Shoemaker; brother, Tony; sister- in-law, Lisa and their two children, Megan and Riley all of Lenoir, N.C. Barry leaves behind extended family and friends to remember his smile, generosity and love of life!
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke, DUMC Box 3624, Durham, NC 27710, College Park Church, 1602 Walker Ave., Greensboro, NC 27403 or a Hospice center of your choice.
Forbis & Dick Guilford Chapel is serving the Shoemaker family.