When I was quite little, and for something like a decade thereafter, I knew a former missionary to Africa--a missionary for several terms from 1946 to 1960--named Walter Kronemeyer. We all called him Uncle Walt, and he came year after year to do child evangelism at Camp Manitoumi in Lowpoint, IL (which I have also talked about here). Uncle Walt seemed ageless-old when I first new him, and he never seemed to age thereafter. He was like that. His face was bronzed and leathery the first time I met him, and bronzed and leathery it remained. It's hard to imagine that color fading even in the dead of winter, though in Grandville, MI, his home town, winters get plenty dark and long. But I always thought of him in connection with the sun.
Camp Manitoumi has plenty of trees in the surrounding woods, but on the hilltop (such a hilltop as it is) where the buildings are, there is little shade. The landscape is mostly flat, and the sun beats fiercely on the baseball field, the cabins, and the chapel in the center. Occasionally Uncle Walt would seek out a tree to sit under, but often not.
It's an odd thing: Year after year he came and told stories and preached to us children, and I loved him dearly, but I remember now very little of the preaching, except for the sense of a man wholly dedicated to God and to the salvation of souls. I hope he will forgive me. And it's a humbling thing to think, as an adult and a mother--How little do we remember when we are grown up of what the adults said to us when we were children? We remember what they were and what they did.
What Uncle Walt did was to sit cross-legged, often as not in the sun, and carve wood, and talk gently with the children and adults who gathered around. There was a catalpa tree out in the woods somewhere. I don't know who found it for him, but he always liked to use catalpa wood. He would send one of the camp workers out to chop him some round chunks of it, and then he would get to work. I can almost see it now: He would chop off the bark on each side of the chunk in a slab. Those were the sides of the elephant. Then he would begin rough-carving over the top. Gradually the elephant emerged. Always basically the same, yet each one a little different. Acquisitive child though I was, I understood that he had to give them to adults--usually to the camp director or the pastor in charge of that particular week--because there were so many children, and feelings would be hurt if he picked out one child to whom to give an elephant. Occasionally he rough-carved an African mask from one of the side pieces, and somehow I got one of those. I have it still.
It was privilege enough just to sit and watch him. The old hands, very sure and deft. He always knew exactly what he was doing with the wood. And then it was a kind of magic to see the wood get smoother and smoother after he had made the general elephant shape appear.
I know that I talked too much while watching him, because I remember the following incident quite clearly: I'd been sitting and watching for a while, not much thinking about what I was doing, when finally Uncle Walt turned to me with a twinkle in his eye. "Now I tell you what," he said. "I want you to try something. For the next half hour I want you to sit there completely quiet and just watch and listen to everyone else, and see what you notice." So of course I did. (I was terribly disobedient and disrespectful to my parents at home, but camp had a magical effect. While there it seems to me now that I became--mostly--conscientious, hard-working, and obedient to authority.) At the end of a half hour, Uncle Walt turned to me again. "Now tell me," he said, "Who talked most while you were being quiet?" I instantly pointed to a lady nearby. This being family week, there were lots of adults around. She was rather flustered, and everyone laughed. "But I was telling a story!" And that was true. But he asked a question, so I answered. From then on, I was much quieter while watching.
I remember one of the last times I saw Uncle Walt. By then I had graduated to the lofty pinnacle of camp worker. I was fifteen years old. I was in the chapel, where I spent much time that summer. It always seemed cool in the chapel at midday, despite the sun beating down outside. And there was Uncle Walt, coming in the door. I ran and hugged him. But something was different. There was a box under his shirt. "What's that?" I asked--not thinking, as usual. "Oh, it's a pacemaker," he said, quite calmly.
Five years later, when I married, I sent him a wedding invitation. Really, just to let him know that I was getting married. He and his wife Ruth wrote back a loving letter, which I wish I had kept. It was reassuring to think that the pacemaker hadn't meant anything, after all. In the end he lived to be 85.
And we also bless thy name, O Lord, for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, especially Uncle Walt. Amen.
(Thanks to Kim Raterink Fye, Uncle Walt's granddaughter, who responded so kindly to my out-of-the-blue electronic request for information about her grandfather.)