It was the mid-80s, and I was a communications professional for a large, growing nursing home company. One of my jobs was to coordinate and execute grand opening weeks for new nursing homes across the country, and to get a lot of publicity for the new facility. We would bring in Greg to talk to a collection of social workers from local hospitals, and then I would drag him around for interviews at local radio and television stations. Greg and I spent a lot of time together doing these publicity tours. And as I got to know him, I loved him for his wry sense of humor, and his gentle, open curiosity about the world and every person in it.
His signature speech back then was "The Importance of Touching." We called him "Doctor Hug," because he told everyone how important touch was, and how everyone needed at least 12 hugs a day. He taught people the best way to hug ... not the hold you at arms-length and pat on the back kind of hug, but a warm, solid embrace. He was so funny when he told his various stories and got volunteers from the audience to try the different sorts of hugs. His talks made people laugh. They also made people cry.
Because Greg also had a deeper purpose. He believed in the goodness of humanity and the ability of people to grow and change. He told the story of growing up in a low-touch, low-emotion Swedish family, where there was plenty of love -- the kind that puts food on the table and clothes on your back. But not the kind that hugs and says "I love you." And he told how one day he got a call that his father was in the hospital, having had a heart attack, and he wasn't expected to make it. And Greg raced across town, praying to get there in time to see his dad and to say, "I love you."
He did. He grabbed his dad's hand on the way into surgery and said "I love you." And his dad said back, "I love you too, son." And later, after his dad survived the attack and the surgery, and went home, Greg asked if they could start hugging good bye after each visit. And his gruff, low-touch father agreed. And at the end of the slideshow that concluded Greg's presentation, there was always a picture of him, hugging his father.
I heard that talk so many times in those years I traveled the country with Greg, that I almost could have done his speech word for word myself. It sunk in. The importance of reaching out to other people, to tell them that you love them, to touch them, and encourage them ... Greg's message left its mark on me.
A few years ago, I heard that Greg was coming to Lansing. We connected by phone, but there wasn't time in his schedule for us to get together. But he sent me a card that he was handing out to people after his talks, and I kept it. It's taped onto a cupboard in the outer sacristy at church, so I can see it every week as I prepare to lead worship. I kept it, not only because it expressed so fully what Greg was about, but because it also captured what I believe about life, and our vocation here on earth as God's children living in a broken world where the Kingdom is on its way, but it's not here yet.
The quote is from Leo Rosten: “I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all..”
I don't know how Greg died ... they just said it was sudden and unexpected. I hope there was time at the end for someone to touch him and hug him and to tell him that he was loved. And that his purpose was fulfilled -- he mattered. He counted. He stood for something. And he made a difference in many lives. I know he made a difference in mine.