“Get to” or “get through”?

This edited ethics speech to the Upper School was given by Co-Director of College Counseling Andy Luther, who is also an Upper School Latin teacher, head varsity golf coach, and Grade 3 parent. Mr. Luther explains the difference between perseverance to “get to” a goal and to “get through” something that can be even tougher.

One of the best compliments I have ever received in my years at Landon was back in 2011, when you 10-year guys were little third graders, and when an opposing coach said to me that our team always seemed to persevere and find a way.  When I shared that compliment with the team, we spoke about what it means to persevere. 

This wasn’t just about always winning – after all, the most talented teams out there usually win a lot, but they aren’t always teams which can persevere.  So, what does that look like – what makes someone persevere?  We settled on a few things: perseverance involves resiliency, and it involves toughness – both physical and mental.  It involves a mindset of achieving a difficult goal, a team goal which requires something from everyone.  It demands “no-shortcuts, no-excuses.”  For us, it involved focusing on doing things the right way, all the time. 

I’ll introduce you to two of the key guys on that team. 

This is Kellen Miller ’12.  He didn’t play basketball at Landon as a sophomore or a junior.  In fact, he didn’t play his first minute as a senior until mid-December.  I knew our team needed Kellen on it when I saw him play football.  Coach (Paul) Padalino will remember the home football game against Episcopal High School (EHS), when Kellen, a 6’1” 170 lbs. safety, late in the second half, running all over the field, made two consecutive tackles in the backfield. The second of which saw him elude their team’s gigantic offensive lineman and then take a vicious shot himself when their all-world tailback lowered his head and tried to put his helmet through Kellen’s chest.  

While finishing the tackle, Kellen got piled on by two other players.  He “celebrated” by crawling about 10 feet and vomiting.  Somehow, he got back to the huddle, and on the next play, he chased the quarterback down from behind then caused and recovered the sack-fumble which would set up the Bear’s winning touchdown.  Kellen would fracture his arm a couple weeks later during the last game of the season, and he started the winter for us on the sideline. Cleared to play in mid- December with a cast on his right arm, he was determined to be our most valuable defender. 

Playing alongside two All-Americans, Kellen loved that he didn’t appear much in the opposing teams’ scouting reports.  He didn’t need to score a single point to have a huge impact on every game, because he could guard almost every position.  He would go on to have six more steals in only a half of play in the IAC semifinals, before getting tripped in the first possession of the second half, dislocating his kneecap, and missing our last two games.  Landon’s Triplett Award winner that year, Kellen went on to play lacrosse at the University of Maryland.

One of those two All-Americans I mentioned is Coach (Joe) McDonald ’12.  Where Kellen didn’t receive a lot of attention in the opposing scouting reports, Coach Mac certainly did, an increasing amount each year.  By the time he was a senior (a 2011 first team All-Met player as a junior), most teams would play box-and-one against us for nearly the entire game.  Teams had a chance against us if they could get to him. 

But because of his poise, his dedication to his teammates, and his drive, he wouldn’t let that happen.  He did more than ever to compensate for the absence of his bigger teammates from the previous years who had graduated, and, by trusting his teammates and being patient, he led the team to its fourth straight 15-plus-win season. He was our top assist guy, and he led the league that year in both scoring and rebounding, punctuated by a 49 point,18 rebound, six assist, and six steal explosion against EHS and their four Division I players, which was without question one of the greatest performances in Landon history.

Let’s talk about a few guys you all know and love.

The Big Bear, Tommy Kenary ’20, bursts blood vessels in both eyes from being sick, and he leads his team to a lopsided 7-2 win over the top-rated hockey team in the DC area.    

Johnny Muller ’20 had his worst hole of the season to start the Bullis match last spring – a triple bogey on a short par 4.  In previous years, Johnny would have gone into the tank after a start like that, and he would have probably shot a 50 for nine holes.  But as a team captain, and one who had matured a great deal over the previous year as a competitor, he resisted the temptation to quit or to throw a club or a tantrum, and he grinded out one of the most impressive finishes to a match I have seen, three birdies and five pars to finish even, the low score for both teams.

Canin Reynolds m’20 is one of my all-time favorite stories.  Sure, he had hit 5’7” with the taller hair, but he got shorter with the fresh cut on Thursday night; he is routinely guarded by and has to guard guys well over 6 feet, but the fearlessness with which he plays against these guys is what sets him apart.    

If you haven’t met Chris Ros, you need to remedy that.  In the meantime, let me tell you a story about him.  On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Mr. Ros, his wife, and his three children had been in the car for an hour, heading to visit out-of-town family, when he received a life-changing call. 

His house had caught fire, and by the time the trucks from five different fire stations had put out the flames, it was too late; it had burned down, in the process killing his cat, fish, and the family dog.  Over Thanksgiving, even while processing all this, things needed to be done to make arrangements, salvage those family memories and treasures that could be saved, relocate his entire family into a temporary home, and continue with his life here. 

In his first year at Landon teaching science and as the head coach of our swim program, he has had to balance all this, during his busiest season, while also spending over 16 hours each weekend going through the wreckage of his home and hauling all the unsalvageable remnants to the dump.  Yet even if you have Mr. Ros in class, or if he coaches you in the pool, you guys who see him every day probably still didn’t know the extent of what he’s been going through. 

Why is that?  Because even though what started with hope that everything would be ok, turned into the reality that it would not be, Mr. Ros and his wife made it a point to ask, “What now?”  How do we deal with this?  How can we find the silver lining here?  How will we move on?  He said that they learned a lesson from the pet turtle, the only family pet to survive the fire, and they persevered.  Hardshell Nation!

If you haven’t met WT Miller ’86 yet, you are probably thinking that with such extraordinary good looks and obvious raw athleticism, he must be related to that kid, Kellen, I was just talking about. Surprisingly, no. 

And whether you have met Mr. Miller or not, you’re not likely to have known that his wife has been battling an aggressive cancer ever since he started teaching and coaching at Landon five years ago.  He doesn’t miss school, he is fully engaged in the lives of his tennis and squash players, he loves teaching French, and he can be counted on for at least one really loud laugh every time you talk with him. 

You would never know what he and his family are going through, how cancer has turned the life of everyone in his house completely upside down.  Because every morning he wakes up to his wife, to his family, and he is thankful for another day they have together; because he is filled with the hope that tomorrow will provide one more day for them.  In this hope he finds his light, and he brings it to us at Landon, and we never knew it.

You all know Mr. (Ian) Healy ’00, or at least you have heard his favorite song thumping through our hallways this past October.  As he has shared with us before, Coach Healy grew up with a fractured relationship with his father, one which grew increasingly toxic during the time he was your age.  If it weren’t for the love of Mr. (Rob) Bordley ’66, who stepped in to be like a father to Coach Healy, and for the loving friendship of Mr. Sears, he may not be with us at Landon today.  One of the ways he has pushed through the pain of these memories is by sharing them with us, and by reminding us to take care of our family, to take care of each other – our Landon family.

A little over 10 months ago, we weren’t sure Ethan Weinstein ’20 would come out of his medically-induced coma or remember his name, much less do all the things he has been doing this year in his classes, on the ice, and for his beloved varsity golf team.

Do you guys know Mrs. Saima Ahmad in the Lower School, Omar’s (’18) mom?  She’s an amazing person.  Last March, she was diagnosed with sarcoma, a type of cancer often found in the abdomen.  Her treatments were brutal, with surgery and then chemo taking a massive toll on her health. 

During all of this, she called me routinely, asking me to make sure Omar was doing ok.  Mrs. Ahmad’s only concern was for her children; her overwhelming desire to get back to them and to all her other kids in the Lower School fueled her hope that she would fight this cancer into remission.  This past summer, with her treatment winding down and regaining her strength, she was supposed to ease back into her life in the Lower School with the idea of coming back full time this January.  She made that happen in mid-September, seven months after she began her treatment.  Her hope and faith and love for her children drove her to persevere.

This is Christian Mockler ’20, and his story is different from the others.  On November 2018, his dad was diagnosed with a tumor in his stomach.  Only 54-years-old at the time and very fit and athletic, his dad provided a strong hope to Christian and his family that he would beat this.  In January 2019, he had the first, aggressive surgery to cut out what the chemo couldn’t get to.  It didn’t work, and because of the nature of this surgery, before a second surgery could happen, Christian’s dad needed recovery time free from the regular chemo treatment.  During this recovery time, the cancer spread rapidly, and by the time surgery could happen, the realization that it wouldn’t change the inevitable outcome hit the Mockler family. The family had no timetable for how long he had left – could be days or maybe months. They also had no more hope that everything was going to be ok. 

As it turned out, Christian’s dad had five more months until he passed in mid-July, only nine months since his initial diagnosis. Christian told me that the uncertainty in the face of a loss of hope gave his family a perspective check.  Days of sadness and days of anger were normal, were expected.  But the other reality for them, just like with Mr. Miller’s family, is that there was joy to be had in the life that still was, that true regret would kick in hard if the family didn’t treat every day as a blessing. 

His father kept that message alive and well in their family for the rest of his life, and then he was gone.  Which is where Christian shares the next phase of his perseverance had to kick in – moving through grief to the family’s life afterwards.  For Christian, this meant not burying his feelings, and not letting them bury him either.  His dad told him that he should get angry, but never to let it consume him or make him become wasteful with his days and his relationships.  His dad told him to get ready for the “what next” phase of his grief.  Christian says he still has tough days, but he has outlets, especially active outlets – creative, artistic ways to express himself – as well as physical outlets, exercise and cardio.  These are critical for him. 

You see guys, we all know the stories, especially stories about athletes, where a player or a team has demonstrated perseverance in order to accomplish something, to get TO something.  This is what makes an athlete stand out or a team become a dynasty.  But we don’t know well enough the stories of those who have truly persevered – who have done something special: they have accomplished greatness by getting THROUGH something.  

We have reached the point where I should probably share some of my story.  Many of you may be wondering what I might have ever had to endure, how I might have had to persevere.  Fair question.  After all, when I was running the race in the late 1980s and this was my starting line, did anyone else really have a chance?  All joking aside, I feel that God has blessed me far beyond what I deserve.  As smooth as things have always seemed to be for me, the last twelve months have not always been so.  It was during this time that I had to bury two of my best friends.

Lennie Phillips was an All-American water polo player, and another Hardshell.  He actually played against both Coach Walt Bartman and Coach Patrick Holley during his career.  In his mid-20s, while working for a pharmaceutical company, he volunteered to participate in an NIH study of the brain; he was shocked to learn that he had a particularly invasive type of brain cancer, although he considered himself fortunate that he caught it early.

The combination of surgeries, chemo, and radiation left him scarred, without most of his hair, and more determined than ever to keep enjoying Jimmy Buffett concerts and trips to the beach with his wife.  After knocking cancer into remission, he found racing of all forms to be his outlet – he ran the Marine Corps Marathon several times, competed in tons of swimming and bike races each year, and successfully completed an Iron Man Race to celebrate 10 years of being cancer-free.

We met in our neighborhood one day while he was walking his dog, became fast friends, and spent tons of time together golfing, riding bikes, hiking, playing touch football and softball, watching our beloved Terps, hanging out in the Thomas Dixon Pool, and eating his wife Amanda’s amazing cooking.   When the headaches started up about two years ago, he knew something was wrong.  The cancer had come back in the scar tissue deep in his brain, developing into Glioblastoma, for which there is no cure, and this time, the treatment couldn’t knock it out.  He, Amanda, and their dogs moved to the beach in South Carolina to be closer to his nieces and nephews, and so he could walk on the sand every day with his wife until he died this past July. Lennie was 46.

We met Jake and Pam Landsteiner at our church 15 years ago, and they became like family to us.  We have travelled together to eight different states and even to Canada.  Jake was an all-league offensive tackle in college, he coached high school basketball, and we played any sport or game we could together, especially down at the Thomas Dixon Pool, and we shared a love for cooking on the grill.

He probably came to about 25 of Coach McDonald’s Landon hoops games and at least two or three Operation Smile games to cheer me on or heckle me.  In 2014, the same headaches that Lennie experienced were going on with Jake – it was also Glioblastoma.  By the time they were able to catch it, one of the tumors had grown so big in the back of his brain, they had no choice but to cut it out, even though the prognosis was that he would lose much of his motor coordination, memory, and other brain activity. 

They removed a mass the size of a lemon.  Determined to pray, fight, live, and not let cancer win, Jake would become one of the most inspiring people I have ever known.  Seven weeks after his surgery he completed the Iron Man race.  Two years later his daughter, Rebekkah, was born.  Pam was a doctor in the Air Force; early in her career, before Jake’s diagnosis, he became a stay-at-home dad, a role he would relish every day with his three, then four kids.  And even on days when the chemo crushed him and sapped his energy, he gave every bit of what he had that day to his kids, always getting them after school, cooking the meals, and getting them ready for bed and the next day.  We visited Jake and Pam everywhere her Air Force duties had her stationed, and we talked on the phone all the time, usually with reports of what each other was grilling that night. 

Ready to try any type of radical or even experimental cancer treatment, Jake lived a life of finding hope where there shouldn’t be any.  And on the days when hope seemed slim, he changed the message and made it about finding the joy with his family in every minute.  Every call, every visit, every Facebook post was so positive and upbeat, you would have thought he had never been sick. 

I scheduled a surprise visit to see him in the hospital in Boston in the fall of 2017; but in typical Jake fashion, he would find a way to surprise me.  Three hours earlier, Jake was unconscious with a 12-inch needle in the front of his brain.  He was supposed to stay overnight to rest and recover from the surgery.  Instead, after tearing up his prescription for pain meds, he asked to be discharged so he could go get a cheeseburger.  Downstairs 20 minutes later, the hospital people wanted to get him a cab, since the closest burger spot was a mile away.  He smiled and said no thanks, and we walked there. 

I have never been to such a celebration of life as I was at Jake’s funeral 15 months later.  His kids, his wife, the whole family, the church pastor, and then even the congregation, all literally dancing to the upbeat music in the church. Jake was 39.   

What else is in my story?  My story is also that I learn carefully from the stories I have told.  I look for the hard-to-find silver linings in everything, just like Mr. Ros; I live my life striving for no regrets within the relationships I have and taking care of my family, like Mr. Miller and Mrs. Ahmad; adding to my family, like Coach Healy; recognizing that whether people I love have decades of life left or only days left, I should value every second I have with them; and that when my loved ones pass, I must celebrate their lives as much as I can.

As a Dad, I try to teach my son, Drew all I can about persevering, both as a boy striving to achieve his goals, and as someone who will need to learn how to deal with the difficult, painful times in his life.  He will lose loved ones; he will face tragedy; he will feel crushing disappointment; he will be angry and sad and confused; his Faith may even be challenged.  Then what?  We always talk about “then what.”   I asked him the other day as we were sitting in our backyard what does he have to have in order to persevere.  This is what he said, “Attitude and courage and the faith that everything is going to be all right, that when you fall down, you can get back up.”

This is how my friends persevered.  This is why their wives and kids and families can persevere now.  And this is how I want to persevere when my light will be needed to carry my family and my loved ones through darker times.