This is a Celebration of the Life of Jeff Wagner. And what a Life Jeff Wagner lived! I can share many stories about Jeff, as can all in this room.
- There was how he got me to stay at his house while we were kids, so he could get his Mom to make French Toast. Even as adults he would get me to come to Tampa with the premise, “Mom will make us French Toast.” For the record, Mrs. Wagner makes the best French Toast in the World.
- I could share the stories of how we used to double date in high school, and practice in advance those smooth dance moves we used in high school to impress the ladies. Michael Jackson was never threatened by our skills. However, Devo or the B52’S might have learned a thing or two.
- I have to share one of my favorite stories. Jeff was voted Most School Spirit at Cleveland High School, in our hometown of Cleveland, Tennessee. Go Blue Raiders. Our Senior Year, we were playing the Ooltewah Owls, a rival school. Jeff got this idea that we should spray paint a sign on a giant bed sheet and hold it up during the game. The sign that Jeff chose for us said “Pluck the Owls” it was clever then, I think it is clever now. Unfortunately, the school administration at Ooltewah High School were not amused. We were asked to leave by some very nice police officers. But the good times did not end there: you see we spray painted the sheet on my parent’s carport. And the paint soaked through the sheet and “Pluck the Owls” was a permanent fixture for a long time at my house despite the many scrubbings Jeff and I engaged in. That was Jeff.
Whatever I am or hope to be, I owe in part to my friend Jeff Wagner. No matter what talent an individual possesses, or what internal strength he or she may possess, without others, we can accomplish very little in this world. And as Jeff and I both learned in our Christian faith, a strong supportive group of friends is necessary in this world.
When we find others who believe in us, we accomplish much more in life. Jeff always believed in me, and I believed in him. Chances are you believed in him too. People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. He didn’t care about your race, your gender or your faith. Jeff made everyone around him feel special.
In 2003, Jeff confided to me he had leukemia. Jeff beat leukemia, not once but twice. But it took its toll. I told him at the time I had not shared his illness with anyone, and he said “J. C., share it with everybody, I need their prayers “. That too was Jeff.
It would be a mistake to ever define Jeff by a disability caused by leukemia. You see we all have hardships and challenges in our lives. If not now, at some point as we age or encounter injury or illness, we will eventually need the help of someone. There was a divine plan, not just in Jeff’s life, but in our own lives as well. Jeff had a motto that inspired the city of Tampa, Florida and thousands across this nation: Finish Strong. I always believed his greater message was to make the invisible, visible.
Because of Jeff, we all learned to look after each other. In all of these efforts, you were there. All of you. When there were problems, you sustained him. But he sustained us even more. Death ends a life, not a relationship. The only way to take sorrow out of death; is if we were to take the love out of life. Our love for Jeff will continue. Don’t rush the grieving process, allow others to offer their support. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
This is not “Goodbye” to family and friends, Jeff would tell us today. He would tell us that we must look forward. One day we will all be reunited. Our faith reminds us while we can’t be together here on earth, that one day we will together in heaven. When we get there in the very presence of God, only happy tears will flow. I believe that. I believe it with all my heart.
Jeff was an amazing man, and an even more amazing friend. When I think of Jeff, I am reminded of what William Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet:
“When he shall die, take him and cut him out into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
The prophet Isaiah reminded us to look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. Tonight, when I go home, I will look in the sky from this day forward and look among the stars.
When the sun goes down, and the stars come out. I will look to the heavens for my friend Jeff Wagner and one day we will really celebrate. We may have French Toast, dance a little, and knowing Jeff: I think he will meet me with a sign. That too would be Jeff.
At least there are no carports in heaven.
JC Bowman grew up in Cleveland, Tennessee. He was part of the Legendary CHS Class of 1981. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author is properly cited.