One of the best men I’ve ever known died this week. He wasn’t famous or rich or strong. In fact, he never walked a day in his life. He never threw a baseball, shot a basketball, scored a touchdown, danced at his wedding, fixed a truck, killed a deer, won a fight, or built a fire. His name: James Patrick Leitsch.
Around 300 people showed up for his memorial service. I feel confident in saying that not a single person showed up because they pitied James or had sympathy on him because he was disabled. Instead, 300 people showed up because they respected the man that James was and the impact he had had on their lives. His life has several lessons for us on being a man.
Lesson No. 1 – Don’t Accept the Limits Others Place on You
James had Muscular Dystrophy. His life expectancy was about 30 years. James didn’t settle for that. He had a big party when he turned 40. He had another one when he turned 50. In fact, when I said he never threw a baseball, that was only partially true. At his 50th birthday celebration, he had his wheelchair specially rigged so that he could manipulate controls and throw out the first pitch at a local Minor League baseball game. James died at age 57.
Many in his condition would have been content to draw a disability check and live off the government. Instead, James graduated from the University of Kentucky in the 1985, well before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed or implemented. Navigating campus, the dorm, the student union, and classrooms was a feat in itself. He went on to work for and retire from the Social Security Administration. While he worked there, he saved his money and bought a house. He rented it out to other young men and ended up paying it off in less than 10 years. Those young men who lived at his house weren’t just tenants, they were there because they wanted to learn from James.
In his retirement, he got married, bought another house, adopted a son, and continued to work. He ultimately donated his house to his church. Because of his wisdom, his selflessness, and his demonstrated commitment to taking care of others, James was the first person to be ordained as an elder at his church.
Lesson No. 2 – Being a Man Means Taking Responsibility for Others
Clearly, James took responsibility for himself. While his physical condition required him to have significant care from others, his mindset was that he was going to take care of other people. For years he led the college ministry of his church. That meant he spent hours at the local university meeting with students, trying to teach them how to live life as a Christian. There were plenty in that crowd of 300 who now have families of their own who could tell stories of how James would come their dorms regularly, often when they didn’t want him to, to encourage them, challenge them, and even agitate them towards being the men they knew they needed to be. His relentlessness and faithfulness paid off in the lives of many people throughout the years.
I was able to spend some significant time with James after graduating college. I was newly married, working as a teacher and my wife was in school. We lived in a small apartment and money was tight. On the regular, James would spontaneously tell me to get his credit card out of his wheelchair and take my wife out to eat. I never took him up on the offer, but knowing the offer was there brought significant light to my life.
James wasn’t just “trying to be nice”; his offer was a microcosm of how he lived, thinking about the needs of others and how he could help them. Think about that: a man who needed assistance every morning to get out of bed and get dressed spent his waking hours thinking about how to help people. A man who could have spent his life on government assistance amassed money that he used to take care of other people. That, friends, is manhood.
Lesson No. 3 – A Man Cultivates the Masculine Virtues
The Masculine Virtues of Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor are often called the Tactical Virtues or the Fighting Virtues because they are necessary and demonstrated in times of war. That’s what makes James such an example. He cultivated and demonstrated these virtues in exceeding measure. His physical body was not strong. His disease took away more and more muscular function each year and rendered him more and more reliant on technology and other people. But the guy was courageous.
He was never scared to initiate a conversation with a complete stranger. He was never afraid to deliver a strong rebuke or, sometimes even more frightening, offer a kind, sincere word to a brother. He did things he knew he’d get called a fool for doing. He didn’t care. If he thought it would help someone, he was willing to try it. If his idea backfired, he’d own it, apologize, and move on. And he’d think of some other way to solve the problem.
And when it comes to courage in the physical realm, James lived with a disease that left him subject to suffocation if not managed carefully. He could not move his body, so if he ended up in a compromising position where he couldn’t breathe, he was in trouble. One of the speakers at his memorial service noted that James described his condition as being in a room in which the walls close in a bit more each day and you’re ultimately left with no space at all. It’s also not exactly true when I said earlier that he never built a fire. He had to sleep with his phone on his pillow, which resulted in it spontaneously combusting and catching fire one night. But he lived without fear and never complained about the scars, the sores, the aches, or the inability to breathe deeply.
He demonstrated mastery. He mastered the Bible or, as he would say, tried to allow the Bible to master him. He wrote the foundations manual for his church, led summer Christian training schools for college students, and counseled scores of young adults who came to him (or who tried to avoid him) with issues and problems. Oh yeah, and if you ever saw what it took for him to navigate his wheelchair, you’d know that he mastered it as well. But the point is that he was never content or satisfied with the man he was. He was always striving to learn more, do more, and get better.
As a result of how he lived, he obtained honor. Honor refers to one’s status among other men. Men with disabilities are often thought of as lesser. That was never the case with James. The way he lived his life caused other men to esteem him and respect his example. But he never used his status, his place of honor, to make his life better. He used it to help other people. He was the big shot who never made you feel like you were with a big shot.
Personally, I always picture James when I’m physically tired. When I don’t want to work out, I remember that he’d give anything to be able to work out. I’m instantly reminded that I don’t “have” to work out, but rather that I “get” to work out. I’m instantly thankful for a body that’s healthy and capable, but I’m also reminded that, even if someday that’s no longer the case, there’s no excuse for not being good at being a man. I’m also hopeful that there’s an eternity where he’s able to run, jump, wrestle, and do all the things he wanted to do here.
James Leitsch was a special man. Most in his circumstances would have died alone, having done little, and with no one caring that they were gone. His wife, his son, and the hundreds of people who packed into that church last night, many of whom do not attend there, were a testimony to the life he lived. It was the man’s life. May we all find it. Godspeed.