ORIGINALLY WRITTEN PAUL PENNER
May 22, 2003 will always be an unforgettable day for me. On that day, relatives and friends laid to rest a wonderful lady. Her name was Stella Gaede. She lived a life of selflessness and love for her fellow human beings.
On the morning of that day, as I drove down I-135, I came upon a scene that summarized Stella’s life, though I had not thought of it at the time. A car was parked on the side of the road with a flat tire. The road was dangerously narrow, having been reduced to one lane, due to the construction in the passing lane.
Another driver had stopped to give assistance. He was carefully changing the tire on the narrow shoulder as I approached. I slowed down to a crawl, mindful that his life was more important than my need to reach my destination on time.
This young man was an angel in disguise. I’m sure his travel time was critical, just like mine. But he did not let the important stuff slide by. His deed reflected his true character. His behavior displayed the goodness of his heart.
His race did not allow him to look at the other person’s skin color in a prejudicial manner. He only saw the person who needed help. It was not African American versus Caucasian. It was simply an act of compassion toward another person in need of assistance.
Who knows, perhaps his thoughts focused on the many times he or someone in his family needed help but were rejected or ridiculed. But this man understood the bigger picture and chose to help a woman he didn’t know on a dangerous stretch of road.
As I sat in the church later that day, people were given the opportunity to reflect on Stella Gaede’s life. One after another, relatives and friends, stood up and shared their thoughts. Stella was a selfless woman, ready to assist anyone, whether they were related or not.
One woman told a story of how, in the 1950s, Stella had befriended her at work and that the relationship had made a powerful difference in her life. As she told the story, I remembered the 1950s. At the time, I was a young child living not far from Liberal. Martin Luther King had not yet marched in Alabama and he had not yet given his memorable speech about his dream for a better America. There were still segregated schools, bathrooms and restaurants. The “N word” was regularly used by most whites in a matter-of-fact manner. It was the normal thing to do.
My reflection put Stella’s friendship with this woman in a fresh perspective. It didn’t matter what color one’s skin was. This woman needed a friend. Stella was the friend.
Just over four months earlier, Stella buried her beloved husband of many years, Edwin. Before his death and in spite of her own failing health, she took care of him until the end. She simply did what needed to be done.
At Edwin’s funeral, I visited with Stella for only a moment, but in that short time, instead of thinking about herself, she asked about my daughter. She was thinking about her, praying for her, even though she only met Jessica a couple of times many years before.
In a way, the little roadside drama in selfless living seemed like a teaching moment God had prepared for busy travelers like me. He was saying, “This is how I show my people that I love them.”
I don’t know where the young man is, but I thank him for his act of kindness. This compassionate act, in the midst of a busy life, is an image etched into my memory.
I am also grateful to have known Stella Gaede, albeit ever so briefly over the last 20 years. Many people, including me, have been blessed because of the way she lived her life.