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An Old Thing for a New Year

Call us the Terrific Three, the Teen Triumvirate, or the Unholy Trinity if you like. Back then, for a golden summer before our high school senior year, we were just Reed, Terry & Alfred, a seemingly unlikely trio of classmates who became pretty much joined at the hip. Reed was slight, shy, and studious, but nonetheless a wrestling teammate who would land at the Naval Academy. I was the newbie, a 10th grade transfer from another school system, clinging to music as a life preserver in the turbulent waters of high school. And Terry was our social anchor: tall with curly hair and craggy good looks, an easy smile, generous laugh, and eyes from lots of ladies. We can no longer recall exactly how and why we fell in together, but we did – resulting in overnight canoe trips, exploratory runs to the beach, spontaneous unplugged sing-alongs, and triple dates in Terry’s spacious Chevy Impala – all cemented by the collective wisdom of three 16 year olds discussing the meaning of life.

We did a good job of keeping up the first year of college, then less so, and then much less so for a long while. In 2000, another friend managed to contact and collect about a dozen of the greater gang for a weekend in Richmond. Terry was a real find, having moved somewhere in Florida, years out of touch. It was a magical gathering, and in the wee hours we popped the guitar case and made it through “Since I Fell for You”. We all agreed to meet again two years hence, but Terry sent his regrets due to an impending move back to Virginia.

A year and a half later, shocking news: Terry, now back in the state, was charged with a violent crime. His guilt or innocence seemed unclear, but a jury saw enough circumstantial evidence to convict him, and he received a 40 year sentence. Our group of friends was stunned. This was a lot weirder and more nuanced than, say – losing a classmate to cancer. How does one process?

One thing Reed did was to maintain contact with Terry, mostly through snail mail. And he encouraged us to do the same. I know I wrote him three or four times in the first year or so of his incarceration, then trailed off. Still, Reed would email us all a new address when Terry would be transferred, and a time or two took donations for things Terry had to fund from a prison account: toiletries, “non-essential” meds like aspirin – who knew?

So – all that to say this: over Christmas, Reed invited me to go with him to visit Terry. He picked me up on a sunny Saturday morning and we drove an hour or so into rural Virgina. I didn’t know what to expect (it had been about 5 years since Reed had seen Terry, at a different facility), so I tried not to expect anything  – but it was hard to shake the movie version of people talking somberly to each other through a hole in bullet-proof glass. Happily, it was quite different. We met Terry in a bright commons room, cafeteria-sized with tables and chairs and visiting going on all around us. He gave me the biggest hug – and then we hugged again. Same big smile and generous laugh (and pretty good-looking for someone our age). He wanted to know everything about Reed and me. And we did a little reminiscing, with each of us bringing a different piece to the misty memories puzzle.

Terry talked about himself as well. He didn’t say it this way, but it became clear that he spends his time looking for the best thing to do. He has tutored and mentored. He has compassion for men who enter the system young – “I had a life before I came here. They have not.” – and he has organized and coordinated faith groups in the different facilities where he’s been placed. Always that smile, even as he tells us about the impending state budget cuts that will severely reduce the hours inmates can work in the prison, earning parts of a dollar per hour. And always, he says, he considers the ways he is blessed: his decades of life “outside”, the discernible presence of those who have loved him, the revelations of faith that prison life has brought him, and “you guys – you’re a blessing to me today, right now!”

Counting blessings. What a cliché. What a privilege to see it at work in a meaningful, essential, life-sustaining way. If Terry can do it, maybe I can, too.

Alfred Walker, husband, father, child of the church, musician extraordinaire, and co-chair of our Communications Teams, will always give you something to think about.  And we count him as one of our blessings.

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