Memories of a Great Dad

I believe my father is worthy of honor for he loved others well. He also did many things well. He wrote articles as a guest editorialist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, taught college economics classes at multiple universities, organized a host of athletic event for kids, played football at the Airforce Academy, and racked up a lifetime of honors as a high school athlete, including a spot in the St. Joseph High School Sports Hall of Fame. But he would be the first to tell you that those things mattered only a little to him. People remained his first passion. More specifically, we his family were his joy.

Why Blog?

Before I dive into the essence of who my dad was, I want to briefly explain why I write and blog. As it did for C.S. Lewis, writing proves for me to be a powerful means by which I organize my sorrows and find answers to my questions. I suppose one could say it’s my method.

What follows is but a small reflection of the light that was my dear and now deceased father. It is not the sum total of who he was. To piece together that picture, one would need to talk to my dear mother, all of my siblings- their spouses and children, my uncle, my father’s beloved university students, his extended family, and the many random people that my dad had helped. I believe that many of these stories will also be shared in the days and weeks ahead as antidotes, eulogies, and phone conversations. What follows below is one section of one chapter in that much grandeur story, the story of Mark Witkowski.

My Dad

Though my dad always downplayed his own accomplishments, he always highlighted mine. When he battled brain cancer decades ago, one of his highlights from that hard season of life was watching my older brother and I play little league baseball together. Thomas opened the game on the mound, and I caught him behind the plate. I cannot remember the score of that game. But I do remember my dad watching the game in the cheap, metal bleachers behind home plate with my mom and the ride home in the blue dodge minivan where he shared how proud of us he was.

Though always quick to praise me, he also was never afraid to correct me when I mis-stepped. He was the first coach to make me run laps after I angrily questioned his coaching strategy during my 11-year-old little league season. That strategy ended with me winning our league’s championship trophy. He was a great coach. At the sports banquet that commemorated the end of my high school baseball career, the speaker praised my godly character. But dad and I both knew my character on the field fell short of God’s holiness. I had ended the season shoving a teammate in anger. As we walked back out to the car in the quiet of the night sky, he looked at me and said, “Peter, what he said about you was a lie.”

While I disappointed him at times, he never gave up on me. He was always ready to encourage me. He rejoiced when I told him that I had become a Christian and quickly arranged for me to go on my first mission trip a few days later. It was there in the deserts of New Mexico that I first sensed God calling me to fulltime ministry. He helped me get into college and encouraged me to apply for the UALR Donaghy Scholars Program when I felt deeply insecure about my academic abilities. When I sank into depression during my final year of seminary, his simple advice to keep going to church proved to be the life raft that my soul needed until God righted it afresh. There was no limit to his simple and yet profound encouragement.

There was also no limit to his laughter. My mom could make him laugh like no one else through her teasing and nudges. He in-turn never stopped tickling her. If I have coopted anything from my parents’ marriage into my relationship with April, it is undoubtedly my father’s love for long conversations and tickle messuages. In other words, I knew April was the one because I could both talk to her without stopping and never get bored and could find great joy in tickling her.

He also liked to play pranks. Once when I lived in Louisville, he arrived at my home while I was still at work. Since my roommates had not meet him, he seized the moment, entered the house with his badge open, and told all my roommates that he had come to investigate Peter Witkowski for trafficking in stolen antiques. And they thought I was just a simple seminar student.

When I entered fulltime ministry, he became the closest thing I had to a pastoral fan club. He made a point to attend my ordination service with my mom. He liked my blogs so much that he convinced major websites to republish them. During COVID, he faithfully watched every sermon I preached. About Forty-five minutes to an hour later, I would invariably get a call or a text from him telling me that I had done a good job. A few months ago, he even approached me about creating an Amissville Baptist Church St. Louis Campus. Though completely impractical and somewhat antithetical to my understanding of ecclesiology, the gesture beautifully captured his never-ending love and support for me. This past Sunday, I once again received a text message from Mark Witkowski. It read, “Good sermon today.” I will miss my dad.

What meant the most to me in these later years was his love for my family. He dearly loved my bride, April. I think he was always somewhat surprised that someone so amazing as her could love his son. He was deeply thankful for her presence in my life. He warmly welcomed her into our family and loved her from the day he met her.

When the oncologists diagnosed April with breast cancer and talked of her impending death, it was his voice that spurred me to search for better treatment plans and better doctors. And it was he who daily and at times hourly prayed for her healing, “a full healing” as he would say. Even in these last days as his strength and soundness of mind briefly return, he once again called April to tell her that he was praying for her.

Closing Thoughts

Though some kids never hear their father say, ‘I love you,” I regularly heard those words. April and my children regularly heard those words too. We also felt them. In their own way, my kids knew that Papa Wit loved them. He was Luke’s model train buddy and Lily and Lacey’s friend who took them on wagon rides. As his health declined, my kids regularly asked me to pray for Papa Wit.

They prayed for him to come home. With the help of hospice, he returned to his home a few weeks ago. Then on Wednesday December 1, 2021, he went to his final home, to highest heaven above. As I type out these reflections, I have no doubt of my dad’s final destination for he loved others well. As 1 John 3:14 says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” In addition to seeing Jesus face to face, my dad has also gotten to meet his eldest grandson, Peter Alexander. He has no reason to return to this sad world.

Still, I find great sorrow in this moment. I distinctly remember my father crying at his father’s funeral. I suspect I will do the same. I do not mourn him but rather the relationship with him that death has temporarily interrupted.

When second Peter died in 2013, Isaiah 65:20 became one of my favorite verses for it addressed the heartache associated with losing an infant child. Today the verse takes on an ever-fuller meaning as it addresses the heartache of losing my father. Oh friends, how I long for that promised day, a day when, “No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not fill out his days.”

A Tribute to Daryl Summey: An Extraordinary Friend

When Daryl Summey died last week, the world became a little bit darker. Though Daryl is now ‘the late Daryl Summey” in the most profound sense of that sad phrase, his legacy of love, compassion, and faithfulness lives on in the grand mosaic of our memories. He was a friend to the friendless, a leader to the lost, and a father to the fatherless. Below is my small contribution to the grand story of Daryl Summey, a narrative that extends across five decades, multiple continents, and thousands of hearts.

Reflections Daryl Summey

Daryl Summey possessed a special knack for making the ordinary the extraordinary. He turned the collection of a few Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes into a multi-thousand box enterprise that trafficked in massive loads of t-shirts, crayons, toothbrushes, toy trucks, balloons, and balls. He took normal disciple now weekends and transformed them into Encounter Weekends that were full of shaving cream, massive decorations, and passionate sermons that resonated with thousands. He appropriated ordinary mission trips and led students to the edges of the persecuted church, exposing many souls to the glories and the cost of missions. And perhaps most remarkably of all, he and Leigh Anne took their ordinary home and made it into extraordinary place of love, laughter, and faith where family, teenagers, college students, missionaries, and the weary could find rest.

Daryl’s extraordinariness flowed from his commitment to his Savior. When the downtrodden showed up at First Baptist Church Eastman, Daryl shelved his already crazy schedule to care for the stranger within our gates. Many a morning, I saw Daryl walking broken souls over to the Station in hopes of forming a new relationship that would end in friendship and salvation. If widows needed decks built, Daryl called his guys, ordered supplies, and got the deck built. When the uncool kids slunk into the Station on Wednesday nights for Youth Group, Daryl immediately walked over to those on the fringe of the building, introduced himself, and began making them feel as if they were a part of his family. And when three orphans needed a home, Daryl sacrificed his schedule, his budget, and some of his sanity to send Leigh Anne to rescue their three youngest children from abandonment.  Like the great physician, Daryl Summey was a friend to the friendless.

He also cared deeply for the body of Christ. Daryl’s ministry extended well beyond the bounds of the Station. His prayers encouraged many a weary soul worn down by family tragedy or sorry hospital beds. Though the sign on the door said “Youth,” Daryl’s office also served as FBCE’s counseling center. Inside Daryl’s cluttered mess of books and papers, countless souls heard how the glories of Jesus could transform everything from addiction to broken marriages. Even when he took the roll on Sunday nights, he would stop to talk to the souls manning the Children’s Ministry Center Desk. If students or pastors who knew far less about ministry and life attempted to instruct Daryl about theology, philosophy, or ministry, he took their comments in stride, transforming his antagonists into his friends. To know Daryl Summey was to experience the love of Jesus.

It was also this love that made him an amazing Dad who hid easters eggs that no one could find. It was this love that enabled him to push most every youth trip to the limits with calm assurances that the trail really would come to an end around the next bend…ok well the next one, well actually…and…you get it. It was this love that could make a room explode with quiet laughter as he guided professional conversations to craziest of conclusions through his calm suggestions. It was this love that somehow made all those odd pictures of Clay Layfield as a bodybuilder plastered across the church ok. And it is this love that April and I and thousands of others will miss.

Daryl Summery was a good husband, father, son, brother, and pastor. He was a good man.  

Postscript

When Daryl first learned he had cancer, we talked of hope of healing and of the need never to surrender to the gloom that can sometimes ooze out of the oncology world. April and I then watched with aching hearts as that determination met setback after setback. When Daryl and I last talked a few weeks back, we spoke of future visits. Though I knew his end was near, we exchanged no final goodbyes that day. And we needed not do so then or ever for one day soon, we will see each other again in the land of eternity a place where there, “no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.” Until then….my friend. Until then…

Memo: A Critical Few Days – April 2021

Yesterday, April entered a critical phase in her breast cancer battle. As many of you know, she began her new treatment plan this past Tuesday, April 27. But before the first pills had time to dissolve, April began to develop a discomfort on her right side. Over the last 72 hours, that pain has gone from the level of a muscle ache to a life-altering level of anguish. After spending a few hours talking with April’s medical teams, we know that the cancer tumors in her liver are producing this intense pain as well the nausea and the general sense of unwellness that has slowed her a halt. Thankfully, April’s liver has not yet reached the point of failure. That line is still a some week’s walk away. The plan today calls for April to keep taking her new potent regimen of the new clinical LY drug and the Everolimus. If the medicine works, the cancer should begin to shrink over the next few days and her liver function should increase, resulting in a far better quality of life. As we wait for that day, April will have to continue to manage her pain and nausea with prescription painkillers and nausea pills. On Tuesday, her blood tests will provide some indication of the effectiveness of the new drug. We pray that that day will bring good news.

If this plan fails, April can still fall back upon a chemotherapy treatment plan which promises to quickly shrink the tumors in her liver and elsewhere. But the move towards Chemotherapy while expedient would also exhaust most of her treatment options, shifting April’s breast cancer trajectory into a less favorable position. With a heart full of fortitude, April is pressing forward on the dark path of pain and anguish, hoping today’s suffering will produce health tomorrow.

Please pray for God to reduce the tumors in her liver. Pray for God to sustain her body as she suffers. Pray for God to comfort her soul as her body remains at war with itself. Pray for our kids to know the comfort of Christ during this time. Pray for April and me to have wisdom as we parent our children through this time. And pray that these critical days will conclude with good news.

Thank you for all of your love, support, and your messages. However, we may be slow in responding to them due to April’s health at this time. As always, we will continue to post updates here.

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