When I was young, one of my favorite uncles was not even related to me. I didn’t see him often, and he died when I was in my early 20s, but I loved him and I learned a lot from him, not just from what he said, but also from what he did.
Larry Conzen and his wife, Fran, were close friends of my parents. To my brother and sister and me, they were one of several couples who were our courtesy aunts and uncles. Back then, most kids didn’t call their parents’ friends by their first names, and “Mr. and Mrs.” was too formal. “Aunt and Uncle” was just right.
Uncle Larry was on the quiet side, a man who enjoyed being with friends and family and smoking his pipe. He had a good sense of humor and a wide, warm smile. He loved children, he loved to laugh, he enjoyed a funny story, and he could be quick with a quip.
In all the years I knew him, I never heard him say an unkind word about anyone. Maybe he guarded his speech, especially around us kids, but I think that he was charitable and respectful by nature. His example impressed me.
Sometimes we went on vacation with Aunt Fran and Uncle Larry and their son, John. We camped with them at a New York state park, and we rented cottages at Cape Cod. Wherever we stayed, though, one thing was constant: We went to Sunday Mass. The grown-ups found out where the nearest Catholic church was and when Mass was being celebrated. We attended without fail.
Once my parents had a picnic at our house and invited Aunt Fran and Uncle Larry and John, and another aunt and uncle and their two kids. It was a perfect summer day, and the picnic was so much fun and ran so late that everyone ended up staying overnight. Our house was much too small for that kind of crowd, but with some doubling up and a few sleeping bags and air mattresses, we made it work.
The next day was Sunday, and all of us were going to Mass by the carful. My Dad helped our uncles to spruce up their picnic clothes by loaning them sport jackets, but he had only one extra jacket that looked Mass-worthy. It happened that after the earlier Mass, the uncle who wore the good jacket pulled onto our street just as the other uncle—wearing a jacket that didn’t quite measure up—was driving by on the way to church with a carload of Mass-goers. Uncle Larry and Uncle Tom stopped the cars, got out, switched jackets in the middle of the street, got back in and drove off in opposite directions.
There were get-togethers through the years, but Uncle Larry’s health declined. When I was home for Christmas during my second year of college, Uncle Larry was getting ready to enter the hospital for surgery. Dad called him a couple of days after Christmas to wish him the best. After they’d talked for a while, Dad handed the phone to me. Uncle Larry sounded just the way he always did, and as usual, he called me “Claud.” As we chatted, he asked, “Did you make the dean’s list, Claud?”
“Yes, Uncle Larry,” I answered.
“Did you make the dean’s list last semester?”
“Yes, Uncle Larry.”
“Ha!” he said. “No improvement!”
I burst out laughing. Leave it to Uncle Larry to find a funny way to tell me he was proud of me. When I think of that conversation, it always touches my heart. It was so like Uncle Larry: witty and succinct, with an undercurrent of love.
Uncle Larry lived less than two months after we spoke. He was 56 when he died. To me, he will always be the epitome of the Catholic gentleman: genial, dignified, grateful for his blessings, kindhearted and attentive to the people around him, and most of all, a man of faith.
I’m a long way from dean’s lists now, Uncle Larry, but I’m still reaching for improvement. Thanks for showing me the way, and please say a prayer for me.