Right On, Roland! (or Memorializing Your Role Models)

The day before the election, the Greenwich Village community lost one of its longest guardians: Roland Wiggins.

We all have those family friends that we can’t remember not knowing. Maybe you don’t know the details of their lives, but you can’t really imagine the world without them in it? Roland was one of those dear people to me.

He was the sexton at Judson Church for longer than I’ve been alive. When I was born, my mom was the secretary at Judson and would bring me to work with her. One day at the office, I rolled over (a baby development milestone) and Roland was the first to see me do it! At Roland’s memorial service, my mom recounted the story of how I entertained them for hours that afternoon. The deep love that I felt from Roland made that much more sense.

I was asked to speak at his service, too.

I was honored but realized very quickly that I barely knew much about Roland’s life. I had also never spoken at a memorial before. What could I say?

I knew Roland’s love for me and my family, as well as his generous devotion to Judson and the Village community. I also knew that before he came to Judson, Roland had been a boxer and accidentally killed a man when he tried to stop the man from assaulting a woman. For that, he served 14 years in prison.

That sort of information might be scary for a child to learn. For me, it had the opposite effect. Somehow, the new information made me love him even more. Perhaps Roland’s story helped to shape my views on the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration (which I’m sure I’ll get into at length in time).

But I didn’t want to talk about that stuff. So, I would speak about Roland’s devotion to the safety of everyone in our community, and how we would all be served to take on some of that responsibility.

This is what I said:

Rachel texted me yesterday to ask what I was going to say today. It seems we were both on the same page: since being asked to speak, we realized how little we actually know about Roland. For both of us, for our entire lives, he was this gentle giant who had our backs, no matter what.
Roland was like a guardian angel, not just for me and every single one of us that make the Judson community past and present, but for the entire neighborhood. There was not a time I passed by Judson without seeing Roland somewhere. Maybe in an entryway, or walking down a nearby street. At the Laundromat that used to be down the block. Always with an eye out. And an extra special twinkle in it for us kids. Even us adult kids.
I really don’t think that I ever saw Roland do anything that didn’t directly help someone else. Except maybe when he broke into some seriously smooth moves at his “retirement” celebration here. Every year as I was growing up, he got every single Sunday School kid a gift. In fact, there’s a Casio keyboard downstairs that he gave me. It still works!
His care of us was above and beyond. And each week there’s a garbage can missing a liner, or another pipe has sprung a leak, I’m more convinced that we still haven’t figured out all of the little things that are slipping through the cracks because, probably, none of us even realized that he was doing them.
The other week, Bethene told me about some of the things that had been found in his apartment. He had kept a postcard or note that I had written to him as a child. I’m not sure what it says. It’s probably a Thank You note for some present long forgotten by either of us. Perhaps the keyboard.
On Monday, I came into the Meeting Room looking for music stands for a play reading that my dad’s theatre company was doing in the Assembly Hall. It was completely dark, and as my search for stands brought me closer to the stage, I noticed the trees had been set up. I thought of Roland, on Christmas Sunday, in his fly suit, muscles that almost seemed like they’d never start to weaken, stretching the fabric of his blazer just enough to let you know that this guy meant business. Smiling wide, seeming to glow, and it wasn’t just the chili-pepper lights.
And I felt like everything was alright. He’s passed a gentle giant torch. And we must all look out for the cracks, find out where the extra garbage bags are, and continue to support each other with the care that, at times, only Roland seemed constantly able to find.

I feel like my days are honestly better when I follow this advice, and I actively try to every day. Of course, it’s not always easy and I’m not always successful, either. How lucky am I to have had such a wonderful role model in Roland?

In these tenuous days, we all need a little boost.

See how you can look out for cracks for the people around you this week. It might just ripple and get more people doing the same. Roland would cheer you all with his classic, “Right on!”

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