Fifth grade wasn’t my best year in school. I was in excellent standing with my teachers, but less so with my peers, the latter perhaps related to the former. Still, the adults encouraged me not to shy away, so I tried to join in.
One opportunity was an informal playground game we called — well, I’ll shorten the name to smear: basically rugby without the gentility. It was, strictly speaking, against the rules, and it was played nearly every day.
Once when I was at the bottom of the pile, one of the rougher kids decided to jump on while the rest were peeling off. The impact slightly hyperextended my elbow.
By the end of the day, it was still hurting, so I went to the principal’s office to tattle on the other kid for his breach of sportsmanship.
The principal eyed me for few seconds, then said, simply, “You aren’t supposed to play smear.”
I have no doubt that if I’d been truly injured, he would have undertaken whatever action was necessary. But at that moment, I felt betrayed, wondering what my star-pupil status was good for if not the redress of injustice.
But I also began to realize, in ways I can better articulate now than I could then, that he was teaching me a lesson by letting me arrive at it myself. Several lessons, actually. First, that others’ uncensured participation in a questionable activity does not confer absolution for joining in. Second, that actions have consequences that must be accepted and ought be understood. Third, that one should worry more about one’s own behavior than that of others. As I’ve moved through life, these lessons have never lost their pertinence.
I’d first met Garry Purvis a few years before the playground incident, when I was in first grade and he was welcoming me to his elementary school. We’d just moved to Kasson-Mantorville, one of the many pairs of municipalities in Minnesota that are known as one because they share a school district. I remember Garry as seeming mirthful and fun, key criteria in any kid’s estimation. My duly attentive mom was impressed, too, but noticed that his gait was a bit tipsy, and wasn’t sure what to make of that.
He wasn’t inebriated. He was, at a fairly young age, several years into a battle with multiple sclerosis.
He continued to serve as principal long after I passed through — as long as he physically could — and after that he tutored students and served on the school board.
I went on to become close friends in high school and young adulthood with two of his sons, one my age and the other a year older. As an only child, I loved seeing how sharp-witted siblings interacted and how a larger family functioned.
As Garry’s disease progressed, his wife, Phyllis, bore greater responsibilities than many of us would face in a dozen lifetimes. If she had regrets, I never witnessed their expression. She and Garry outfitted themselves with the equipment they needed, and they continued to travel, well into recent years.
About the time my friends and I were leaving home, Garry and Phyllis had an accessible house built just a few lots away from where my parents lived. My mom and Phyllis would go on walks around the neighborhood. When Phyllis was working, my mom would be a phone call away if Garry needed anything. Friendships grew and were cherished.
I know that Garry was not free of bitterness about his fate, and I wouldn’t have wanted him to be. But for the most part he exemplified a message I frequently saw embroidered, framed and hung on walls in places I visited, and which I now know to be Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer.
Garry Purvis died at his home on Thursday, two weeks after suffering a heart attack and a good half-century after his diagnosis with MS. He was 76.
There are some folks, like that kid on the playground, who aim low. There are others — like me, and perhaps most — who aim high and often miss the mark. Garry was one of the great ones, a man who turned a generation of children, and others around him, into better people.
He will be missed.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.