Editor’s Note: Len Strom, who served the Archdiocese of Baltimore as executive director of human resources for eight years, died July 17. His funeral Mass was offered July 23 at the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley. It included the following homily from auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden.
Saying farewell to someone you love, your husband, your father, your grandfather, your brother, uncle or coworker and friend, is never an easy task. We always want, it seems, to hold on to those persons that we cherish and are so much a part of our lives. It is our faith in God, His grace, the Scriptures themselves that support us during this painful time of separation and for this we are most thankful to God.
Anyone fortunate enough to spend time with Len knew that with his love of his family, his work, his relationships with others, even his humming and singing those hits from the 50s and 60s, and of course his golfing, that he lived a full life.
He grew up in Plainfield, N.J., before his family moved to Sommerville, N.J. He and Sue met their first week of school at Marian University in Indianapolis. Both English majors, they met as biology lab partners. This was a union meant to happen. Sue and Len worshipped here at St. Francis Xavier but Len also enjoyed going to Nativity Parish, or “Our Lady of Mars” as he called it, because of the Mars store near the parish. When he discovered that if he followed the Mass schedule here at St. Francis Xavier that he could get more golf time he thought, “maybe Sue and I should really worship together in the same church.”
Some might say he was a character and I would have to agree — but only if you meant this in the very best sense of the word.
The Scripture readings of today’s Mass echo this.
The first reading from the First Book of Kings was one that had special meaning for Sue. For her that whisper of God is a meditation first experienced in the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, and continues with each reading of this passage.
Elijah the prophet was also going through a difficult and challenging time. His fear was that he may be killed by those pursuing him. The Lord sees and knows his fear and comes to him and tells him to stand on the mountain, that place of encounter between the divine and the human, placing himself in the presence of God, for Yahweh would be passing by. A mighty hurricane shattering rocks began to blow but God did not speak in that great wind; there followed an earthquake and God was not in the earthquake; a fire followed, nor was God in the fire. Rather God spoke to Elijah as he did to Len, and to us, in our difficult and challenging time, on this day, in a gentle whisper.
It seems so often that God chooses to speak to us in a gentle whisper. We might wonder why a whisper and not in some mighty display. I think the answer is quite simple, because one can whisper when they are very near, when they have our attention God lets us know he is close and there is no need to shout, He is with us.
I think that perhaps that is why Len loved to sing, because at a certain level, his inner being if you will, knew that God was near, God was with him.
No attempt at canonization in saying that, no need to inflate in any way; our lives are more complex than that. Len was a decent man, a joy filled man, a man of integrity who cared deeply for others and loved being with others. And he also could and did say “OK let’s cut to the chase – what’s the bottom line.”
There is a joy in being connected to others, in playing our part in the vast enterprise of human living, mindful of our relation with others and with God. We call this living in the Kingdom of God. Being a decent human being is well worth it, self sacrifice is worth it. Why it’s the way we are meant to live, it’s why we were created.
In September of 2004, Len came to work in the Archdiocese as the Director of Human Resources. And from the time of his arrival and even after his retirement he had great respect and love for the Archdiocese. Prior to his arrival at 320 Cathedral Street he held a similar position at General Electric and Black and Decker. This obviously seemed to be a part of who he was and he was gifted for this work.
He did not care much about titles and once when he was on his way to pick up Cardinal O’Brien he said, “You know, you would think that as the director of human resources I would know something about job descriptions, and especially my own job description. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but today it includes being a chauffer.” He actually enjoyed those occasions when he had the opportunity to drive one of the Archbishops. I think he especially enjoyed driving Archbishop Borders, he and Len were both great storytellers.
You learn a lot about a person from those who work with him on a daily basis. Len was admired and loved by his staff. When gathering some anecdotal material from them for this homily two of them broke into tears recalling what it was like being with Len. They experienced him not only as a good boss but as a person they liked being around.
Good people don’t do good to look good and they don’t hold that holy pose. Perhaps that is why we so admire them, because they don’t need to be admired.
Len’s staff at 320 Cathedral (the Catholic Center) especially enjoyed his self-effacing comments. After Len had retired he, as he often did, invited the staff out to lunch. Steve Anderson asked Len how he was spending his retirement time. Len, the perennial golfer, said he was working on improving his swing. Steve, not being much given to the game, pressed on. “How are you doing that?” Len’s reply delighted the whole group. He said “I’m taking pilates.” Steve said he would pay anything to see that. After a brief silence Len looked at him and said, “You don’t have that much money.”
How God delights in witnessing our web of relationships – the handing on of self-emptying goodness for the joy of others. These things never die and they become part of our inheritance.
The Gospel passage today from Matthew’s 13th chapter is one that you don’t often hear read at funeral Masses. But it is one I believe that is especially fitting for the funeral Mass we celebrate today.
Matthew brings us to the sea shore in the northern Galilee. So large a crowd had gathered that Jesus pushes out from the shore in a boat, sits, as rabbis did when giving a teaching those days, and tells a parable.
It’s one we are all familiar with, the sower of the seed.
This farmer, unlike any seasoned farmer, does something rather strange and surely unexpected. How often the strange and unexpected are a part of one of Jesus’ parables. The parable farmer sows seed all over the place. Some of it on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and finally of course some on rich soil.
Whenever I hear this parable I am reminded of a dialogue meeting with a group of Muslim clerics. This passage we just heard provoked them. “No, you are wrong, you did not read this correctly, no farmer wastes seeds that way, spreading them on the path, in the thorns, among the rocks and only a portion on good soil. That is a foolish thing to do. Why do you say this?”
There is within all of us a certain part that resonates with this very sentiment in our dealing with others. You don’t waste your time with people who just aren’t interested, who could care less or perhaps being a little less critical, with those who are not up to the task.
But God does. He spends his time with such as these. We know this to be true for he spends his time with us.
And He bids the sun to rise and set, on the good and the bad, the rains to fall on the good and the bad, the worthy and the unworthy, the committed and the indifferent. And I suppose most of all He truly loves all of us.
And that is why this passage is so fitting for the funeral Mass of Len. No, he did not possess this same divine magnanimity but he did make a sincere effort at treating all with respect and love. He seemed to appreciate that there are few things more devastating in life than to be treated as though you don’t count.
Len loved being around all of his staff, not just the overachievers or those who always seemed to always get it right. He loved walking around the whole building and checking in with people, not checking up on people. He wanted to know how they were doing, how things were going in their lives, their families. And he truly wanted them to find some joy in working for the Archdiocese.
Every Thursday he would give Minh, one of his staff, $20 to pick up donuts to bring in on Friday morning. He would invite staff to his house for a party. He would take his staff to lunch, even after he retired. And even after he left Black and Decker Len would ask for and get tickets for his Baltimore staff for good seats at Orioles games.
And of course he brought joy to all with his singing songs from the 50s and the 60s. He enjoyed singing those hits, sometimes with the real lyrics, sometimes with Len Strom lyrics, and then asking who sang the song and when.
Over the years Sue became expert in recognizing these groups and easily identified the year of their hits. The grandchildren called Len “Boppy” in honor of that singing sensation the “Big Bopper.”
I grew up in the Bronx in New York City and I happened to know the lead in one of those groups, “Dion and the Belmonts.” When I told Len that, he gave me one of his sizing up looks that said “are you serious or are you pulling my leg.”
It was such a great joy to bring a big smile to his face when I visited him in the ICU at St. Joseph’s Hospital not too long ago and told him that the Chantells were down stairs but I couldn’t bring them up because one of them was not vaccinated.
The second reading of today’s Mass was, as you recall, a rather short one, actually only one verse from the 14th Chapter of the Book of Revelation:
“Then I heard a voice from heaven say to me: ‘Write down, blessed are those who die in the Lord. Blessed indeed, the Spirit says, now they can rest forever after their work, since their good deeds go with them.”
Surely Len’s good deeds go with him, we know that for sure.
And what we also know for sure is that when one is married the spouse is also very much a part of that divine enterprise of working and living for the Lord and for others. Len and Sue were great partners in all of this, exemplified in the two of them establishing three scholarships, one attached to that place where they first met, Marian University.
You come to the end of a homily like this and you wonder, how could so few words in such a short span of time do justice at all in capturing those years of goodness and loving service of this disciple of Christ. Len definitely would not be happy in me describing him like that.
When his good friend, Father Sam Young, expressed similar thoughts as Len was in his final hours Sue reminded Sam that “Len would hate it for all the lovely things you said.”
But we do also know that Len, like every parent and teacher, takes their greatest delight in seeing their children and their students surpass them in talent and virtue.
And so it is our time to have not only that same compassion and concern for others as did Len. But as true children and friends of Len and disciples of Christ we will try to even surpass it. By the grace of God. And now is that time for us all to give a try at having that same compassion as did Len for all others.
With the reading from the First Book of Kings we recalled how God so often speaks to us in a whisper.
Let me conclude with these words of that mystic poet Kahil Gibran, who also lived in the Galilee region. Here he speaks not so much of a whisper but of a sweet breeze.
I think his words sum up so well the life of Len whom we love, already miss and yet are so ever thankful for knowing him.
This is what Gibran has to say about giving and generosity:
There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gift unwholesome
There are those who have little and give it all – These are the believers in life and the bounty of life and their coffer is never empty
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism
And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space
Through the hands of such as these God speaks and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.
Thank you for everything Len, we love you, be at peace and take your rest.
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