A letter dated Sunday Jan. 24, 2016:
“Hello, saw your article in the Sun-Times today; was, frankly, a little surprised this was the first I heard of this program (Real Men Read at Matteson Elementary School).
“…I was once a Room Mother, although I am really a father, they only changed the title to ‘Parent’ after my kids had moved on…
“Anyway, being semi-retired, I could do this… I guess I should point out I’m a white guy, average height. Seems to meet your qualifications as I read them…” Signed: Mike Brown.
“Dear Mr. Brown, Thank you kindly for your note. We would absolutely love to have you help us read to children any Thursday that your schedule allows. Even if you make it just once, it would be greatly appreciated.
“…And by the way, you do indeed meet our qualifications!”
So began my introduction to Michael E. Brown, a brother in our circle.
Mike joined the group of men who, for the last four years, have come from near and far to the brown brick schoolhouse on Main Street to read to kids, ages kindergarten through 3rd grade. Our group’s size has ebbed and flowed. Mostly it has been a core dozen. Brothers, I call them.
Men with their own families, lives, and busy schedules but who have committed to being the difference they want to see. Men who, facing their own storms and crises — of cancer, of surgeries, of chemotherapy and radiation and the loss of loved ones, or unspoken personal challenges — keep coming.
Men like Richard Siska. Melvin Wormely. Kevin Callahan, Regis Browder, Gabriel Wallace, Herbert Hopkins and others. Men like Mike.
Unassuming and humble, they speak not of themselves or of their worldly accomplishments as we assemble in a classroom over coffee before marching to our charges, imparting lessons in reading. Lessons in mentorship.
Lessons for the children. And also, over time, lessons for me:
That the true measure of a man is not what he gives from his abundance but from his lack, even as he stares face to face at his own mortality — at a life filled with fewer sunrises. That the act of giving itself reciprocates in unexpected ways.
The lesson that our strength does not lie in numbers but in our commitment. That when I would be discouraged by how many fathers of the school of 400 children don’t show up, I must remember the mission.
That as men we can make excuses and quit. Or we can choose to show up. We can stand. And having done all, stand.
The last time I saw Mike this spring he was standing, though barely. He had battled cancer. Now there was ALS. He was visibly weak but smiling. And standing. He walked gingerly down the hall and read to his class.
Recently, not long after sending a note to our group alerting them that we would resume our Thursday readings at Matteson on Sept. 20, I received a return note from Mike’s email address.
Dated Saturday Sept. 8: “This is Mary, Mike Brown’s wife. Sadly, Mike passed away on 9/4, but I wanted to tell you how important reading to and with the kids was to him. He was so disappointed whenever he wasn’t able to go on Thursday mornings. He loved the kids and interacting with them…”
Days later, I sat, fighting back tears, in the funeral home where my brother Mike, 69, surrounded by his loving wife and family, lay at rest, at peace. Mike, a good man who wanted to make a difference.
A man who heard the call. And answered.