Cloister Commentary, Addendum 2: What Kind of Man was Mike?

I shared this on Walnut Lawn’s memorial page, but I thought I should share it here, too. You become very close to some folks during your life, and there are some things you just want to be sure are known widely about them. Also, I screwed up a quote on the memorial page and couldn’t edit it…

Mike and I had many talks over the years, and he was a very, very funny conversationalist–about the only person I LOVED talking to on the phone. But when the hard rap on swilling beer, watching sports, and playing rock and roll quieted, we often turned to the necessity of growing up. Mike’s sister Becky shared with me the other day that he was a deep thinker, and he WAS–especially when it came to the meaning of being a man. We returned to that topic as if it had gravitational pull; in fact, we talked about it in our fifties (as perhaps befits two guys who would not give up Converse All-Stars). We both had fathers with high expectations; we both regularly questioned whether we measured up.

It’s funny: you see men walking around every day–adult males who look like men. But many of them (maybe not enough of them) keep working on it for years without being satisfied, still feeling like a kid, never considering themselves bona fide men. It’s our own INTERIOR version of the one where parents always see their offspring, to some extent at least, as children, no matter how crotchety they get.

However, the fact is, Mike became an excellent MAN a long time ago, though he was so self-effacing he could be hard to convince. He firmly, quietly, and methodically paid off his house. He was loyal and hard-working at his job. He was a very faithful friend and one helluva groomsman (he gave my wife’s grandma a 45-mile ride home before the reception was over when she had vehicular problems). And? He was the best by-God dad I’ve ever witnessed demonstrate the art of parenting. From the time London was old enough to absorb a lesson to the last time we saw them together, my wife Nicole and I always marveled at the firmness, consistency, persistence, and–most of all–demonstrative love with which Mike spoke to and treated his son. I choose the word “demonstrative” very deliberately, because it’s been said we guys occasionally have a little trouble with that. Not Mike. He could say “I love you” like pattin’ for a dance, and he meant it–and he always let London know it. When we’d praise him for such excellence, he’d always remind us of a particular weak spot he needed to work on.

One of my favorite memories of the two of them is when they came up to Columbia for London’s baseball tournament. We got to see the kid pitch and remain totally poised during a rain delay, then react to some struggles on the mound with perspicacity. I hadn’t really had many conversations with him at that point, but while waiting in a grocery store parking lot for Mike to return with some grub afterward, we started chatting, and I was immediately impressed with his dry wit and eloquence (about math, yet)–and his ability to needle his dad as skillfully as Mike had always needled us. He seemed very much like his father’s son, if not quite as animated.

After London started school at Mizzou, he came over once to eat lunch and change the oil in his whip as Mike had taught him; he kept his tools with us. While he toiled and I prayed he wouldn’t ask me for help, we had an even more enjoyable conversation about hip hop, which wasn’t always Mike’s bag, and the kid really knew his stuff (Earthgang fans, holla!). But, more important, the kid’s depth of thought and easy politeness felt very, very familiar. And–he did extremely well on a philosophy paper I had the pleasure of reading; those are not easy for seniors, not to mention freshmen. Deep thinker.

Yep, Mike was a bona fide man, and London’s well on his way. I’ve taught kids for 37 years and they’re no day at the beach in the classroom, much less at home. If raising London were the only thing Mike had ever done extremely well–it’s not–he passed the dang test. I wish he were going to be here to witness his son’s future exploits, but, folks, he did the heavy lifting.

That reminds me: to paraphrase a rock and roll sage who knew his time was short, Mike’s just dead–he’s not gone. He’ll live on in the way London moves through the world, where he will be sure to be pushing himself to meet his father’s example. Thing is, he’ll be meeting it in the pushing, not necessarily the outcome.So long, Mike. You done good.

The memorial was perfect. Our hearts continue to be with Mike’s friends and family.

Cloister Commentary, Addendum 1: “GIVE Me Just a Little More TIME”–Mike Rayhill, 1962-2021

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A man for all occasions.

Mike Rayhill and I were both born in conservative Missouri towns in 1962, lived under the watchful eyes of fathers who expected the best, played high school sports seriously (he wrestled, I hooped), attended and graduated with the Class of 1980 from what was then Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri, loved rock and roll and Budweiser, and often got tripped up in self-doubt. We had significantly different views on Prince, golf, and pro wrestling, and Mike was an artist while I could only love the arts, but we only really fought once (a damn poker game!) and resonated as brothers always. He roundly approved of my chosen soul mate and proved a great friend to her, too.

Mike was on the far end of a successful career in printing, had found Angel, the love of his life, after a long search, proudly watched his son London bloom (under his close and wise gaze) into an outstanding scholar, athlete and human, graduate from high school, and excel as a college freshman, and through constant diligence and skillful frugality owned free and clear his own house, no easy task these days. The fruit of his meticulous labors had ripened for his enjoyment when pancreatic cancer snatched it away last week. His wife, son, and friends will carry his spirit forward, but never forget, folks, that life isn’t fucking fair.

I can tell you a million stories about Mike, but this is a moment that captures a side of the man I will deeply miss.

Mike and I became fast friends at first meeting (discovering our mutual appreciation for the Minutemen at a Washington Street party in Springfield), and later became roommates for a few years in the late 1980s. One day as I returned home, Mike met me with great urgency.

“DJ Philly Phil, you’ve got to tell me who does this song!”

Then, doing a little light-footed twist and accenting the rhythm with his hands–almost like he was conducting an orchestra (friends will recall this charming nuance of his)–he burst out in song:

GIVE me just a little more TIME!”

Unfortunately, I had not then nor have I since heard every song ever recorded, and these were not the days of YouTube, streaming, OR the simple Internet, so I replied, “Well, that was wonderfully performed, but nope…I have no clue.”

Mike was not to be denied. He wanted to own the record. “Yes, you have heard it. It’s on oldies radio all the time! OK, now listen!”

He repeated his previous rendition with spot-on accuracy. “Now, did you hear how I sang the word ‘time’? The singer turns that word into a little cry at the end of the line! It’s great! He really needs a little more time! Now, listen!”

Again, he repeated his passionate orchestration, underlining the syllable in question with an upward wave of his hand.

“Mike, I got nuthin’.”

“I’m deeply disappointed in you, Philly Phil.”

He loved that song; talk about the passion, he might have said, because he was quietly about that (and he had R.E.M. on the brain). That dude could needle your ass painfully, but he had a tender heart.

I could have done some research, but those were busy days. Also, I don’t listen to the radio much, but soon after this episode, I finally heard the song. It was just as Mike sang, performed, and explained it: a plea, and like Mike’s feet had done in his demonstration, the music bounced. But the jock didn’t identify the damn song, so I was still holding air.

Fast-forward a couple years. I’m living in Columbia, Nicole and I are blasting some New Orleans rhythm and blues as is still our wont, and we’ve got one of Rhino Records’ three great NOLA volumes on the turntable. We have it turned up loud, and the needle hits The Showmen’s smilingly defiant rock and roll anthem, “It Will Stand.” Suddenly, listening to General Johnson sing “Don’t ya nickname it! / Fact, ya might as well claim it,” I flashed on the facts: that’s the guy! Then, I hit the books–General Johnson went on to lead The Chairmen of the Board, and–sure enough!–deliver “Give Me Just a Little More Time” with that plaintive panache.

I immediately called Mike. “I got it! I got it! Chairmen of the Board and General Johnson do ‘Give Me Just a Little More Time’! They have a greatest hits CD–“

“Sorry, DJ, I found the 45,” he interrupted. “You really let me down. I think you’re a little overrated, man! You’re no Casey Kasem, ya punk!” I laughed, but it did make me sad that I’d delayed his robust gratification and been ignorant of an obvious classic.

Last August, Mike was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. No, life is not fair, but in Mike’s case it really, really wasn’t. In January, as he was preparing for the inevitable, he asked me to help him find a home for his records, inviting me to keep anything I wanted. I brought his crates home, Hitt Records here in Columbia agreed to help us, and I began sorting them. Among his 45s, along with lots of Elvis and some demos of the first recordings of his band The JimBobs, was “Give Me Just a Little More Time.”

I kept that one.

That title is stabbing me as I write. It’s always going to remind me of Mike’s joy for music, his witty and contagious animation in acting out his enthusiasm for everything from pro wrestling to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and his love for his friends family and life in general. That love, in his unique fashion, quietly caught the bordering-on-desperate urgency of Johnson’s vocals. As we all should catch it if we fully understand how fragile and ephemeral life is. Mike passed away yesterday morning in the arms of his wife Angel, who caught that wonderful urgency and knew exactly what it was worth.

“Life’s too short to make a mistake.
Let’s think of each other and hesitate!
Young and impatient we may be,
There’s no need to act foolishly.
If we part, our hearts won’t forget it–
Years from now we’ll surely regret it….”

Goodbye, my brother. We won’t forget you.