RIP Peter Reilly

It was a four-hour plane ride to Des Moines then a half hour drive to Ames, Iowa where the temperatures were in the 20’s. Unseasonably cold for the first part of November. We were there for Peter Reilly’s funeral.

 

Peter Reilly

My wife Karen’s father was from New Jersey but he lived in Ames more than forty years, teaching bio-chemical engineering at Iowa State. He died on November 2, 2017 of intestinal cancer at the age of 78.

My family of four all went to his funeral and we stayed at a Hilton hotel on the edge of town, though the edge of town wasn’t very far from everything else, because it’s Ames.

I haven’t seen a lot of death in my closest family, and I’ve only attended one funeral inside that group; my uncle Homer’s. We stood in a room at the funeral home as Homer lay in an open casket, looking like a prone statue as my aunt Doris said something to me about how he looked, hugged me and started to cry.

The visitation for Pete in the sanctuary of St. Thomas Aquinas Church was different because his ashes were in a box and so it seem less of a “visit.” I and the other close family formed a receiving line. Pete’s friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow parishioners, former students and two cousins formed their own line that curved around the alter, moving slowly as they waited for their time to give us their regards.

Pete’s brother Tom did not show up for the funeral.

For the family it was two hours of greeting people. All but Rae, Pete’s widow, had to quickly figure out what their connection was to the deceased. Then we drummed up a short conversation. I learned that the impression Pete and Rae made on their community was huge.

They belonged to St. Thomas for four decades. They rarely missed a mass. They always sat in the first row. Rae was my wife’s stepmom, and she served on the committee that expanded the church. Pete would typically linger for an hour after mass to talk with people about anything possible. At the visitation we shared stories about how ending a conversation with Pete typically meant you had to tell him at least twice that you “really had to go.”

Pete was accomplished in his field. In fact he was named a distinguished professor at Iowa State. He was a nerd. At the funeral the priest told the story of how Pete had visited 60 countries, and that doesn’t count those countries where he only had airport layovers. Who told him that? Pete did.

Karen and Sophie in line for lunch in the church basement after the funeral

He was obtuse when it came to understanding many facts of life. That includes the trauma his daughters went through dealing with a family that had been split apart, or the trauma the girls felt, just being teenagers.

He had quirks and blind spots. He could be a snob. He knew how to hold a grudge. But with it all, Pete really liked people. He loved to meet them and talk to them, and he helped a lot of them though his teaching and his sponsorship of study-abroad programs.

At his funeral I thought about that movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Pete’s wonderful life in Ames, Iowa, was not so different from George Bailey. And as I watched the people standing in that slow-moving line at the visitation, I asked myself how many people would miss me when I died. How many people would remember me as somebody who helped them, made time for them and really enjoyed talking to them.

In the hotel, the day after the funeral, I saw the University of Texas women’s volleyball team as they got breakfast. They were these beautiful girls who were all at least six feet tall.  They won their game against Iowa State… undefeated in the conference, one of them told me in the elevator.

On the plane to Chicago (our layover) I sat next to a guy who lived in Chicago but had season tickets to Iowa State football games. He grew up in an Iowa town of 850 people and, like Pete, talked to me non-stop from liftoff until we landed at O’Hare.

 

Temps in the 20’s in Ames, the Iowa State campanile in background.

He said his baseball coach in high school was the shop teacher and he made the players try to field baseballs with boards strapped to their hands, instead of gloves. Good training, he claimed. This guy also told me he played three sports because athletes had to do that in a small town, otherwise they wouldn’t have enough guys to field a team.

In small towns, you’ve got to be involved. You’ve got to coach a team. Serve on the volunteer fire department. Plan the church expansion. Pete was involved. He’ll be remembered fondly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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