Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bishop Robert Wotring: My Hero

To go from an intimidating bishop in Bishop Glenn to a shy, introverted bishop in Bishop Wotring was a huge change in my life. But the best part of this change was that Bishop Wotring was the father of my childhood friend, Bob.

Bishop Wotring was the exact opposite of Bishop Glenn. But don’t get me wrong; when it came to pure intelligence, there were few smarter than Bishop Wotring. It was just hard to imagine that this soft-spoken, blue-collar man had a PhD in Chemistry.

Perhaps the word that best typifies Bishop Wotring is conundrum – a confusing or difficult problem or question.

Bishop Wotring was born somewhere in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia. He was not born to a Mormon home and I have no idea how he came to the church but my guess is he escaped the suffocating, hillbilly culture of West Virginia by joining the Army.

He was likely born with a propensity of succeeding best when challenged the most but I am sure this innate ability of his was discovered while serving in the Army. He excelled as a soldier and rose up in the ranks. Not being intimidated by anything, he became a paratrooper. He loved to tell the story of how he broke his nose on a landing. In my mind’s eye I could see him jumping from a plane, somehow getting horizontal, and then landing right on his nose. Of course, that is not how it happened, but that image of him landing square on his nose stayed with me for years.

But being a paratrooper was not enough for Bishop Wotring. He joined the Green Beret and become a Lt. Colonel in the Special Forces. He was about six feet tall and did not appear to be an overly muscular man. In fact, wiry best describes Bishop Wotring. But Bob loved to tell the story of have how a giant of how a man challenged Bishop Wotring to a fight in some bar and Bishop Wotring whooped the tar of that man.

Well, that was enough for me; once I heard that story I decided never to challenge Bishop Wotring -- at least not physically. But he invited all who knew him to challenge him intellectually or at pool. I did both on a regular basis and lost each and every time.

Bishop Wotring left his research job with and oil company in Ponca City, Oklahoma to work side by side with one of his friends building retaining walls. The company was called Hold-A-Hill block. But soon after he moved his family out to the Bay Area, his partner died and Bishop Wotring became sole owner of that business. He never made it back into research and spent the rest of his life building things.

Bishop Wotring will appear in many blog posts so I will have many more stories where he figures prominently. But when he died, I had the opportunity to speak at his funeral. (Okay, I understand that I was a second string speaker as Dad as out of town and should have been the one to give the talk.)  

It was a sad affair because there were only a handful of attendees at that funeral who knew the Bishop Wotring I did. But funerals are not for the deceased, they are for the survivors. Knowing Bishop Wotring, he would have hated the fact that we even had a funeral. Below is the text of the talk I gave.

It is an honor for me to stand here today to pay personal tribute to one of my lifelong heroes. Just so you know, I clearly understand that I am a second-string speaker, as this tribute should come from my father – Frank Heiss. But as he could not be here, I accepted this opportunity.

If I were to give this talk a title, I would call it “What About Bob?” But the subtext of this title would read: “How a Giant of Man Took Time to Bless my Life.” Let me explain.

I am not exactly sure when the Wotting’s moved to Fremont from Ponca City, OK. It may have been in 1972 or so. But from the day of their arrival, I was a constant irritant in their home. Little Bob (who we now have to call only Bob) and I became instant friends and our entire families did as well.

Because of our friendship, (and I guess we have to include Mike as well, but he was always the younger brother) I spent a significant amount of time in the Wotring’s home and came to see Bishop Wotring as a father figure.

He was much different than my father. Bishop Wotring had a PhD, was a colonel in the military, served in Special Forces, and worked with his hands. Well not only with his hands but also with his legs and back as well.

Bishop Wotring became part owner of Hold-A-Hill block in the San Francisco Bay Area. The majority of the concrete landscaping blocks he used weighed 85 pounds each. Bishop Wotring could pick up one block in each hand to load up his truck. Eventually Bob could lift up a block by himself. I never really could, though I did try.

I know all this because during the summers there were many times when Bob and I would go with Bishop Wotring to work. Well, let me explain what that meant. Bishop Wotring would drive us to his brick yard that had a little shack in the middle of the yard. When we were younger, Bob and I would babysit the shack and hope that no one would come to ask any questions because we knew so little about the blocks.

As we got older, Bob and his dad would go off and work while I tended the shack. It was quite boring and I don’t even remember if we got paid. But the joy of those summers was riding to and from Hold-A-Hill with Bob and his dad.

Bishop Wotring always liked to test us on any subject in the world. I grew up believing that he knew everything about everything. And maybe he did. Or maybe I just wanted him to. But what made those long rides to and from work most enjoyable was when he would force us to think. Bob and I would wrestle with the topics Bishop raised and he would be referee.

More than anything else this great man did for me, the process of looking at an issue and peeling off that which was superficial to get down to the heart of the matter has had a most profound impact on my life. This is a legacy from him that I have attempted to pass on to my children and grandchildren.

But Bishop Wotring was not all work. He loved to have fun. There were two types of fun that stand out most—pool and water skiing.

The pool part was an eye opener for me. All my young life I thought pool was evil because it involved smoking and drinking. Then, I show up at the Wotring’s one day, there appears a pool table. Not a cheap little one. Rather a real slate, covered in felt pool table.

I was stunned. How could a Bishop own a pool table? Not only did he own one, he was amazing at it. He could make the cue ball do crazy things. And he could tell me exactly what it was going to do. He could even call his shots and was almost always right.

So, I guess pool wasn’t a sin. In fact, I was so adept at changing my outlook on pool that Bob and I spent hours playing. I never got good at it. And I think Bishop Wotring had to walk in the house not to laugh at my lack of skills. But he never discouraged me from trying and tried his hardest to teach me.

Yes, Bishop was a teacher as well. Maybe not too patient with his own family, I am not sure, but when it came to water skiing, he wouldn’t let me quit, even after I drank half the lake refusing to let go of the rope after I fell.

It took me two seasons to finally get up on two skis and so often I just didn't want to try again. But he kept after me until I finally got up. Then, when I returned to the boat triumphant, Bishop Wotring congratulated me and said: “Now let’s try one ski.” You have got to be kidding. But not long after my initial triumph of two skis, there I was slalom skiing. Simply because Bishop Wotring refused to give up.

Not only was he a teacher to me in skiing and pool, but he was also my Bishop. He was the Bishop of my youth and when I think of a Bishop, it is his image that comes to mind. I can remember as Bob and I were preparing for missions, Bishop Wotring was to give me my mission interview. Now, I knew him very well and was not too concerned about my worthiness, but no teen-ager ever likes to have an interview. So, I was nervous.

I think he detected my unease, so he spent an hour or so teaching me how to memorize things. He introduced me to mnemonic devices and showed me how he could memorize a host of things simply by making mental connections.

After about an hour of this, I asked him: “Bishop, aren’t you supposed to interview me about my worthiness to serve a mission.” He looked at me with cocked head and squinting eyes and said: “I know your worthy, you know your worthy, and God knows your worthy. I felt it was more important teaching you how to memorize.”

Well, who was I to argue. What this single event taught me was the value Bishop Wotring placed in trust. My greatest joy in life was knowing that he trusted me. This concept of trust and his ability to instill confidence in me was best expressed at that one event that will forever stand out as my Bishop Wotring moment.

Bob and I had left for the MTC on the same day and were released on the same day as well, though I spent a little time touring Europe with my dad after my mission. When I got home, I made plans to attend BYU and was miraculously accepted to go to school there.

By November, I was making my plans to leave and I started to cut those ties that had been such a vital part of my youth. One of those ties soon to be severed was with Bishop Wotring.

My parents had left for Utah about this time and I was home with my two younger siblings and a border my mom had living in your home. Being the oldest and soon to go off to college, I was in charge.

It was quite late in the night and I heard two loud noises like someone pounding on the garage door. That is never a desired sound at 2:00 in the morning so I stayed in bed hoping it was just my imagination. Then there were more loud noises and I could here the cat, which was in the garage screeching.

I had to get up to see what was wrong. As I got to the kitchen, the noises were louder and more frequent. But I could tell it was not a burglar because of the repeated noise. I opened the kitchen door that lead to the garage and discovered that our house was on fire.

As quickly as I could I evacuated that house and there were my younger brother and sister, our border, and I standing across the street, watching our house burn. I tried to use the neighbor’s phone to contact my parents, but I had no idea where they were or how to get a hold of them, So, I called Bishop Wotring. Within minutes Bishop Wotring and Bob stood by our sides as the fire fighters worked to put out the flames.

At this point, I felt pretty helpless. I would have loved for Bishop Wotring to have taken charge and made things better. He did not. In fact, as soon as the fire was out, he looked at me and said: “What is your plan?”

I had no idea. He knew I had no idea. But he also knew I needed to learn how to responded properly in a crisis. He refused to take change and forced me to work through the problem, just as he did when we rode home with him from Hold-A-Hill.

But he never really abandoned me to this disaster. I know now that he was working behind the scenes so that I would succeed in making the necessary decisions until my parents got back. He masterfully guided me into dealing with the fire department, police department, insurance people, and other vital details. He helped recruit other ward and stake members to help in the clean up and the relocation of our family. When people arrived on the scene the all went to Bishop Wotring first, but he directed them over to me and made sure they treated me as an adult.

It would have been much easier for Bishop Wotring to have done everything. But, for the first time in my life, I was the adult. I made decisions.  I had to work through a disaster. All because wise and kind man took interest in me and had long before decided he would not let me fail.

To those of you here today who knew only the older version of my childhood hero, I hope you can feel from this scattered events what a great man we was and what a legacy of love he has left behind. Much of what I am today was a direct result of Bishop Wotring’s life and example, his caring and compassion.

What thrills me, even at this time of mourning, is that Bishop Wotring is now reunited with his oldest daughter, whom he loved, and I look forward to the day, well, I hope it is not all too soon, when I can be with Bishop Wotring and Denise and let them both know that my life was so greatly blessed by my association with them.

To paraphrase Paul:

Bishop Wotring fought a good fight, he finished the race, and the kept the faith.

To Jeanne, Bob, Mike, and Sharon, thank you so much for sharing him with me.

No comments:

Post a Comment