By Bill Caton
A lot can go through one’s mind as he helps carry a casket: the weight, the uneven ground, the awkwardness of trying to work with five others to carry a heavy load.
All this, of course, went through my mind as I joined with other coworkers to carry the casket containing the body of Henry T. Hagood, Jr., CEO of the Alabama AGC for 45 years. Henry, who led the Alabama AGC as it grew from a small group of contractors in 1969 to the dominant nonresidential construction association in the state, died Feb. 9, after a year-long struggle with cancer.
As we pallbearers struggled together in silence, I reflected on my 21-year association with Henry. And I thought this: Life is a fight. We are born, but we have to choose to live. Where is the point without the struggle? Henry always had something to do, always had a goal. The quality of the goal is an individual matter. The point is the struggle.
Heavy snow fell the night before Henry’s funeral, and the ground that had been beautiful, covered with delicate ice, was now a bit treacherous. Snow still lingered in the shadows, and the air stung hands and ears. We walked, and I looked at the world and thought of Henry, thought of his ability to focus on detail, to think in unblinking literal terms, to follow in the mind’s eye the flight of an arrow, or a golf ball, or the bumpy ride of a fishing lure as it is pulled through murky water. For Henry, the joy was in the struggle, the great work of the mind was in the details. He could explode a large concept into tiny pieces and understand how they fit into the whole. And as long as you played his game, you were always behind.
I came—full of advoacy and ideas—to the Alabama AGC from the newspaper industry. And I instantly became interested in Henry’s practical perspective. Don’t go crazy with an idea—its time will or will not come. But there will be plenty of battles to fight, plenty of tactics to consider. Plenty of ideas that fly like sparks from the struggle. If you are willing to engage it, life has limitless challenges, limitless opportunities.
To be a pallbearer is an honor. It is one of the few times that we can help bear another’s pain. It is an intimate act, carrying the literal weight of the bereaved. Your feet are on the ground, traversing the uneven earth. One man’s end, one family’s sorrow, is in your hands.
We are all flawed, just like the task at hand: the ground is uneven, all six do not work seamlessly, the weight shifts at random to unfair proportions. But the details are considered, the battle fought with each step, the job is done. The body reaches its end. And in that end—for the pallbearers, the mourners, for the memory of the deceased —it is the willingness to struggle, to meet the demands of this life, that is important. So you carry the weight of the sorrow. You accept the honor. And you meet the end the better for it. If you are strong enough, you meet it with grace.
Henry loved the outdoors, loved woods, lakes, golf courses. He loved the sport, the competition, yes. But mostly, I think, he loved the places. A man who is content, who has engaged this world and understands his place in it has the grace of a buck as it moves through the quiet space of the deep old-growth woods, or a big bass cruising the still depths of a lake. There is great beauty in a creature at home in this world. That, I believe. is where we meet God.
In the wee hours before Henry’s funeral I thought of his family, Kim and her son Blake, Jody and his wife, Molly, and, of course, Henry’s wife, Dot. Their struggle has taken a predictable but excruciating turn. A William James quote came to mind in the quiet dark: “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which we may withdraw at will.”
As Henry lost the fight for his own body, I often found myself driving him or helping him in and out of the office. Toward the end, as we undertook what had become a long journey from his corner office to the parking lot, he smiled, remembering my first days at the AGC, remembering the young man who was taking the first tenuous steps into a career change. “Just a fish out of water,” he said with a sideways glance and a devious grin. I held the door for him, touched his shoulder as he went though, and said I never felt like a fish out of water at the AGC. He stopped, looked at me, and nodded: “There was always plenty to do.”