United Methoidist minister Wesley Stephens looked out from the pulpit at First Methodist at those sitting in the pews. People were packed in toward the front but sparsely seated in the back.
"If this has been 20 years ago, there wouldn't have been a seat," said Stephens. "But when you live to be 100, well," you don't have a lot of contemporaries.
But Fred Birchmore had a large family and a host of friends who loved and enjoyed him, as was evident at his funeral on Wednesday. The speakers included his son Danny Birchmore, grandson Fred C. Birchmore, fellow Kiwanian Larry Dendy and ministers Stephens and Bevel Jones.
Larry Dendy gave a lovely, hilarious talk about Mr. Birchmore that captured the man in the community. Here're his remarks:
It has been written that "To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die." Fred is no longer with us on this earth, but he lives most assuredly in our hearts.
I was privileged to know Fred for more than 35 years, mainly as a fellow member of the Kiwanis Club of Athens. I'm sure many of you knew him much longer, and probably much better than I did. The reason I'm speaking is because I had the honor of talking about Fred at two special Kiwanis events. The first was when he was the first member of our club to receive the George Hixson Fellowship, one of the highest accolades a Kiwanian can earn. The second was at the dedication of the Birchmore Nature Trail that our club helped establish in Memorial Park.
On both occasions, Fred told me that my remarks were the best things that had ever been said about him and that he wanted me to speak at his funeral. Now if you knew Fred, you know that understatement was not his strong suit. He never met a story he couldn't embellish or a fact he couldn't improve on. So I figured this was just Fred being Fred, and while I appreciated his compliments, I took them with several grains of salt.
When I learned that he actually did mean for me to speak at his funeral, my first reaction was surprise, followed quickly by panic. How could I do justice in a brief eulogy to a life so utterly unique, so memorable and so immensely rich and rewarding?
A life that includes such mind-boggling feats as riding a bicycle around the world—a bicycle now in the Smithsonian Institution…riding a tandem bike 4,500 miles through Central and South America with Willa Deane on their honeymoon…hiking trails around the world including the Appalachian Trail—3 times!...building the monumental Great Wall of Happy Hollow that has the estimated equivalent of 57 boxcars of boulders…collecting 70,000 arrowheads, perhaps the largest such private collection in the country…winning college championships in boxing and tennis…carrying the Olympic Torch…making available the land we now enjoy as Memorial Park…maintaining active membership in the Athens YMCA for 90 years…not to mention walking up the Washington Monument on his hands.
It's a life right out of "Ripley's Believe it or Not"—which of course Fred has been in.
It would take a book, maybe two books, to adequately describe the almost unbelievable life of Fred Birchmore. Of course, Fred wrote those books and preserved his incredible story to astound future generations.
So instead of talking about his amazing adventures and accomplishments, I want to talk about something very dear and important to me and to Fred, and that is his involvement with Kiwanis, and more broadly, his involvement with the Athens community.
First though, I want to mention something else about Fred, something that was so much a part of him we just took it for granted. But it's the quality that I think made him so endearing and so special.
Fred had this rare and marvelous gift for making people feel good. When you were with him, there was just something that made you happy. He was so irrepressibly upbeat…so endlessly enthusiastic…so boundlessly energetic…so eternally optimistic. He was like a walking beam of sunshine, or a spring shower of endorphins.
He was funny. Just listening to him talk in that disjointed way of speaking made you smile.
He was uplifting. He always had something positive or encouraging to say. If you were down, he picked you up with a compliment or witty remark. If you needed a helping hand, his was the first to reach out.
It was infectious. In Fred's presence, you could not be sad, angry, depressed or bored. Those weren't states he permitted for himself, or anyone around him. I don't think I ever left an encounter with Fred that I was not smiling.
Another thing: I don't recall ever hearing him say anything bad about anyone. Well, I take that back--he didn't like Adolph Hitler, who he actually had a confrontation with in Germany during his bike trip around the world. He called Hitler a "nut." But criticizing or denigrating others wasn't in Fred's nature. He preferred to see good and grace in all of us.
Through his cheerfulness and his unfailing positive and encouraging attitude, Fred brought laughter, happiness and hope into the lives of everyone he encountered, and I think that's one of the most wonderful legacies he left us.
For the Kiwanis Club of Athens, Fred truly was a living legend. You might be surprised to know that at age 100, he was not the oldest member of our club. We actually have a member who is 101. But Fred was by far our senior member in terms of length of membership. He joined our club in 1936, giving him an astonishing 77 years of membership. I suspect that made him both the oldest and the longest-serving active Kiwanian in Georgia.
Every Tuesday we had the pleasure of enjoying his kindness, generosity and wit. It was his unfailing routine at our meeting to go around the room to each table and shake every person's hand and say something nice. Often it was a compliment about what you were wearing, or maybe an inquiry about your family, or a thank-you for something you'd done for the club. If you were absent the previous week, Fred had noticed and he welcomed you back. If you'd been ill, Fred knew and rejoiced in your recovery. Whatever it was, Fred made you feel special, and you didn't leave the room without a happy word and a handshake from him.
Kiwanis is a service organization and our main purpose is to help improve the community by supporting our schools, helping agencies that serve the needy, and conducting projects to make life better for citizens. For as long as he was able, Fred supported our community improvement activities with his customary enthusiasm and gusto. He usually was the first to show up for a project and the last to leave.
For many years he was our Sunshine chair and would visit members who were sick or shut in or having some other problem, often taking food or flowers. He'd also recognize you if you'd received an award or it was your birthday or somebody said something nice about you.
Fred started the tradition of singing in our club and was the leader of a group we used to have called the Koraliers. He had a great tenor voice and took delight in hitting high notes nobody else could reach. He was also a good whistler and sometimes would accompany songs by whistling.
If it hadn't rained in Athens in a while, Fred would make us stand up and do a goofy Indian rain dance that he supposedly learned from a real Indian. He liked to point out that after we did this, it always rained—maybe not in Athens but it rained somewhere. He occasionally would pull other stunts such as standing on his head, which he said was good for blood circulation, and singing—sometimes in Chinese, or what he claimed was Chinese.
He used to bring flowers from his yard to meetings and parties and hand them out to women in the club. In the summer he might bring vegetables from his garden. Other times he would show us the newest addition to his arrowhead collection, or recite a poem, or give us a travelogue on his and Willa Deane's latest adventure, which could have been soaring in a hot air balloon over Switzerland, or floating around Russia in a cargo boat, or walking on the Great Wall of China.
One year he was chair of the committee charged with getting members of our club to visit other Kiwanis clubs—what we call Interclub visits. At the time, our club had some 90 members and Fred got every one of them to go on an Interclub. I believe that was the first and last time that ever happened.
He held many leadership positions in our club, including president, and in the state Kiwanis organization where he served as Lieutenant Governor. He received a number of awards for his work.
I could go on, but I think it's obvious why we called Fred "Mr. Kiwanis." Through his loyalty and devotion and contributions to our club, he personified all that Kiwanis stands for—humanitarian service, civic and community advancement, compassion and caring for others, bedrock integrity and pure good will and kindness. He was truly the heart and soul of our club, and Tuesdays at Kiwanis will never be the same.
Our club shares with you deep sorrow over Fred's passing. But like you, we cherish and celebrate the memory and the legacy of this most extraordinary man. Fred used to say that "The rent we pay for living on God's beautiful spaceship Earth is to make life a little better." There is no question that our Kiwanis Club, this church, this city, and all of us who knew and treasured Fred are better because he was with us. He made our lives richer, happier, livelier, more purposeful and more useful.
The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, "Every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself." By that measure, Fred was priceless, because he busied himself about some of the most important things a man can do—being a loving husband to Willa Deane for 72 years , a great father to Fred, Danny, Becky and Melinda; a wonderful grandfather to eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchilden; a good friend to all who knew him, and a valuable citizen to Athens…being someone who brought happiness and cheer to the lives of others…being someone who showed by his words and deeds the true meaning of charity, compassion and love…being someone who indeed made the world better by being in it.
Fred is no longer with us on earth, but he will live forever in our hearts.
Fred Birchmore's last words were to his wife, Willa Deane, who was holding his hand. "I love you," he said. "Thank you."
Thank you, Mr. Birchmore, for giving Athens yourself for so many years. We loved you, too.