Today I said farewell to my dear friend. If you couldn't be there, here's my eulogy for the Reverend Jeff Hamilton. You can hear the recording of his eulogy on the Mysterious Goings On podcast.
A few thoughts about Jeff Hamilton
Friends, family, Reverend, Wanda…thank you for this opportunity to say a few words about a man who is obviously so beloved by so many, our dear friend Jeff.
It was a few years ago that Jeff asked me to do this, to say a few words at his services. I told him, of course, but it was too soon to talk of such things--and just what would I say? He did that wry Jeff Hamilton smile and said, half-teasing, “Just say a few words about our times on the field of battle!”
So here I am, Jeff. Here are my few words about you, the right Reverend Representative.
When I think of Jeff, it all starts with one word.
Jeff Hamilton never lost an election.
I asked him a couple of years ago about his time at the Capitol. Here’s what he said:
"My nickname at the Capitol among some good friends was 'landslide' because I seldom won re-election by very many votes. I won my first election over the Republican incumbent by 101 votes."
His district was House 101.
The elections were close. But all the same, Landslide Hamilton was undefeated.
From 1986 to 1994, Jeff served four distinguished terms in the state legislature. Jeff’s service was where his heart was—caring for all Oklahomans, for all people--as chairman of the House Committee on Health and Mental Health. He helped Oklahomans in a variety of arenas, including juvenile justice, mental health, AIDS research and treatment programs, and education. If you have a Living Will here in Oklahoma, you can thank Jeff Hamilton.
He worked hard and served without pretension or vanity.
One House staffer said this about Jeff:
“What I remember about Jeff Hamilton was how nice a man he was. He always took time with staff. I remember that he was an early believer in criminal justice reform and restorative justice (probably the minister in him).”
Jeff was at the Capitol to work. He viewed his service as a sacred trust and took a dim view of those who did not. He told me:
"There were those who won big on the campaign trail but goofed off once elected! And even worse, there were those who lost who would have been productive members of the Legislature."
There is not enough time at these proceedings to speak of his many successes and the myriad ways he made Oklahoma better through his legislative service; suffice to say he left the Capitol better than he found it, and then left the legislature on his own terms.
It was just after he decided to retire from the legislature that I, as a naïve, well-meaning, first-time candidate, met Jeff and Wanda. I was full of idealism and energy—ready to take back the seat Jeff had retired from. Jeff and Wanda were both so kind and encouraging to this goofy kid who shared their zeal for a better Oklahoma.
I tried like heck, and Lord knows Jeff made calls and knocked doors and did what he could to help me win, but I didn’t. I was down, and Jeff let me wallow in my defeat for a grandly expansive three or four days before he reminded me there were still battles to fight and more elections ahead—and that true defeat was to stop the fight for what is right.
Around that time, Jeff turned back to the ministry here at First Christian, continuing his work through different channels; but he kept his hand in politics, winning two terms as Oklahoma County Democratic Party chairman. I served with him as county party secretary and can tell you that he took on the job at a very challenging time. It was one of the toughest and most thankless jobs in local politics and he did it with zeal and unflagging energy. Under his leadership he helped reorganize and reinvigorate the county party, making it a forceful advocacy and field operation.
I saw him take piercing criticism from the opposition, and even members of our own side at times. He endured it with grace, refusing to get in the mud.
Instead, he strove to build consensus with the strength of his reasoning; I believe his was a political philosophy assured of the value of education and the indispensable need for empathy.
Jeff’s sword was his intellect, his armor was his compassion.
I’m a poor Boswell for all the many wise things my mentor told me over our 24-year friendship, but the gist about loss, whether it was a failed election campaign, a broken relationship, or even death, was that in moments of defeat we need not be wholly defeated. That in loss there is a lesson.
In 2003, I moved away from Oklahoma, and friends, I felt defeated in so many ways. It seemed my best chance to restart my life and career was to leave everything and everyone I knew for a job out of state.
And when I found the love of my life on the road to that new chapter, Jeff was the minister who traveled to our wedding and married Stephanie and me. When we were Baptized, Jeff and Wanda and her mother June came up to Kansas City. I think he loved it that I moved to and adopted his hometown, and I treasure the day we all piled into the car and saw the parts of KC where he grew up.
When our daughter came along, he and Wanda spoiled her whenever we visited. Amidst discussions about politics, the Sooners and spirituality, Jeff would move the candy bowl a little closer to Caroline (and himself).
“Caroline, you say you want more candy?”
Jeff was there when my family needed him. Years ago my mother was very ill and we nearly lost her. Jeff was there with an arm around my Dad and prayers and words of comfort for us all. When my grandfather passed away, Jeff helped my entire family get through it with his sermon and service. But we weren’t the only ones. How many people in this wonderful church were on the receiving end of Jeff’s good works and kindness?
How many of us from a variety of faiths were brought closer together by Jeff’s leadership of the Interfaith Alliance?
The past few years, even though Jeff’s physical body started to wither, his mind was ever-sharp and his spirit still bold. His weekly emails with thoughtful prayers and his enumerable, witty letters to the editor were high points. But the best was football season.
Being a good son of Kansas City, Jeff was a Chiefs fan, and I had become one not long after I moved there. He was great with a smartphone, and we would text each other throughout games, cheering touchdowns and cussing our terrible defense and those incompetent refs. We’d do the same with the Sooners. Football became yet another battle we could join together, with renewed fellowship; a way to find a victory even in defeat on the gridiron.
The Chiefs came very close to the Super Bowl this year. As usual, we texted during the season. My last text from Jeff was on the day of the AFC Championship. After a heartbreaker of a loss, I texted him a sad face emoji.
Within moments he texted back an exclamation point and a flower emoji. I knew what he meant. No tears! We still love our team.
If we learn from loss, remain loyal to our friends, and keep compassion in our hearts, we will be like Jeff.
He’s not here physically, yet I feel him. I feel his presence, especially in this sacred space where he shared so many brilliant sermons. And I will reach for this feeling the rest of my days when I feel loss or despair. I will think of my dear friend Jeff and the true meaning of undefeated.