Word comes that Earl Reum has passed, and it saddens me.
Most people, I hope, have a moment in their lives when all of a sudden they can glimpse the wonderful possibilities that life holds for them. For me, the moment happened 20 years ago in Emporia, Kan., at the state's annual camp for high school student council leaders. I attended because I was going to be the vice president of my school's student council -- an honor earned not because I was particularly popular, but because I got up in front of the student body and did a series of impressions based on then-popular Saturday Night Live characters. (Yes: It's possible I wouldn't be the man I am today without Dana Carvey.)
Earl was the keynote speaker at the camp that year, as he was every year for decades -- in Kansas, and at workshops around the country. And he was a force of nature -- a Patch Adams kind of guy, frankly, in an era that was already increasingly irony-saturated. (I carried around a piece of plastic he gave me in my wallet for a decade: It was printed with "Major Credit Card" on one side and "Some Other Form Of Identification" on the other. He gave these away like candy.) He played us Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection." He led the campers in rounds of making rain sounds my snapping and stamping their feet. And over the course of the week, he got hundreds of teen-agers to think seriously about leadership -- and whether the popularity contests that had brought them to this moment offered them an opportunity not only for leadership, but for service.
For related reasons, that week was the week I realized that writing didn't make me a wimp or a weirdo: It made me somebody who could communicate with other people effectively -- could communicate ideas and visions and even, on occasion, a piece of my heart. So much about that week is hazy for me after two decades, but I do know that I am largely the man I am today because of how that week helped me see myself. And I know that Earl Reum was an integral part of that experience.
I know I'm not the only person who had that experience. Multiply me by the thousands of Kansans who experienced Earl over the decades at the student council workshops, then again by all the states where he did similar work, and you start to guess and the depth and breadth of his impact. All those student council leaders have grown up to become bankers and farmers and deacons and other types of leaders in their communities across the nation. Amazing. He will be missed.