What Was it About Hank—That Changed Our Lives?

By Keith Miller | August 25, 2011

Saturday at Riverbend Church here in Austin, TX, a large number of people gathered to say a formal “Goodbye,” and “We love you, Hank!” to our dear remarkable, unpretentious friend, Francis Leo “Hank” McNamara.

It was a strange mix: some 50 or 60 family members; many Austinites who had known Hank since grade school; at least as many who had known him in recovery programs—some only for a few days or months.  The atmosphere seemed to be permeated by…love, at least that’s what I kept thinking as I met dozens of them.

The day after he died, his wife, Trish, asked me to speak at his funeral.  I nodded my thanks, went home and cried. 

Ten months earlier, Hank had broken his neck.  It would not heal, which meant that if he tripped or bumped into a wall wrong the second vertebra would shift and he’d be dead—or paralyzed.  Since he already had a bad heart and several other serious physical issues, his prognosis did not look good. 

One day several months ago I asked Hank if he would like to tell his family who he really was and what he thought of them (he had a very large family).  He said he really would.  Shortly after that, using a tape recorder, we started on a joint trip through his whole life that for me was a life-changing journey.  I swore to him that I would never reveal what he said on tape until he had edited it and given me permission to reveal it. 

After only a couple of sessions, I realized that he had raised or co-raised thirteen children who lived in various places around the country.  After we had finishing a taping session, I asked him if he would like to say something specifically to them.  If he would, we could structure that into our sessions together.  Hank said he would.  He told me (not on tape) that although he’d been married three times before he wanted each of his children to know that he had loved their mother, that he loved each one of them and his grandchildren especially, and he was glad he’d gotten to be their old man.  And he wanted to tell them before it was too late.  Unfortunately Hank died before we had any more recording sessions.   But because he had told that to me in a personal conversation when the tape machine was off, I could pass that part of our conversations on to them at the funeral.  Also I could tell Trish that she was the love of his life—even though I’m sure she already knew that.

Although I never can type and share the information on those tapes now, I learned a lot about Hank McNamara in the last few weeks before his death that I could and did pass on to those who are his friends and family members at the funeral.

Hank was a remarkable man.  I can still see him coming up the sidewalk.  He had to wear a kind of neck support made up of four rods (two at either side of his face and two at the back corners of his head) going up several inches over his head and connected by wires—like some sort of futuristic scaffolding.  He had oxygen tubes in his nostrils, was pulling an oxygen tank, and as I recall, carrying an aluminum cane.  And yet he was smiling and gracious to everyone he met.  He was going through some of the most scary and painful things a human being can experience, and yet he was filled with gratitude—gratitude for his beloved Trish (he was very much in love), but also I never saw him when he wasn’t grateful “for another day.”

The “magic” Hank brought with him everywhere he went was amazing.  The day he died I heard a young woman say that she had come for help to a meeting Hank had started, feeling shame and worthlessness.  But the way Hank shook her hand, smiled and greeted her—as if she were a fine worthwhile person—awakened a belief in her that maybe she could become those things someday.  I heard many similar stories during the next few days.  

As I thought about Hank’s life over the twenty years I’ve known him, I realized that he had changed the focus of his approach to helping people in trouble.  For the last several years he had begun to “stand by the door” of the places where people in trouble were frantically searching for God.  He had begun to spend more and more of his time helping “newcomers” to get started on a spiritual journey that could lead them to become the people they had lost hope of ever becoming—or becoming again after a life of failure and running from reality and God.

That night before Hank’s funeral, I remembered a poem I had read years before.  It had been written by a man who I consider to have been one of the most outstanding men in the 20th century regarding helping people into a life of faith.  The man had sent it to me in October of 1961.  I decided to read a couple of stanzas of this poem at his funeral because I recognized Hank within in the lines (although I am almost certain that He did not know about the poem).

SO I STAY NEAR THE DOOR—An Apologia for My Life.

I stay near the door.

I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,

The door is the most important door in the world—

It is the door through which men walk when they find God.

There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,

When so many are still outside, and they, as much as I,

Crave to know where the door is.

And all that so many ever find

Is only the wall where a door ought to be.

They creep along the wall like blind men,

With outstretched, groping hands,

Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,

Yet they never find it…

So I stay near the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world

Is for men to find that door—the door to God.

The most important thing any man can do

Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,

And put it on the latch–the latch that only clicks

And opens to the man’s own touch.

Men die outside that door, as starving beggars die

On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter–

Die for want of what is within their grasp.

They live, on the other side of it–because they have found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,

And open it, and walk in, and find Him – – –

So I stay near the door.

There is another reason why I stay there.

Some people get part way in and become afraid

Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;

For God is so very great, and asks all of us.

And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia.

And want to get out. Let me out! they cry.

And the people way inside only terrify them more.

Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled

For the old life, they have seen too much;

Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.

Somebody must be watching for the frightened

Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,

To tell them how much better it is inside.

The people too far in do not see how near these are

To leaving—preoccupied with the wonder of it all.

Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,

But would run away. So for them, too,

I stay near the door.

The startling thing about this poem is that it was written by the man who was “standing near the door” when Bill Wilson’s friend Eby brought Bill to Calvary Church in New York.  That man, The Rev. Sam Shoemaker, put Bill Wilson’s hand on the latch of the door.  Sam showed him how to commit his whole life to God.  And then, at Bill’s request, Sam helped Bill to frame Alcoholics Anonymous and to put the spirituality into the “Big Book”, and The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Tradition’s.  And this anonymous movement became the fastest growing spiritual movement in the 20th century during a time when many organized religious organizations were shrinking or floundering.

It was this incredible realization about Hank that made me realize the deep significance of his life:  Our friend Hank McNamara (who did not consider himself to be “religious”) had realized—as Sam Shoemaker had half a century before him—that the future of the movement that saved Hank’s life and the lives of so many of us, might be continued only by loving persons willing to stand near the door—wherever they live—to guide the hands of a few lost people onto the latch of the door through which they may find Life—and God.

I am very grateful that I got a chance to know Hank McNamara, a real man of God.

“If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.”

-Revelations 3:20, The Message

8 comments | Add One

  1. Charles Lovett - 08/25/2011 at 9:55 am

    Thanks so much for sharing this part of your journey and let us know about Hank. Will look forward to meeting him on the other side.

  2. Michael Rosengren - 08/25/2011 at 9:56 am

    Wow this story was so beautiful and moving. It was inspiring to remember that we as believers need to be standing by the door to help others find the latch. This also gave me another definition of counseling. As a psychotherapist I am working with people who have lost their bearings and can’t find the path to life and healing. When their thoughts calm down (Be still and know that I am God) they can find the latch and the path of life and continue on their journey with faith, hope, and love.

  3. Sarah Wilcher - 08/25/2011 at 10:01 am

    Thank God for Hank. Thank you for sharing that poem. Lord, give me a heart to be a “door stander by’er”.

  4. Carol - 08/25/2011 at 10:20 am

    Thanks Keith for standing by the door for me and many others. How awesome that you got to spend time with Hank in the way you did and how blessed you both were to know each other. love, carol

  5. David L - 08/25/2011 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing the poem Keith. I too am grateful that you were there to put my hand on the latch and to walk in alongside me.

  6. Don Traylor - 08/25/2011 at 2:23 pm

    Thank you Keith for repeating the poem. I was going to ask for it…now, I can share this with friends. Hank is ever present these days, more than ever as one that is “near the door”. Both of you have touched this heart and I feel truly blessed to call you friends.

  7. Brenda Strickling - 08/25/2011 at 6:21 pm

    What an awesome story Keith. Thanks for sharing this very important message with us. I am a commissioned Stephen Minister and I have found I never stop learning. God Bless, Brenda

  8. Michael Hegmann - 09/1/2011 at 3:05 pm

    Wow. I need a tissue. I pray that each one of us will hear and do God’s will for our lives as you and Hank have. Each of us has a call to reach out Father’s love to those he puts in our path. Thanks for the encouragement.

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