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By D.A. WILKINSON



Published: Sun, July 1, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By D.A. WILKINSON

VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR

here's an old church song called "Homesick."

Donald Stevenson, pastor of Abundant Life Fellowship in New Waterford, and his wife, Pauline, have sung it for more than 20 years.

They'll sing it again Monday during the funeral for George C. Welker Jr., 32, of Columbiana, a Vindicator sportswriter who died Thursday after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis.

George thought frequently about the song recently while in University Hospitals in Cleveland as he fought a virus that was attacking his transplanted lungs.

There's a light in the window

And the table's spread in splendor

Someone's standing by the open door.

Oh, I see a crystal river

I must be here forever,

Oh Lord, I've never been this homesick before.

I can see the family all gathered

Sweet faces all familiar

And no one's old and feeble any more.

Oh, this lonesome heart's a cryin'

I could spread my wings for flying,

Oh Lord, I've never been this homesick before.

The chorus:

See the bright light shine.

It's just about home time.

And I can see my father standing at the door.

The world is in a wilderness

And looking for deliverance.

Oh Lord, I've never been this homesick before.

Stevenson said George was worn out and tired of being sick. On his last visit, the pastor encouraged George to continue his medical fight but made sure he was the last one to leave George's room.

"He gave me a thumb's up," he recalled.

As George's medical problems multiplied, the pastor said George may have thought, "I gotta be flying."

Steve Wellman attends Abundant Life but barely knew George when he agreed to give him part of a lung. Wellman visited George the week before his death.

If anyone had a right to be bitter, he did. His last words were 'I'm in a win-win situation. If I get better, I live. If not, I go home.' He was ready to go. He didn't want to live like that.

I said 'I wish I could do something.' He said 'You did all you can do.' He told me he loved me.

It's sad to see him go. I know where he's at it's not so bad. He's not dead. He's happy.

I'm really glad I did it. I'd do it again. George was one of the bravest guys I know. What I went through was nothing compared to what he did.

What he had going for him was his faith. Look at all the people he touched. He spoke at a number of churches. I think George touched more people than most people meet in a lifetime.

Headlines in stories about him said "Faith in Abundance." Even if people didn't read it, they had to see the headline.



Bob Jackson of Lisbon, a Vindicator writer, became close friends with George when they worked in its Salem bureau for two years.

He treated everybody the same way. However high up or low on the social ladder, George constantly cared for everybody.

His impact was his strength and his courage. I think what will always stick with me is the way he lived his life, and what a gift it is and how it has to be treasured.

His philosophy was trying to follow the example of Jesus. That's what it was all rooted in. But it was one of the things that was just unspoken. He just took it to heart.

He never showed self-pity. He never even mentioned his illness. The guy never let his chin drop.

He was never quick to anger; he was extremely generous and kind. He dearly loved kids. He loved to laugh. George just loved to have fun.

George, in part, lived life to the fullest because his sister, Sherry, oldest of the three siblings, died of CF before lung transplants were available.

George was very close to his older sister, Kim Welker Fay, of Columbiana, and her three sons, Bryan, Kevin and Matthew. Kim, too, recalls George's humor.

The cool part of him was that no matter what the situation was, George could find something funny. He told us that if needed, to pull the plug and sell his stuff and move on.

I was at a store and a clerk was crying about his death and what a life he had. We have no clue how many people he impacted.

Eric Sandstrom is one. He's a press spokesman for University Hospitals who got to know George during his many hospital visits.

George touched everybody he met in this hospital. I've never seen anyone impress as many people as he did. George was talking to a TV station [about transplants], and the staff had gathered for a group photo. Tears were running down the faces of the nurses.

He was determined to live and live a good life. It's a gift when you see that. He never showed me a bad day.

He was very humble. He didn't push his religious beliefs on anyone. People picked them up by osmosis. I think people just learned from him.

With George, what you see was what you got, and you got a lot.

Ray DePofi of Niles grew up in Cortland and met George when they were freshmen at Robert Morris College in 1987. DePofi was born with chronic kidney problems and curvature of the spine, which required insertion of a nine-inch steel rod into his spine. George and Ray enjoyed working with kids at church, shared a deep interest in sports and became very close friends. Ray said that at the time he had beliefs but wasn't a Christian.

Eventually he introduced me to Abundant Life Fellowship. He introduced me to some people and his family. I was really going nowhere. I discarded a way of life. I made a commitment to Jesus.

He never really said a big thing about faith. It was more a question of [his] quiet witness. I looked at him as a person and his faith and his family and how he interacted with people.

We didn't talk about our problems. I think we didn't dwell on them. We did our soul searching early, so there weren't a lot of big discussions.

George and I had a lot of shared experiences. One of the things we shared, because of our physical conditions, is that we look at sports differently than other people. We look at it more analytically and from the coach's perspective. One thing I learned from George was when the game ended, it was over. Let it go. In the end, a game is a game.

He had that blessed assurance, that belief in God and belief in heaven. He said he was in a win-win situation. If you're going through something like that, and you're not absolutely sure [about heaven], you won't be able to handle it correctly.

Everyone gets frustrated at an isolated case or a set of circumstances. Without faith, you're living in frustration.

I really watched him and his family in these last years because I may have to undergo a kidney transplant.

Faith sustains. Faith provides strength. I was there when the first transplant failed. If there was a day when a member of the Welker family needed more strength, they could look to one another. They shared their faith. I never heard a negative word. The talk was always about the next opportunity,

George stood 10 feet tall. We're going to continue the legacy of the faith he showed us.

Ian Chamberlain of Columbiana is a member of Abundant Life and provided the lobe for George's third transplant.

He opened my eyes to the needs of other people. He helped me to be more concerned with "people" things. He taught me to make myself more available.

I was ready to give him a lobe off my other side if the doctors said it would be OK. The first [removal of a lung lobe] wasn't that bad.

I hope he's not remembered just as a guy who had cystic fibrosis. He was more than that. He was a Christian. He was an overcomer.

George's life was so wrapped up in his faith that they were inseparable. It seemed like CF was something trying to keep him down.

He was always George. He was always a Christian. Even in his most dire moments, he was walking the walk.

It's funny. For the last couple of years we got up and asked, "How's George?" That question doesn't matter any more. He's in heaven. However good life is here, it pales in comparison with what we'll get in heaven. George just got there first.

A Bible verse goes through my mind, when Jesus was ready to go to the cross. It says that if a kernel dies, it brings forth more fruit. George brought forth fruit in life, but he'll bring forth fruit in death.

George's mother, Betty, said of her son:

He's been a blessing in our lives. As parents, our hearts are breaking. His strength will be with us. His faith is going to live in us. George has left a legacy.

We're looking forward to the day we have a family reunion. Just like the song.

Stevenson said that George's illness and the operations resulted in George's taking his message and Scripture outside Abundant Life to other congregations, people and places.

That's exactly what Christ had intended us to do.

George's faith was a lived, active faith. He wasn't dealt the best hand in life, but he lived it.

Anybody can be a Christian in the good times. It's in the valleys and times of turmoil that the rub comes in. He lived a year after the transplants, but does that make us measure the value of his life less?

He lived his story, and when we met him, we just became part of his story. Now we're all responsible for what we've seen and heard of his incredible story. The message is: Anybody can do it, and we'll live that out now.




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