In memory of a quiet giant, John Duncker
I am not the first person to say that, in this world, people die twice. First, when our brains and bodies cease. Second, when we are forgotten.
My local silent sports community lost John Duncker last October. Permit me to write a eulogy here, more than a column, to add to the tide of eulogies that will help make sure John will not die twice. You will not read about John ascending a podium after a race or taking home much in the way of awards beyond finishing medals and an errant age group ribbon. Although I mentioned him once before in a column about roller skiing with a frozen Thanksgiving turkey on my back, I wouldn't be surprised if not one reader of this magazine can recall his name.
However John Duncker was a giant among men as well as a silent sports local legend.
I first met John in the mid-90s. He was on a pair of skate roller skis and, you know, he wasn't very good at it. Stiff technique, he kept up with the rest of our group only because his roller skis rolled more like speedy roller blades as opposed to the others' snow speed roller skis. Over the years, he improved, making the Birkie's skate-skiing third wave. What mattered more was who he was on our training jaunts.
The most common word out of his mouth was "you" as in "How are you?" "What's new with you?" Not as a formality, but because he truly cared. He used the word "I" rarely, usually to say when he was going to show up for the next ride or ski.
His voice never rose in anger, which is pretty remarkable for a lawyer, which he was. And he listened. He asked questions. He probed. He gave humble advice. He made us all feel that if you were to look up the word "friend" in a dictionary, his picture would be featured.
John was married to his wonderful wife, Lynn, and talked lovingly about her often whether she was around or not. He skied, road biked, mountain biked, cyclocrossed, ran and walked his beloved Labradors religiously. Even as he struggled to get pretty fair at skate skiing, when it came to classic skiing, he had the technique of a master. He ate sensibly, knew what was important in life, had a great sense of humor and lived accordingly.
It was, and remains, stunning to all who knew him, that he died suddenly at age 61, apparently from an aneurysm. Remembering him, viewing all those silent sports adventure photos at the visitation, seeing his youthful face for the last time at the memorial service, it just does not seem possible that trips north to ski will not include him this season, or ever again.
During one of our roller skis, at a stop we'd take after a series of hills, John said to me, "I read one of your books." He wanted to know if the story based on my father's death when I was eight years old was true. I said it was, and he said that my father must have been a remarkable man and my mother as strong-willed as can be. He kept asking me questions about what it was like growing up and the issues my family faced, and he kept asking questions without saying the word "I". That was John Duncker. He helped keep my dad from dying twice, which is another reason why I will never forget John.
John's glory was his desire to understand the humanity of others. When he did express an opinion, he did so in a voice soft yet firm. All other loud voices quieted to listen. Practical and wise, John spoke and we listened because we knew we'd miss something important if we didn't.
John loved his wife, enjoyed his friends, and worked as a highly respected lawyer, dealing with liability cases. He cranked his country music. If you were born a Labrador, you wanted John and his wife to be your owners. When he threw a party, friends came. When a friend threw a party, he came and made us all laugh. He would tell the spontaneous joke the rest of us wish we had thought of.
He organized and led cycling groups, rode for one hour or six hours in all sorts of weather, as long as he was with friends. He seemed to be the one who always helped out and lagged behind with any cyclist who didn't feel like he or she could make it back home. John would see to it that all made it back home.
All this was repeatedly said of him at the visitation and funeral, but also during his life. In our silent sports group, it was a serious felony not to like and appreciate John Duncker.
John was a giant because he knew the small things tend to be the things that matter most; that when we're gone, the memory of our financial status, our claims to fame and fancy, important-sounding titles will take distant back seats to who we were as people and how we treated those around us.
The packed house at the visitation, the funeral service, and the long train of cars to the gravesite testified to the fact of John's humanity and its impact upon a grieving community.
It is not my intent to hold my memories of John above the heartfelt memories each of you has for your lost loved ones, and it does seem to me that silent sports tend to draw on some of the most heartfelt in our society. Rather this is my opportunity to thank you and this magazine to allow me to use this forum to add to the fact that it will be a long, long time, if ever, before John Duncker will be forgotten.
None of us will escape that first death. However we all have the opportunity to live our lives such that, when our skis, bikes, shoes, paddles, swimsuits and other gear are put away at long last, that we will also not pass that second time.
Bruce Steinberg is a father, husband, lawyer, novelist and a silent sports enthusiast in St. Charles, Illinois.