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What I Learned from John Shafer’s Dash

John Shafer made the most of his dash.

You know about The Dash, right? It’s the poem Linda Ellis wrote in 1996 that talks about how our lives are represented by what happens between our birth and our death, aka the dash between the years that show up on our tombstones. For John, that was 1935–2019, and he made the most of that dash.

It was my good fortune to marry into John’s family when his daughter, Sue, became my wife. So I got to know him well over the years, and I greatly admired who he was as a person. I realize John wasn’t perfect, but his consistency in living his values was amazing.

One of his friends summed it up nicely in a note in the funeral home’s guest book: “What I appreciate about John is that he did exactly what he said he would do. He worked so hard for his customers, and even with his failing eyesight … he would just get out the big magnifying glass and read what he needed to read. He cared deeply about his customers and worked very hard to serve them.”

That might sound commonplace when you read it, but, really, it’s quite extraordinary. Many people do what they say they will do … some of the times … when it’s convenient … when it doesn’t take them out of their comfort zone … when it benefits their agenda. For John, it was a way of life.

I think John’s consistency was due in large part to the fact that he knew who he was and what was important to him. He knew his values, and he lived them – decade after decade after decade.

John was born in Cambridge, Ohio, in 1935, grew up there, starred on the high school basketball team, and returned to Cambridge after graduating from college. He stepped into the family business (insurance) in Cambridge and raised a family there. As his obituary put it, “He loved Cambridge and never had a desire to live anywhere else.” He was a faithful member of the same church for more than 60 years.

Some people live forever in their hometowns because they have little choice or because they don’t take charge of their lives and go after their dreams. They often become bitter and unhappy. John was content. He followed his dreams back to his hometown and lived a wonderful life that left a legacy for his children, grandchildren, and generations yet to come. He filled his dash with love and service for others – his family, his friends, his community.

No matter where we go in life and what we accomplish, no matter what jobs we have or how much money we make, we all would do well to remember what really is important about the time we spend on earth, and that’s summed up in the love we share during our dash.

(If you’ve never read the poem by Ellis, now is the time to do so. Here’s a link.)

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  1. Jackie O'Dowd

    Walt and Sue,
    What a beautiful tribute to Sue’s dad. I love that he embraced his community in Cambridge, Ohio. It is so wonderful that he was well respected and loved not only by his immediate family but the community that he was so loyal too. What a wonderful way that he fulfilled his “dash” – where his heart always was in his hometown. And what a great reminder to all of us; that each one of us can make a difference in our communities that we embrace and call home. Jackie O’Dowd

    Reply to Jackie O'Dowd

  2. Rick Shafer

    Walt, we are so appreciative of your tribute to our dads legacy and time here. He was and will always be a great man that we learned from every day. His greatest quality was that he genuinely cared for people and had a passion to deliver on his promises, for their families, any way he could. He always loved and respected you as well and would be very proud that you shared your thoughts and prayers to honor him. Love you.

    Reply to Rick Shafer

  3. Sherri Koelbel

    Certainly an inspirational message to start my day. Thank you Sue for sharing Walt’s important message. I had not heard of the dash and have now printed the poem for my office bulletin board. Ash Wednesday is coming up – a very humbling service as a reminder that we are “dust, and to dust we shall return” Your thoughtful eulogy and Dash reference is inspirational in that same measure. Thank you.

    Reply to Sherri Koelbel

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