Courage over comfort

by Rich Tyler ’94

During his 21 years as a firefighter in Portland, Oregon, Rich Tyler has found that his commitment to making positive contributions to his community started at WWU.

In the rainy spring of 2005, I swam out into the swift current of the Willamette River to rescue a woman who had accidentally driven off the Morrison Bridge. In the summer of 2017, I worked at the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge saving homes from a fast-moving wind-driven wildfire. These are two examples of many situations I have found myself in where I could contribute to others in a compassionate way.

I realize in retrospect that the characteristics and habits I developed during my time at Walla Walla University are still very much a part of me today. In fact, my desire for personal growth and my passion for contributing to the lives of others have shaped the direction of my life. During my 21 years in the fire service, I have had many opportunities to personally grow as a community leader.

When I arrived at WWU in the fall of 1989, my eyes became open to what was possible. My first experience at WWU was when I walked onto campus and met Walt Meske. This large-palmed man grabbed my hand in a warm handshake and my hand literally disappeared inside his. When Dean Meske would see me around campus, he would change his course of travel to grab my hand, put an arm around me, and ask how I was getting along on the strange, new campus. Of course, there were boundaries, rules, and expectations at WWU, and Dean Meske was there to graciously guide me as a young man. I learned from him what unconditional love and acceptance could look like.

I will never forget the conversations in Pedrito Maynard-Reid’s Bible class where we actually talked about other religions and what they believed in comparison to Adventism. I remember sitting in Terry Gotschall’s history class where he would tell longer-than-class first-person history lessons from memory and then be able to discuss the impact of that history lesson on human rights in the present day. Then there was Loren Dickenson’s speech class where I learned that I could hand a cup to another person handle first, and it meant so much more about that person than it did me.

The first years at WWU opened my desire for personal growth—to really look inward and choose daily to improve myself. It didn’t matter which class I attended—Tim Windemuth coaching me in sports, participating in music and drama, or being involved in student government with Lisa Bissell—the ongoing desire to choose to improve daily was there for me to take on. I not only survived every one of those early college experiences, but I am who I am today due to the part WWU faculty and staff played in my life.

When I started my junior year, Wendy Hernandez asked me to assist with welcoming new students onto campus. I remember being a part of new student orientation, telling them about the student-support programs and what WWU had to offer them. I also shared how to find other people who cared about the same things they did. Looking back, this is where I discovered my passion for making a contribution to others. I was able to step into service leadership when I was elected ASWWU president my senior year. It was an honor to contribute to the students, faculty, and staff as well as the College Place community.

The opportunities came then as they do in my work now when people call for help at possibly their lowest point in life. I have learned how to walk into chaos with a calm, compassionate approach so that those in need are seen, valued, and heard. Several years ago when I was on call, a tree fell and crushed a home, pinning a woman inside. I was able to be there and provide support for the family. I was able to coordinate fire and police crews so the family could say goodbye to their beloved wife, mother, and grandmother in the home they grew up in. What an extraordinary honor to be present and supportive of that family at such a difficult time.

In my work, I am privileged to be a part of an organization that by its very nature is tasked with taking care of all people and has the ability to contribute to our community. I know that many of you have similar stories of service in your own communities.

I have learned how to handle these situations over many years with a lot of training, much of which began at WWU. It’s about clear communication, a comforting hug, standing up for what’s right, providing structure and assistance, going the extra mile, lending a hand, and having faith.

My advice to WWU students today would be, first, share kindness with everyone you see regardless of whether you think they deserve it. When you see good, acknowledge the individual and elevate the good so that it shines brighter further. And a handwritten note goes a long way. Yes, that low-tech way of communicating still exists!

Remember, the people in your life are priceless. Titles, houses, cars, watches, phones, and stuff come and go. The most important part of anyone’s life, I assert, are those people in your life that really matter. Love them, cherish them, forgive them, forgive yourself, and know that without them, life really could be empty and meaningless.

It all goes back to what we studied in Pedrito Maynard-Reid’s Bible class: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NIV), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 7:12 NIV).

Posted December 2019




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