Rev. Bill Smith
Dr. Roland Byrd, who died Sunday, Feb. 8 was the nicest man I ever knew. I do not mean the modern version of niceness in which God’s job is to be nice to everyone and ours is to be accepting of everything. I mean he treated every person with the respect and kindness with which we would treat others if we really grasped that each of them is created in the image of God.
Roland led a quiet but interesting life. He was in turn a veterinarian, a politician, a seller of Buckstoves, a financial planner, an insuranceman, and an insurance agency owner and president. He did not marry till he was 30, and then when God opened his eyes to see that an 18 year old girl who worked in his practice because she loved horses had the makings of a Proverbs 31 woman. (He later joked that he then had to pay to get her educated.) He loved his DeeDee and relied upon her. Together they had 6 children to whom they devoted themselves. He was a loving father-in-law and grandfather. Roland was a lifelong learner and an almost lifelong Francophile. He liked visiting New Orleans and the Waffle House. He enjoyed good music and cornbread. He was a founder of a Christian school and of a Presbyterian Church. He was a friend to a multitude – not the slap you on the back and forget you friend, but a genuine friend.
Allow me to point out several characteristics of this nice man:
To me the single thing that most distinguished Roland was that he seemed entirely free of malice. When I was a Presbyterian minister it was my custom to begin Communion services with these words: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore keep the festival, not with old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5: 6,7). I never quoted that passage without Roland’s coming to mind. Malice – resentment creating ill will toward others – is all too common in the world and unfortunately in the church and among Christians. Others of us may not get mad outwardly, but we do relish getting even, at least in our imaginations. Roland did not render evil for evil. He kept no record of wrongs done to him. He had been active in politics, running twice for Congress, but he was not the sort to have an enemies list. As the Lord does not remember our iniquities against us, so Roland forgot the wrongs done to him. I gave Roland plenty of reasons to be angry with me, but, if he ever was, he did not show it to me or treat me in a way that I could discern his anger. Roland was not a hater. He was a man of goodwill. I often wonder how we are all going to be able to get along in heaven, as we find it so hard to do here on earth. Perhaps Roland will be one of God’s facilitators in the heavenlies.
Roland was a frugal but generous man. He was a fiscal conservative, not only when it came to government spending but also when it came to personal expenditures. He bought used cars and drove them till they dropped. I laughed at his keeping, washing, and reusing McDonald’s coffee cups and lids. I thought he protested a little too much when he told me he did that not because he was cheap but because he liked the cups. He was careful about business expenditures. But, unlike so many others who are frugal, Roland was generous. He was that blessed man who gave to the poor (Proverbs 14: 21). He continued to lend money to those who asked his help, though he got “stiffed” many times. He taught me by example to tip the men who picked up the garbage and trash. He and his wife DeeDee personified hospitality, sharing their food and home, often giving sponataneous invitations. Roland’s kind generosity extended even to his cattle. Every Christmas Day he gave his cattle a double portion of feed. He did not believe in frivolous expenditures (once in an elders’ meeting he commented that we were spending money like drunken sailors), but he was a giver of himself and his resources. And, as he was forgetful of the wrongs done by others, he was forgetful of his own generous deeds.
Roland treated all people with respect. In a sense it came “naturally” in that it did not occur to him to treat them otherwise. His politics were very conservative, but his treatment of people was liberal. Again he was one of those rare people who treated the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak equally. He did not “kiss up” to the somebodies, and he did not despise the nobodies. He was a man who loved to be alone, but was genuinely friendly to all who crossed his path. I knew Roland and DeeDee to attend the annual banquet held by the NAACP to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. He did it, not because there was anything economic or political to gain by attendance, but because he was interested in the concerns and future of his black friends and the black community in Louisville. Roland treated everybody the same, not as some do by treating everybody with the same arrogance and disdain, but by treating all as having God-given dignity – even preachers.
Roland was a modern day Nathanael – an Israelite in whom there was no guile. Roland seemed almost naive, because he was trusting, taking people and the things they said at face value, as he expected they would take him. Roland did not deceive, or plot, or calculate. You could count on him to be what he appeared to be, to do what he said he would do, and always to assume the best about you. He seemed incapable of skepticism and cynicism. I knew him to be wise, a man on whose counsel I much depended, but he was harmless as a dove. He was utterly honest and trustworthy. People took advantage of him sometimes, and he knew they would and did, but he judged it worth it.
Roland was a man of strong moral convictions but was not self-righteous, arrogant, or condemning. He held strongly to Biblical morality and was bold to say what he believed was right. For him it was never empty words. He lived what he believed, practiced what he preached. But he could do all that without implying that he thought he was better than anyone else (he was, but he was blessed not to believe it about himself). His standards were in no way flabbly, but he held his standards while being genuinely tolerant and compassionate toward others. Roland surely had his reasons to be disappointed with me, but he treated me always, always with kindness and stood by and with me through every twist and turn of life. Never the priest or Levi, he was the Good Samaritan who got people who were beat up and lying in the ditch out even if it was their own fault they ended up there.
Roland was a man of simple and strong faith. He believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners. He loved God, the Bible, and the church. He often reminded others that God is both sovereign and good. He believed that for himself through hardship and trial and in his illness. He was confident that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and what he knew in life by faith he now knows by sight.
Many of us have heard formal or informal eulogies that caused us to experience cognitive dissonance, so great was the disparity between the person described and the person we knew. But, the Roland I have described is the Roland I knew. He was one of those rare human beings who was too good to be true, but was.
He loved me better than I could love him, but I loved him.
Pete O’Brien, a student from USM days and a current friend, who lived in Louisville and attended Covenant Church where Roland was an elder, wrote to me in response to Roland’s death, “If it’s possible heaven is a better place now with him there.” That is the way so many of us feel at the passing of our dear friend, Roland Byrd, that blessed man who died in the Lord and who now rests from his labors his deeds following him.
His funeral service was held Wednesday, February 12 in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Louisville, his pastor, the Rev. Scott Phillips of First Presbyterian conducted the service.
Editor’s note: Byrd’s full obituary is on page 3. Rev. Smith is Presbyter at Reformed Episcopal Church. He is formerly of Louisville.