in 1986, when jeannie and i were newlyweds and both students at wheaton college, we decided to start attending and volunteering in the youth ministry at first baptist church of wheaton. i distinctly remember two things about our first sunday there: 1. the senior pastor announced his own resignation, and 2. a guy named rolly was the interim worship leader; and right in the middle of a hymn he was leading us through, he whipped out a trumpet from inside the pulpit and played a bridge. yup, it was memorable.
very quickly in the weeks and months that followed, and particularly as i became the junior high pastor, the richert family became part of our lives. sandy (rolly’s first wife, who died several years ago) was a key leader in the high school ministry. lesa, rolly and sandy’s daughter (now a mom with five kids!) was in my junior high group. ryan, rolly and sandy’s son, was still in elementary school. my primary interaction with rolly was as the father of one of the kids in my group. but i knew he was in some kind of youth ministry leadership, and he soon became a mentor, encourager, father figure, and friend. really, rolly and sandy “parented” (in a very healthy way) me and jeannie.
he understood why i struggled to stay in that part-time role, and was my primary reference for the full-time junior high pastor role i moved to in omaha (the senior pastor at my church here in san diego, who was, coincidentally, the student ministries pastor who hired me in omaha, would still say that rolly’s reference was a big part of why i got the job).
a year after i moved to omaha, in 1990, rolly called and asked me to be a part of the team that would create a junior high track for DCLA (the national student evangelism event led by rolly, and hosted by youth for christ). that role — eventually giving leadership to the junior high track — became a significant part of my life for a decade, and gave me and my family dozens of opportunities to spend time with rolly.
during that decade, rolly moved back to detroit (where he had previously lived, but before i knew him). in a great “it’s a small world after all” detail, rolly’s family moved into my home town, and started attending the church i grew up in. his kids graduated from the same high school as me. since my family was still there, i often spent time with rolly on my trips to detroit, and he continued to be a significant mentoring voice in my life.
when i moved to california in the early 90s, rolly’s daughter lesa came out and spent a summer as an intern with me. and how amazing it was when, after a few years at youth specialties, tic long hired rolly to play a significant role directing the ‘big room’ at all the national youth workers conventions. this resulted in a half dozen times per year when i got to spend time in the presence of rolly’s wisdom, big heart, thoughtfulness, playfulness, and always-obvious love for jesus.
tic and i, and a handful of ys staff, flew to detroit for the funeral of rolly’s amazing first wife, sandy; and i was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend the joyous wedding, in rolly’s backyard, to his lovely second wife, barb.
rolly wasn’t just a guy whose story has interwoven with mine for 25 years: i would not be where i am, or be the person i am, were it not for rolly. he spoke into my life, opened doors for me, believed in me, and modeled a hundred lessons for me in leadership, grace, humility, and how to be an amazing husband and father (in fact, i often find myself thinking “what would rolly do?” in my parenting).
after significant health struggles over a couple years, rolly’s body gave out this past week, and he’s currently in the presence of jesus. the memorial service is this wednesday, in detroit (at my home church). there’s so much of me that wants to be there. but i was wrestling with the decision in light of how much i’ve been traveling and away from my family; and i asked myself what rolly would say to me. i could literally picture his smiling face, completely and always lacking in pretense or hidden agenda, telling me to stay home with my family. my story loses something with rolly’s absence; but the mark he left on my life (and, through me, on the lives of others) is indelible.