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Russ Neufeld: One Who Died Way Too Young

February 10, 2017

Another Way for week February 10, 2017

One Who Died Way Too Young

Why should a 40-year-old father of two kids ages 10 and 12 be whisked away in the prime of life when many of us far older are still tinkering around? Those of us who had been his coworkers sat in awe of his geeky techno know-how, plus his carefree joie de vie, not to mention his ability to let ideas spin around in his head as he did workarounds to make something work.

neufeld-russ-cover-1-1170x585Russ Neufeld was a whiz at many things. His most recent employer, Hesston College said Russ was also one of the most well-liked people working at Hesston and that he “knew a lot about a lot.” Good thing for an I.T. director. When he was first diagnosed with lymphoma about 18 months ago, he endeavored to learn all he could about his illness and the various treatments available, describing on Facebook exactly how this chemo thing works anyway, in terms of the chemistry.

Who does that when they’re fighting cancer? Russ. He said it was his way of dealing. He did everything the doctors knew to do, and then some. One could even say Russ beat his cancer, even though his body did not survive. One Facebook post said Russ did not let cancer define him, destroy him, or his family. My heart goes out to his dear family: wife Kendra, children Ethan and Natalie.

Russ was geared to tackle any challenge—even a tough one—with a lighthearted rejoinder, “Piece of cake.” That was his signature line that I loved; he probably got tired of hearing that from me.

One friend on Facebook said his best memory with Russ was the day he rode along with Russ to watch him sky dive. “You were a regular and they joked about how you loved sky diving so much you paid for it with your blood … selling plasma as often as you could to pay for your next jump! You inspired me to put sky diving on my bucket list and the day I checked it off was amazing!”

Russ beat his cancer because he did not let it beat him down. Just ten days before he died, he was telling all of his friends on Facebook, family and church (stealing this idea from a friend, he noted), “Take the love you’ve been sending me and spread it around. Do something positive. Volunteer for a homeless shelter …” That kind of thing. In his very worst hour (from our view) he was able to rise above his own pain, his own great disappointment and indeed tragedy to remind others: spread the love. Who does that? Only a few.

I say tragedy because anytime two wonderful, smart, loving, great kids lose a father who loved them with the same ferocity he applied to everything else, that’s more than a crying shame. It’s heartbreak.

I worked with Russ from roughly 1999-2009; some of those years he lived here in Harrisonburg; some he commuted to Elkhart, Ind. to work for Mennonite Church headquarters once a month, and some he lived in Newton, Kansas. When he started he was just a kid—early 20s—doing part time audio work in our studio while he finished a degree in physics.

Later, he worked to hand-build the back end of a major website, ThirdWay.com, using html coding and whatever tools he could grab online (before the days when anyone could get a website all coded up by just signing on to WordPress or Blogspot). His office was catawampus across the hall from me. He kept white mini-Christmas lights up year round: dorm-room-chic. He defied office protocol by frequently wearing a hat and blue jeans.

russneufeldbajaRuss was fearless, whether it was sky diving or white water rafting or riding a motorcycle across washboard rough rock in the Baja. He wouldn’t try to hide a beer he’d order at a Mennonite church convention open air restaurant after working 8-20 hour days. For several of the biennial Mennonite church conventions, he was Mr. Cyber Café, setting up and running 15-20 desk top computers (oh the work!) for the very popular “Third Way” cyber café in the early days of email. People would wait in line 30 minutes to check if they had mail.

It was Russ who beckoned me across the hall on September 11, 2001, to see (online) the crumbling World Trade Center, New York City. I quickly wrapped up the interview I was doing, headed to our assembly room TV, and sat there stunned with everyone else. It was surreal of course. Those days are seared into the memory of anyone over the age of 30.

Later when he worked with our website crew from a distance we had team meetings by phone. As webmaster, Russ showed us how he could take over our computers through cyberspace to fix or demonstrate something—another surreal feeling when another hand is guiding your cursor around the screen.

We can only ponder now what kind of view Russ has of our computers and indeed our puny lives as he’s off exploring a whole new reality.

***

You can watch the memorial service for Russ on YouTube. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, don’t miss the ending music “Parting Glass” which Russ especially appreciated in his final days. Or, check out the bulletin/program for his service, including the haunting and beautiful lyrics to “Parting Glass” by House of Doc musicians, (a group no longer active).

***

How can you share the love you’ve been given? Send thoughts, prayers or memories to anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, Box 363, Singers Glen, Va. 22850.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books, most recently Whatever Happened to Dinner. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

***

I am personally indebted to Russ for much of my “back end” website knowledge and comfort with “poking around” with such things to figure them out, and the courage to start up a blog. “Piece of cake.” Not always that easy, but bless you, Russ, for everything you gave to us.

 

 

 

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2 Comments
  1. You said it well: One who died way too young.
    Russ is younger than either of my children, which makes your point even more stark.

    I could surely use a “geeky techno know-how” person these days. (Sigh!)

    Great tribute, Melodie.

    • Thanks for checking in here; I spent part of my day yesterday listening to the House of Doc CD I had purchased back a few years when they sang at a Mennonite Church convention and Russ ran sound for them. Their music is haunting and beautiful and I know it was a comfort to Russ in his final days, according to his wife.
      I’m sure you will get things fixed on your website issues soon — and yes, Russ could have figured it out.

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