Living Our Whole Life–The Collector and the College Kids

Part One—The Collector

Larry Selman died recently at the age of 70. Even at birth his future was bleak at best. His childhood health was precarious. When he was 16 a teacher explained to Larry that he would probably never earn a high school diploma. He was “mentally retarded”, in the terminology used at that time. Now we say “developmentally disabled”. Larry dropped out of school and went to work as a laborer for the New York City Parks Department. Larry lived with his parents until they both died in 1968. His uncle moved him into a studio apartment on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village. That uncle looked out for Larry until he died in 2005. A trust fund established by Larry’s neighbors enabled him to stay in his apartment until he died on January 20.

Here’s the reason Larry caught my attention. This developmentally-disabled high-school dropout who worked a menial low-wage job and lived on the edge of poverty most of his life raised between $200,000 and $500,000 (estimates vary) for various charitable causes. Larry didn’t use sophisticated fund-raising techniques. He simply approached people on the street, in the subway, all over his neighborhood, and asked for donations. Most were $1, $2, $5. Larry supported cancer care, disabled firefighters, families of 9/11 victims, The Caring Community, St. Vincent’s Hospital, and many other causes. The neighborhood firefighters called him “Larry the Raffle Guy” because he was always dropping in to sell raffle tickets for his charities. One Christmas he showed up dressed as Santa Claus!

Filmmaker Alice Elliott was one of Larry’s Greenwich Village neighbors. She produced a documentary about Larry’s life called “The Collector of Bedford Street”. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 2002. It has been shown all over the world and received numerous awards. Larry had the opportunity to travel to those showings with Alice and Sally Dill, a neighbor who became his traveling companion and sometimes caregiver. Alice says the term “collector” refers to more than Larry’s fundraising. He constantly talked with everyone he met to remind them of other peoples’ needs. He “collected” that Bedford Street neighborhood beyond a group of individuals into a caring community.Alice says, “Larry, in effect, made our community…He was our glue.”

Larry Selman is one of those people of whom I would say, “He lived his whole life.”  Not everyone does. Sometimes we stop living long before our body shuts down. We lose interest. We stop caring. We no longer have a reason to get up in the morning, or to get outside ourselves. The lights are on. We’re going through the motions. We can still pass a physical. But we’ve lost the spark, the passion, the Why that makes Life alive.

Part Two—The College Kids

Once upon a time long ago and far away (1966, Southern California), fourteen young adults, mostly college kids, set off on a church-sponsored mission trip to India. We were led by an absolutely fearless/faithful/foolish-for-Christ pastor and his wife. We spent a month in India and another month traveling. After we had circled the globe, we came home very different people. We took our transformed selves back to school and work. We married, started careers, traveled, had families (not necessarily in that order). We rode the up-and-down roller-coaster ride that is Life. Over the years three of us have died, including the minister who was our tour guide/pastor/cat-herder/substitute parent/confessor/role model. (For the record, trip-related stress played no part in his demise years later, and his widow still associates with us.)

Last week we got together. We’ve done that a few times. Eight of us, plus the Peace Corps volunteer one of us found in India and ultimately married, were present. (How’s that for bringing home a souvenir?) Our lives have followed very different paths. We’ve become pastors, teachers, business people, artists, nurses, social workers, parents and spouses. We’ve lived our way through Life’s full range of challenges and opportunities.

This time, more than in previous gatherings, I noticed the common issues we shared. Most of us had recently retired. Most of us have become grandparents. (We were remarkably humble and well-behaved as we described our miraculously-gifted grandchildren.) We’re all experiencing some degree of “non-cooperation” from aging bodies that don’t perform as flawlessly as they once did. Most of us haven’t fully settled into retirement. We’re still seeking the balance between family, freedom to travel and play as we choose, and our desire to use our freedom and life experience for the greater good. Even the longest-retired person among us continues to seek his “sweet spot” of service in the community. (Someone recommended James Autry’s The Spirit of Retirement, a book he and others have found helpful in navigating this transition. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks promising.)

Larry Selman, The Collector, came with me to that gathering. All of us college kids had far more going for us at the beginning of our lives than he did. But he did so much with the life God had given him. We spent some time talking about what we saw on our personal horizons. The theme I heard consistently was that we wanted to live our whole lives. The Collector of Bedford Street did it his own unique way. I have no doubt that my friends and I will find our own unique ways to live our whole lives. I also have no doubt that Larry, the Collector, will be watching and cheering us on.


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