Today I attended the funeral of Ryan Hays, the first student I've lost. It strikes me that just a couple weeks prior I gave an impassioned talk to our Cathedral Eagle teachers and staff about our theme for the school year: Encountering the Risen Christ. “Waste time with each other, with your students, with your family, and with Christ.” I used John 4, the Woman at the Well, as my example of encountering others. In this piece of scripture Jesus engages in a back-and-forth with a woman he's never met; it may be the longest conversation with Jesus recorded in the Bible and it is striking because of how intimately he invests in her life story.
That day, the first of teacher meetings, was a day full of energy and synergy. Teachers happily worked in preparation, rooms were given final touches, and Monsignor Nemec delivered a spot-on homily in the Eucharistic Chapel.
Just six days later, on our first day of school, we would be floored by the news of Ryan’s death.
Ryan was a Cathedral and Pius graduate, a Scout, a Soldier of Saint Sebastian, a writer for the Pius X-Change newspaper, a football lineman, and a student I’ll never forget. When news of his passing was first relayed to me it was roughly 11am on August 16th, just 15 minutes prior to school dismissal. I think I mumbled, “Ryan? Ryan Hays? A bigger guy, pretty young?” This was confirmed for me, and I began to plan how I would tell our Cathedral staff such devastating news just minutes after an amazing first day of school.
As the staff filed into the library at 11:30am for this impromptu meeting, I began to form words in my mind that would never make it out of my mouth – their articulation made Ryan’s passing real, and I literally doubled over, unable to speak.
I met Ryan when he was 15 or 16 years old; I was 26. He was a student of mine at Pius X High School (where I taught prior to becoming Principal at Cathedral, my alma mater). When Ryan found out I was a Cathedral Eagle graduate he marked me as “officially the coolest teacher here!” We spent hours of time together as he wrote sports stories for the Pius X-Change, our school paper. I was his advisor, and he and the guys would tease each other mercilessly over sports arguments that were precursor to the modern sports debate shows. Room 254, our room, was unique: a strong male presence of multi-talented writers with a shared passion for “breaking news”. Not even 30 years-old, I was too green to know how good I had it. What male writing teacher gets a room full of writers who take what they do seriously and themselves…not so much? Today I remember it as a sort of golden age in my career; we even competed for Creighton Byline and NSAA State Championships with that amazing staff.
Ryan was a vital ingredient in the strange concoction that made up that era of the Pius X-Change. He worked hard to make sure all of us were enjoying ourselves. I remember his needling, his jokes, his big voice following his big shoes as he entered the room, “BREAKING NEWS: Hays is here – class can begin!”
But I also remember tenderness when others were hurting, as well as off periods filled with conversations about faith, God, high school drama, and evolving friendships. There was a depth to Hays that he hid, but was potent when unveiled.
Soon enough that great room of writers graduated. I distinctly recall our emotional goodbyes and how hard Ryan worked to remain stoic. His exit was short, awkward and rushed. I knew enough not to press him, so I shook his hand and said, “We will stay in touch, right?”
He choked on a reply that was not to be heard as much as felt, and then he bounded down the hall high-fiving confused freshmen a third his size: “Three more years for you suckers – HIGH FIVE!”
In the years that followed I watched Ryan from a distance as he grew into a young man. His circle of friends both broadened and crystallized. It’s not easy for men in their 20’s to find non-transactional relationships, but Ryan appeared to have mastered loyalty while also widening his circle.
More than once over the years I considered his last column for the X-Change in which Ryan wrote to and about me: “Words can’t describe what Ekeler has given to me the last few years. Whenever there was a problem beyond fixing, he found a solution…” I took pride in the fact that this was his perception of me: someone who could help fix things. Yet I know, now more than ever, there are some things that can’t be fixed.
His family recently came to Cathedral School and I told them how much he meant to me, and how so many memories were flooding back that I had to step away at times to gather myself. Then they did something that explained Ryan Hays in a way no words can: they implored me to pray, to know that Ryan admired me, and to tell everyone at Cathedral how much he loved being an Eagle.
That's right - In their darkest hour, as a family, they felt compelled to make sure everyone else was OK.
Since Ryan's passing, this final piece of “breaking news” has surfaced: In our Cathedral year of “Encounter” Ryan Hays is the best example of the value of wasting time with someone. As if to validate his life’s work, his passing has brought forth literally hundreds of stories about inside jokes, golfing adventures, hunting trips, and other “time wasters”. That lesson and message will resonate in the halls of the school he used to call home; it will be our work and focus here at Cathedral School. What was theory and slogan is now real and vital; what was a goal is now a commitment. We owe to our students what Ryan gave to so many: time wasted, because that's time invested.
I went home after that brutal staff announcement on August 16th and played "Monster" with my sons until we couldn’t laugh anymore. At one point, as I hid around a corner from them, I wondered if Ryan and his dad had once played like this. Later, I put my girls to bed and my eight year-old nestled in: “Tell me about the boy who died, your student. I want to know him.” So I told her about the goodbye I wrote back to Ryan in that last issue of the X-Change newspaper: “Hays is more complex than most give him credit for…When Ryan laughs, he means it. When he gets serious, he means it. When he confides, he expects trust and he reciprocates. This is the definition of sincere, and so is Hays.”
"Honey," I said, "I wrote that ten years ago and those words still ring true. He was a special guy."
Then I began to tell stories I thought I’d forgotten, didn’t even know existed any more. I felt her giggle at the funny parts and rub my wet cheek during the poignant ones. At some point her body relaxed and she began to doze on my arm. But I just kept telling stories, wasting the time together.