It was a conversation I awaited with great anticipation, and it will never happen.
The man I was so eager to meet, the man I hadn’t talked with in something like 30 years and had never thanked in a proper way, died.
The story is a simple one, and so familiar that it verges on cliché.
My mom had called me the week before to tell me she had run into Mary Lou Danielson, at the grocery store I think it was, or anyway some place where such chance encounters happen.
Mary Lou’s husband, Roger Danielson, was my German teacher at Stayton High School for four years.
But Roger had a much more profound effect on my life than explaining how to conjugate German verbs and to imitate the guttural, saliva-thickened sounds so integral to that language.
He arranged for me to travel to Germany during the summer of 1986, between my sophomore and junior years in high school.
I spent about six weeks there, staying with one family who lived on the shores of a lake near Munich, and another who lived in Stuttgart.
I would be exaggerating to claim that the trip, as the saying goes, was a life-changing event, at least in the sense of altering the course of my future.
I didn’t major in German during college.
The journey didn’t spur me to study German history or international relations or to fill my passport with stamps.
Indeed I’ve boarded a jetliner only once in the ensuing three decades. And that was a domestic flight.
But those weeks I spent in Germany (back then it was still known as West Germany, to distinguish it from the country on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain) continue to enrich my life.
The experience was for me so singular that the memories even now give me a little thrill when some random event ignites whatever part of my brain stores them.
I’ll watch a travel show and suddenly there on the screen is Munich’s Marienplatz, a place where I actually stood, a gawky 15-year-old who was never quite sure that this was actually happening to him.
Or I’ll read a magazine story that mentions the Black Forest and I can immediately conjure the cabin, in that very forest, where I spent a night with my second host family.
These memories, and dozens more like them, comfort me much in the way that a thick blanket provides welcome warmth on a chilly day.
But Roger Danielson was far more than a travel agent for me.
My clearest recollection from that long ago summer has nothing to do with Alpine gondolas or medieval castles or any of the myriad other tourist sites that I took in — and photographed with the rudimentary camera I toted wherever I went.
I remember instead weeping in Roger’s arms, my tears wetting his shoulder.
He traveled to Germany that summer as well, to accompany me as I traveled from my first host family to my second.
Although I had spent only a month or so with the first family, the Muellers, who were friends of Roger’s, I had grown fond of them in a way that I think only a 15-year-old can be, a 15-year-old who is an awful long way from home and who has already dealt with the unique pain that is homesickness.
What I felt, as I stood there sobbing in the Muellers’ driveway, was a different strain of that affliction. Yet the emotions were at least as powerful as what I endured those few days after my arrival, when I wondered whether all of this — the unfamiliar accents and strange flavors of food and the very look of the sky that wasn’t quite right — might be the terrible mistake of an inexperienced teenager.
Roger consoled me.
His words soothed me in that unique way that an adult’s words can soothe a scared and confused child.
He told me that I could feel so sad only because I had forged a true bond with the Muellers, and that in the years ahead I would learn to appreciate this, and indeed to cherish it.
Roger was right, of course.
I didn’t realize until years later, after I had accumulated a bit of adult wisdom myself, that Roger, who had been involved with student exchanges for more than two decades, probably had had similar conversations many times.
I reviewed all this history in my mind, in that rapid fashion that our subconscious allows, while I listened to my mom recount her conversation with Mary Lou.
Roger, my mom said, would like to talk with me the next time I ventured west of the Cascades. He and Mary Lou still lived in the home they built in Stayton in 1955. Roger taught at Stayton High for 32 years, and Mary Lou, who was also a teacher, for 18.
It happened that we were planning to drive to the Valley just a few days later, to attend my niece Victoria’s graduation from West Salem High School. I told my mom I was sure I would have time to travel to Stayton, which is less than 20 miles from my parents’ home in Mill City, and visit Roger.
It was either the following day or the day after when I happened to see the name “Roger Danielson” on my Facebook news feed, a terrible, but somehow inevitable these days, way to receive sad tidings.
Almost at the same instant I read the words “memorial service.”
Roger was 87 when he died on June 3.
I wasn’t able to attend his memorial service. It was on Sunday afternoon and we had a 7-hour drive and I had work to do besides.
I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to pay my condolences personally to Mary Lou.
But what I regret even more is that I never had that conversation with a man who made possible some of my most cherished memories.
Much of what Roger Danielson taught me in the classroom has faded. Such is the nature of language skills, which like mu scles turn flaccid if they’re not exercised regularly.
But I will never forget his compassion. Nor will I forget how much his presence meant to me, a boy making the sometimes difficult transition to manhood, in those moments as his shirt absorbed my tears on the shore of a German lake.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.