Posted: July 4, 2007 in Stories

I called my mom this rainy Independence Day because she’s leaving on another mission trip to Costa Rica tomorrow. She informed me that Willie Sandlin died yesterday, and now my heart is very sad.

Willie died at 46 years of age, far too young if you ask me, yet older than many doctors predicted. His health problems supposedly began on a mission trip to Arizona, and they came to an end at a hospital in Utah, the only place in the world that would touch his complicated situation. I had heard that things were bad for Willie recently, but to tell the truth, that has been the case so many times over the years that I guess I just thought he’d fight through every one. But, no.

I guess it’s fitting that the Cardinals won the last World Series while Willie Sandlin was alive. Only Terry Rush could trump Willie’s collection of Redbird memorabilia, but even Terry couldn’t surpass his passion for the Cardinals.

I don’t think anyone could surpass Willie’s passion for anything.

Willie was one of the best speakers ever. He was a popular speaker from early in his adult life until crazy health issues got in the way. I remember him telling me about what it was like the Sunday he filled in for Max Lucado at Oak Hills in San Antonio, how the thousands of people had to be herded in and out side doors like cattle to get the thousands fed.

I remember when some friends and I began attending the Hillcrest Church of Christ in the days before we lost our spiritual idealism, when we were given the opportunity to plan a huge outreach service. Shannon Beasley and I did most of the program planning, and when it came time to choose a speaker, we wanted Willie Sandlin.

And he delivered.

It was one of the greatest church memories of my life. Shannon invited the youth group from Troy Gramling’s “Southside Community Church,” and that rowdy bunch showed up in full force! The singing was astronomical. Shannon arranged the song “Regardless” for that special night, and by the time the sermon came around, it didn’t seem like it could get any better.

Which was why we asked Willie to speak.

I remember watching Willie at different times over the years. I watched him sing, in particular, on the front row on nights he was to speak. He would sing with his eyes closed, which is dangerous for a Church of Christ speaker. For one, you might screw up the precious four-part harmony by not watching the song leader keep time; for another, someone might think you’re actually getting emotional. But Willie sang with his eyes closed.

Every once in a while now, when preparing to speak, I sing with my eyes closed, too. Trying to be like Willie, I guess.

In the author’s note to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, he wrote: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.”

I remember watching Willie love God.

And I remember watching him love his family, too. I coached his oldest son, Josh, when Josh was in the 8th grade. Willie had already been deathly sick, even though this was thirteen years ago now, but I remember watching Willie watch Josh play basketball. I was so absorbed by watching him that I’m sure I wasn’t paying much attention to coaching. One of the first essays I ever wrote (because I wanted to write) was about this. Willie sat on the edge of his seat, entranced, and filled with joy at the honor of being able to watch his son play. I’ll never forget that look as long as I live. You can see it in the picture I swiped from his younger son, Jacob’s, Facebook page, can’t you? I hope you can see it. The sparkle in his eyes is priceless.

I remember writing that Willie watched his son play like Father God must have watched Jesus live.

Willie gave me a similar look at my dad’s funeral. I was 24 years old when my dad died, a young punk kid basketball coach who had never preached a full sermon, much less a eulogy, in his entire life. Out of all the faces looking back at me in that packed funeral home that day, Willie’s is the most vivid. Once again, he was on the edge of his seat. But he didn’t look at me with joy. He looked at me with how I still define the word “compassion” today. He hurt for me with his whole body, and it spilled out of his eyes.

It makes me cry to type this today.

I am a preacher today because of Willie Sandlin. Literally.

My life was getting pretty screwed up around that time. My wife and I had quit working as houseparents at a children’s home, and I was selling insurance. I was trying to sell Willie insurance, in fact. I hated my job, but I didn’t know what else to do. Willie told me that I was being called to ministry. I told him he was full of it. For one, I wasn’t formally trained to be a preacher: he said that didn’t matter. For two, I told him I was getting sort of crazy, and no church would accept me the way I think: he told me I’d be surprised.

After a lot of soul-searching during that formative time of my life, it was Willie I went to with the question: okay, where do I start in becoming a preacher? He told me, and I’ve been honored to be following Willie’s advice ever since.

Willie’s dead now. Jill has lost her husband. Josh and Jacob and April have lost their dad. A whole lot of people have lost a minister and a friend. And the entire world has lost a sparkle of passion.

But a lot of us still hold tight to a lot of inspiration from his brief, brilliant life.

And, knowing Willie, I bet he’s having a whole lot of fun with Jesus right now.

  1. JD says:

    Great tribute, Al. You’re right about Willie’s ability to speak … he was great. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew about him. I am thankful for the path he traveled. He surely goes where we are hoping to arrive. Bless you for sharing this with us.

  2. Jeff says:

    Al – A beautiful remembrance of Willie. Thanks, Jeff.

  3. tomstjohn says:

    Al, what a great way to mentor us in honoring the people God gifts us with. I feel I know the heart and spirit of Willie through the gift of your words. Heaven will be a little brighter for all of us when we get there. Thanks so much.

  4. Seth says:

    Al, your words have really helped me today! He was one amazing guy, and I am very grateful for every second that I was able to spend with him. Both of his sons ended up being able to dunk and oh how he loved talking about that! He was something special that is hard to find. You did a great job with the thoughts about him.

  5. Al Sturgeon says:

    Thanks, guys…

    Funny how the memories come. After writing, I remembered that Willie was the one who told us that Hillary looked like Cindy-Lou-Who (from the Grinch) when she was one year old…

    Then Jody remembered that 13 years ago, when I broke my leg and was in the hospital just before our wedding, Willie was in the same hospital. He was so bad that he had sneaked in a friend with a video camera to secretly videotape messages to his kids in case he didn’t make it… yet with that on his mind, he was also checking on me…

  6. coolhandandrew says:

    A fitting tribute, Al. I only got to meet Willie a few times, but I can attest to his passion for Christ and his gifts as a speaker. He will be missed, but his joy is now complete in the presence of his beloved Lord.

  7. Al Sturgeon says:

    You’re completely right, Andy. And considering the joy he found right here among us, that’s quite a pleasant thought.

  8. traviswsmith says:

    I see Andy beat me to it. I was looking for the obit when I found your blog. The funny thing is, apparently a “Willie Sandlin” was the recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor in World War I. Our Willie Sandlin should have won the MOH several times over for bravery on the field. I would love to make the big family reunion that will be the service honoring him. I know Christ’s original apostles are glad to have one of their own with them- and I’m sure Willie has already demonstrated the “gravewalk” that Lazarus did when he came out of the tomb a few dozen times. Thanks for a fitting tribute,
    Travis Smith

  9. Eric & Rebecca says:

    Coach Al-

    Great tribute to Willie. He will be missed. He has a great family that I feel aweful for, but I can only imagine the time he is having in heaven right now. Mrs. Betty sent me the link to your blog. I hope I can keep up with you. You are a great writer.

    Take care,

    Eric Johns

  10. Jason says:

    A good portion of my life, profession, and faith rests on the belief that words do something, that they make something happen in the world. They are doing here their greatest work, creating a bridge between ourselves and the spirit of Willie, helping us reach back to the past and out past this world to find him again.

    I can’t believe we’ve gone this far without talking about Willie’s mid-nineties (or was it lifelong?) obsession with Acappella. He even listened to the really lame songs. On the bus to Tuba City, he forced Ashleigh (then) Short to play through the radio system a mixed tape he had made. Purposefully or no, he’d recorded “Walking That Line” at least four times on each side. Every fifteen minutes, there it was: Kevin Schaffer dancing in the upper ranges, and Willie in the driver’s seat, trying hard to keep up.

    I wish words could do more. I miss him.

    Jason Ashlock

  11. Al Sturgeon says:

    Thanks, guys…

    Travis, I saw the same Willie Sandlin in my google search. It is amazing that “our” Willie isn’t all over the web… goes to show you that the internet sure doesn’t have everything…

    And Eric, I think my favorite thing is that Mrs. Betty is sending links to blogs!!! 🙂

    I remembered one more thing about Willie today. I remember being at a youth rally he was hosting… it was past lunchtime (speaker went over, etc.), and everyone was tired. Willie got up to say a prayer to dismiss everyone. He said, “God, you’re all, and that’s all.”

    First time I ever heard applause after a prayer. Only time in a Church of Christ! 🙂

  12. Al Sturgeon says:

    Hey, Jason! Funny that we were simul-commenting stories about Willie. Almost ironic given your words, but beyond ironic. Just real.

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