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FIRST-PERSON: A Father’s Day legacy

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Father’s Day didn’t wait on the Steckmann family this year — it came a week early at a memorial service to celebrate the life of my 49-year-old brother-in-law, Joseph Thomas Steckmann Sr.

No cheesy ties, no golf balls to collect dust on a shelf, and no polished chess games for Joseph. Instead, he was honored in a way too few fathers can claim — the honest words of his children, his wife and the people who served alongside and aided him in his work as a missionary to the Czech Republic.

Joseph’s unfailing kindness and gentleness toward his family were recurring themes in the church packed with mourners June 7, as was his passion for serving God.

Joseph and my sister Ramona were married after he graduated from Southwestern Baptist Bible College in Phoenix in 1979. Theirs had been a storybook romance — he was an older, bolder and handsome transfer student. She was an 18-year-old college freshman. By the end of the first year they knew each other, they were great friends. By the end of the second year they became partners for life when they married on May 12, 1979.

Moving to the Northwest, the Steckmanns lived near Joseph’s family while they began one of their own and he completed a ministerial degree at Western Seminary in Portland.

I remember how hard they worked together. Joseph brought Ramona alongside, and she heeded the call to missions he realized at 14 years of age when he began to develop a vision to bring the Gospel to Eastern Europe after reading the book “God’s Smuggler.”

Together, they managed apartments, delivered early morning newspapers and took up odd jobs while he finished school. By this time, my niece Katherine Mary, now a 22-year-old, had made her debut into the world, followed by Joseph Steckmann Jr., now 19.

In 1992, the Steckmanns were appointed missionaries by Conservative Baptist International, and after three long years of raising prayer and financial support they headed to the Czech Republic in 1995.

Just last May, doctors discovered a tumor in Joseph’s sinus cavity. Rushed to the U.S. for a diagnosis and treatment in Portland, Joseph and Ramona held on to the hope that he could overcome what was a very aggressive and rare form of cancer — a strain previously unseen in the U.S.

This past spring, after a second round of treatments for a tumor that appeared on his spine, doctors again were hopeful the cancer could be beaten. In April, a weak, but optimistic Joseph and Ramona left for the Czech Republic for what was supposed to be a quick two-week round of meetings and contacts to encourage the ministry there. After a brief visit they were to return to the U.S. until such time as he could regain his health.

But it was to be Joseph’s last visit to a place he had begun to call home. He fell ill and had to be medically evacuated to Portland. About three weeks later, on May 28, he died at home in the care of his family.

Joseph was outlived by his two older brothers, Mark and Phil. A musical family, all three brothers had sung together in the past while their mother played the piano. Joseph’s father, a preacher, had instilled in each of his three sons a yearning for the things of God — a legacy each has now passed on to his own children.

At the memorial service Mark led the singing and Phil and Mark together tearfully sang tributes to their baby brother.

My niece Katherine Mary, a poet extraordinaire, first spoke about memories she had of her daddy telling stories to make a point and being there when she needed him. At the memorial service she said it was too soon to write a poem and instead read another that spoke of love and longing and of pain and sorrow.

A day later, at a graveside service at a rugged White Salmon, Wash., cemetery, with Mt. Hood rising in the distance, Katherine wept while she told the story of when she first remembered seeing her daddy cry.

It had been the day Joseph showed up at school when she was 7 years old to tell her that her grandpa, his father, had died. Raised to believe death is a celebration, Katherine said she had a hard time coming to terms with her daddy’s tears.

“Daddy taught me that day how to cry,” she said. Now his tears made all the sense in the world, she said simply.

My nephew, Joseph Jr., standing at the podium at the memorial service, surrounded by flowers, shared about many ways in which he felt his father’s love.

When they were in the Czech Republic where he finished high school partially by correspondence, Joseph Jr. said he would interrupt his father often on a Saturday afternoon to ask him a question related to school work.

“He always helped me with my questions right away,” Joseph Jr. recalled — even if it meant his father would stay up through the night to complete his own work.

Lips trembling and eyes awash with tears near the end of the two-hour service, Joseph Jr. added a final memory to the celebration of his father’s life.

Recalling a conversation he had with his father just a few months ago, my young nephew said he was concerned and confused when his father told him a second tumor had appeared on his spine. He asked what this meant and how long his father had to live.

Joseph Jr. said he was strangely comforted at his father’s reply to the question about what would happen next.

“I’m not sure,” he said his father told him with a big smile. “But I’m excited to see what God has planned.”

Father’s Day will never be the same for Joseph’s wife and children whom he always considered a part of the ministry team to the Czech Republic and part of the legacy his father had passed on to him. Life doesn’t always seem fair, but because my brother-in-law brought honor to God even in his death, they have a hope he is eternally at peace.
Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan