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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Herbert S. Estes, My Father-in-Law

Sunday we sat vigil as Herbie's heart raced to maintain his weakened body in the last stages of his struggle.  The signals he gave us were ambiguous.  We thought he might be about to die, but that thought has arisen across decades, only to have Herbie rise up to defeat the odds.  But this time was to be the last battle.  He clinched his fists throughout the day.  Now and then he pushed and pulled his arms when he felt the need to struggle.  Mostly he rested calmly.  He listened to the loving words of his family and the nurses who were caring for him.  He listened to hymns, and even seemed to join the song once or twice.  He heard the words of scripture read to him.  He lay peacefully as we gathered for prayer through the day.

Finally, he gritted his teeth one last time.  Ruth, his daughter, once again assured him that it was all right for him to go.  He had lived a good life.  He had loved his wife and children well.  They would look out for one another after he would be gone.  So it was all right for him to let go and enter into the arms of God.  He breathed his last breaths, and his pain and struggle ended.  With tears of grief and thanks, we offered praise to God for the gift of this good man and for the end of his frustrations and suffering.

I first met Herb Estes when I was 18, invited by Everly for a gathering of Baylor sudents in the Houston area during our winter break.  In the three-plus years that I was courting Everly at Baylor, I had many more opportunities to visit her family and get to know him.  One of the first things I that was obvious was his comfort and enjoyment at being around children and young people.

An odd thing to note is that Everly and her siblings, as well as all the kids who showed up at their house most every day, called him Herbie and called Everly's mom Ree, short for Marie.  Everly, Eric, and Ruth had picked it up from all the other kids.  Herb and Marie were strong supporters of the youth ministry at church and in the community, and they allowed the first name familiarity with those young people.  Since everyone else was calling them Ree and Herbie, their own children took up those names as well.  So have all the rest of us.

Herbie was an engineer, trained in mechanical engineering.  He was gifted at "figgerin'," at analyzing how things work.  As a boy, he liked to make up games involving thinking and math.  His father loved to talk about the games Herbie made up, and he always insisted they should have gotten them copyrighted so they could have sold them and made lots of money.  Herbie loved all kinds of games, but especially the ones that involved math or complicated strategy.  He would figure out a game fairly quickly.  Once he figured out the key elements of a game, the rest of us were pretty unlikely to ever win again.

Of course, many games have elements of chance built in to make sure that no single strategy can dominate.  For that reason, I could occasionally win a game of backgammon.  In some games, like Texas 42, I often insisted on certain "table rules" to try to handicap Herbie's capacity to find an exotic path to victory.  Usually, this did not help the rest of us have a chance.  I never learned to play bridge, but Herbie was a master of the game.  He played with other rocket scientists.  He played online and in local bridge clubs and leagues.  And he almost always ended up a champion.

Herbie loved sports, too.  He played guard in football, and was known for his speed as a pulling blocker.  Not only did he play in high school at Port Arthur Thomas Jefferson, he also played on the college team at Lamar.  Of course, football is not a lifelong sport.  Herbie played whatever sort of game he could, and for lifelong skill development and fitness he took up golf and tennis.

Tennis was the game of his brother-in-law, Henry Parrish, a champion at many age levels throughout his life.  Golf was the game Herbie tried to master, hoping eventually to play on the Senior Professional tour.  Back injuries and pain eventually took that game away from him.   When he was younger, he coached kids in Little League Baseball.  Everly remembers being on a team when she was very young.  He also tried to get her started in tennis.  But she was just not interested in playing sports.  Eric and Ruth both took up sports for enjoyment.

Not only was Herbie good at games and sports; he was also a fierce competitor.  Sometimes this made it hard in the family for playing games.  The kids remember feeling they did not have much of a chance of becoming good enough to compete with him.  He encouraged them to learn to play their best.  Herbie was hard-headed about many things, including about sports.  He was not popular with the umpires down at the Little League diamond, often pressing his disagreements through long arguments.  It was his passion for seeing the games played well and played right that drove him.

We all sometimes get carried away concerning things we care about.  Let there be no doubt that Herbie cared about kids, about the joy of athletic activity and achievement, and about doing one's best.  He did not have much interest in halfway doing things that he loved.  There was a time, after his own children were too old for Little League, that Herbie still could be found at the neighborhood kids' baseball games on many nights.  Rumors began to spread that Herb and Marie were having marital problems, since he was spending this time away from home in the evenings.  Of course, it was not true.  He simply loved young people and sports, and Marie had no such interest in going down to the ballpark night after night.  She had other things to work on and do.

Herbie started out studying at the prominent engineering school, Texas A&M, where he was required to be part of the military-style corps.  But Herbie had a powerful independent streak in him.  He liked to think for himself.  He liked to have good reasons for what he did.  He did not like anyone telling him he had to do anything.  As Everly told it to me, Herbie could not stand "playing army" in the corps.  So he left A&M, and soon he was drafted to serve in the army.

After two years of service, he returned home to start back to college, more serious and committed to his education.  He majored in mechanical engineering and mathematics.  During this time he courted and married Marie Weaver, a member of his home church who had been taken under wing by his mother.  They began building a marriage and started a home that lasted for over 58 years.  He became a bright young graduate and got recruited into the aerospace industry, into a new branch of engineering.

First he worked for Convair in Ft. Worth.  There, he and Marie met many of their lifelong friends, some of whom were seminary students preparing for ministry.  Everly was born during this time.  Soon he was hired away by Martin-Marietta in Denver.  Eric and Ruth were born during the Colorado sojourn.  One favorite family activity is pulling out the letters Marie exchanged with Herb's mother, Palmer, faithfully reporting on the young family that had moved so far away.

Eventually, Herbie got the opportunity to join NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  The family settled in Sagemont, a new suburban housing development in southwest Houston.  There they stayed until his retirement, thirty years later.  They raised three wonderful children, and supported and served in the work of three different churches over the years.  Herbie worked on the Apollo project, focusing his mathematical calculations on how to get the spaceship to the Moon.  He said that once it got there, it was someone else's job to get it back home to Earth.

He was from the slide rule generation of engineers.  He had already been working for a long time before computer programming became an important part of his work.  He learned some basics of programming to be able to do his job, but during the last decade of his career he said that the new computer programming languages were changing so fast that the older engineers simply learned to depend on the newly hired computer science graduates to cover that part of their work.  That left Herb the job of solving the big problems that the crunched data helped him analyze.

He later was involved extensively in the design of the Space Shuttle.  During those years, he traveled regularly to southern California to work with partners at Rockwell who were building the spaceship.  One of his brightest bridge partners was an engineer from Rockwell named Fuk Ing.  No joke.  Everyone had that reaction, too.  But Herb and Fuk were unbeatable at bridge.  Once the Space Shuttle program got through its testing phases and started conducting space missions, Herb's work was done.

He spent the last few years of his career working on one of the most difficult problems still remaining for human space exploration and science near Earth:  the debris problem.  Finding, identifying, sizing, tracking, and predicting the movements of thousands of pieces of debris in orbit is a critical task to prevent damage to expensive equipment and priceless human beings working in space.  But Herb was happy to retire.  He loved doing his work, but he loved his time with family, playing golf, and getting to do things he had been to busy for before.

Herbie wanted to travel when he retired.  He was at first very ambitious, talking about buying an RV and simply going on a several-year adventure.  Marie did not share his enthusiasm for being thoroughly uprooted, so they settled in a retirement community in Pearland where he could play golf every day, play bridge, and stay in touch with friends.  During those years, they hosted their grandchildren for summer vacations, made several trips with tour groups and friends, and enjoyed visits from their children and their families whenever possible.

Herb had struggled with heart disease since he was young, having multiple bypass surgeries three times, beginning at age 43.  He was one of the star cases for the pioneering Houston based DeBakey cardiology practice, one of their longest surviving success stories.  Later, the artery blockages affected his hearing and eyesight, making life more difficult for Herb.  Not hearing and seeing well, he stayed busy with online bridge and backgammon tournaments and managing his retirement account and stock portfolio online.

From the time I met Herbie, he was always working on a system, an algorithm, a trick to beat the stock market.  He was convinced there was a way to win, and he was mostly very successful.  When he got very interested in technical analysis of stocks, I found myself not understanding more often than understanding what he was doing.  But it was one of our more enjoyable topics of conversation over the years, talking about what he was trying to do with his stocks.

Herbie drew me into his life in many ways.  We were always welcome at his home to eat, to visit, to stay, to watch a ball game, and to play games together.  He would take me, always a duffer, to play golf every time I would visit.  We would talk about the family and the work that each of us was doing.  We would talk about our churches.

Herbie was not one to take his faith at face value.  He intended to understand what he believed.  If he thought someone was teaching without careful thinking involved, he would not accept it.  As an engineer, he was probably tempted to try too hard to overcome mysteries and figure out God's inner workings.  He would rather have it all nailed down.  But even with that tendency, Herbie never seemed to me to close off considering another idea. 

When Everly and I were in our early 20s, we had moved to California for my seminary education and joined a church in the heart of San Francisco.  Not long after we joined the church, everything was thrown into uproar as the members began an argument, a process, a time of study on the church and homosexuality.  It was not a brand new question, but it was not yet widely discussed in 1980.  During the intensity of that period, Herbie came to visit us and went to church with us.  I might have feared he would have been aghast and condemnatory toward us for being in this situation.  Instead, he listened intently and raised reasonable questions, talking through the theological and biblical ideas that were floating around from the more traditional heritage and the more innovative reflections.

In this way, I felt that Herbie was always ready to consider theological ideas if I was ready to offer reasoned conversation about them.  Simply putting an idea out there as if there were no other possible conclusion would never fly with Herb.  But just because an idea was new or different from his previous thinking, that would not stop him from giving it honest consideration.  He always respected the learning I had, but he never assumed I was going to be right all the time.  When I was invited to preach at Everly's home church in Houston, I preached from Galatians about being set free in Christ.  I talked about a human longing for freedom.  Herb challenged me after the sermon, suggesting that it might be more accurate to say that humans long for security primarily, not freedom.  He wanted to know why I took the position I had taken.

In recent years, when I was deeply involved in theological reflection on the economy, he took a great interest in that as well.  Like many of his generation, he was influenced by conservative politics and their concomitant economics.  But he never dismissed my work.  He wanted to know why and how we came to take certain positions.  He was a good conversation partner on economics.  And he seemed often to come to agree with the proposals that I and my organizing partners were putting forward.

Whenever Herbie had been hospitalized for heart surgery or other reasons, he was not a good patient.  Remember I said that he was fiercely independent.  He did not like doctors and nurses telling him what he had to do.  He did not like being hooked up to machines and confined to a bed.  He would plot to gain his freedom.  He would jerk the breathing tube out of his own throat.  He would pressure his family to sneak him out of the hospital.  He may be the worst patient I've ever known.  And the key issue is that Herbie wanted to decide for himself what he was going to do.  He wanted to be independent, free.

Herb's health continued to decline for several years before he died.  There were Parkinson's-like symptoms, continuing arterial and heart issues, and a host of ailments.  As Herbie grew weaker, had a stroke, had trouble communicating, and was unable to do things for himself, he expressed his wish to not continue living under these conditions.  He was heartbroken to watch his oldest child, Everly, die before her time when he believed it should have been him to go first.  Yet he did continue to live, surviving crisis after crisis. 

He was very concerned that he had made provision for Marie and his children.  He wanted to be sure that he had done all that he should have done.  So you could say he lived with two drives.  One was that he wanted to make sure his family was taken care of.  The other was that he not have to continue living such a diminished life.  These two seemed to be in conflict with one another.  I sometimes wonder if another passion was at work--his competitiveness.  Was he simply not willing to let the sickness win the battle?  Was he fighting and unwilling to give up, even against his own expressed willingness to leave this life?  I can't say for sure.  But it does fit with his character in a way.

During the last months of his life, he was not always a good patient, in character with his past.  When he did not have the strength to get out of bed on his own, he would shout, "Freedom!" over and over again.  Other times he would shout, "Victory!"  He was fighting to win a contest, and he shouted out his desire.  We puzzled about it, but knew he hated not being able to get up and do what he wanted to do. 

His granddaughter Emily noted that he did not like being confined in a weak and uncooperative body, and that all his shouts of "Freedom!" and "Victory!" have finally found their fulfillment.  He is no longer limited by his declining health.  He has taken off the perishable and put on the imperishable.  Death is swallowed up in victory.  Free at last, he is no longer stuck in the bed unable to do what he wants.  He has been crucified with Christ; nevertheless, he lives.  He is united to Jesus in the resurrection.  There is no doubt that he, like the Lord Jesus, loved the ones God has given him, and he loved them until the end. 

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