There comes a time when all of us look back on our lives, and think about what they mean – to our nearest and dearest, in family, to the generations following our children and grandchildren, and to friends and colleagues.
Several summers ago, a young author from Northampton, Massachusetts drove north to Lake Ossipee, in New Hampshire, to talk with me about a prep school classmate of mine, about whom he was writing.
Jack Downey was my friend and 6th Form row-mate. He was President of our class and I was Chair of the Student Council. Jack was a superb athlete - captain of the wrestling team, fierce guard on the football team, winning hammer-thrower on the track team. I was a co-captain of crew.
We had much in common, loving American history, and trying, as boys, to be leaders of lads who would soon be men.
Jack went on to captain the wrestling team, and on graduation, entered what his biographer called “that...(immature, simplistic, and superficial) intelligence service, the CIA.” “Suddenly my life had purpose,” Jack wrote.
Jack and another young CIA agent were shot down in a low pass over China, in what was an ambush that brought about Jack's capture and imprisonment by the Chinese Communists for 21 years (making him America’s longest held prisoner of war in our history).
He was a famous case and he remains one of the CIA’s young heroes. His author’s book, on the way to publication, is called:
“A Different Case: Jack Downey’s Cold War”
The untold story of a captured American spy in China who for 20 years was
disavowed, locked up, and forsaken, and who came home unbowed, a
singular American hero.
“Downey is a different case, as you know. Downey involves a CIA agent.”
- Richard Nixon, White House Press Conference, 1973
Here was a friend whose life had an air of mystery from the moment he left Yale in 1951. He was known, admired, and loved by all of his classmates as he went off to serve in the CIA. Bits and snatches of his life behind bars in Beijing came out through our third roommate, and Jack’s mother. There was grief and glory in his story as we put pieces together over the years.
Jack was humble, unassuming, and in his own way, a man of faith. His mother, a Connecticut public school teacher took him a Bible on one of her few visits. He read several chapters daily from then on. He read American history. He exercised a disciplined routine of reading and exercising which gave an order and purpose to his life. His great fear was that he might somehow betray his country in the endless rounds of questioning he went through.
When finally released, he went through Harvard Law School, worked in Connecticut State government, finally becoming an outstanding Juvenile Judge in Wallingford, CT, where now the government offices bear his name.
He married, had a son, cheerily bore Parkinson’s Disease, and just a few years ago, died of cancer. His wife will publish a book about him, as will the Northampton author, who has sent me his manuscript, telling the most remarkable story of this alas unsung hero almost unknown to our generation.
As a country newspaper editor before he died, our third roommate, and a country minister and later Africa missionary, talked often of Jack’s “singular” life and profound example to his school and college classmates.
What deep meanings everyone’s life has. And in the living we really are not aware of that. We go on, a day at a time – that become years, trying to know who we are and what we are meant to give the world which was, after all, so generously given to us. Not so much by our parents, but by God our Maker, who, as St. Paul has said “designed us” for His purposes.
We all want to be faithful and true, being what we were “called” to be. Finally, we find ourselves entering our final decade, our weaknesses and pains of body and spirit tell us we’ve had our chances, and that now maybe, has come a time for reflection and prayer about life. A time to think about its wonderful value, and through prayer, and conversation, pass on our observations to those we love, and those we direct to listen.
Jesus would like to lead us in that thinking and giving. Perhaps if we listen, we will hear a word of understanding from Him that will help us live out the days He still has for us and give the very best of ourselves to the world He loves for which so long ago He gave His life.
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES