Eulogy for Talmage Van Spence

January 22, 2018

Genesis 32:24-31


24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.



I’m honored to get to share a few thoughts about Van in this celebration of his life. Van was about 6 years older than me, so we weren’t exactly peers during our early years. But like Van, I grew up in Wynne, and we were both nurtured by many of the same people. We were both graduates of Wynne High School, members of this United Methodist Church, and of Boy Scout Troop 126. I remember when Van was injured in that car wreck, and I can recall the way in which it affected the community. If my memory serves me correctly, the car was towed to a lot at my father’s business, Murray Chevrolet Co., where I saw the dreadful sight and heard the deep sighs of adults who knew what was in store for Van and his family.


I would run in to Van on occasion over the next few decades, but we weren’t in touch with each other until we somehow reconnected in Little Rock sometime around the year 2000. I don’t know how or exactly when this came about, but at the time I was the director of the UALR Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist Campus Ministry Center, and that’s where Van and I became reacquainted. I wish I could remember how that came about, but I don’t. All I know is that the Wesley Foundation became a place that Van adopted as a place to go for coffee and conversation, and I was so happy about that. As I say, Van and I shared common roots, and it was nice to revisit our various connections. I also enjoyed the wacky randomness that Van brought to the Wesley Foundation community.


The Wesley Foundation was a bit of a crossroad for students and other people who were somehow connected to somebody around there, and to have Van show up at the Wesley Foundation meant somebody was going to experience something they hadn’t expected to encounter that day. Because you didn’t just meet or visit with Van – you experienced Van.


For one thing, Van had become a bit of a contortion artist. As many of you know, Van generally sat in his chair in the lotus position. He was sort of like a live Buddah statue on wheels. But he could also twist his legs up in a way that enabled him to rest his arms and chin on the bottom of his feet. It really wasn’t a sight that you ever got used to seeing, and it was always interesting to see the reaction of someone who saw him sitting like that for the first time. And you never knew what he was going to say. Encountering Van was an experience that confronted and engaged a variety of your senses.


Van’s body was twisted, and he had the sense of humor to go with it. I guess he could bring out the twistedness in others as well. In fact I’m sharing my thoughts about Van with you today because of a twisted deal. I’m a fan of Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock which provides summer camp experiences for kids with different medical conditions. They have an annual Fish Fry and silent auction fundraising event, and one year I mentioned to a handful of people that were hanging out at the Wesley Foundation that I should offer a glowing eulogy as an auction item. Van was in the room and he immediately said he would buy that. I told him to make a check out to Camp Aldersgate and if I hadn’t previously expired I would make good on the deal – so here we are.


Van would call me every now and then and ask if his glowing eulogy was still in effect or if he needed to make an additional installment. I always assured him it was still intact, and I hope my words will measure up to our agreement.


It’s not hard for me to speak well of Van. Van enriched the community life of the Wesley Foundation, and it was a blessing for me to know him. He was generous in his support of that ministry, and he was sort of a living morality play. Van didn’t lift himself up as a beacon of morality, but he was honest about who he was and what he thought. In his own unique way, Van could help you see who you are and who wanted to be.


There are many wonderful words you could use to describe Van. He was appreciative, clever, funny, compassionate, loyal, resourceful, and certainly intelligent. Neal Raney gave me the word Quixotic, which I think is a good one. I know this is supposed to be a glowing eulogy, but I’m also compelled to be relatively honest, and there are some other words that could be used to describe Van. No need to share that list, but it’s no secret that Van could push buttons you didn’t really know you had.


There was a period of time when Van was feeling aggrieved about something going on between himself and his loved ones, and he couldn’t talk about anything else. I couldn’t even follow his logic on how he had been done wrong in some way, but he wouldn’t quit talking about it. He was like a broken record – he would continually repeat something about something that didn’t make sense to anyone but himself. A handful of us had been eating lunch at the Wesley Foundation one day, and when I got up to start cleaning up the kitchen he started in once again on his litany of grievances. Now I’m not a person known for over-reaction, but I suddenly found myself screaming these words: Van, you are driving me CRAZY!


A person with normal sensibilities would probably have left and never returned, but as we all know, Van wasn’t normal. Van smiled and said, you know, my family took me to court to have me certified as crazy, but I beat the rap. And that did a good job of releasing the tension in the room. It diffused my agitation, and he took no offense at my outburst. As he left he maintained his ritual of checking the bathroom to make sure it met his moderate standard for hygiene, and gratefully he returned.


I loved getting to know Van. He enriched my life with his humor, his insight, his generosity, his raw transparent humanity, and his spirituality. I wish I could remember the way he described his religious affiliation. It was a made-up word that incorporated his expansive view of God. I know it included the phrase Metho-Buddist, but I can’t remember the rest. You would think a man who had pledged to provide a glowing eulogy would have taken a few notes, but I didn’t.


When I considered what Biblical story of faith best represents the way in which Van lived out his relationship with God this story of Jacob instantly came to mind. Like Van, Jacob didn’t live the life of a conventional man of faith, and like Jacob, Van suffered injury in the process. Van did things his own way, and it wasn’t the easy way. This story of Jacob wrestling with a man who may well have been God is a story that could be used to describe the life of Talmage Van Spence. Van was a man of faith in God, but it wasn’t exactly the faith we were taught in Mrs. Cook’s Sunday School Class. It wasn’t contrary to that faith, but it was far more complex.


Van cherished his roots here in Wynne, and in this church. He liked to point out that he received his Boy Scout God and Country Award from Brother John McCormick. He probably has that award squirreled away somewhere in his rich collection of memorabilia.


Van was a rare man who collected more than trinkets throughout his life. He collected friends and he cherished relationships. There’s no end to the stories that could be told of the twists and the turns of our various experiences with Van, and those stories have suddenly become much more valuable. It was a vivid experience to be around Van, and sadly for us that experience is over. But it’s easy for me to be happy for Van. He has shed his twisted body and I trust he is enjoying some new-found freedom.


I don’t know if my words have met the criteria for a glowing eulogy, but he deserved one. I’m grateful to have gotten to know Van and to have experienced his rare presence. Like the rest of you, I was touched by Van, and I’m grateful for the impact.


Thanks be to God for the life of Talmage Van Spence.

Thanks be to God that his suffering is over.

Thanks be to God.



One Response to “Eulogy for Talmage Van Spence”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I enjoyed reading this eulogy. I did not know Talmage. But he was lucky to have a friend with your insight and patience. He sounds like an interesting and special person. Rex R

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