In the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, I was enrolled in a biology class. The professor, Dr. Kemper Callahan, was a legend in the science department and on campus. His appearance alone signaled toughness: crew cut, square jaw, broad shoulders, and a chest like a stout oak tree.
I started out strong in the class, but by Thanksgiving break, I was struggling, and he sensed it.
Since I lived in North Carolina, I didn’t cut his class on the day before Thanksgiving. I was looking for brownie points, but I don’t think Dr. Callahan believed in them.
Dr. Callahan’s lecture that morning was on one level a chewing out for the poor performance on the second round of testing, but the other part of the lecture was a timely brain shaker about Thanksgiving. In his own unique way, Dr. Callahan helped me to realize some things about Thanksgiving that I had always taken for granted.
The lecture focused us to think about all the people who are working behind the scenes to make a Thanksgiving meal happen for our families.
He started with farmers, and a simple statement: no farmers, no Thanksgiving. Next, he referenced the labor it takes to harvest, prep, and transport these food items to market, and the connection to all of the personnel in the stores and markets where our purchases are made. Finally, he affirmed our families, and the hands that prepare the food with just the right seasonings.
In less than an hour, Dr. Callahan had informed our class how lucky we were to have the things that we take for granted at Thanksgiving. And as he finished, I clearly remember his parting shot to the class, “Now get out of here.”
As a former high school English teacher, I had the privilege of sharing with my students the O’Henry short story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.” As an author, O’ Henry, developed a reputation for stories with an unexpected twist at the end.
In this story, the main character, the Old Gentleman, has established a tradition of making sure a less fortunate person in this case, Stuffy Pete, has a full Thanksgiving meal. For nine Thanksgivings, the Old Gentleman encounters Stuffy Pete and walks him to a restaurant and watches him shove in the food.
For this Thanksgiving, upon the conclusion of the meal, Stuffy Pete thanks the Old Gentlemen, and they go their separate ways. A few hours later, unbeknownst to each other they both end up in the hospital: Stuffy Pete from overeating and the Old Gentlemen from not eating for three days.
Filmmaker, John Hughes, captures the struggles of two businessmen in the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles who are trying to get home for Thanksgiving. Neal, portrayed by Steve Martin, and Del Griffith, played by John Candy, are linked to a series of travel snafus that put these two opposite personalities together in the quest to reach Chicago.
It is quite a road trip for Neal and Del, but a very revealing one for Neal who finally realizes that Del has no family and no place to be for Thanksgiving. So Neal returns to the train platform where he left Del, and Neal invites Del to come home with him for Thanksgiving.
I often wonder what pushed Dr. Callahan to lecture us about the people who really make Thanksgiving happen. Perhaps, O’ Henry wanted to illustrate to his readers the sacrifice one character was willing to make for the benefit of another. With Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, maybe John Hughes was attempting to demonstrate how our encounters with strangers have the capacity to transform.
Each Thanksgiving, Dr. Callahan’s lecture rattles in my brain, my willingness to assist others increases, and I tend to be more sensitive to the needs of strangers.
Perhaps the real question for me is why can’t I be all of those things year round, not just at Thanksgiving?
Well, I think the answer is my heart needs more transforming, like the change found in Ezekiel 36:26: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”