• Pope and UNI's Bob Byrnes Cut from the Same Cloth

    • Posted on Apr 10, 2005


    UNI’s Bob Byrnes and Pope John Paul II might have been cut from the same cloth.  Yes, that’s a stretchy cloth, but bear with me. 

    Last Saturday, the same day that Pope John Paul II died, I saw “Brothers, Sing On: The Road to St. Peter’s” the new documentary by Paul Marlowe on Bob Byrnes, UNI’s Men’s Glee Club director, and couldn’t help but see similarities between these two remarkable men. 

    Both Bob Byrnes and the Pope’s life and work have been documented on film. Byrnes’s work has been captured in this excellent hour-long documentary that was screened at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival.  The Pope’s life and work has been documented in thousands of films and videos over the years.

    These visual documents show two men living according to deeply felt principles, using them consistently, and inspiring others to do the same.  One affected literally thousands of UNI students in his 30-year career at UNI, the other affected millions of Catholics worldwide. 

    Bob Byrnes was not a religious man, but he insisted that his approach to music-making offers spirituality as potent and far-reaching as any organized church.  And he lived that credo, devoting his professional life to the Men’s Glee Club and the UNI Carillon.  His groups’ concerts invariably sold out, making more money for the UNI School of Music than all the other musical groups combined. 

    Those principles:  Work hard.  No excuses.  Challenge those become complacent.  Suffer if you must, and don’t complain about it.  Live your beliefs.  Leave the world a better place.  Both men could be counted on to teach and live these life lessons.

    Yet both Byrnes and the Pope embodied deep contradictions.  Byrnes presented a gruff, short-tempered demeanor that scared his UNI singers half to death.  In the documentary, some of his students called him a “jerk” and worse on camera, yet he got results far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams as a director.  His Men’s Glee Club took three European tours, singing in the great Cathedrals of Europe. 

    Still, Byrnes’ singers were devoted to him. When he died last May, the film’s narrator mentions that “never have so many grown men cried.” 

    When the Pope died, no one called him a jerk, but many commentators noted that his conservative positions on reproductive rights and celibacy for priests caused real damage both to the Catholic Church and the laity worldwide. Priests became practically an endangered species during his 27-year tenure, and it will take years for Catholics to restore trust that the Church lost during the shocking child sexual exploitation scandals that occurred on the Pope’s watch.

    Yet Pope John Paul was as deeply beloved as any modern leader, and millions now mourn for him just as they would a member of the family. 

    Both Bob Byrnes and John Paul performed in St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican in Rome.   Bob Byrnes and his UNI Men’s Glee Club performed there three times, most recently in March, 2004, to actual applause—almost unheard of in that sacred place.

     In fact, the documentary on Byrnes offers an extended and loving visual tribute to their March, 2004 performance in St. Peter’s, showing images of the architectural and artistic treasures (including Michelangelo’s “Pieta”) that the Pope must have seen regularly. 

    Finally, both Bob Byrnes and the Pope suffered physical anguish at the end of their lives. The Pope’s struggles with Parkinson’s, debilitating arthritis, and breathing problems regularly made news, yet he carried on without complaint, surprising everyone, providing a model of a determined man.  

    The 54-year-old Byrnes suffered a massive stroke at home last May, lying on his floor paralyzed for days until one of his students discovered him. He was rushed to the hospital, made a brief partial recovery, then quickly declined.  At the moment that his singers offered the final notes of “Brothers, Sing On” at the hospital, he died.  No complaining, no self-pity, just acceptance of the inevitable.

    Musician Bob Byrnes and Pope John Paul II:  May they rest in peace.









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  • Tim McVeigh Deserves the Worst Punishment

    • Posted on Apr 29, 2001


    If anyone deserves the worse imaginable punishment for a crime, it's Tim McVeigh. 

    Utterly blinded by his own twisted beliefs, in 1995 McVeigh planned and carried out the largest mass murder in U.S. history.  By his own admission, he built a huge fertilizer bomb, drove it to the federal office building in Oklahoma City, and set it off when the building was fully occupied, killing 168 people. 

    Like most terrorist bombings, it killed mostly innocent, defenseless workers going about their daily business.  Not only did federal office workers die, but also nineteen children in the building's day care center were killed.

    McVeigh, using military jargon, called the deaths of those children "collateral damage," thus attempting to disguise the horror of his actions.  He has expressed no remorse, insisting that the federal government deserved what it got for its handling of the Waco shoot-out, among other FBI nightmares. 

    So, as I say, McVeigh deserves the worst punishment for his horrendous crime.

    And what might that be?  The older I get, the more convinced I become that death isn't the most awful punishment for crimes.  At worst, death simply brings blankness, the big sleep, the cessation of sensation.  At most there might be some kind of afterlife, but it can't involve anything like pain, since physical pain arises from nerves, and spirits don't have nerves.  When the body's gone, anything resembling physical pain has to be gone too.

    Whatever happens after death, good or bad, amounts to speculation driven by hopes, fears, and fantasies.

     Here's all we know for sure: Death ends life.  Now, suppose instead of ending life, we lock it up until nature takes its inevitable course.  That's usually decades with no freedom, no amenities to speak of, nothing but endless days with nothing to do but stay alive.

    To any thoughtful person, that's a fate worse than death.  Timothy McVeigh does seem like a thoughtful person, bizarre though his thoughts may be.  Predictably enough, he has indicated that he wants to die. 

    Executing him, as we're determined to do, gives him exactly what he wants.

    If we really want to punish him, we should keep him alive, let him ponder what he's done, let him live out his days in prison. That's a horror beyond imagining.

    So why are we determined to give him death, the lesser punishment?  The same old arguments come up, all of which have been proven wrong or ineffective. His death won't deter others.  In fact, there's some evidence that his execution will make him a martyr, a hero for those who agree with his view of the FBI.

    His death won't really bring closure for the victims' family and friends. Peggy Broxterman lost her son in the bombing, and will be present to watch the execution, yet insisted last week that "You close on a house.  You don't close on a death." 

    McVeigh's death may bring a sense of satisfaction that he got what he gave, which seems like justice.  But if murder is wrong, it remains wrong whether it's committed by the state or by a murderer.  A more accurate phrase for capital punishment, in fact, is state murder. 

    Bud Welch, who lost his 23-year-old daughter Julie Marie, in the bombing, admits that for weeks after the bombing he was consumed by rage and vengeance.  Quoted in the New York Times, Welch says he went through "a period of temporary insanity." 

    Welch now opposes state murder for McVeigh, saying that killing McVeigh won't bring Julie Marie back, and he no longer seeks vengeance.  Instead, he empathizes with Bill McVeigh, Tim McVeigh's father, and has been calling him regularly to offer consolation.  "He's going to lose his son," says Welch. 

    Without a need for vengeance, and with the knowledge that closure amounts to a myth, as does deterrence, reasonable people are left with no real alternative but to oppose McVeigh’s execution.

    If McVeigh wants death, I say give him life. 


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