By STEVE REAGAN
“Hello, my friend.”
Those three words, spoken in a Cuban accent that years of living in West Texas had not managed to wear away, always put a smile on my face.
They were spoken by Al Valdes, and if you never met Al, well, you have my pity, because you really missed out on a treat.
Al, a long-time Big Spring resident, died recently in Kingsville at the age of 83. If you read his obituary, you'll learn that he came to this country after his family immigrated from Cuba in the 1940s, that he played professional baseball for a number of years and that he served the community in a wide variety of ways.
I first met Al as a green reporter in the 1980s, covering the Big Spring Independent School District Board, and it was then that I first got the inkling that Al was a bit different (in a good way, of course) from most of us.
Many school board members — and I'm not saying this as a complaint — have a personal stake in serving, because their children are currently in school. Al's kids had long since graduated by the time I met him, yet he continued to serve on the board for several years.
When I asked him why, he said he did it to help the children (in that thick Cuban accent, it came out as “chirren”) of the community. And, to Al, it was that simple — by his reckoning, Big Spring had given him a lot, so it was only fair he return the favor.
And it wasn't just the school district that benefited from Al's sense of obligation. The American Cancer Society, Lion’s Club, Masonic Lodge, March of Dimes, United Way, First United Methodist Church, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the YMCA — you name an organization in this town, and the odds are that Al leant a helping hand at one time or another.
That tells you a lot about what he did and why he did it, but doesn't quite explain who he was.
Who he was, in short, was one of the happiest persons I ever met in my life.
Eventually, a lot of us get beat down by life. Between work, money woes and assorted other major and minor emergencies that pop up along the way, we lose some or most of the joy that comes from just waking up in the morning and realizing we've been granted another day on Earth.
Then there's the fortunate few who apparently have life figured out. They not only get a kick out of each new day, but they manage to spread some of that joy to those around them.
Al was the unofficial Big Spring chapter president of those people. By some miracle, he figured out how to find joy in the mundane and happiness in the ordinary while not letting the bad things lay him low. It's like the old joke about the difference between an optimistic and pessimistic boy — give a pessimistic lad a horse, and he'll grouse about having to care for and feed the darned thing; but give an optimist a box of horse dung, and he'll squeal with joy because he's certain he just got a pony.
To say Al was an optimist is almost an understatement. In the 20-plus years that I knew the man, I never, ever caught him in a bad mood, I never heard him complain and he always greeted me with a smile and a cheerful, “Hello, my friend.” It was as if Al had been waiting all day just to see me and could barely contain his happiness at the blessed event. And it never failed to put a smile on my face, either.
As a long-time observer of the human race, I cannot stress strongly enough what a great gift it is to make people happy. Not everyone can do it — Lord knows I can't do it consistently — but Al had the gig down cold.
I think it all boils down to one basic fact: Al was a happy man. You can fake it for awhile, but sooner or later, your cover's going to get blown. But Al didn't have to fake it.
My favorite Al Valdes story goes something like this:
Several years ago, Al, an avid (not to be confused with good) golfer, was getting in his daily round at Comanche Trail Golf Course. Uncharacteristically, he was alone that day.
As he was nearing the end of his round, he came to one of the par-3 holes on the course, lined up his shot, took his swing and watched with a mixture of joy and horror as the ball went into the cup — joy because he had never hit a hole-in-one in his life, but horror because, as any golfer will tell you, if no one witnesses your hole-in-one, it might as well have never happened.
Just as Al was starting to curse his bad luck, he noticed a golf course maintenance man jumping up and down and screaming. The worker, who just happened to be passing by, had witnessed Al's feat.
To thank the man, Al took him to dinner, which sums up Al nicely but is not the point of this little story, which is:
I will go to my grave believing that God made sure that worker “just happened” to be in that particular spot at that particular point in time. God, I reason, knew how much joy Al gave to people, and wanted to make sure he got some joy back.
You can call the little incident a classic case of blind luck if you want, but you'll never convince me. Al Valdes spent his life spreading sunshine, and people like him earn every “lucky” break they get.
Goodbye, my friend.
Contact Staff Writer Steve Reagan at 263-7331, ext. 234, or by e-mail at email@example.com