The death of the leader of a family clan marks the ending of an era. The big family clan –– held together by forceful personalities and connected across states and theologies and basketball rivalries and socioeconomic divides –– is rare anymore, but it is so important. One of the earliest condolences we received after the death of my husband’s older brother, J.B. Crouse, said, “A great tree has fallen.” I can think of no better description of how we feel as we mourn the loss of a great leader who is also –– first and foremost to us –– our dearly loved brother.
The shade of that big tree fell on all of us; that tree — a focal point in our whole extended family –– covered our lives and interactions with his personality, presence, and prayers.
For me, it began when he checked me out –– coming to a college basketball game to watch me as a cheerleader –– so he could pass judgment on this unknown girl his “little” brother (who was the taller one) was dating. I think I passed muster, but the point is that he was concerned with everything that related to his family’s well-being and that included younger siblings, cousins, and even “shirt-tail relatives” (those really close friends who were, perhaps, related to those who married into the family).
Others will write about J.B.’s extraordinary leadership gifts and his contributions in those areas; I leave that significant task to them. I want to write about the importance of his leadership of his family. When the “Big Papa” –– J. Byron Crouse, father of J.B., Charlotte, Betty Jean, and Gilbert –– died, J.B. stepped in as leader of the Crouse Clan. He made the phone calls on holidays to wish everyone a Merry Christmas or Easter or Birthday or whatever the occasion. He twisted arms to get everyone to family gatherings. He organized the annual siblings’ reunion so that we stayed in touch and in harmony with each other. His standard telephone greeting was “Hello brother, you got Washington straightened out yet?”
His role as spiritual leader of the family will be hard to fill. He was a man of prayer and our “morning” devotions sometimes took more than half the day on family vacation as we prayed for the causes and loved ones close to his heart and heard the taped messages that he had saved to share with his brother and two sisters and us spouses. Like his father before him, he kept up a voluminous correspondence and had dear friends everywhere around the world. He would invite us to go out to dinner and it would end up being a group of 12 to 20 people.
J.B. and Bette were consummate host and hostess; their home was a welcoming place for travelers and family. There were wonderful breakfasts, great evenings of singing around the piano with homemade ice cream churning out back, sweet fellowship together with cousins, aunts, and uncles, and various friends who just happened to be in town. There was always singing with numerous pianists and song leaders taking turns at drawing together beautiful harmony.
There is no way to think of J.B. without thinking of J.B. and Bette together. They were a team –– and what a dynamic team. They were partners, with J.B. working alongside Bette to get everything up to their exacting standards –– whether for entertaining or planning special occasions for family and friends, writing a Christmas letter, crafting an article for a missionary publication, preparing a speech for a major international event, or J.B. performing a solo with Bette at the piano.
Great trees, though, have to have strong root systems that enable them to weather storms and the strong winds of adversity. The authenticity of J.B. and Bette’s faith and the depth of their character were tested at pivotal points, and they came through shaken to the core, but shining witnesses to the power of faith, family, and forgiveness. No one looking on could miss the pain they experienced at key points in their lives, nor underestimate the challenges that they faced at other points, but their faith held and their family held. They came through life’s experiences strengthened in their love for each other, for all the members of the family, for the whole clan, and for their Savior and God. They proved faithful and, in the process, they became real people — and no one ever doubted that J.B. and Bette had earned their position as role models for faithfulness and forgiveness.
I am so thankful that I fell in love with Gilbert Crouse and through marriage to him became part of the Crouse Clan, and that I experienced the eras of the “Big Papa” and then J.B. Crouse. I am grateful that our small branch of the family contributes to the strong root system that is necessary for a big, close clan –– that each branch is important in shaping the impact of the whole.
Now, I –– and our children and grandchildren –– are part of that great cloud of witnesses that will gather at J.B.’s funeral to attest to the impact of “great trees” and celebrate their strong presence as “giants of the faith” who lead organizations and families. Of such close-knit families are great nations built, and through them will a great nation like America continue to exist.