Many of you know that one year ago, this Saturday, we lost a great Partner, friend, community leader, and family man, Bill Henningsgaard. We also lost three young people, two in their home in Connecticut, Sade and Madisyn …. and Bill and Susan’s 17-year old son, Max.
I already knew a lot about Bill, but at a smaller family memorial last August 15th I learned so much more about Max. And what I learned most powerfully about and from Max was simply this … what each of us does on this earth matters, sometimes it matters a whole lot, often when we don’t know it … and just a few minutes can matter so much that it alters the course of a person’s life.
During the gathering on the 15th, for a few hours, people that had been a part of Bill’s and Max’s lives came up to the microphone to share stories, make us cry and remember, hurt and hope. Among those sharing their stories were two classmates of Max’s, Kevin and Nacole. Each of them gave me the OK to share their words in full.
Kevin shared how they used to play Xbox in 8th grade. As we well know, there is cyber-bullying these days, even among friends and the impersonal nature of it can be biting, demeaning to say the least. Kevin was the recipient for a while in his peer group. If you’ve had a teenager, you know how deep they can cut, even with their friends. One day it was clearly getting to Kevin and in the midst of the latest round of taunts and digs, one person in the group stopped it cold, “we are not going to harass Kevin anymore; it’s over.” And it was. The young man, mature beyond his years that uttered those simple, powerful words, that no one else had the guts to say (like I probably wouldn’t have) was Max Henningsgaard.
As we were just about done on the 15th of August, assuming everyone had spoken … there was one more person. I’d seen her hanging nearing the mic, for at least an hour, hesitatingly, haltingly, sort of moving closer and then she’d back away a little way … Nacole. Finally, as I walked up to help close the proceedings, Nacole said: “Let me up there.”
I can still see the look on her face, I knew she wasn’t going to give a scripted, canned talk. She was clearly smart, full of potential, went to Lakeside with Max, but as she told us, she wasn’t from “that neighborhood.” She talked about the opportunities it gave her and the friendships she developed with lots of classmates, but more strongly just how hard it also was every day, every trip down the halls, every look someone gave her like “ do you really deserve to be here?” Nacole said, sometimes at end of the day, she just needed someone to talk to, to share her feelings with, to hear her. There was ONE person she could consistently rely on to listen to her fully and that she could trust 100% – Max.
If your first reaction is profound admiration, coupled with sadness, for Max, then we share the same feeling. It is inescapable what these two stories remind us … in a few minutes, through the course of everyday life, a young boy’s and girl’s self-image and confidence was given a huge, lasting boost. If you doubt it, Kevin shared this with me a few days later – “For me, the story reminds me that I, like most, need to be more open with gratitude; I need to be sure that those who I appreciate know that they are appreciated. It needn’t always be with words, but the message must be conveyed. For Max, it’s too late now to remind him of that night and tell him what his actions meant to me, but there have got to be more stories and gratitude out there that can be shared.”
As Nacole walked off that afternoon, she related to me how much she had been looking forward to her sophomore year with her senior year friend, Max. And how much she would miss him. Like all of us miss Max and Bill. The next time you encounter a young person, the next time you visit your kids’ school, the next time you have the opportunity to be a mentor, the next time, the next time … remember the powerful impact Max had and that each of us can have every minute, maybe in just one minute, of our lives. Thank you, Max, you are still with us, you still matter, a whole lot.