Life's unexpected envoys

My friend Van Youngman is a devout and vocal atheist, which serves him well as a college professor who teaches logic to art students and future sous chefs at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.

White-bearded and endlessly opinionated, Youngman states those opinions in a rich, broadcast-quality baritone. He explains his enthusiastic nonbelief in religion with the ease and moral certainty of a monsignor who knows that he has won the trip to Ireland in next Sunday's parish raffle.

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Friend Van Youngman, college professor, Hodgkin's sufferer, and devout atheist, at the hospital.

Youngman argues that individual human existence is brutish, short, and meaningless. We are born with a biological imperative to reproduce the species and then to die without mawkish fantasies of an afterlife. The only light at the end of the tunnel is on the Ridge Avenue spur of the Broad Street subway.

And so it was with some sense of trepidation that I responded to Youngman's summons to visit his bedside at Pennsylvania Hospital. For weeks he has been treated for severe respiratory failure brought on by the latest course of chemotherapy in his years-long battle with Hodgkin's disease.

"There's something . . . I want you . . . to write," he said in breathless gulps over the phone.

I ventured into my faith-challenged friend's hospital room bearing a paper bag containing a few precious ounces of the medicinal spirits he had requested: Redbreast Irish whiskey.

What I saw on his face shocked me to silence. He was sitting up in bed, grinning like a kid, and looking younger and healthier than I had seen him look in years. "Have you ever met someone who changed your life?" he asked.

Before I could answer, he added: "If you're lucky, you get to meet three of them in a lifetime." Then Van Youngman paused. "And I've been very lucky."

As luck would have it, I had been researching a column about a retired Temple University professor in the School of Communication who was something of a legend to the former students - mostly women - she had changed, first as a demanding teacher, and later as a mentor, friend, and confidant.

At the age of 84, and despite the progressive toll taken by Parkinson's disease, Jean Brodey is still BFF with a devoted cadre of professional women working in public relations at major corporations, nonprofits, museums, and universities. Predictably, they call themselves "The Brodey Bunch."

"We would meet four times, now maybe twice, a year, for lunch or dinner, usually at the Whitemarsh Valley Inn, and we've been known to sing the Temple fight song," said Catherine Engle Menendez, one of the Temple band of sisters who idolized Brodey and earned the right to address her as Jean rather than Doctor.

"It took me about five years to feel comfortable calling her by her first name," said Engle Menendez, who will head Peco's communications department when she returns from maternity leave July 8. "I credit every public-relations job I've ever had to Jean. She knew everybody in the industry, and she knew we all needed jobs."

The Brodey Bunch get-togethers weren't about networking as much as laughter and, after a couple of glasses of wine, sing-alongs with the gals. "My mother loved piano bars, even though she really couldn't sing," said Lisette Brodey, a writer living in Los Angeles. "But she loved to sing, and she knew all the lyrics. And afterward, people would comment: 'Jean, you sing in keys that don't even exist.' "

Invariably, the Brodey Bunch would talk shop, and Dr. Jean's professional opinion and tough love were never off-key. Engle Menendez recalled her mentor's reaction to a complicated Peco plan to teach customers about their energy options.

"Cathy, you realize that you are all wrong, right?" Brodey said. "There are two things people want to know: Tell them that their lights will stay on. Tell them that they can still call Peco no matter what they choose, and that they will save money.

"You need to understand that, at the end of the day, what's most important to customers is about 5 percent of everything you just said."

Good teachers are the gift that keeps on giving.

"Have you ever met someone who changed your life?" asked Youngman, 76, the survivor of his ongoing war with cancer.

I started to mention a teacher, but he interrupted me. "Well, I had a nurse." Her name is Berthe Lumba, he tells me. She was born in Africa and has been working on her American dream since leaving the Congo at the age of 21.

Thirty years later, Lumba works nights as a nurse, while she pursues an advanced medical degree. Her four children, ages 19 to 29, are college-bound or college-educated.

And she changed the life of an aging atheist by simply being herself. "She enabled me to see myself as I really am," Youngman said. "I never took the time to ask myself, 'Who am I?' "

I suggested to my friend, who now vows to live another decade or two, that perhaps Berthe isn't really who he thinks she is. Perhaps her origin is not Congo.

"Have you ever considered the possibility that she is an angel?" I asked.

And for the first time in his life, Van Youngman was at a loss for words.

 


Clark DeLeon's column appears regularly in Currents. E-mail him at deleonc88@aol.com.