When I think back about the Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with for the 20 years I spent working at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I still see them as they were back when I first knew them. I was able to see them come to work each day willing to give all they had in order to keep the plant running smoothly. I would find out sometimes that behind their stoic behavior of heroism was a person bearing enormous pain.
I will not go into the private lives of each of the Power Plant Men and the personal struggles in their lives beyond those that we all shared at the plant. Some were bearing such enormous pain that all the Power Plant Men and Women shared their pain. Others bore their pain in silence leaving the rest of us oblivious to the grief as they sat next to you in the truck or beside you tightening bolts, or checking electric circuits.
I remember a time when one of my best friends seemed to be acting short tempered for a while. I figured something was eating at him. Finally after almost a year he confided in me what had been going on in his personal life, and it broke my heart to think of the pain this person had been experiencing all along, while I had been annoyed at his quick temper.
It is an eye opening experience when the person I talked to every single day at work is being torn apart with worry and I didn’t even have a clue. Well, the clues were there only I was too blind to see.
I began this post on a rather ominous note because one of the great Power Plant Men of his day, Larry Riley, died this past Wednesday, June 24, 2015.
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my Power Plant Friend Bud Schoonover passing away. (See the post: “Dynamic Power Plant Trio — And Then There Was One“). I mentioned some of the special times we had while we carpooled back and forth to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I knew Bud was getting along in years, so when I heard about his death, I was not surprised. I immediately pictured him back together again with Richard Dale, our travelling companion.
On Wednesday night when I was contacted by a number of Power Plant Men and Women who all wanted me to know right away that Larry had passed away, I was suddenly hit with a wave of shock. I was overwhelmed with grief. I broke out in tears.
Larry had been important to me from the very first day I worked in the Power Plant. I worked with Larry and Sonny Karcher before I worked with anyone else. My original mentors have both passed away now.
Of the 183 Power Plant Stories I have written thus far, the story about Larry Riley was one of the first stories I couldn’t wait to tell others. You can read it here: “Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley“.
Through my first years at the Power Plant Larry was there looking out for me when he had no other reason to do so than that he cared for others. Some pseudo-Power Plant Men mocked him secretly for being a noble person. Others didn’t have a clue what lengths Larry went to help out a person in need.
Since Larry’s death I have heard a couple of stories that Power Plant Men wanted to share with me about how Larry helped them out when there was no where else to turn. Stories I heard for the first time. I encourage any Power Plant Men who knew Larry to leave a comment below about him.
Larry was one of those people who used to bear his pain in secret. He did the same thing with his love for others. I had mentioned in the post about the Genius of Larry Riley that “…he performed acts of greatness … with complete humility. I never saw a look of arrogance on Larry’s face. He never spoke down to you and he never bragged about anything.”
Though Larry did his best to conceal it, there was always a hidden sort of sadden about him. Since he had the wisdom and knowledge well beyond his years when he was only 24 years old, I figured he must have had a rough childhood that caused him to grow up quickly. He was humped over as if he carried a burden on his back. I thought maybe his sadness grew out of that experience. Of course, I was only guessing.
After I first posted the story about Larry Riley, I was told by a Power Plant Man that Larry had been forced to accept an early retirement because he had a drinking problem. The Plant Manager was kind enough to let him retire instead of outright firing him, which would have caused him to lose his retirement benefits.
When I heard that Larry was no longer at the plant and under what circumstances he left, my heart sank. The sadness that Larry Riley had been trying to hide all those years had finally caught up with him in a big way and his world came crashing down.
I know that I am more like an “armchair observer” in the life of Larry Riley. There were family members and friends that I’m sure were devastated by Larry’s downfall in a lot more ways than one. Where I sit back and idolize the Power Plant Men as heroes, others are down in the trenches coming face-to-face with whatever realities happen in their lives.
Where others may look at Larry as a failure for developing a drinking problem that brought him to his knees, True Power Plant Men know full well that Larry Riley has a noble soul. He has always been meant for greatness.
In the post about my last day on the Labor Crew, I wrote the following about Larry, who was my foreman while I was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand“): “…Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley… Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother, I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.”
I know I am not the only person that remembers Larry the way I do. When Larry died this past Wednesday, as soon as the Power Plant Men found out, several of them sent me e-mails, and reached out to me on Facebook to let me know. I think some of them wanted me to share Larry’s greatness with the rest of the world through this post.
As I felt the outpouring of grief from the Power Plant Men, I was overwhelmed by their sorrow. I happened to be sitting alone in a hotel room in Detroit, Michigan when I first found out. My phone kept buzzing (as I had it on vibrate) as one-by-one Power Plant Men sent messages letting me know of Larry’s death. I could feel the sadness hanging over my phone like a fog.
As each message buzzed my phone, my sorrow over Larry’s death grew until I had to just sit on the corner of the bed and cry. I have never felt more sorrow over the death of a Power Plant Man than I did for Larry Riley.
As I pictured Bud Schoonover meeting up again with Richard Dale after Peter open the gate for him, I pictured Larry Riley somewhat differently. I envisioned him walking down a dirt road by himself.
In my mind this is what I saw:
As Larry walks away from me down the road humped over with bad posture, struggling to take each step, in pain from the cancer that killed him, seemingly alone, he pauses suddenly. From the distance in my vision, I can’t quite tell why. He turns to one side.
Almost falling over, as he walks like an old man to the edge of the road where the ditch is overgrown with weeds, he stumbles down into the brush. Thinking that Larry has had a mishap, I move closer.
Suddenly I see Larry re-emerge. This time standing more upright. Alongside Larry is another Power Plant Man. I recognize his gait, but his back is turned so I can’t tell for sure who he is. He is much bigger than Larry. Larry has his arm across the man’s back holding him up as the other Power Plant Man has his arm wrapped around Larry’s neck as Larry pulls him up onto the road.
The two continue walking down the road toward the sun rising on the horizon. The Saints Go Marching On.
This is the Larry Riley I knew.
His funeral service will be held on his 61st birthday, July 3, 2015.
I know that those who really knew Larry will take a moment of silence to remember him. Not for the sorrow that he felt through his life as I originally felt when I heard of his death, but take a moment of silence to remember a great man. One who secretly inspired others toward goodness. A man who went out of his way to lift up someone who had fallen along the side of the road. My personal hero: Larry Wayne Riley.