John Hays III Funeral Sermon

September 9, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

Okay. Before we get started, there are couple things that just need to be said:

John Hays “was always the smartest guy in any room.”[1] It’s just the way it was. He was, after all, a proud member Mensa.[2] His mind simply worked at a different plane than it does for the rest of us.

And the second thing is this: To quote his grandson Ben, “He was a character, that is, he was kinda weird. But in a good way.”[3] And lest you think me impertinent, let us just review the dawning of Susan and John’s romantic feelings for each other.

They’d known each other as kids in Indiana. They lived on the same street. But with a six-year age difference, they were each just on the periphery of the other’s awareness. Decades later, though, they reconnected in California – each certain at that season of their lives, they had no interest in being married to anyone. Until…

On a business trip in Hong Kong, John sent Susan a series of postcards, written (of course, this is John we’re talking about) in Chinese characters. So Susan found a cook in a Chinese restaurant to interpret them for her. He read them and blushed. All he was willing to say was, “I think he likes you.”

Susan’s mother was with her and asked, “What did you always say about Johnnie Hays?”

“I always thought he was kind of weird,” she replied.

“Mm hmm. And what did your brother always say about you?”

“He said I was kinda weird.” Pause  “Is what I think is happening, happening?”

“Good Lord, I thought I had a smarter daughter than that.”

And with brazen resolve, Susan dashed off a telex to Hong Kong: “Johnny, come home to me. I love you!”[4]

They may both be weird. But in a good way.

So to start at the beginning:[5] John was born in Indiana, spent the war years in Washington D.C. because of his father’s work with the army, then returned to Indiana where he finished out his school years, along with his younger sisters, Emily and Barbara. He was proud to be an Eagle Scout. And in 1957, en route to the scouting Jubilee Jamboree in England, and with his dad’s political connections, he was personally handed his first passport at the State Department by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. That same day, with his dad, he was introduced to President Eisenhower. In the Oval Office. “Welcome, Hayses,” the president said, as they entered. Turns out his dad’s war work with then General Eisenhower had been a lot more significant than John was aware of at the time. Once at the jamboree, he ended up sick in the infirmary for a while, when by chance, the young Queen Elizabeth was making her rounds. And he spoke with her (for a little less than a minute).

All this by aged 16.

But what an introduction to this world – this big, enchanting world – that never ceased to fascinate and beckon him. He graduated from Wabash College in Indiana, which included studying abroad in Scotland, where – amongst other thing – he developed a life-long love of rowing (and single malt whiskey). He did his MBA at Harvard University which, in turn, launched his whirlwind career in Latin America: guarding Exxon’s investments throughout the region, masterminding international sales for Chrysler, then being drafted in as Executive Director of a small bank in Argentina that grew into Argentina’s largest private sector bank and its first truly international financial institution. In the second half of his professional life, he and Susan pioneered a new method of growing and harvesting coffee on a plantation in Molokai and he took a prominent role as the first US delegate to the International Coffee Organization, in part, because of the way he opened up the coffee market in China.

But you know – and I think you do know, because you knew John – it was never about the resumé. It was about the adventure. Not the “Indiana Jones” kind of adventure, (although some of the stories certainly lean in that direction. He did spend time in a jail cell in Paraguay and was on the assassination list during a political uprising and dabbled in espionage). But for John, it was more the adventure of living this full life and the excitement of tackling each new problem that needed solving.

There was in John a “Yes” to every opportunity and challenge that rose before him.[6] This world fascinated him, and every facet of it. He was curious about everything. His son (also named John, who shared with us earlier) remembers from childhood, how – when his dad came home from work – they’d sit in the living room together (on the burgundy couch) and talk about whatever he was reading at the time. Questions would arise and he’d send John dashing off to look it up in the encyclopedia.[7] There’s always something new to learn and enjoy of the intricacies of the world.

John’s cousin Val remembers him from childhood, with a certain bit of awe: “He was the ‘kid with his own chemistry set’ – sort of an oddly sophisticated [adult-like] boy.”[8] And yet, as he aged, the reverse could also be said of him. He was something of a childlike adult – childlike in that he never lost his sense of wonder. His friend Lee writes, “Most people lose their curiosity – their sense of wonder and delight in the world – when they become adults. It’s rare and wonderful to see those qualities in a grown person. John Hays retained all of that – and more – for his entire life.”[9]

Which led, of course, to an insatiable love of travelling (Was it 120 countries he visited?) – all that discovering to be done! It’s a love now passed on to his daughter, Caroline. Even this past week, on the flight bringing her to her father’s funeral, she began to remember:

When we were little, Dad would make flights so much fun because HE loved flying. We would look out the window together; he would open a map over the tray table and show me where we were, where we were going, and anything interesting there was to see “down there.”[10]

So as she was recalling all this, Caroline opened the window shade to the gaze down below. And suddenly, emerging from the clouds, was Mt. Rainier – majestic and glorious. No one else on the plane seemed aware of what they were missing. Only Caroline was seeing. And at that moment, she knew John was with her too, delighting in this wonderful world they shared.

And that’s what it was for him: delight! Whether it being the first to broker American sales in Cuba after the embargo or being offered a bowl of ice cream, it was delight! When Susan planned a surprise 60th birthday extravaganza for him, what was his response? “All this is for me? I can’t believe it!”[11] There was a “twinkle in his eye that was a window into his love of the world. You could actually see it on his face.”[12] “His joy was contagious.”[13]

He loved costumes – making them and wearing them! It was part cultural appreciation, and part, just plain silliness. When his invitation to a presidential ball in Paraguay indicated that decorations should be worn, he didn’t have any. By why let that hold him back? He dug through his jewelry box and came up with his Eagle Scout badge and a handful of perfect attendance pins from his Presbyterian Sunday School days and God-knows what other paraphernalia, and dazzled the international dignitaries with his chest-ful of bogus “decorations.”

And John’s joy for this world required he be more than just an observer. He needed to be an active participant. And nowhere was this more the case than his love of languages. (How many did he speak? Eight fluently? Fourteen passably?) Even as recently as last year, when the pianist at the Tacoma Symphony began playing the Ukrainian national anthem, John began singing along.[14] But it was never showing off. It was, absolutely, his delight in being able to dignify and participate in these other cultures – like crafting blessings in Korean to send their goddaughter’s sons on all the right days in Korean tradition.[15] But, mind you, his polyglot-ness could sometimes be a problem. His friend, Sue, remembers: “He’d start a joke in English and switch to who-knows-what for the punchline, and be disappointed you didn’t laugh. ‘En Ingles, Juan T,’” she’d yell at him, “’En Ingles!’” [16]

What many people didn’t realize, was how seriously John regarded this gift he had for languages. He knew it was exceptional – a gift from God, even – which meant he had a duty to use it for others’ good. To quote his uncle’s lifelong mantra: When in doubt, do right. He was on a call list with local hospitals to come in any time – day or night – to translate for patients in crisis, ensuring they and their care-givers could communicate with each other. Once, on an exclusive tour in Italy, visiting the most elite roasters, a woman on the tour had some kind of medical crisis and fell into a could-be fatal coma. Without a moment’s hesitation, John abandoned the tour to stay with her and her husband in the hospital, ensuring all their care was in order.

John was an artist. So far as I could tell, his paintings were principally of places he’d been or lived. And again, the spirit behind them (or within them, you might say), was a celebration of those places and the joy and gratitude he felt in being there. That’s how his son remembers it:

After dinner, we would go downstairs to the basement and dad would paint his current project in oil on canvas, typically a painting that would remind us of some beautiful place we had been together on a recent trip. That is possibly one of my fondest memories, not only because it is filled with family, but because it is so simple and beautiful.[17]

And now, a generation later, his grandson shares a similar memory: visiting Gig Harbor, eating breakfast with his grandfather, while John tells him about the painting on the wall, the painting of the street and those large, turn-of-the-century homes in Sullivan, Indiana where he and Susan had once lived as children themselves.

There’s a fittingness in this memory. For John’s sense of self was deeply rooted in who he knew himself to be within the context of his family: the heritage of his grandparents, his famous Uncle Will, and his parents; his sisters; his children, Caroline and John; and his grandchildren, of whom he was so proud and “amazed by all the accomplishments they made.”[18]

And, of course, there was Susan, who he always viewed through rose-colored glasses; travelling the world together on their grand adventure of endless “yes’s.”[19] Marrying her, he said, was the best thing he ever did.[20] And one of the hallmarks of their shared life was their spirit of generosity – a generosity “beyond all measure.”[21] In sickness and health, for richer or poorer, their generosity persisted: clothes from around the world that would arrive in the mail for nieces and nephews – always stylish and always the perfect fit;[22] hosting a meal on a Hawaiian beach to celebrate a friend’s marriage.[23]

And yet, for all the fullness of their adventurous life, these past six months have yielded a richness all its own. Frail and bedridden with bone cancer, nearly blind, memories tossed in a swirl of Alzheimer’s – there continued to grow between them a peace and intimacy all its own. What the body took away, the Spirit preserved… and blossomed. I was with them when John died – their final gaze on each other as they made their transition to a new way of seeing beyond seeing – a sacrament of its own that speaks to the faith they shared:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.[24]

And now it is the Eternal John we must seek to know. For it is the Eternal John who has now entered the ongoing realm of God’s redeeming and ever-becoming creation – a kind of new country for John to find and map and fill in with endless discoveries.

I am happy for John. For it is the destination he long sought. His Christian faith was forged in him from his earliest days, and in no exclusive or narrow-minded way. He was something of an ecumenist – ready to engage anyone whose practice of faith was sincere and thoughtful.

First among them was Ray Russell, a grandson of slaves who lived in John’s hometown, and was a pole star for him and Emily when the war made their own father absent. A rock-solid fundamental Baptist, Ray taught them their first hymns and prayers, but more importantly, he lived a life of absolute integrity. In John’s words, “he transmitted good-ness to his environment,” [25] even when society seldom reciprocated. Over the course of his years, as John pursued faith, he would have private audiences with Cardinal Cushings, who at the time was also the spiritual advisor to President Kennedy. John dined with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and served on the board of the Salvation Army. He sang in the choir at St. Andrew’s Cathedral and sponsored the work of Word of Life Ministries in Honolulu. And lastly, he was member of St. John’s, Gig Harbor.

And in this all, he was a member of the Body of Christ – a body composed of all those who follow in the way of Christ and, mystically, John is united with Christ’s own body: crucified, buried, and resurrected.

As this service ends, we’ll process to the garden together to inter John’s ashes, that he may rest in peace, and rise in glory.



[1] Suzanne Frazier Brown

[2] Bill Brown

[3] Benjamin von Keisenberg

[4] As told to Eric Stelle by Susan Hays

[5] All details of John’s life, unless otherwise attributed, are derived from his self-published autobiography, John Hays III, If You’re So Rich, Why Aren’t You Smart, 2018.

[6] As told to Eric from Susan Hays

[7] John Matthew Patrick Hays

[8] Val Spooner Kelly

[9] Lee Nowell

[10] Caroline Hays von Keisenberg

[11] Kim Baker

[12] Lee Nowell

[13] Amber Davies-Sloan

[14] Paul Schneider

[15] Amber Davies-Sloan

[16] Sue Jennings

[17] John Matthew Park Hays

[18] Stacy Shigemura

[19] Lee Nowell

[20] Paul Schneider

[21] Val Spooner Kelly

[22] Martin Andres Hain

[23] Robert Wilhelm

[24] 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

[25] John Hays, 34.