In February of 2012, I had the profound honor of speaking at my big brother’s, Michael Swaggerty, funeral. We lost Mike way too soon, but his life was a testament to many friends and acquaintances through the years. Below is most of the eulogy that I shared at that Celebration of Life Service. Thanks for indulging me as I remember my brother on his birthday tomorrow, June 17.
First, on behalf of my mother, my sister and our families, allow me to thank you for your presence here tonight. The last few months have been difficult ones for us, but it has been your prayers and love that have sustained us through his illness and death. We love you and thank God for each of you, what you mean to us and what you meant to Mike.
Over the last two weeks, I have learned a lot about my big brother and in the process, I learned some valuable life lessons. Some of the things I learned about Mike were things I never knew before and some of them changed my opinion of who my brother was and what he did. There are four things I would like to share with you today about Mike or Michael or Swag…. However you may have known him.
First of all, BE TRUE TO WHO YOU ARE AND WHO GOD MADE YOU TO BE. My brother was an artist, a musical artist. He painted the landscape of his life with sounds and music, and he used his artistry to speak to people he came in contact with. For many of us, it seemed that perhaps Mike “marched to a different drummer”, but the reality was he was just being who God had created him to be. We spend too much time in our lives trying to fit in to what we think others want us to be. We are told that we are made in the image of God, so shouldn’t we fulfill that image by being true to ourselves? I certainly know that Mike was true to who he was.
The next thing I learned is LOVE WHAT YOU DO IN LIFE. My brother is a picture for being fulfilled in his life’s passion…. Music. He started rather early in life pursuing this passion. Just last week we learned of this story he had told to a Columbus newspaper a few years ago while being interview about his work.
This is the excerpt from the article which appeared in the Columbus Dispatch. “I think it all started back when I was just a little boy in the foothills of East Tennessee. My Grandma used to have an old washtub out back under the cherry tree, right next to the coal pile. Me and my Uncle Don, who was young enough to be my cousin and close enough to be my brother, would sneak out there and beat on the old washtub and harmonize on some James and Bobby Purify tunes. Well, needless to say it wouldn’t be long ’til Thelma, my Grandma, would come out screamin’ about cuttin’ out the racket and git to fillin’ up the furnace like she told us to.” He laughs when I tell him I am going to print the message he sent me and says, “The best part is that it’s all true!”
Those early days for my brother and uncle, singing in our Grandma’s backyard, soon gave way to practicing with his other friends in Grandma’s basement. They had formed a band, “The Fabulous Junkmen.” I am told they were in demand at all the school dances and sockhops. They even allowed one friend to join them who didn’t have a lot of musical talent, so they never plugged in his microphone and took the strings off his guitar. Since I am the “much younger” sibling, I have no memories of this band, but I would give anything to hear them! I bet they were absolutely “fabulous.” Mike would be in other bands along the way, but it was when he came back to Knoxville in his late 20’s that he found his real passion….. being a DJ. He honed his craft at WKGN radio in Knoxville and in clubs around the area His love for being a DJ eventually took him to Columbus, Ohio where he lived for the last 30 years.
My third lesson is WHATEVER YOU DO, DO IT WELL. When Pat, Rusty, Mom and I traveled to Columbus, we had only been there a few minutes when we began to meet friends and work colleagues of my brother. The days we were in Columbus were filled with story after story of what Mike had done during his 30 years there. How many people he had helped along the way. The weddings he had provided music for. The way he had changed the landscape of music in Columbus. My brother is a legend there. His radio show has been on the air since 1994 and is the longest running radio show in Columbus. He took his passion, he crafted it into something he loved and he did it very well. He didn’t hide, either. He was friendly and kind to all he met. He taught them his craft, and it carries on even today.
The final lesson might be the best one of all LOVE PEOPLE, SHOW THEM AND TELL THEM. When you grow up 15 years younger than your oldest sibling, you spend many days feeling like you don’t have a lot in common. My earliest memories of Mike are from the days he returned home from the Air Force and when he decided to move away from the family home. I didn’t have the luxury of growing up with him. I’ve heard the stories, though, the way he tormented my sister and her friends. The time he locked her out of the house. The dolls that he tore the heads from. Hmmmmm, maybe I didn’t miss so much after all. Even though the age difference was large, I ALWAYS knew he loved me. As I grew older, we would talk about music. We would draw parallels between Johann Sebastian Bach and Pink Floyd. Yes, Pink Floyd. He LOVED jazz, and started me in my appreciation for great jazz music. He introduced me to some amazing music, and I hope I broadened his listening experience, too. He took the time to find the place where we could connect. We were both Barry Manilow fans…….YES, MIKE SWAGGERTY was a “Fanilow”!!! He loved me, he supported me, and although our musical paths took different directions, I could always count on him for a word of encouragement.
Shortly before my ordination into ministry, Mike wrote me a lengthy email. He gave me words that I will never forget and that I carry with me each day He said, “It is as if you were born to do this very thing. I am proud you followed your heart and your passion.” He also called me the “cruise director” but that’s a story for another time and place!!
At times, I took that relationship and encouragement for granted. We all take things like that for granted. We think there will always be another opportunity for an “I love you” or for a “thanks” or even a “can I help you with something.” If Mike were here today, I think he would tell you, above all, to tell the people you love that you love them. Do what you do with all the passion and creativity you can find. And be true to who you are.
I was talking with a friend earlier this week about Mike. I told him that I felt as if Mike fulfilled his life calling in the fact that he took the gifts and talents he had been given, shaped them and used them to touch and enhance the lives of the people around him. Isn’t that, though, what God calls all of us to do?
Micah 6:8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?