Throughout my life there have been many people I have looked up to. Often as a child I was asked by teachers or adults trying to connect with me about who are my heroes. I feel like sports stars are often a choice for younger boys in particular. I grew up in the Baltimore/Washington suburbs where I admired Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken. I also admired Lawrence Taylor and Len Bias.
The idealized image of an individual as a hero sets an unachievable level of expectation. The tragedy of Len Bias’s death impacted me significantly. It was one of my first experiences I can recall, as a 10 year old, that showed how fragile life is and how flawed humans can be, even my heroes. The loss of his invincible image was incredibly disappointing to me. The days after his death felt like the world was less magical, less safe, and less hopeful. Sometimes the flaws are impossible to hide and sometimes they are never seen.
I also experienced another realization about idealized images of people when my parents divorced. Growing up, I saw my parents as infallible, as I imagine most children do, and in something as painful as a divorce, it’s difficult to hide the pain and messy humanity of anyone involved. I was 19 or 20 as I processed the divorce through my adult, but immature lens, and the reality slowly sunk in. I was seeing how being human involves fragility and vulnerability for all of us in an emotional space. I think that has helped me appreciate my parents more over time. There is no one who achieves an idealized image, we are all human, following life’s path, and wonderfully flawed.
I have worked to evolve my admiration of a person into appreciating the qualities of person I am aligned with and understanding for the qualities I am not aligned with. Too often in the past I could shut someone out and be very judgmental of behavior or positions people take. I am seeing the hypocrisy in that judgment and I am trying to stay in an empathetic mindset to truly connect and to soften the emotional load I carry. Sometimes that emotional processing takes a good amount of time. I also realize that not everyone is someone who I’d want to spend time with, and that is fine as well. Everyone has a lifetime of experiences that have shaped them, that they carry with them, and those points of life and emotional connections can re-emerge at any moment.
My connection to fly fishing has been threaded through my life and different influences and inspirations led me to the sport. I tied my first fly sometime in my teens. I just found feathers in my backyard and tied them to a hook. I recently found that fly again and it triggered memories buried in me.
I remember trying to cast it with a spin rod, which did not work well. I had an uncle who gave me a fly rod and reel, but I never used them. I was drawn to water and set my career in stream protection and restoration, but wasn’t an active fisherman. And then after meeting my wife, I learned of how much her Grandfather, Papa Butch, loved fly fishing. He tied flies and fished the streams of Northern Pennsylvania. He traveled to fly fish and loved the connection to streams, rivers, and his fishing peers. My connection to him, through her, also brought me back to fly fishing. A friend and a hero that I never met in person was the final inspiration for helping me find fly fishing.
Two men in particular have been instrumental in my growth as a fly fisher, as friends, teachers and heroes. Brian Bernstein and Mark Cheskey have each inspired me, taught me, encouraged me, challenged me, and supported me in fly fishing. The camaraderie and friendship they give is something I admire and greatly appreciate. They also provide humility and the clearly stated messaging that to enjoy fishing requires the addition of skill, an openness to observe and adjust to conditions, and the knowledge that we are all learning with each experience. As they give of themselves, I admire each of them and I’m realizing I’d much rather have friends than heroes.
This week, a friend in my life passed away. He was a monumental personality and a force of nature. Sometimes that force carried a powerful, transformative message and sometimes it was a grating sand storm. His name is Jim Gracie. He had been very ill for the last year or so and developed pneumonia after having several serious respiratory ailments over the years. Please don’t smoke!
It is very sad for me, as I had grown quite fond of him and developed a friendship with him in the past 10 years. We often battled and had fun disagreements that could become a little heated. He was an ornery soul and those who knew him know that is an understatement. He was the most passionate person I have ever met when it comes to improving water quality in the state of Maryland, especially in urban areas. His zeal resulted in many wonderful achievements for the legislation and policies protecting our waterways in Maryland. He started stream restoration, in earnest, in MD, many years ago. As a result of his work, those of us who love stream and water quality work have been fortunate to develop careers in that pursuit in this region.
My father would often say as I was growing up that, “people are more interesting when they have a little texture.” Jim was full of texture. He often could step on toes and be the loudest person in the room, but he had a huge heart, a wonderful soul, and an incredible desire to make the world better. He said he’d never stop working until he could help Dead Run, Gwynns Falls and Jones Falls be healthy fishable waters. And he worked until the end.
He is an incredibly important person for where we are today in water quality, trout protection, resource management and stream restoration in Maryland. I wanted to pass along his bio from his recent award of the Carl Weber Award at the Maryland Water Monitoring Council Meeting from the Maryland DNR. This lists some of his great accomplishments, but there are many more not listed. I think it’s important for us all to invest time to learn the history and drivers of why we get to do what we enjoy and I wanted you all to know that there are few people that have had a bigger impact than Jim Gracie. My friendship with Jim also has reminded me that people that perform heroic actions can also have a little texture.