Column: Anniversary tribute to a long-gone friend

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Guest column: The Rev. Dennis “Duck” Cook, an Indian Land High School graduate, is pastor of Cedar Grove Family Worship Center in Monroe, N.C.

May 11, 2011, marked the 15th anniversary of the tragic loss of a great friend, John Patrick Barnhart Jr. of Indian Land.
A tribute I wrote about him was published days after his life was swept away, at age 19, by the deceiving current where he and other friends were swimming in the Catawba River under the Highway 5 bridge near Bowater. It was May 11, 1996 – Mother’s Day and the birthday of his sister, Christina B. Rogers, and another friend, Billy Bennett Jr.
In honor of his dear mother and father, Doreen and John Barnhart Sr., I reflect on the words I expressed in the original tribute. In retrospect, more seem to flood my still-vivid memory of those life-altering times of grief.
A day, like any other, was abruptly interrupted with distressing calls among friends in a frantic search for one who’d fallen. Rumors and stories of his survival quickened our spirits. Hope spurred the tireless efforts – to no avail, as our friend was discovered three days later. Those who valiantly attempted to save him were stricken with disbelief, as was his family who would now mourn their son.
John was a great guy with an infectious smile and personality. You just wanted to be in the room with him, just to smile with him or at him. His service portrait is evidence that he even smiled when he was supposed to be serious. Smiles are contagious and it seems the world grew a bit grim in the absence of his.
He loved his family and friends and would bend over backward to lend a helping hand. I recall a story of him and Michael Melton taking his Jeep out in the snow to help others out of ditches, only to have his own bumper smashed in the process.
He was liked and loved by many, but if you knew him, you knew his love ran deep for his mother and family – especially his nephew, little Jimmy.  I think he saw a lot of himself and his smile in the little fella. He would sure be proud of not-so-little Jimmy now, as are we all!
I don’t remember ever discussing eternity with John, but I believe he knew his Savior. But you cannot (and should not) live as selfless, respectful and loving as he did without the love of God in your heart.
I know that’s why his funeral, officiated by the Rev. Steve Jacks, was so full of his loved ones looking for hope. When the invitation was given, there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary. There was not a single hand not raised in pledge to live for Christ. Some may have pledged in order to escape condemnation and others just to have hope of seeing our friend once again.
We have all since chosen our own paths and some have gone on before us. However, each of us holds our own personal memories and photographs of those precious moments and times gone by.
I was married a year later to my high school sweetheart, whom John made me promise to “treat the little redhead right.” Four of us – Jerry Bennett, Kevin Shaw, Mark Engels and me – stood in a pose, leaving an empty space in remembrance of our friend.
There are too many others to name who, I’m sure, miss him as much, if not more.
I still stop by the black, sand-blasted marker at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Indian Land once in a while just to keep his memory alive and well.
Jerry named a son after him. I also passed his middle name, Patrick, on to my son and have shared his story with him and my daughter, so they, too, will sustain the memory of my friend.
I have since become an ordained pastor in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church and seek to help others learn of God’s love and rewards for those who serve him. I try to smile, as John did, in hopes of bringing joy to others.
I will never listen to R. Kelly’s “You Remind Me,” nor drink a Cheerwine, nor pass over the Highway 5 bridge, nor watch Thumper’s part in “Bambi,” without a thought for the world’s loss and heaven’s gain.
May God bless the family and friends left behind to toil for the kingdom until we meet again in glory!