Eulogy: Edward Rees Dabbs
As delivered by his younger brother, Thomas Winn Dabbs
I've had the pleasure of visiting an old friend in Pembrokeshire, Wales, several times over the past few years. On one visit he took me to his church, a very old church, with one annex that dates back to the 13th century. As we were passing the grand cemetery nested there in the drizzle and deep greenery surrounded by tall trees, I noticed a large old stone marker, with the inscription, Rees, spelled R-E-E-S, and then I reckoned that whatever our family roots are on my father's side, our mother's maiden name inscribed on that old marker, put us at that location. I thought about my mother, my brother, and my son, too, who all bear the name, Rees.
I thought about the continuity of that old stone marker, and there was comfort in the thought of coming and going and yet remaining. This thought today belongs with Brother Rees and with all of us as we must come and go and yet remain. For reasons I can't express, it seems to me that continuity is the thing.
It doesn't take much time at the local Welsh pub to find out that Welsh folks are an intense bunch, much like their similarly fired up Scottish brethren, and much like many of us here who share parts of a recombinant DNA, rowdy but also genteel. This oxymoronic DNA was very much entrenched in Rees Dabbs' character.
When Rees was in Intensive Care, I had a chance to ask him what he wanted folks to remember about him. The most immediate point he wanted to make about his life went directly to his childhood growing up here at the Crossroads. Rees admitted that he felt lonely growing up in the country. He yearned to have, like those boys in nearby Mayesville, the numbers to strike up a good baseball game. He wanted more people, he said. People were the thing with Rees.
In his adult life, he lived for people, for repartee and good sport, and he filled his life with that which was not there when he was growing up. He came to love that old world game of intense and unruly engagement with folks, the sharp jokes and wit and artful manner he had that took a routine conversation to another level, sometimes uncomfortable, but also comic. Rees was the only person I've ever known who could consistently turn insult into laughter. He could find that rowdy part of us that wanted to be insulted, and we loved him for that.
For all those of us who knew him, even the most casual meeting with Rees was an event. He challenged us even in our most mundane moments, because nothing about life and people was mundane for Rees.
This intensity led Rees to become a flyer, a jet pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He retained throughout his life this flyer’s intensity, sometimes with mixed results. Most of us love the safety of firm ground, but flyers love the air. After leaving the service, at a young age he became president of a jet charter company in Midland, Texas. Business management was not his thing, so in the mid-1980s he returned to South Carolina to fly corporate jets.
Though too much of his adult life, Rees was plagued by alcoholism. We live in an age that has seen unprecedented technological achievements and wondrous advances in science, and to us it seems that the old malady of addiction should be part of a bygone era of afflictions that we only read about, like the Black Death in Europe. But the plague of addiction remains, and all of us have suffered it on some level, directly or indirectly. I am told that Rees survived this struggle and found, in the years before his death, recovery and the hard path to redemption. I guess that many of us remain puzzled by the vocabulary that surrounds the recovery from addiction, by the vagueness of how personal fault is mixed in with a disease tied to the continuing mystery of DNA and how the brain functions.
But I know that in his final days, his hospital room, Rees had recovered, and he was visited by friends who shared his struggle and whose lives he had touched. In recent years, he worked as a volunteer in a local prison and also volunteered in other capacities, touching and challenging that rowdy DNA in the hearts and minds of all he met and worked with.
In this remote country crossroads, Rees was born an aviator, and he carried through his life a love of flying. It is impossible for most of us to understand the intensity of taking a fierce but delicate piece of metal through the air at twice the speed of sound. It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to guide that craft, to push it to its limits, flying high in maneuvers, in formation, helmeted, on oxygen, at supersonic speed, holding a steady hand on that stick that is just a centimeter, a breath away from certain death.
Jet flight, this art, requires courage. It also requires a sense of abandon coupled with utter calm, a curious and contradictory blend of recklessness and finesse that seems the natural descendant of that rowdy but gentile DNA, its continuance from times past, from an old green world of tall trees and old names that live on. This art of navigating planes and people in the gleeful spirit of challenge was the rare talent that Rees inherited and cultivated in his better years.
He was always the flyer exploring the natural limits of nature, circling the bounds of life and aiming for a good ball game with people. Rees’s final flight would leave a hole in our lives but for the fact that he was, for all of us who knew him, among the most unforgettable people we will ever meet. He flew with recklessness and finesse through our lives and our memories, and he will continue to fly with us, forever.
He was our son, our brother, our kinsman, sometimes our nemesis, but always our dear friend. May the name of Edward Rees Dabbs join into formation with that old stone marker in Wales, and may his name continue to resound in our hearts and minds, and thoroughly beyond.