I told John and Ben that when I died I’d like for them to put on the same kind of memorial service the family did for their dad. It was such a great tribute, easily the best such service I recall.
They held the service for Dr. Keith Yoder at the Rhinehart Recital Hall on the campus of Indiana-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. This large auditorium looked full. No wonder.
In his many years of practice here, he must have treated hundreds of patients. He not only was respected as one of the best dentists in town. He surely was among the most beloved. I’d bet anything I wasn’t the only patient he’d drive across the city to treat on a Sunday.
I got acquainted some years ago with Keith when he, his wife Karen and their four young children returned to Indiana from Tanzania. Keith had directed the dental program at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center. He took over the practice of my dentist, Dr. Bob Getty who had died recently.
I don’t recall the circumstances when my wife Toni and I got to be personal friends of Keith and his wife Karen, a professor at the university. But we sure cherished the friendship. When Keith developed cancer, Karen showed up a day or two later with the news at my newspaper office.
“I’m here to ruin your day,” she announced the minute I welcomed her. She was right.
I don’t recall how many years ago I got that disturbing news. But it was testimony to Keith’s resilience that until recently he continued going to his office, taking care of his patients.
I know he had numerous treatments to arrest the spread of the cancer. Meantime, his three sons and daughter found their niche, moving away and yet staying in close touch. Ben became a dentist with his dad, John a college professor, David a professional photographer living in Rome and Sarah a speech pathologist.
In time, grandchildren came along. Ellis was one of the speakers at the service. Sons John and Ben both spoke. Their recollections of Keith reminded me so much of his playful humor and his genuine manner. As they spoke, a projector displayed photographs of Keith on a huge screen showing the fundamentally happy person that he was.
I had seen that smile a thousand times.
Folk singer and good friend Carrie Newcomer strummed her guitar and sang at different points throughout the service. Those quiet, deftly performed pieces set the upbeat yet serious tone for this celebration of an extraordinary, caring life.
Karen was the last main speaker. You’d expect this long-time professional to be polished. She was all that. There was more. How she loved this quiet, unassuming man. They’d been married through so many adventures. You just knew she wouldn’t have changed a minute of it.
Keith and Karen were so easy to be around. There aren’t many couples I’d care to take a Christmas season trip with to New York City. But Toni and I sure enjoyed spending this time with our friends. We even made it to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. It was a special time.
Keith was raised a Mennonite in rural northern Indiana. He attended the early grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Yes, that rural. But his interests ranged far beyond that world. He read widely. When I was in the dentist’s chair, with my mouth full of instruments, he got to talk. It never failed. He’d mention some book he was reading. Often on religion.
Just a few days before he died, Toni felt ill and so we decided not to make this after-holiday Yoder party. How sorry now that we missed the event and a chance to see Keith one last time. But I’m sure Toni and I will be sharing memories of our friend for years to come. He was such a humble person. I’d bet he never realized that he meant so much to so many. We’re all diminished by his loss.