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Thursday, December 18, 2008
Closer than a Brother
Scott Sanderson’s job as Lipscomb University’s men’s basketball coach is to explain to his team the X’s and O’s of the game. But it was a series of numbers that had him speechless Tuesday afternoon.
“He gave Bibles to so many people. He gave me the one right here on my desk,” Sanderson told me over the phone. “Inside it reads, ‘12-10-02, To Coach Sanderson from Barry Brewer, Proverbs 18:24.’”
I gasped. Sanderson paused, then said almost with disbelief, “He died 12-10-08. I didn’t realize that ‘til just now.”
Barry Brewer was Sanderson’s best friend for the last 10 years, a proud Lipscomb graduate, and perhaps Bison athletics’ most active plain-clothes cheerleader. He was also my cousin. (With apologies to the rules of journalism, I’ll refer to him hence as Barry.)
Barry died, as Sanderson noted, Wednesday, December 10th at the age of 60 after a decade-long battle royal with cancer. It wasn’t a fair fight. Barry was diagnosed in July 1997 with both Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia – the same disease that took his mother, Rose Foster Brewer, earlier that year – and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As those two conditions waged an internecine war with his body, Barry – a former Army M.P. – refused to let his spirit be taken prisoner.
“He was tough,” said Barry’s sister, Robbie (Brewer) Davis, the words struggling mightily to escape her mouth past the lump in her throat. “Everyone loved him. The nurses at Tennessee Oncology would come down from other floors to check on him. He was there getting treatment on 9/11. The staff asked Barry to lead a prayer for the nation. That’s how highly they thought of him.”
He provided a life-changing influence for Sanderson.
“I’m indebted to him for my life,” said Sanderson. “He changed everything about me. He’d go with me on recruiting trips just to keep me company. If he couldn’t go, he’d call me at midnight while I was driving to make sure I was awake. If I ever needed anything and he didn’t have it, he’d say, ‘Give me a couple of days.’ I went to see him one day while he was getting chemo, and he was writing me a letter.”
A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. – Proverbs 18:24
The verse Barry referenced in the Bible he gave Sanderson came to life for Robbie.
“He was more than a brother,” she said. “We took vacations together. We had seats next to each other at the basketball games. When Hank and I got married, his friends became our friends.”
The spiritual center of that friendship was Christ; the geographical location was Lipscomb.
You have to understand that DLC is in the Brewers’ DNA. (I know it’s LU now, but DLC are the initials that initially roll off my tongue and fingers.) The paterfamilias, Charles R. Brewer (“Double Dad”), matriculated shortly after his brother, G.C., during World War I and later became one of the school’s most beloved professors, so much so that the Bell Tower built in 1935 was named in his honor. Double Dad and Ma Two (Robbie Ward Brewer) did their best to keep the campus populated in perpetuity. All seven of their kids – including Beryl (“Chinky”) and Sterling (“Bookie,” pronounced with the “oo” sound) – attended Lipscomb through high school and most went on to college there, like my grandfather, Billy, and Barry’s dad, Charles (“Uncle Tyne”).
Barry, like so many of his first and second cousins, became a third-generation Bison. He played on the tennis team among other extracurricular activities, but his greatest impact on Lipscomb athletics would come years later. He graduated in 1970 and two years later married Debbie Butler – a.k.a. “Double Deb” to distinguish her from Barry and Robbie’s younger sister, “Little Deb.” (In case you haven’t figured it out yet, there’s also a lot of a.k.a. in our DNA.)
A rising star in the Nashville banking industry, Barry stepped out in faith to join 21st Century Christian Publishers. He led the company smartly and efficiently, eventually as CEO, inspiring his own employees by continuing to work through intense physical pain and giving witness to the world of commerce that a Christian business should and could be run with excellence.
His office was just a few blocks down Granny White Pike from campus. His heart for Lipscomb – especially the university’s athletic teams – was even closer.
“He loved sports,” Robbie said. “He was never a star athlete, but he got down to a 6 handicap just because he worked so hard at it.”
In 1986, Barry organized the first Bison Golf Scramble, headlined by one of the greatest players and Christian gentlemen in golf history, Byron Nelson. The event raised money first for the Lipscomb golf team and later the entire Athletics Department. Barry ran the tournament for nearly two decades, with Robbie’s help, until just a few years ago when the demands of the job and his own physical health began going in opposite directions.
Many of us attended this year’s tournament at Kenny Perry’s golf course in Kentucky, including Barry who had shrunk by then to 115 pounds of nothing but skin, bone, and that giant, pearly-white smile, which he continued to grin and bare in the face of myriad doctors’ ominous phone calls. Like the one he got even as he sat on a golf cart that day in October. He would be blindsided by better news that night. After dinner, the university unveiled a fancy, new logo for the tournament and a fitting new name: Barry Brewer Bison Golf Scramble.
Barry kept telling anyone who would listen that night that the honor was “undeserved.” We all begged to differ. Just as we did when he humbly accepted the ‘Fessor Boyce Award for contributions to Lipscomb athletics and his 2003 induction into the Lipscomb Athletics Hall of Fame for Meritorious Service.
“Athletics for him was about changing lives,” Sanderson said. “I hope I can impact half the people he did.”
Among those impacted were two of the people closest to the coach.
“For two or three years, every single night my boys, Garrett (10) and Grant (8), would pray for ‘Mr. Barry.’”
That he lasted those two or three years or long enough to see daughter Martha Ann marry Joel Hawkins and son Tyne graduate from Lipscomb High may well have been a testament to the power of the Sanderson boys’ prayers and the countless others offered over the last 11 years by people around the world who knew Barry and loved him.
But the bad news he got on the golf cart that day in October wouldn’t get any better over the next few weeks. The bad days far outnumbered the good and even the definition of a “good day” had to be loosened. By the first week of December, just days after “Little Tyne” returned home from Europe after a semester studying abroad, the end of Barry’s life on earth was near.
Sanderson made it back from the Bisons’ game in Jacksonville, Fla., in time for a final visit.
“We spoke for about 45 minutes,” said Sanderson. “He was in and out, but Martha Ann told me it was the first time in a few days that she’d seen him smile.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 10th, a few hours after Lipscomb beat Southern Illinois Edwardsville at Allen Arena, Barry died at his home around the corner from campus. The first two people Robbie called were Lipscomb’s basketball coaches, past and present.
“I hadn’t thought about it until just now, but I guess that’s right,” said Robbie. “I called Scott first because I knew he was in the neighborhood. Then, as I sat next to Barry’s body waiting for the car to come from Woodlawn (Funeral Home), I called Don (Meyer). Scott came over to the house and spent the afternoon talking to my dad.”
The line of those touched by Barry’s influence formed behind Sanderson over the next few days and stretched as far back as you could see. Woodlawn told Robbie it was the most people they have ever had show up to pay respects to a single person. The number exceeded 1,000 and included a group of young men who themselves had been visited so often by Barry.
“My team was affected by him,” said Sanderson. “Ten of my players were at the visitation. These are 18-, 19-year-old kids, but they loved Barry. He was at practice anytime he was physically able.”
Robbie believes the way Barry fought off that double team of diseases showed the Bison basketball players “how a Christian man deals with adversity.” At the visitation, she gathered the team together to give them what amounted to Barry’s blessing by proxy.
“I told them, ‘Barry wanted the best for you, on and off the court. He believed you were at Lipscomb for a reason and that was so that you would become the men God wants you to be.’”
The former basketball coach remembers Barry’s big smiles and bad jokes and added with his trademark Don Meyer-directness, “All I can say for Barry is this: if you cut his body open, you would find a heart as big as his body.”
The schedule has graciously given Sanderson and his team time to grieve. There have been no games since Barry’s death, and the next one, Saturday in Raleigh against North Carolina State, has special meaning.
“He’d always wanted us to play N.C. State,” said Sanderson. “His roommate in college was Al Fowler, whose brother, Lee, is N.C. State’s athletic director. Barry told me he wanted to fly over there and sit in Lee’s box to watch the game. And here we’re playing them in our first game since his death.”
In some ways, we have been preparing for Barry’s passing for years. Double Deb faithfully kept friends and family updated on her husband’s health – on good days and bad – through regular e-mail reports she dubbed “Barry’s Buddies.” But the courage with which he fought at times made it seem as if Barry would be here forever.
As for Sanderson, he had been prepared for the earthly end to come by an unlikely source.
“On the way to school the other day, my boys asked how ‘Mr. Barry’ was doing. I told them, ‘Not so good.’ My 10-year-old, Garrett, said, ‘Well, Dad, if he doesn’t get better, he’ll be going to a better place.’”
Garrett, Mr. Barry couldn’t have said it better himself.
Grant Boone is a freelance broadcaster and writer from Nashville and currently based in Texas. He’s the son of two Lipscomb alumni, Nick and Trish (Brewer) Boone, and the grandson of two others, William and Marjorie (Vaughn) Brewer. He can be reached at email@example.com.