Last month, we lost two uniquely gifted individuals. I have grown weary of the overuse of the word "iconic," but when it comes to Etta James and Joe Paterno, that may be the appropriate term.
Paterno, whose record - both in terms of longevity and accomplishment - will likely never be matched in an era of win at all costs, died a broken man at the age of 85. The asterisk next to his name will always remind us of the tragic way his brilliant career ended. I am reminded of Anthony's funeral soliloquy in "Julius Caesar:" "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones."
It may be some time before we know the bare facts of what happened, and we may never know them exactly, but what we do know is that an old man who had mentored thousands about integrity and ethics, died filled with regret that he did not do more to stop the victimization of children; a failure that took from him the thing he loved the most.
James was wounded from the beginning. Her 14-year-old mother abandoned her, and she never knew for certain the identity of her father.
But her voice was a gift that was recognized when she was a 5-year-old child singing in church. And what a gift it was. She will be remembered mostly for jazz and blues, but she could sing it all, from gospel to rock ‘n' roll.
There were demons. James battled with addiction for much of her life, going in and out of treatment centers, and on several occasions coming to the attention of law enforcement largely due to the financial strain of a heroin habit.
The physical effects of her substance abuse, coupled with another ongoing battle with her weight, took a toll, and in a strange way it is amazing she lived to the age of 73.
Perhaps there is a lesson in the lives and deaths of these two remarkable people. Maybe we can all be reminded that none of us, from the most gifted to the most despicable, is all good or all bad.
We are, as Martin Luther commented, a mix of saint and sinner; blessed with unique abilities, including the ability to fail profoundly.
Whatever truth there was in Anthony's observation that the good is oft interred with their bones, the question is not whether the accomplishments will overshadow the failings, or if the failings will outlast the accomplishments. The reality is that the two always stand together. Good and evil are not even two sides to the same coin. They are so intertwined with each other than it is not really possible to pull one apart from the other, and the difficult truth of "Joe Pa" and "Miss Peaches" applies to each of us. We are all broken in some places. That is just the way it is.
The passing of these wonderfully gifted people should serve as a reminder to us that when we make living monuments of our heroes, by placing them on the pedestals of perfection, we set them and us up for a fall.
Likewise, when we encounter those whose flaws are quite obvious, perhaps we should look deeper for the giftedness within. In an election year, that may be a valuable lesson.
• Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.