Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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The disease is advanced now, and Gary can mostly just say “Yes” or “No.” He is bedridden and months into home hospice and his family hovers around, caring for him, loving him, making his last weeks the best they can be.


And all he can say is “Yes” or “No.”


               Except at night, after Kathryn reads to him from the Bible and says the family prayer.


               Then, he opens his mouth, and speaks. He recites a Bible verse – the words, and the reference – and then he is quiet again. A Bible verse, word perfect, every night a different one, come forth from the treasure of his heart.


               Gary’s last name is Smith, but since you were a little kid, you’ve thought it was The Happy Pirate.


               If you were a child in Rochester in the 90s, there’s a good chance you grew up listening to Gary The Happy Pirate, probably as part of the extremely popular duo Doug and Gary. There’s also a good chance that, over the last 30 years, you’ve contributed to or been benefited by the Pirate Toy Fund, which has given more than a half a million toys to poor or hospitalized children across the region, and which Gary co-founded.


               The whole thing started in 1988 in the pre-school at North Baptist. Shaina, the first of their six, was a student there and there was a Bring-Your-Dad Day scheduled and Gary wanted to do something different. So the night before, he and Kathryn wrote a song – “I’m A Happy Pirate”—and the next day, dressed like a pirate and with coworker Doug Ladd playing the guitar, Gary performed.


               More correctly, Doug and Gary performed. And Doug and Gary was born.


               In no time, they were playing shows in the malls, and in school auditoriums, and at festivals. There were recordings and videos and a TV show. Two guys, singing corny songs and smiling a lot, to thrilled kids, by the tens and hundreds, and ultimately thousands.


               It was a simple concept. Let the kids have fun. Give families something wholesome to do together. No agenda, no stress, just kids laughing and jumping and singing.


               Kathryn wrote all the lyrics and Gary wrote all the music. She’d cobble together a few verses during the day, and when he got home from work at night he’d set them to a tune.


               And that was the childhood music of an era and a region. Music still heard in the happy memories of many Rochesterians in their 30s and 40s.


               It was a calling for Gary. A Christian all his life – he and Kathryn met at church – he had been an assistant pastor as a young man and led his church’s children’s ministry as an older man. He had a heart for kids, and he loved happy families. Part of that came from his own difficult childhood, part of that came from his desire to make a difference, and all of it came wrapped up in faith in a Savior who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me … for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”


               When Doug moved away, and Gary The Happy Pirate carried on, the Pirate Toy Fund simultaneously grew in prominence and significance. It blessed the region through the myriad gifts given to children, and by the spirit of service and brotherhood it engendered among the community members asked to support it.


               Through it, Gary became a fixture in the non-profit community, and among the movers and shakes who support it, and much good was done.


               But a little more than four years ago, problems started.


               He started falling down, sometimes right over backwards. And sometimes he said odd things, or had odd emotional reactions. It was a cluster of anomalies that were eventually recognized as symptoms. The diagnosis was progressive supranuclear palsy, an unexplained dysfunction and dwindling of brain cells that is essentially a slow-motion death sentence. It is somewhere between Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.


               So Gary went home and drew the shades.


               And over these four years he has gone from a walker to a wheelchair to a bed, and he did it in private, staying out of the public eye and walking this road with just his family and his faith. There is his wife and as many of their six children as can get free, and the hospice nurse, and he is on the home stretch.


               And the right thing to do might to be leave it at that, to let this public man have a private death.


               But that would leave business undone.


               Because the moms and dads and boys and girls of 30 years ago deserve a chance to say thank you and good bye. In an earlier, simpler and more sacred day this man who sang funny songs gave a gift of excitement and joy to innocent children and their loving parents. Childhood memories can warm a lifetime and Gary The Happy Pirate created countless childhood memories, with a song in a classroom or a gift in the hospital or a picture in the park.


               And maybe some people will want to send cards or prayers or happy thoughts, so the man and his family know that he was appreciated and that he made a difference, so that there is one last round of applause.


               Gary Smith wanted to live a Christ-centered life, a life of loving his God and loving his neighbor. He did that in part by trying to make life happier for children. Across the Rochester region, there are many people whose memories prove he was successful.


               And maybe one night, after Kathryn reads the Bible and says the prayer, Gary can recite from Matthew 25 and ponder on the life of service he has led.


               “And the King shall answer and say … Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.


               “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

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