Ten years ago, a little book titled Red Ribbons chronicled stories from the life of the Reverend Dr. Robert Geller, long-time campus minister at Colorado State University. I had the privilege of working with him to see the book come to life. His death at age 97 on September 22, 2018 brought back a flood of memories.
Bob Geller and I spent a good bit of time putting his stories together. We fell into a routine: He’d start talking and I’d start scribbling, usually for a couple of hours. Then I’d type up his words and deliver them to him the next time we met. The process went on until we had a completed manuscript. Working with him was one of the best writing experiences I ever had. He didn’t change much. He knew what he wanted to say and he said it. Best of all, I got to know this extraordinary man.
The book’s title grew out of his tendency to come in second. Its sub-title explains, “Coming in second is not all that bad.” He was salutatorian in his high school class, beaten out for the top spot by his girlfriend at the time. At Hastings College in Nebraska, he graduated second in his class and at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago he had the second-best academic record.
“We reserve our hero worship for those who win, not for those who “almost” win,” Geller wrote. “By the time my formal schooling was over, the handwriting was on the wall. And the message had some undeniable advantages.”
Red Ribbons describes his ecumenical bent by relating the story of his Jewish great-grandfather, Conrad, who wanted to become a police officer in Boston. “You’d better become a Roman Catholic if you want to be a cop in this town,” a wise old Bostonian said to Conrad. He did, but his brother remained Jewish. Geller, who grew up on a Nebraska farm, has Jewish cousins and second cousins who are retired Catholic priests.
Geller’s amazing memory makes for great stories. He remembers enjoying the company of 20 lovely young ladies as part of the cheering squad at Hastings College. As a senior he crowned his track career with a 4.21 mile, a college record at the time. He was a life-long lover of sports.
His dad, who had a gift for profanity, turned the air blue the day 16-year-old Geller announced that he planned to be a minister. “My God, you’ll starve,” his dad insisted. He went to college, studied economics and speech, having been advised to study something he was interested in, saving religious study until he entered seminary. He credited his knowledge of economics and early habit of saving money with his ability to create a comfortable retirement income. His dad need not have worried.
Geller recalls ministerial stints in rural Paw Paw, Illinois, West Virginia, the reason why he quit smoking, his decision to enter missionary work, his time at Oklahoma A and M, and at the University of Arizona, in Sierra Leone, and in 1962, his arrival as campus minister at Colorado State University where he served for 28 years.
In 1967 he began what is surely the longest running book group in Fort Collins. They met regularly at 7 a.m. every Friday morning in the basement of 629 Howes St. intending to read in all the academic disciplines. The Friday Morning Book Group is going strong to this day. In 2007 Geller celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the group by sharing the titles of more than 500 books the club had read. Geller attended book group until the day before his death.
Over the years, he wrote poetry for special occasions and to record insights that were important to him. A chapter in Red Ribbons shares several of them, concluding with A Sending Forth, one he often used to close events where he spoke.
Go in love, keep your faith,
Give your faith away.
Laugh often, make peace,
And hang loose.
So be it. Amen and Amen.