We sometimes reduce complex issues into numbers. It's a way that we as humans balance our need for information with our need to understand the world around us and to find a sense of order.
Chaos is the natural state of life. While all life is connected by the cosmic flow of existence — all our atoms come from stardust — that flow isn't a serene river. It's a storm, waves crashing on rocks and spraying all about.
And so amid the chaos of life, we quantify, classify and measure the world around us. How many miles is it to the beach and how long will it take us to get there? How much was the bill at the grocery store? What was the size of our last paycheck?
But not everything can be measured like this.
How do we quantify a life lived?
Julius Mack was 63 years old when he died on Aug. 25.
But those numbers don't tell you who he was.
There's a famous poem called "The Dash" which says that the dates on a tombstone don't really matter; it's the dash symbol between one's birth and death dates on a tombstone that really count, the years of a life lived.
Julius lived a fruitful dash.
Julius Mack was the printing shop foreman for Mainstreet Newspapers. He had worked for the newspapers for 50 years, starting when he was 13-years-old.
Scott and I were honored to say a few words at his funeral on Monday. As we said then, Julius had a front row seat to a massive amount of technological change in the printing world.
When he began doing odd jobs around the shop in 1971, the printing process was mostly still in "hot type" where ink was applied to metal letters and mashed onto a piece of paper. It had been that way for over 400 years, until offset printing technology began to take over in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Julius first began printing on an old hand press, circa 1924, that today sits in my office as an antique. He printed envelopes, note cards and other small items on that press, a machine that was dangerous to be around.
Over the years, he worked on larger presses and as offset printing replaced hot type, he learned how to print with that newer technology, printing everything from small business cards to our newspapers.
But offset printing didn't last forever and has now been replaced to a large extent by digital presses, advanced computer-driven machines that can do all kinds of fancy printing that was only a pipe dream in 1971.
Julius learned all of that and transitioned his skills as the technology changed.
And while you didn’t see his name in the newspapers very often, the work he oversaw in our printing plant to get the newspapers published and distributed was critical to the success of our entire company. He jokingly told me once that while I wrote stories for the paper, if he didn’t print it, nobody would read it.
We spent a lot of time together over the past 50 years. There were a few times we worked all night, once putting out a special section when Commerce High School won a state championship in football. We saw the sun set and rise the next day.
Julius' laughter was infectious and his smile radiated warmth to all around him. He was a calm influence in an industry where there is often high stress from deadlines and general craziness.
That was a good thing because his job as shop foreman put him in the vortex of our entire company. He was the link between all the various departments that did pre-press work — news, advertising, page layout, subscriptions — and the printing and distribution operations, the vital part where the rubber hits the road.
For Julius, that was literal. He often ran newspaper distribution routes around the four counties where we publish newspapers. He was known to a lot of people who saw him drive up to a store in one of our white vans on Wednesday or Thursday.
But Julius was more than just a printer. He was a husband, father, brother, son, minister, grill-master and friend to many.
For many years, he was part of planning and putting on the annual MLK Day celebration in Jackson County. And he worked tirelessly for his church and other churches in the area.
Julius was mostly low-key and quiet. But once when we were all in high school, he did step out front during a protest.
There was a controversy in the mid-1970s at Jefferson High School over the lack of black students on the homecoming court. A walkout ensued as students left the school and marched through town.
My mom was at the newspaper office that day and heard the commotion on the street in front of the office.
"I looked out and there was Julius leading the way," she later said.
In 2018 when Alex and I married, there wasn't any discussion about who we wanted to say our vows — our co-worker Rev. Mack was the person we wanted.
Dressed in a white suit, Julius stood beneath the old pecan tree in the front yard of our house and officially tied the knot on our marriage; we were thrilled to have him be a part of our special day.
He wasn't just a co-worker, he was our friend — we will miss him.
I'm not privy to the master plan of the universe, but it seems to me we lost Julius too soon. I'd always thought he would be speaking at my funeral one day, not the other way around.
He seemed to be one of those people we call a "rock" in life, someone who is always there in good or bad times, sunny days or in storms.
What robbed Julius of life, and us of him, was the dreaded virus that has ravaged the world for the past 18 months. It snuck up, invaded him and he died less than two weeks later.
So I make this plea, let's stop this deadly virus before it robs us of more co-workers, of more friends, of more family members. Let's all consult with our physicians and do whatever it takes to protect ourselves and others from this disease.
Some don't believe Covid is real, or that it's just the flu, or that it's not serious.
But there's an empty parking spot at our office today, an empty desk and a building full of heavy hearts because of this disease. It's all too real.
It took our friend, a man who was strong and vibrant and very much alive just a few days ago.
We were out of town at a family wedding when he went into the hospital. We didn't get to say goodbye.
I began this column with that number.
According to state data, Julius Mack was the 146th person from Jackson County to die of Covid.
But Julius was more than just a number in a report.
He was a human being whose life touched hundreds — thousands — of other people over the past 63 years.
We can honor his memory by doing all we can to put an end to the disease that took him from us.