By SUZANNE HAUGH, Staff Writer | Published April 14, 2005
It wasn’t often that Deacon Robert “Bob” Gresher won while playing poker with his buddies from Our Lady of the Assumption Church.
“He was a great host and a good loser,” said Father William Seli, SM, former pastor of OLA, and the first organizer of the poker group, which started over 20 years ago. “We loved to take his money.”
When Deacon Gresher did win, his friends could predict his next move.
“Every time he won he’d start singing, ‘bringing in the sheaves’” as he gathered in the chips, said Bill Turner, one of the players and a friend.
Turner recalled visiting his friend, who was battling cancer for the third time, days before the next poker game and what turned out to be two days from his death on Dec. 29, 2004.
“He told me I’d better have the cards ready to play. We talked about playing cards … He could make people laugh even within 48 hours of his death.”
At his funeral, one of Deacon Gresher’s three daughters, Mary McGreevy, recalled something that her father had told her mother upon being diagnosed with cancer.
“Very characteristically, he told Mom that he figured he had spent his life teaching us how to live, and now it was time to teach us how to die. He did both.”
Deacon Gresher was many things to those who knew him well and to those whose lives he touched only briefly. He was a committed spouse who lovingly cared for his wife, Lucille, during many illnesses the last years of her life. He was a wise father to his three daughters and son and the grandfather who would go fishing, take his grandkids on shopping trips to Costco and teach them how to face adversity. He was a military hero who landed on Omaha Beach in World War II and helped a Belgian couple, who had kept him safe from the Germans for two days, relocate to the United States. He was an active parishioner of the OLA community in Atlanta, visiting shut-ins, ministering as the chaplain for the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul conference and serving as the spiritual director and “archdeacon” to his fellow deacons. He was undeniably a man of great faith and a staunch crusader for preserving life and for teaching the truths of the Catholic Church.
“I remember him as having two great loves: his family, which he really cared about, and his parish,” recalled Father Seli, who was pastor at OLA from 1976-82 and now resides in West Virginia.
One of his gifts was his “great availability to help.”
“To me, the word ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ wasn’t in his vocabulary … He was part of that generation—they were the givers, not the takers. He was a model for anyone who knew him.”
Deacon Martin Lampe met the Greshers at OLA in the early 1980s. He also noted Deacon Gresher’s generous spirit.
“All the things a deacon should be, he was. All his life he was a giver—to his family, to the parish. He was not a taker. He had great compassion.”
Deacon Lampe credited his friend for his patience and wisdom in dealing with the parish’s deacons. “There was never too elementary a question regarding the sacraments, church history or liturgy … There were three other deacons, and we always called him ‘the archdeacon.’ That was his honorary title.”
He had a great sense of humor. “It was like fine wine,” Deacon Lampe said. “A classic example was before Mass and he was trying to get us all together, the eucharistic ministers, lectors (and others). He said it was another week of mass confusion, and added, ‘If you don’t like organized religion, you’re going to like this place.’”
Both men were involved in the charismatic renewal as was another friend and parishioner Deacon Bill Bevacqua.
“He was definitely a man of prayer and had a great devotion to the Holy Spirit,” Deacon Bevacqua remarked. “He could speak in tongues.”
This often occurred at healing services or when visiting people and praying over them. “It’s not a necessary gift, but a lot have it. There’s a lot of healing and miracles that happen every day.”
Amid his involvement in many ministries and spending time with his family, Deacon Gresher suffered from cancer three different times.
“He was a tremendous person of faith. He never complained and always said, ‘Whatever God wants,’” Deacon Bevacqua said. “He was a tremendous example all the way through (his life), and he was passionate about his faith, the pope and the magisterium. He did not have a lot of tolerance for dissenters.”
He wasn’t afraid of confrontation. “He listened and was not the type to say, ‘My way or the highway,’ but he was firm in his faith and let people know when they were out of line the way an adviser would, that sort of thing … He would let people know, ‘Hey, this is what the church teaches.’”
He believed the pope and the magisterium are inspired by the Holy Spirit, Deacon Bevacqua added.
“He was a very vocal opponent of abortion and gave many homilies on abortion and what people needed to know about what the church teaches.”
His friend Turner also remembers the deacon’s constant support of life. For a time Deacon Gresher joined Turner and some other OLA friends to work out at the YMCA, after which they would eat at the Paradise Café. Deacon Gresher would bring along pro-life bumper stickers and literature to pass out to those they encountered. Usually there weren’t many takers, but he continued to bring them anyway.
“He was a wonderful guy with very strong beliefs about abortion,” Turner said. “At least once a year from the pulpit he would talk about the need to end abortion.”
Deacon Gresher battled cancer over the course of many years, but Turner explained, “You’d hardly ever know he had cancer.”
“He had lots of crosses, by that I mean the difficult things he had to do … but he never complained, never whimpered.”
Friend Betty Carson can attest to the same.
“Even when he was going through chemo he was on the phone calling others who had cancer to spur them on. When he couldn’t go out, he’d write to them even when he was so weak.”
He was a dear friend, Carson added. “He was taking chemo when my husband died, and he still wanted to help plan his funeral. He asked if I could come over to his house because he couldn’t go out. We sat around the kitchen table. They were the best of friends.”
She and her husband served as eucharistic ministers before her husband died of cancer in 2001. “When we’d go into the sacristy (Deacon Gresher would) say, ‘We’ve got the first string in tonight. It’s going to be a great service.’ He was just so special and is so sorely missed.”
Deacon Gresher also had his eye on the altar servers who served during Mass.
“He always took the young altar servers under his wing,” said close friend Helen Heil. “At Saturday evening Mass, if he was the deacon, after the kids put on their robes, he would line them up for inspection, making sure their pockets were inside and everything was nice and straight. The kids loved him because he cared for them.”
Heil was instrumental in caring for Deacon Gresher, taking him to his doctor’s appointments during his final bout with the type of cancer from which her own husband had died.
“I got to know Bob better and better through the years … When Bob came down with his own cancer—my husband had lost his fight with cancer—I was able to share with him what I went through.”
Heil, who also knew Deacon Gresher through the Christ Renews His Parish program, said the deacon remained positive but that “the last round was more difficult.”
“He had lost his wife.”
Among those who helped to care for Deacon Gresher was Carol McGonegal.
“He was a teddy bear,” she said. “Sometimes he would look stern, but then he’d break out into a smile.”
She and her husband, Phil, were part of the YMCA work-out group, and Phil also played poker with Deacon Gresher. “We’re a bunch of guys that play for nickels and dimes,” he confessed.
Phil McGonegal came to know Deacon Gresher through church and his involvement with the St. Vincent de Paul conference at OLA where the deacon served as the conference chaplain and spiritual adviser. Deacon Gresher also baptized Sarah, one of the many grandchildren the McGonegals enjoy.
“Just being in his presence, you felt like you were part of a special life. It was a privilege,” Carol McGonegal said.
Like the McGonegals, many of those who knew Deacon Gresher commented on the extraordinary care he gave his wife as she endured ill health before passing away in 2003.
“The amazing thing is that you would have never known she had all of these things wrong with her,” said the Greshers’ daughter Mary. “She was a strong, gracious woman with the most beautiful spirit, the Holy Spirit. She was truly Spirit-filled as was my Dad.”
In later years, Deacon Gresher and his wife benefited from the loving ministrations of a caregiver, Carmen, whose presence was made possible by the generosity of Harris Toibb, who was close to the couple.
“(Carmen) was an angel. She cared for them during the weekdays when we couldn’t always be there,” McGreevy said.
McGreevy, along with her two sisters, Dorianne Gresher and Dianne Aube, and her brother, Jim Gresher, relished their time with both parents.
“Dad and Mom worked as a team,” she said. “You can’t talk about Dad without talking about Mom. They were terrific parents. They had such wisdom … They gave all of their children unconditional love, tremendous support, and they always let us know that they believed in us, even when we were having a hard time believing in ourselves.”
Deacon Gresher took to heart advice he had heard from Msgr. Richard Lopez, religion teacher at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta, during one of his annual retreats for fathers.
“When we were clearing out their house, my husband found a little piece of paper taped to his desk lamp where he worked every day. On it he had written the two beautiful thoughts that had touched him so: ‘Parents sacrifice their present for their children’s future’ and ‘Never delay gratitude.’ That pretty much sums it up.”
Family time was important, and even shopping trips to Costco were special.
“Dad made everything fun. He had the enthusiasm of a child,” McGreevy said. “He never missed the wonder in even the smallest things. He appreciated everything. I’m sure a lot of that had to do with living through the Depression and being in World War II.”
Deacon Gresher’s grandchildren were an important part of his life, as well. Nine-year-old Nicholas Aube will always remember receiving the blood of Christ from his “Papa” on his first Communion day and how “Gobby,” his grandmother, taught him that it takes a lot more courage and strength to do what is right.
Granddaughter Katie McGreevy, 24, recalled his help in teaching her the multiplication tables in second grade, having him attend games when she was a cheerleader, and she can still hear his words “in her heart.”
“He always taught me to be strong, to stand up for myself and never let anyone push me around. He used to call me his ‘bandy rooster.’ They are the smallest breed of rooster, but they are also the feistiest.”
For Patrick McGreevy, 20, a sophomore at the University of West Georgia, the way he lived his life was “a lesson that we could all learn from.”
“I can remember a time when I went along with him to deliver food to underprivileged families for Thanksgiving. I remember that there wasn’t enough food for a good Thanksgiving meal for a family, so we went to the grocery store to get more food. He did things like this all the time using his own money just to make someone else’s day better. Even though he lived humbly, he gave all that he could to make a difference. He did these sorts of things with the most genuine and uplifting spirit that was so remarkable.”
Granddaughter Meridith Gresher received a Valentine’s gift and a question each year from her grandfather, whom she considered “almost mythic in proportion.”
“Every year of my life, since I was 2 years old, I have received a box of candy from Papa.”
This past Valentine’s Day Meridith felt empty “because I could hear his voice asking, ‘Would you be my valentine?’ Because I would have his arms around me, the way they felt like nobody else’s when I hugged him in thanks and love.”
The Greshers’ daughter Dianne Aube recalled her parents’ selfless acceptance of suffering.
“What really sticks out in my mind is that they suffered a lot, but they never complained. The reason they never complained is that they showed us truly how to be the suffering Jesus. Whenever they suffered they sent a prayer up for someone who needed one—their kids, grandkids or someone they knew who needed a prayer.”
The loss of their parents still aches.
“It’s so sad for us because we lost them,” Aube said. “What truly, truly gives us comfort is to truly know that they are in the arms of Jesus and they truly looked forward to being in that place.”
Psalm 126 hearkens to an abundant harvest for the exiles returning to the Promised Land. For a man such as Bob Gresher, and his wife, Lucille, who served the church so generously and experienced suffering but great joy as well, there is much about which to celebrate and sing.
“Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”