I recently worked on a timeline for our elementary school’s 100th anniversary celebration, sifting through old photos, searching online for newspaper articles, discovering historic treasures at the university’s research library. It was a lot of work, but fascinating and enlightening and worth the effort, if only to learn about one particular man who has enriched my view of the world – the namesake of our school. He died in 1904, but the impact he had on our community and on countless personal lives is inspiring and incredible. His story is worth sharing. His legacy is worth expanding.
Bear with me, here. A bit of historical background. Just make it through the next paragraph and we’ll get to the good stuff:
Richard Cordley was born in England in 1829 but came to America at the age of four and settled in Michigan. He grew up in a log cabin, went to the school his father started when he was nine, lost an eye at the age of 10 in an accident involving an ox’s horn (pioneers were no wusses). He attended college and seminary and eventually came to Lawrence, Kansas as an abolitionist preacher in 1857, with the distinct purpose of opposing slavery in a territory still undecided on the issue. In fact, he and his wife harbored a fugitive slave escaping to Canada on the underground railroad. In 1863, a man named William Quantrill rode into town with a group of pro-slavery Missourians, killing 20% of the male population and burning the majority of the town. (Hence, Kansas’s deep-seeded grudge against Missouri, particularly in sporting events. No joke.) As an abolitionist, Richard Cordley was marked as a target in Quantrill’s raid but avoided death by escaping across the river. He went on to serve as the school board president, helped found Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, wrote two books on the history of our state, and served as pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church for nearly 40 years.
Whew. Thanks for sticking with me.
So, Richard Cordley did some stuff while he was alive. He made significant contributions to society. He was a prominent local figure in the community. But in the end, that’s not what struck me; his accomplishments weren’t his greatest feat. Here’s a quote I came across about Cordley’s true impact on the world:
“The greatest thing about Dr. Cordley was himself. The beauty of his character was reflected everywhere…(He)helped all who heard him speak because he spoke from his heart…He believed in men and loved them…”
– Dr. William L. Burdick, former dean of Kansas University Law School and a member of Plymouth Congregational Church
It’s hard to imagine a more lovely description of a person’s years on earth. His life was the greatest thing about his life. His love of people. The way he helped others. The beauty of his character. In reading through his sermons I found him to be a fabulous writer. He should be famous. But, aside from the blessing people would receive by reading his work, I doubt he would care to be well-known outside of our small town. He was humble, he was kind, he was love-in-action personified. I feel as though I discovered a hidden treasure in learning about Richard Cordley. His helpful hand and the beauty of his character have reached all the way through history to me, over a century after he died. I’m so thankful to know him in some small way. And I’m proud to have my children’s school named after such a man.
Now to pass on the treasure I found. Here’s an excerpt from a sermon he wrote about pondering the end of another year (don’t know which, but the book of sermons was published in 1912) titled The Days of our Years. I used pieces of it to highlight the historical timeline I made for the school celebration – it seemed appropriate. It seems equally appropriate in remembering Dr. Cordley’s life itself, and in considering how I want to spend my own…
The “Days of Our Years” have passed very gently. They made no sound as they went by, but they changed the face of all the things they touched. They fell like snowflakes, silent and soft, but like the snowflakes they change the face of all the earth. Every year gives another touch, and before we note what is going on, the whole scene is changed. Time moves on without a sound, building up the limbs of childhood, strengthening the arms of manhood, and fulfilling the counsels of manhood. So quietly have they borne us along that we were hardly aware of the moving, yet here we are looking back over the long line of our journey. As we note the shifting scene it seems almost like a dream…Few as the days of our years have been, what marvelous transformations they have wrought. They seemed trifles to those who looked on, but they meant everything to those involved. The days of our years have flitted by like shadows on the hillside. Joy and sorrow, light and darkness, have chased each other across our sky. We have had reason ‘To bless the favoring gale’ when we have sailed through unruffled seas; and we have waited for light ‘In the midnight of the soul.’ Yet the days of our years have left something with us as they flitted by. They passed
‘Like snowflakes on the river,
A moment white, then gone forever.’
But even the snowflakes increase the volume of the stream. They days of our years are gone before we know they are here, but they add to the volume of our life. They leave with us what our souls absorb, and we shall be in the coming days what our past has made us. We may accumulate wisdom and knowledge and character, and be enriched in life or we may let it all flow by us while we remain paupers in our spirits…Everything is the richer for what it has passed through.
Richard Cordley knew his days mattered. That time passed without notice if one didn’t stop and look sometimes. This sermon was a moment of looking back to look ahead. Of plumbing the depths and noticing what the soul had absorbed. I write for the very same reason and feel connected to this man from so long ago. May the days of my years be half the blessing of his.