The room was full. And loud. People had come out to a karaoke bar in Albuquerque that evening to remember one of their own. He was also my brother.
Dale Phelps had passed away at his home a week earlier. He had gotten very sick very fast, and his rapid decline caught us by surprise. As our sister Sue would say, though, as sick as he became, he never lost his “Daleness.”
Dale’s love of singing was part of what made him who he was. It was a rare occasion when the two of us got together that we didn’t pick and sing some of our favorite old gospel hymns. While our dad was living, we would have a nice little three-piece string band.
During a stretch when Dale’s life’s circumstances pressed him particularly hard, he found refuge and relief in singing karaoke. So it was no wonder that, when he moved to Albuquerque four years ago, he sought out places to sing.
During his four years of singing in the Land of Enchantment, he made friends. He touched their lives, and they were the ones–as shocked and saddened by the news as his family–who had come out that night to remember Dale in the most appropriate way they could. They sang.
One of Albuquerque’s karaoke DJs contacted me and let me know that they were going to have a memorial for Dale. It was set for the day I was scheduled to arrive in Albuquerque to help Sue go through Dale’s personal effects and make final arrangements. So, Sue and I decided to go, and we walked into the room not knowing what or whom to expect.
You have to understand “Daleness” and a little about the Phelps clan in order to appreciate fully that we didn’t know any of the people there. To us, they existed only in Dale’s stories. He would talk about singing karaoke at this place or that place, and he would sometimes tell a story about one of his “karaoke buddies.” He never referred to any person by name, perhaps the by-product of 17 years spent on the road of recovery and sobriety. Beyond that, though, karaoke was a separate and distinct part of his life.
Sue and I entered and experienced karaoke hospitality. DJ Koz had prepared a video memorial. Ozz, one of the first people Dale met at karaoke in Albuquerque and the way Dale discovered places to sing, made assuring and beautiful remarks.
And, of course, one by one, people got up and sang. They sang songs that Dale loved and that they loved to sing with him. They told stories. Several people stopped to tell Sue and I something about Dale and their friendship with him.
We heard stories of how he walked with people through difficult times. Others told us how he encouraged them. They talked about how he showed up at karaoke bars around the city. They talked about his brilliance at singing harmony (thank you, Ella Mae Montgomery) and how he loved to sing with others. They told us that he always made other singers sound good.
I heard how he was an example and encouragement for one person’s own journey of recovery and sobriety. I wept openly when one woman described Dale telling her how much he admired and respected me, how he wished he had my gift to share the word with music and a message.
Dale had his own gifts, though. He and I shared a core belief in the power of music to shape and form a community. Sue and I experienced community that night, one in which folks loved one another (didn’t a Galilean teacher once say something about that?), accepted one another, built one another up. A community where people could gain a confidence they didn’t know they had. Dale was a vital part of that, and I realized something that I think I already knew about my brother.
For four years, he walked among that community as a pastor.
When you’ve literally known someone your whole life, you watch their struggles, sometimes from a distance. You see them “stick it out” in emotionally and spiritually taxing circumstances. You see them respond with grace when most would say it’s not warranted, and you are reminded that the undeserved piece embodies the very nature of grace.
And you wonder. You wonder if anybody else knows what you know, that this is a good man, a kind man.
Last Friday night at Fiestas Cantina in Albuquerque, I witnessed first hand that, yes, here was a roomful of people who knew exactly that. This community gathered to remember Dale, welcoming his brother and sister like their own family, because their lives, separately and together, had been a better place, a kinder place, simply because Dale Phelps had been a part of it.
May that be said of each of us, that the world is more kind because we are in it. Thank you, bro, for being the difference that kindness makes, and for making music that draws us together.
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
A memorial service will be held for Dale on Saturday, August 19, at 11:00 a.m. at the Central United Methodist Church, 912 E. Second St., Maysville, KY. Rev. Deb Phelps will officiate. Interment will be at the Olivet Cemetery near Maysville.