Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
OKLAHOMA CITY – Family and friends of Robert Dell Lemon gathered for a spiritual and deeply emotional farewell to the beloved philanthropist and attorney, loving father and passionate human rights activist, who died on October 22 at the age of 87.
Rev. Kayla Bonewell, senior pastor at Church of the Open Arms in Oklahoma City, presided over the service held Sunday afternoon, November 13. The event came as a tribute to the beloved legend known to one and all as “Bob,” which featured traditional Gospel music and contemporary anthems lifting up diversity and pluralism in faith observance.
The “Mixed Company” singing group’s harmonies and crisp presentation filled the rafters at the United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation with praise, opening the ceremony with James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light,” followed by “Seasons of Love.”
Incorporating beloved words from the Book of Ecclesiastes concerning “a time to die,” Pastor Bonewell observed that memory services are truly for the living, not the deceased. Her brief prayer of gathering referenced the Almighty as “Great Mystery and Spirit.”
Bob’s daughter, Robyn Lemon Sellers, related a brief series of tales from Bob’s years in Perryton, Texas, including the decision of Bob and his wife, Mary Lou, to come to Oklahoma City years ago.
Among reasons to stay, early in the Oklahoma era for the Lemons, was the decision of a KKK contingent, which announced plans to protest the actions at Church of the Open Arms, where the Rev. Kathie McCallie was founding pastor. Bob and Mary Lou decided it was important for them to “greet” the Klan members and demonstrate an affirming stance.
During the tribute, Robyn presented a photograph of Bob Lemon to Kai Johnson, who was sitting on the front row. “Kai, my brothers and I have decided we want you to have this photo of Bob Lemon in his rainbow sash – the LGBT community was his hero. Kai Johnson, John’s (Sellers) and my lovely grand daughter, (Bob’s great grandchild), has become our even lovelier grandson. You bring good things to life,” Robyn said.
“That to me was the most significant part of event and it would have been for dad,” she later stated.
After leaving the church Robyn recalled, “ John, my former husband said, ‘Everything Bob Lemon has lived his life for…to have his great grandson come out as transgender is so gratifying. For Bob Lemon, who had a son come out and then have a grandson come out is the most exciting thing…it made everything worthwhile.’”
It was a good day,” Robyn said.
After Robyn’s presentation, Mixed Company returned with its signature interpretation of “Operator” – William Spivery’s stirring Gospel song expressing a worshiper’s aspirations to pick up the phone and call God. This was followed with the soft and gentle “Lay down your arms,” by Ysaye M. Barnwell.
The “Dischord” ensemble of Alto and Soprano voices followed with the descant tune asking the rhetorical question with real implications: “Would You Harbor Me?” This was followed by Malcolm Dalglish’s “Shake These Bones.” While musically rooted in Medieval chant, lyrics for the two numbers raised issue as relevant as the past week’s headlines.
Following the musicality – often a capella, save when deftly accompanied by the unobtrusive piano of Megan Barth or Ms. Sellers on the flute – three friends of Bob and the Lemon family regaled the crowd with brief testimonials to the departed man’s noblest attributes.
Ed Shadid, community leader and medical doctor, marveled at Bob’s practical steps to live more than four decades beyond the most optimistic predictions of his youth, when he was diagnosed with diabetes. Shadid marveled at Bob’s generosity and community investment, and willingness to reach out to those with whom he disagreed.
Connie Johnson, the former state Senator, expressed gratitude for Bob’s life and the gift of his kindness, as “the kind of friend you can’t remember for sure the first moment you met, because it was like he always there.”
Keith Good, senior partner from the Lemon Law Firm in Perryton, shared stories of Lemon’s “unbridled dedication to his profession. He told a humorous story with a serious point, about the time Bob defended the legal profession when a newspaper editor quoted then Vice President Dan Quayle who had, in a speech, expressed the opinion that America had too many lawyers.”
Lemon countered the criticism of lawyers with a powerful dissent, running 2 ½ pages, listing fifteen attorneys worthy of emulation – beginning his list with Thomas Jefferson, Francis Scott Key and Abraham Lincoln.
Good pointed to a practical legacy from Bob Lemon, in establishment of a water conservation district that has lasted for six decades. He also told the story of Lemon’s effective and powerful legal advocacy on behalf of a woman going through a contentious divorce. When she prevailed on all important matters of law, her ex-husband had printed a bumper sticker that gained notice around the Texas Panhandle: “Will Rogers never met Bob Lemon.” Lemon shared the story often.
After a closing word of prayer from Rev. Bonewell, attendees joined to sing “This is my Song,” Lloyd Stone’s 1930s anthem of peace adapted from Jean Sibelius’ “Findlandia.” The words of the song distilled the combination of patriotism and universality that characterized Bob Lemon:
“This is my Song, O God of all the nations, a song of Peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is; Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover, and skies are ev’rywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, O God of all the nations, A song of Peace for their land and for mine.”
It was announced that additional tributes to Bob Lemon would be forthcoming at the 2017 OKC Pride week events this summer. As congregants, family and guests left the worship space on November 13, a chorale postlude, “Believe,” written by Church of the Open Arms member Conna Wilkinson, was sung.
The music throughout the service consisted of Bob Lemon favorites from his years attending services at Church of the Open Arms with Robyn.
Before the time for fellowship over food and Lemonade, the worship and tribute gathering itself was a model of decorum, efficiency and precision, in the grandest of traditions — suffused with aspirations for inclusion and tolerance of all in attendance.
In short, it was a lot like the gentle man and gentleman, Bob Lemon himself.