Reflections from Jeni Stepanek

With a heavy heart, I share both gratitude and a farewell to an amazing family man (married for 76 years and father of 8 children and 22 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild and friend to myself and Mattie, and to countless people around the world whose life paths crossed with his), and to the man who really initiated the concept of a  Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation back in 2004 and became one of the five founding Board members.

Mattie and I moved to King Farm here in the northern end of Rockville, Maryland during 2002. This planned community was in its early years of development, and many individuals and families and businesses were all coming together as neighbors around the same time. One of the first “other new residents” we met was a man name Bob Balkam, who with his wife Laurin was moving into the condo building next to ours not long after we began settling in.

Across his years here in King Farm – first in the condos and then in Ingleside at King Farm, the retirement residence here – Bob had a reputation for being “the first person folks met when moving in.” He somehow was just ever-present, ever-smiling, and ever-offering a hand or a word or a thought or his heart, and so, everybody knew Bob.

I am proud to say that Mattie had that distinction for Bob and was the first in the community to connect with him, and to share those smiles and thoughts and times. Mattie would watch out of his bedroom window, ever-looking for new residents who were moving in, and then rush outside in his wheelchair to welcome them to the community.

Bob and Mattie became quick friends (of course) – both being outgoing, people-loving folks, who enjoyed community activities and conversations and celebrating life with others. Most of the early connections between Mattie and Bob took place in the driveway area in front of our buildings. Then one fall day a few weeks later, I happened to run into Bob and he began telling me how much he enjoyed his time and talks with someone who was so much younger than him – about 70 years younger actually. He said that Mattie was like the “Mayor of King Farm” and he asked if Mattie had already visited the homes and businesses of every member of this growing community.

I told Bob that because of his wheelchair and all the life support equipment, Mattie didn’t really get to go into other people’s homes and visit. And because of medical complications, he wasn’t able to spend a lot of time outside unless the weather was in a perfect way that was compatible with his health needs. Mattie was a mega-extrovert, but he was pretty limited in where he could get to know his neighbors.

Without a hesitation, Bob looked at me and said “Well, that’s just not going to happen.” 

“What?” I asked. “What’s not going to happen?”

“Mattie is not going to spend most of his time looking out of the window,” Bob said. “Mattie is a young man with this powerful message that needs to be shared across generations and space. He’s a peacemaker and people-person. And he is a very, very funny kid as well to boot! We are going to make sure Mattie gets out and about in this community, and that he knows people, and that people know him. My condo unit is accessible. And so is every unit in this group of three buildings, and so are many buildings and spaces in this community.”

And that was that. When Bob Balkam had an idea, or thought, or notion, or intention, or anything that moved his head and heart – there were no obstacles or challenges that he saw as insurmountable.

And he was right. King Farm turned out to be quite accessible. Neighbors in other condo units joined Bob in opening their doors and inviting Mattie in for a meal or a chat or a game or just to pass time. And Mattie began spending more and more time connecting with people who worked or shopped or ate at the local Safeway and Fontina Grille and other community businesses.

Mattie died less than two years later, just before his 14th birthday. But he spent a considerable amount of time getting to know his neighbors – around the block and around the world – from right here in King Farm. Bob’s home became one of Mattie’s most frequent places to visit, and the two of them spent hours talking about peace, and hope, and the amazing wonder our world and of humanity – if we choose to celebrate our world and humanity as a mosaic of gifts.

Shortly after Mattie’s passing, Bob contacted me to say that the 27 acre park at the north end of King Farm was about to be developed, and to share that he had already approached the City and community council about naming the park in honor of Mattie.

I told him that was a lovely idea, and a park would be a truly fitting tribute for someone who died at such a young age. But I also told him that I didn’t want to be a part of the early conversations or the citizen forum meetings that would lead to a decision for or against this idea.

“People may want to name the park after someone or something else,” I said. “Or they may think it is not okay to have a park for children that honors another child who has died. I hope this honor happens, but I am okay with people saying ‘it is a nice idea, but no.’”

For the second (but not the last) time, and again without a hesitation, Bob looked at me and said, “Well, that’s just not going to happen.” 

And again, he was correct. Several months later, the Mayor and City Council voted unanimously not only to name the park in Mattie’s honor, but also to create a space that reflected Mattie’s messages of hope and peace and that encouraged local and global neighbors to “play after every storm!” as Mattie suggested.

The next day, Bob gathered a small group of King Farm neighbors together in his living room, and the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation was created. With Bob’s guidance, the small volunteer-based non-profit would gather funds to support the creation of a Peace Garden area in the new park, that would include a life-size bronze of Mattie and his service dog, Micah, as well as an information sound-post where visitors learn more about Mattie and listen to him share some of his  “Heartsongs” and messages.

Once the park and garden were complete and dedicated, Bob continued to lead the Foundation into the next phases of our mission. It became his mission to ensure that Mattie’s messages and lessons – related to hope and peace and choice and community-building and tending to basic human needs – would always be available and accessible to people across time and space, and to people who were diverse in age and ability and aspiration and race and religion and so many other realities.

Bob helped launch our Peace Club Youth programs, and our educational activities in schools near and far that helped children learn about Mattie’s writings and their capacity to become good citizens and leaders and neighbors. He helped plan our early Peace Gatherings and Peace Celebrations, and was an ongoing support when we began the initiative for a National Peace Day in Mattie’s honor. And he brought our Peace Certification Program to Ingleside at King Farm, inspiring the community to “do more than a project” that would earn them a certificate. Once the IKF residents completed their series of peace quilts, they continued gathering and making peace a priority and purposeful choice – with picnics and meetings and an annual Mattie J.T. Stepanek Peace Lecture.

And yes, every time  thought of a potential challenge – to funding or timing or any logistic related to the park or our programs or our activities  or whatever – Bob would be ready with his standard, honest, encouraging, (and accurate) response: “Well, that’s just not going to happen.” And somehow, he was always correct.

Bob passed away on July 26, 2018 – peacefully, and surrounded by family. At his memorial service, people shared reflections and stories about Bob – and just about every person who took the microphone began with, “Bob was the first person I met when I moved here…” and then continued with statements like, “Bob was a great story teller, but he was also a great listener…” and “Bob inspired me to [insert specific good deed or attitude here]…”

Yes, that was, and is, Bob – a family man, a friend, a Foundation founder and a philosopher whose essence will be a part of our minds and hearts and stories and intentions for a long time to come. I do not think it was “by chance” that when Bob entered this world back in 1921, it was on February 14 – Valentine’s Day. Bob lived with love, and for love, and he loved living and people. He will be missed, by many, across time and space.

And if anyone wonders if the “goodness” of Bob – all the tangible and intangible realities that were and are a part of his many good deeds and activities and conversations – will begin fading anytime soon, I will, without hesitation look them in the eye, and respond:

“Well, that’s just not going to happen.