THE QUIET MAN | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado


part 1 of 2 The motorcade wound slowly through the snowy streets of the city, following the hearse that carried the body of Denver police officer Shawn Leinen. Leinen, 28 years old and a three-year veteran of the force, had been shot and killed a few nights earlier by a...
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part 1 of 2
The motorcade wound slowly through the snowy streets of the city, following the hearse that carried the body of Denver police officer Shawn Leinen. Leinen, 28 years old and a three-year veteran of the force, had been shot and killed a few nights earlier by a 16-year-old boy.

In a limousine behind the hearse rode Leinen's pregnant widow, Susan. With her were her parents and Doug Overall, the chaplain at Denver General Hospital, where the mortally wounded officer had been brought and where, coincidentally, Susan worked as a medical technician.

As he looked out the window, Doug Overall was overwhelmed by the outpouring of grief from the people who lined the sidewalks and left their cars at the intersections. A few waved. Some saluted. Some kneeled and prayed. Many cried. And others simply stood silent.

In the six years since he'd taken over the fledgling chaplaincy and become the director of pastoral care and education at Denver's city hospital, Doug had witnessed hundreds of deaths and their aftermath.

Some were harder to take than others, especially babies. But then there were the gangs, with children killing children. And AIDS patients with their lists of friends who had gone before them. People with cancer, hoping for the end. Gunshot victims. Drug overdoses. Car accidents. And now a young police officer slain in the line of duty.

As a big, inner-city hospital, DGH saw more than its share of tragedy and grief. So did Doug.

Looking out the window at the troubled faces of the people standing along the street, he was reminded of the great axiom of his calling: Bad things happen to good people. Why? By now Doug knew there were no answers to that question. Still, it was his job to find reasons for grief-stricken families to go on.

They rode in silence. Not because there was nothing to talk about, but because in silence there is a power and a grace that render words meaningless. It had taken some time for him to learn, but Doug had discovered that often the most important thing he did was simply be there when other people were hurting.

Doug looked at Susan, her rounded belly covered in black. As was so often the case, it was the mourner who comforted him as she reached up to touch his shoulder, acknowledging his tears.

Doug Overall was born December 13, 1953, in Forestville, Maryland, the middle child sandwiched between two sisters. The Overalls were good, church-going folks, and their family life revolved around the First Baptist Church of Suitland, located just three blocks from the Overall's ranch-style home in a neat, working-class neighborhood.

It wasn't all fire and brimstone, though. The church grounds held a baseball diamond where Doug spent the hot summer days. And inside the cool confines of the narthex, he discovered his passion for music. The hymns fit his image of God as a loving, caring, fatherly sort who looked out for his children and wanted them to live a life free of sadness and fear. The rules were pretty simple: Good people went to church, were happy, and eventually wound up in heaven; bad people didn't go to church, or at least not the right church, were miserable and basically deserved whatever happened to them.

Doug's mother had stayed home to raise the kids. His father had retired from the Navy and purchased a small restaurant and bar where Doug spent many an afternoon watching the big man pouring beers for his blue-collar clientele.

At the bar, you could get the best hotdogs in the world--served up with mustard and pickles on hot steaming rolls with an iced mug of root beer to chase it all down. Being Claude Overall's kid meant Doug could have as many as his stomach would hold. A close second were the 'dogs over at D.C. Stadium, where his father would take him to baseball games when the Senators still played there. There was nothing quite like a mouthful of ballpark frank, left-fielder Frank Howard coming to the plate with the bases loaded and a seat next to his dad.

Doug's father wasn't much for conversation, and ballparks and bars were no place for heart-to-heart talks. So Doug mostly kept his feelings to himself. Whenever he was troubled, he'd hop on his bicycle and ride. He didn't go fast, just far, out into the wooded areas near his home. It seemed to clear his mind, even if some of his questions remained unanswered.

Still, Doug figured he, his family and the people they knew had nothing to worry about. It wasn't until November 1963 that his fragile view of the world began to crack. Doug was ten years old and riding home from another day in the fifth grade when the driver slowed the bus, then turned to the bewildered children and told them that somebody had shot President Kennedy.

Doug got off at his stop and ran the two blocks to his home, sobbing. Bursting through the door, he found his mother sitting in the living room watching the television as tears ran down her face.

America and Doug Overall lost some of their innocence that day. Why would God allow this? President Kennedy was a good man, and he and his family went to church...even if they were Catholics. It wasn't like he had been in an accident--someone had shot him, and that was the act of a bad person. But it was Kennedy who was dead.

In the days that followed, Doug rode his bicycle far and wide, pondering questions that he hadn't even known existed. There were no answers. He was pedaling through the same old neighborhood, but something about it had changed, however subtly.

It shifted again a year later. Doug was sitting in Sunday-school class when the teacher entered, closed the door and called for the students' attention. When they were quiet, he gave it to them short and simple: "Bobby is dead. He was found in his room."

That was it. The teacher went on with the day's lesson while Doug sat stunned.

He and Bobby lived only a block apart, and they had been friends for years. They attended the same church, sang in the same choirs, played for the same church baseball team. One day Bobby was alive, the smartest kid in the whole school. The next he was dead.

No one volunteered the information, but it eventually got out: Bobby had hanged himself in his bedroom...already tired of the world at age twelve. Doug climbed on his bicycle and rode for all he was worth. But his travels kept leading him back to the curb in front of Bobby's house.

Doug would stare at the windows and imagine the rooms behind them, rooms where he and Bobby had played. He was mad at God. Bobby was just a kid, a good kid. Why, God? he asked again and again. But no matter how long he waited, he never got an answer. And eventually he would turn his bicycle and pedal home slowly in the dark.

Nita Hansen doesn't remember much about the accident two years ago this month. She and her husband, Reidar, had moved to Denver a few months earlier with their children, and she and the two kids were driving back to Oklahoma for a friend's wedding.

They were heading toward Franktown when Nita looked down for a moment for something that had rolled beneath her seat. When she looked up, the car was heading off the road, rolling when it hit the shoulder.

The world went fuzzy and time became disjointed, but she never lost consciousness. She was placed on a helicopter for the flight to Denver General and whisked to the emergency room. Faces and voices appeared and disappeared. One voice at the hospital, however, did stand out. It was a kind voice that told her horrible news: "Your son is dead."

She would hear the voice often over the next few days, and then weeks. It belonged to Doug Overall, the hospital chaplain.

Nita's daughter had survived the crash with nothing more than a few bruises. But her son had died at the scene, and Nita's spinal cord had been severed, making her a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.

Doug was constantly popping in and out of Nita's room. If she wanted to talk about her grief or her feelings of guilt, he listened without passing judgment. If she was silent, he was silent, waiting patiently.

Her family flew in from Texas, and Doug spent as much time as he could with Nita's parents. "He was especially comforting to my mother," she says. "She and my sister still ask about him all the time.

"He is so grounded. His foundation is so strong, I felt at peace when he was around."

Nita couldn't attend her son's funeral, so Doug arranged a service for him in her room. And when she transferred to Craig Rehabilitation Hospital, Doug visited her there.

Nita never questioned why God had allowed this to happen. She is Catholic, and her faith assures her that there is some reason. But her husband has had a more difficult time, and they have had to battle to keep the family intact.

"He was angry. And we still don't talk to each other much about it," she says. "But it's gotten better, and for that I'm grateful to Doug. He was instrumental in calming Reidar. Anytime we needed him, he was available. And he's stayed in contact with Reidar, going to ballgames or out to lunch.

"He's the most giving person I've ever known."

As a teenager, Doug drifted away from the church. He still believed in God, but he wasn't sure what kind of God--nor did he care to look too closely for an answer. There were more important things to occupy his time, such as girls and sports, especially track.

His passion for music remained--though now he spent it on school choirs and musicals. He planned to go to college as a voice major and eventually become a high school choral director like his mentor, Leonard Moses. He wanted to go to the Eastman School of Music, Moses's alma mater.

But Doug's father had other ideas. The church's pastor, a family friend and hunting buddy, urged Claude to send his son to Campbell University, a Southern Baptist liberal arts college in North Carolina where he had graduated in the 1940s.

It was a done deal before Doug even knew about it. He didn't want to go to a Christian college, but his father wasn't the sort he could refuse. "You'll go there for one year," his father told him. "If you're still unhappy after that, we'll talk."

Campbell is located in the small town of Buies Creek, about 45 miles south of Raleigh. Doug went there on a track scholarship as a music major and staggered through his courses, excelling only at music. Although Campbell wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, he still planned to transfer to Eastman.

Toward the end of the spring semester, Doug and some friends went to an evangelical revival on campus. He paid little attention to the preaching but was quickly caught up in the music. It had joy and purpose.

He went back to the dormitory with the hymns echoing through his head. All weekend he thought about it. By Monday he knew he was staying at Campbell and, what's more, was changing his major to religion with a minor in music. He had a new dream of becoming the music director for a large church. Ministry would give meaning to his songs.

Doug's change of heart signaled other changes in his life, including a new relationship with his father. In his junior year Doug suffered an allergic reaction to something he'd eaten. He swelled like a water balloon and soon was having difficulty breathing. Doug had had allergic reactions all of his life, and he knew he was in trouble unless he could get a shot of cortisone. He and his roommate went to the school clinic but were told Doug would have to wait until the doctor came in on Monday. No amount of pleading could convince the staff that his condition would continue to worsen over the weekend--and might even kill him.

Frightened, Doug called home. His father told him to sit tight. Sometime after midnight, there was a knock on his door. When Doug opened it, his father was standing in the hallway. He had found a doctor and an open pharmacy, then driven five hours from Washington, D.C.

"Here, take this," Claude Overall said, handing over the medicine.
It took Doug a moment to gather his wits and move out of the doorway. He had never doubted that his father loved him, but it had taken an emergency for him to show it. Although no one would ever accuse Claude of being verbose, from that moment on father and son found it easier to talk.

Religion majors were required to volunteer their time in the small Baptist churches that dotted the Carolina countryside near Buies Creek, doing a little preaching or youth ministry or, in Doug's case, working as a choir director. The congregations were typically black, made up for the most part of poor laborers who worked the tobacco farms or as service people on the campus. Many were illiterate, but they could cite scripture and talk about the Bible hour after hour with an authority that would have shamed most theology students.

Doug was shocked by their poverty and impressed that they didn't spend a lot of time bemoaning their lot in life. They didn't ask why bad things happened. They didn't blame God. In fact, they considered themselves rich. In family. In friends. In faith. The joyful noise they raised on Sunday mornings was a song of thanks.

Doug admired them, even if he didn't understand the roots of their happiness. He kept his mind on his music and reserved questions of faith for the theologians.

After receiving his master's in music at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Doug began working at a series of small churches. By 1984 his growing reputation brought him an invitation to become the minister of music for a large church in Washington, D.C., near his parents. This was his dream come true. He accepted and threw himself into the job: adult choir, children's choirs, choirs for teenagers and a touring, contemporary singing group. There were also the church pageants at Christmas and Easter and even the Fourth of July. Each production had to be grander, more technically perfect than the one before.

Doug was constantly in the spotlight, constantly on stage. But over the next few years he found himself less and less enthralled with each new Christmas pageant, every Easter service. For twelve years, at various churches, he had churned out the music. He had reached the pinnacle of success as he had imagined it.

Why then, he prayed, was there so little satisfaction?
Doug decided to cut back on his career and find some other part-time ministerial avocation that might reinvigorate his passion for music. He chose hospital ministry although only God knew why, since Doug had already failed that once before.

Back in Carolina he'd been asked to visit a member of the congregation who had been in a motorcycle accident; the parishioner hadn't been wearing a helmet and was in bad shape. Doug had barely entered the hospital room when he saw the patient and stopped. There was something sticking out of the patient's head, and rods protruding from his legs. The man moaned in pain, and the smell was nauseating.

Doug passed out. When he came to, a nurse was leaning over him, asking if he was all right. He nodded but inwardly gave thanks that he was in music and not hospital ministry.

Now, several years later, he was ready to give it another try. It seemed like a worthwhile thing to do and not particularly hard: Go in, talk a little, say a prayer and leave. Nothing to it.

Doug hadn't been at his new job long when he got a call from the pastor who headed the church's hospital ministry. A young man, married with a small child, had been burned in a fire. They'd go to the hospital together, the pastor said.

Doug didn't know what to expect. But whatever images of hell he might have imagined, they didn't prepare him for what he found when he entered the hospital room. The young man had been burned over 80 percent of his body and was laboring to breathe with the aid of a machine. His head had swollen to the size of a basketball and his skin looked like blackened bacon.

Doug couldn't talk. He could hardly stand to look at the young man. The smell of burned flesh overwhelmed him, and he gagged. The pastor, who had been first into the room, turned to him, but Doug shook his head. "I'll wait out in the hallway," he said.

Outside the room where the young father--a good man from all accounts--would die the next day, Doug sat ashamed. The patient's devastated mother was there, and he spoke with her, though years later he couldn't remember what he said. Just words. Meaningless words to keep his mind off that horrible smell. Doug had yet to learn respect for silence.

Still, the woman seemed to take some comfort from his presence. Without speaking, she let him know that she appreciated not being alone. And that feeling carried him into the future like a leaf on a stream.

For Reidar Hansen, the pain is still near the surface. He chokes up and begins to cry as he recalls the death of his son and the maiming of his wife.

As a social worker and the critical-incident counselor for his company, Reidar knew what the hospital chaplain was trying to accomplish in the hours after he was paged to Denver General. But Reidar didn't want to hear it.

In the past he had counseled employees who had lost children, never believing that it could happen to him. "There is nothing worse," he says. "It just doesn't fit the scheme of how you see your life."

Professionally, he had always considered asking God why to be a wasted question; there were no answers. And yet now that it was his son, he found himself angrily demanding one.

"Why was this happening to me? There was good and bad, black and white. I knew better, but I had wanted to believe that bad things didn't happen to good people," Reidar says.

Doug continued to try to reach Reidar--not by making demands, but simply by making himself available.

"He lets you talk it out," Reidar says. "He doesn't claim to have the answers, but he helps you ask the questions and lets you find your own truths."

Without Doug, whom he now considers a friend as well as a counselor, Reidar is sure he would have sunk into the black morass of his grief. "I'm a big believer in serendipitous meetings," Reidar says. "Out of something bad came something good. I didn't have many friends, but now I do. I know there is someone I can call to go to a ballgame or out to lunch.

"If I need to cry," he continues, as he again begins to do just that, "he'll sit with me without passing judgment, just listening. No strings attached. It's still not easy. But Doug has made it easier."

end of part 1

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