The Quiet Missionary: A Tribute to My Father Harry Nachtigall

The name Nachtigall is German for "Nightingale."  The Nightingale is a common bird.  It is not endangered.  It does not have particularly beautiful feathers.  It is even officially known as "the Common Nightingale."  But the Nightingale sings--and it is often the male that sings more beautiful than the female.  But most miss it because the Nightingale sings a lot at night, and can be found in loud urban areas where its beautiful song is hidden by the noise of the city.

My father Harry Samuel Nachtigall was a nightingale.  He was a man who lived a quiet life.  His closest brush with fame was as part of the handsome Anderson Trumpet Trio in the late 1950's that praised God but broke some girls hearts as they toured America.  The music is remembered by those that saw them and there was even a triumphant reunion a few years ago. The trumpet was only one of the ways he sang his song.

Harry was born in Camrose, Alberta and named after Harry Gardner of Gardner Bible College.  His parents Sam and Irene were missionaries to Canada and pastors in Cleveland, Ohio, and Lincoln, California.  As a pastor's kid, Dad had no home until he later discovered the place where he would thrive and one day be buried:  Costa Rica.  He was deeply interested in the world and married a remarkable young woman who pushed him to be a servant to everyone he met.  Her name was Wanda Jene Nachtigall.  Together they traveled to Kenya and my Father became the first Western headmaster at the Emusire School to hire non-white and Western faculty, and handed off the school into African hands.  In 2009, I made a special trip to the secondary school and saw his name and picture on the wall--Harry surrounded by his faculty of multi-colored people.  The school is one of the few institutions in the area still thriving and the school was being lead by a wonderful, handsome young, Kenyan man. Quiet people would rather see others succeed than themselves.

Together with his wife Jene and daughter Marcel, they traveled to Central America.  There they picked up a dying orphan and fought to take him home despite his severe illness.  They shortened his long four-part Spanish name and gave him an Irish/German name with a Spanish middle name.  They taught him to love the world in all of its eccentricities and complexities.   They did not teach their kids to spiritualize everything and run from the secular world; they demanded that they engage it fully.

The family loved Costa Rica and Harry saw the church in Costa Rica flourish during his time as a missionary.  The large Christian Center he built brought in youth throughout San Jose and helped to change many lives in a neighborhood that is still a Nazareth in San Jose.  Harry was not one to shove Bibles down people's throats, recite Scriptures at every event, or wear his faith on his sleeve.  His was a quiet manner; a Nightingale song that could easily be drown out amidst the darkness of relative obscurity and the daylight noise of an urban jungle.   

In a world obsessed with celebrities and showy achievements--(even in the church!)--my father rejected those things.   He was happy to never have his name mentioned, his achievements forgotten.  The very idea of getting credit for the things he had done would have been ludicrous to him.  He viewed himself as a husband and a father.  Nothing more.  Nothing more was needed.  Quiet people are not ashamed of being simple. It's a simplicity that the world doesn't crave.

What is known best about my Father is the women he shared his life with.  His first wife Jene, who fused a wicked sense of humor with an unbelievable intellect and servant-heart.  She pushed him hard.  After Jene passed away in 1991, he discovered love with Julia Monge.  Together, they would become a well-known force for good in neighborhoods in Costa Rica.  Free of pay, (paying out of pocket) he traveled the country visiting lonely, isolated churches.  The day before he died, an 80 year old woman from the poor port city of Limon rode the bus all the way to San Jose just to spend 90 minutes with him.  He loved those forgotten places and abandoned churches that no one cared to visit.  He had a special relationship with the Afro-Carribean people of the Atlantic zone.

Julia and Harry were the center of gravity for the little town of Patarra and an inspiration to many throughout San jose and Costa Rica.  Everyone who knew them knew how much Julia spoiled my father.  She bathed him in love and affirmation daily.  He always responded "Gracias mi esposa preciosa."  They were never apart and he was always requesting one more "cafecito" or another piece of devilishly unhealthy cake.  Anyone who spent any time around them will remember their lovey-dovey banter which was 100% genuine.  He could talk about Julia for hours.  In many ways, she saved his life.

My father was not a preacher and he did not sit people down and berate them about their spiritual lives.  He did, however, try and hook up as many people as possible, and many happily married couples are together today because my Father insisted on playing the matchmaker.  

His years of missionary service behind him, he spent his life as a math, science, and computer teacher.  He was a nerd and he never claimed to be anything else.  He was the teacher that was easy to take advantage of--the one who sometimes made the test too easy, and was too nice to the jocks making jokes behind his back.  I asked him why he was so patient with bratty kids while working in suburban and inner-city schools in San Francisco and Portland, and later, in San Jose.  "You never know what these kids are going through at home," he would tell me.  His heart broke for the poor math students in his class who were being robbed of joy by having to grow up too quickly in homes of chaos. I never looked at trouble-makers the same way.   

He was the opposite of those neglectful parents.  He poured love on us and was very proud of his kids.  When we moved to the United States, I had to learn the American sports:  American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Tennis.  Despite having a brutal commute to his school in San Francisco and putting in the long days of a teacher, he would come home without fail and play ball with me.  "The Montgomery Wards parking lot was our field," he recalled as recently as a couple of months ago.  The parking lines were yardage markers.  And he was so proud when my spirals were better than his.  Quiet, humble people are not threatened when others succeed.

He taught me to ride a bike in Marin County, California and we spent endless hours at Granada Field playing sports.  Only after I was an adult with my own son, did I realize how exhausted he must have been each day playing up to 2 hours daily with me after hard days of work.  He was my best friend and I demanded long, hard, playtimes.  In each sport, I surpassed him pretty quickly and he loved it.  He was so happy, when in 5th grade, I accidentally broke his rib while we were playing tackle football in our living room.  During a baseball game once, I made a pretty spectacular catch--the kind a grown man re-lives in his mind time-and-time again.  The sense of joy I felt at making that remarkable catch was quickly dampened when my Dad stood up in the stands and yelled in front of everyone: "That's my boy!"  I was humiliated.  Of course today those words are priceless.   

I remember saying to my Father when I was my son's age:  "You will be my best friend forever!"  My father replied, "No. One day soon you will want to spend more time with your friends than me, and that will be okay."  I can still remember my shock.  "How could I ever not want to play with my Dad?" I wondered.  But his words came true.  In my teen years, I was out of the house more than I was in the house.  Quiet people can let go and not remain the center of attention.   I now know one day my son will find his old man not as exciting as the boys in his crew and the girls down the street--and that's okay.

His final years in retirement were spent with virtually no money.  But it didn't stop him from giving everything he had away all the time.  Sacrifices for his children, gifts he couldn't afford, donations that would put them on the edge.  "My father is poor," I would tell close friends.  "Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven," said Jesus.   Jesus called them blessed, because they were not tied to the need to be artificial.  Those with vision were actually blind.  Those that were blind, could actually see.  

My father had no enemies.  Not one.  A remarkable thing to say about any human being.  Neither was he ever a different person behind close doors than in front of them.  He was the quiet missionary.  Long before Pope Francis and the Emerging Church called for the church to start walking the talk, the Nightingale sang his song as loudly as he could in the midst of the world's indifferent noise. 

Harry loved Costa Rica more than anywhere in the world.  He was genuinely happy here amidst a tribe of people whom he loved and served and loved him back.  He was the much adored "Don Harry:"  The man with a heart of gold in the background, bragging about others all the time.  I never heard him say one boastful thing about himself in my entire life.  I did hear him proclaim other people's greatness constantly.  The people of Costa Rica gave him the recognition that he deserved but did not seek.  He was a citizen of the country and of their hearts.  There is an enormous hole in the hearts of the people here because of what the quiet missionary did in silence.

Harry leaves behind a wife, Julia Monge, a daughter Marcel Boggio, a son Patrick Nachtigall and three grand-children:  Daniella, Marcellina, and Marco.  He loved Jamie Nachtigall and Daniel Boggio as his own children and those two grieve mightily today--the way unrecognized but legitimate children do.  But with his quiet footprint he leaves much more behind for everyone: a song of humility and service that has penetrated many hearts.

Julia and I did not know that our unexpected 4 1/2 hours with him would be our final moments with him.  Recovering from a surgery earlier in the day, he spent about 2 and a half of those hours very lucid.  He was grateful for all the people around the world that were praying for him.  He was emphatic that his beloved trumpet must go to my son Marco.  He asked about his kids, he said "Great job with Three Worlds" and he said at one point, "I trust God."  We talked about something I heard Bono of U2 saying regarding his strong father's recent death in a cold, undignified hospital:  "Dignity is over-rated."  In a place with tubes, bedpans, and invasive procedures I shared how my time in a Hong Kong hospital brought me great lucidity. We are dependent on others.  The idea that we are not is an illusion.  How many people needed the song of Harry the Nightingale? And how many got it?  More than we will ever know. 

"Did you know that one of my students gets beaten by her father when the toilet paper is put on incorrectly in the bathroom.  The paper has to be facing out," he told me once  in high school about one of the students who was in his math class at Tigard High School.  How many more people needed the song of the Nightingale.   

Tonight, the Quiet Missionary is no more.  His song is sung to the heavens as he soars above us all.  What made the songbird so unique?  The answer is this:  his selfless, intentional, ordinariness.  When the Quiet Missionary stripped himself of everything, all that was left was his song of love. 

What is our song? 

What is my song? 

What is your song? 

Thank you Dad for giving me my life.  I'll love you FOREVER.

"O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD, all the earth."

Psalm 96: 1

Patrick age 2 & Dad.jpg