Memories are powerful. Some are ever present, some fading, some pleasant, others excruciating. All have potential to control our thoughts, thus our lives, even though they are simply shadows of what has been.

Memories are something cherished by Karen Phares, a Bridge City woman. Less than a year ago, Karen faced the daunting task of burying her husband of 32 years. John was a light in the community as well as in Karen’s eyes.

John Phares was born in McAllen, Texas in 1933. A twin, he was unique from the beginning of life. He entered the service of his country during the Korean conflict. His due diligence was served in the Air Force where he was a mechanic. After he left the service he got a job with Gulf States Utilities as a meter reader.

Fence jumping and many dog bites later he decided he wanted more, so being the determined  sort, he started educating himself on the craft of engineering and landed himself a desk job with the same company.  This also allowed him to go to school and get formal training in engineering. He worked as an engineer for the same company until it became Entergy when he officially retired.

Retirement was far from his mind, however. It turned out that retirement was what gave him the ability to really set to work.

“He loved America, he was passionate about God and he loved people,” Karen says with confidence. She would know, she followed him as his help mate, into several ventures that involved all of the above. His true passion was for the hurting.

Through a chain of contacts he got involved with a group of local veterans who show special honor at the passing of other veterans. This core of people extends military honors to any branch of former military personnel. They contact family members, attend the funerals, fold and present flags and support the family members.

“John loved being a part of them!” Karen explains that as his health deteriorated due to arthritis he had to step down from attending the home goings of former military.

“He couldn’t walk easily around headstones and could no longer go,” she said. “He cried for two weeks. Getting old is hard. When your mind doesn’t age you feel you should still be able to do all of what you want but sometimes you just can’t.” 

She explained that for a time he became the one to call all of the team to inform them of when and where the memorials would be held until his furthering health issues hindered him there.

All of this was a small piece of what the Phares’ did after John’s retirement. They started ministering to those in nursing home facilities, then got connected to prison ministry through a friend at church. So in 1990 John’s true calling seemed to blossom.

“He really just saw a need to minister to people who were hurting and he knew prisoners were hurting people,” Karen said, giving a straight forward answer to the question of ‘why.’

Once there John really was ‘there.’ He worked toward his chaplain’s moniker, wrote books, taught prisoners writing, helped with their other educational needs but focused on attending to their spiritual deficits.

“People, and this includes those that run the prisons, don’t realize how much they need Jesus to be a part of what goes on in there [prison],” Karen said.

Because of this revelation, John started a campaign to get a chapel built at the Mark Styles Unit in Jefferson County. It would cost money, lots of it. It would also cost time and emotions. Karen herself was active in the prison ministry for the women at the county jail level and nationally with The Mike Barber Ministry.

“He was the leader, I just followed his lead,” she said. “I helped, I served.”

To see his vision for a chapel become reality John wrote grant proposals, spoke with business people and did a variety fund raising events. One of those events was “50 Miles for $50,000.00,” which involved Phares walking 50 miles.

In his 60s with advancing arthritis this was a feat but he was determined to see The Chapel of Hope be raised on the Mark Styles grounds. His vision did become reality, and he is honored there still with a banner.

“John knew when to laugh with people and he knew when to cry with them which he often did,” she said. “It was most likely his great compassion that drove him.”

Karen remembers he always had a corny joke to tell others when he met up with them and one had to laugh even if they didn’t get it just because of how he told it.

“I have so many joyful memories of a fine, wonderful, outstanding man,” she said.

John also left behind a sister, Joanne and children he loved dearly, Cindy, Debbie, Susan and Mark. He loved his step-children Judy and Doug and delighted in his many grandchildren. His passing needs to be remembered because it left a void. Karen still hopes to continue on the care he started. She plans to begin ministering in local nursing homes again. As she was the care giver for John and watched his physical and emotional needs manifest she knows the extent of the hurt the aging are enduring.

“I hope to stretch my care to others,” she said. “That’s my wish.”

She experienced intense lament the day he died talking of the devastation of losing John.  A friend from church came and stayed holding her up, “I was so blessed to have a church family that held me and loved me during my grief. But I am really okay now.”

When asked how, she says, “I am just obeying him.” God?  “Him. John. I am doing what he told me to do.” 

Karen, whose eyes glint with light and speaks in a soft spoken voice just smiles. “He told me: ‘Karen, I know I am dying but it’s really okay. I want you to go on and I want you to be happy. I will be in heaven and I will be happy, you should be happy.’”

She is. She is also extending her care to others, helping others who need her, spending half of her day taking care of the needs of family, friends and neighbors, just because they need. Every day she wakes before day break to help and elderly neighbor. She cares and continues on the path of life she and her husband started together. It is her gift to God and is fueled by cherishing memories that remain alive and vivid.

Memories may be nothing but shadows. And often the ones that hurt us the most when we think of those that have fallen become the same ones that make us smile later on in life. Memories are powerful. John Phares is a man – not was a man – worth remembering.