MU graduate Bryan Like would have followed in the footsteps of John Lewis.
When Lewis died last week at the age of 80, America lost a courageous and graceful man. He led a full life after crossing the Selma Bridge at the age of 25 on March 7, 1965.
I recently learned that in his backpack that day were two books, Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain” and Richard Hofstadter’s “American Political Tradition.” My first reaction was “who else would have prepared himself for such a venture with those two serious, philosophical and historic books?”
Within an instant I thought “Bryan Like, that’s who.”
Bryan was my former student and a 2011 MU graduate who died July 15, 2019, after suffering heat stroke on a 5-mile training run with his Army Reserve officers candidate unit.
He was 30 years old. He is buried in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis.
Bryan was also arrested five years before on Aug. 20, 2014, for “refusing to disperse” while protesting in Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting. I recognized him in a photo in the New York Times and in an interview stored on YouTube with the title “Peaceful Protester Gets Arrested.”
With a little bit of concern and uncertainty, I emailed him within a few days, and we arranged to meet at a St. Louis mall where we talked about Michael Brown’s death, the police actions and the role of protests.
Man, I was impressed with his demeanor and thoughtfulness. He talked about Martin Luther King Jr., his friends, his view of politics. He had notes from King’s autobiography and took notes from our conversation. I remember the phrase “turning protests into politics” that he used that day and later appeared in his emails. I should have taken notes.
America lost a wonderful young man who had the promise of being another John Lewis. Bryan was kind, considerate, thoughtful and analytical. He was earnest, hardworking and determined. He achieved promotions in his job, earned a master’s degree and ran for the state legislature. He was doing everything right.
I first became aware of Bryan when I saw the August Wilson play “Fences” at MU, directed by Professor Clyde Ruffin. In “Fences,” I recognized Bryan as a student in my class because of his handsome appearance, long-braided hair and strong voice. It is likely that I mentioned to him after our next class meeting that I had seen him on stage.
I don’t recall how I encountered him after that semester ended. Bryan wasn’t even a political science major; he was a psychology major who transferred to MU after community college — a tough transition.
Somehow, I met him for coffee in St. Louis after he graduated. I don’t remember the particulars, but it was an enjoyable conversation. We talked mostly about our individual efforts to improve society. We talked about the value of enrolling in graduate school, buying a house, going into the military. I learned a little about his job as a youth services counselor at the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
After that I met him and his wife, Alicia, an accomplished actor, on a Sunday at a St. Louis bagel shop before seeing a play that Alicia was in. At the play, I sat next to Bryan’s parents and enjoyed pleasant conversation.
I learned his father was a preacher, that Bryan attended Hazelwood Central High School, and that he was still active in his fraternity and his Columbia church.
Bryan ran for the Missouri House of Representatives in 2016, losing the primary election. He took it in stride, focusing on what he learned about voters and himself. We talked about his incumbent opponent, whom he respected, his volunteers and the inactivity of most citizens. He seemed to enjoy working hard and meeting a lot of people. He figured he would run again some day.
The last time I saw him was in February 2019 when he, Alicia and I had breakfast. We talked mostly about acting and the plays we had seen, but what I remember most was Bryan’s peaceful confidence, his earnestness, his pleasant outlook on life. He said he was in good shape for the National Guard except for a bad knee he picked up wrestling.
After Bryan died, I looked at his social media. On LinkedIn, several people had posted before his death that he had an ability to always find compromise and that he was always able to get along in a bad situation. On his Facebook profile was one of my favorite quotes from Robert F. Kennedy:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
Later I looked at his LinkedIn profile once again and noticed his motto: “Agent of Change and Reconciliation.” That was Bryan Like.
I was blessed to have met Bryan and connected with him in a privileged way. I miss that I could not drive last month to St. Louis to discuss turning protests into politics with him after the killing of George Floyd. Like John Lewis, Bryan was preparing himself to help change society.
I imagine Bryan knew John Lewis’ story, and we would have talked about the prospects and limits of Lewis’ stock phrases — “getting in the way” in order to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
I have observed about a dozen street protests in Columbia over the past two months. After the first week or so, they have become rallies and training sessions for continuing social change. I have been impressed with several speakers who are preparing themselves to take on leadership roles.
Learning about Bryan Like and John Lewis would be valuable preparation.