A sincere request in the midst of a tragic situation


“Where were you when the world stopped turning?” asks country singer Alan Jackson in a song he wrote after the 9/11 terrorist strikes.

It’s a question we often ask after tragedies – moments that are seared into our memories as we create a mental scrapbook of big events that change our lives.

My 9/11/01 was spent trying to de-escalate a troubled teen who was attempting to hurt herself and other youths at a local group home for at-risk adolescents. She spun out of control for nearly an hour as we also hosted a Department of Public Welfare representative for the home’s annual inspection.

In the midst of the chaos, one of our new counselors kept calm and ultimately helped diffuse the situation.

His name was Matt Shertzer, and he quickly became part of our closest circle of friends – an extended part of our family.

We hunted together, played sports together, went to a Packers-Eagles game, a Penn State game and numerous other things together. He held our daughter after she was born, and years later she enjoyed making homemade birthday cards for him. We were in his wedding and helped him move on several occasions.

Which is why a recent phone call brought everything to a screeching halt.

For my wife and I – our world most definitely stopped turning.

That’s because Matt was found dead in his apartment.

He was only 36 years old.

I find myself thinking back to our days working together.

Once upon a time, he and I chased down a runaway teenaged girl near the group home – and as she slowly climbed the side of a local bridge, contemplating a jump off into the shallow waters below, it was Matt who broke his typical stoic silence to reassure her that she wasn’t alone. That no matter how difficult things seemed, that he had confidence in her.

Matt’s calm approach and genuine concern for her well-being caught the troubled young woman off guard. He saved her life.

In that moment where one young teen’s world stopped turning, Matt was there. His presence made a huge difference.

As it did for so many other young people over the years at the group home and eventually at the Milton-Hershey school in central Pennsylvania. Matt was never quick to comment – never one to judge someone based on how they looked or what their life’s circumstances were.

That’s the theme you’ll find among those that offer condolences on Matt’s Facebook wall and at a memorial page for him on Facebook. So many young people facing overwhelming circumstances and Matt was there to help them in their time of crisis. He was there when their worlds stopped turning.

Unfortunately, Matt struggled at times with his own demons. His father’s death. An emotionally charged divorce. Bouts of grief and depression as overwhelming and inevitable as massive waves on a storm-ravaged sea can be to a small boat.

The why’s in Matt’s death are still under investigation, and there is a good chance we may never completely know what happened. Some suggest suicide, but that is just one unfounded assumption – to even claim that without 100 percent proof of all factors involved is premature and unfair.

As my wife and I gather our own information and filter it through the fabric of what we know truly made Matt who he was (both the good and bad), we feel increasingly certain that his demise was something more accidental and unplanned – at least at the moment it occurred.

Regardless of how things happened, though, it is obvious that the same Matt who touched so many lives and helped spark them in a positive direction was also dealing with a mountain of struggles of his own.

Despite the numerous questions circling Matt’s tragic death, the one that keeps surfacing and eating away at me simply is this:

Where was I when Matt’s world stopped turning?

Why didn’t I make that extra trip down to visit him as I said I would just a short while ago? Why didn’t I call him more often, even if only to chat about his beloved Nittany Lions football team or to make plans to hunt together this fall? Why didn’t I text him more about lineups, waiver wire moves or other fantasy football topics in the league we enjoyed together?

I admit it right now … if you are one of the people who’ve recently asked me how I’m doing with all of this, I probably lied.

Fine? I’m not fine.

Please, Lord, don’t ever let me be fine again if fine means that I allow the busyness of life to become an excuse for not taking a few extra moments to reach out to a friend or relative. Let me be better aware of those around me – so that when they find themselves in situations where everything seems to be caving in, I can be there at that moment when their world seems to stop turning.

And if I can offer any advice out of all of this to those who care enough to listen – don’t waste another moment. Make a phone call to someone you know has dealt with rough times. Send a text or an email.

Invite him/her to enjoy a brisk fall hike, spend a day hunting, do some early Christmas shopping or simply catch up over a cup of coffee.

You never know just how much of a difference one extra moment like that can make.

I can’t go back in time and be there for Matt through his moments of struggle — but I can do everything possible to make sure Matt’s death was not in vain. Help me do that by reaching out to the people in your life who may be experiencing moments where their world has stopped turning.

Together, let’s make a difference just like Matt did for so many over the years.


~ by zaktansky on October 29, 2013.

6 Responses to “A sincere request in the midst of a tragic situation”

  1. We find ourselves helpless during times of tradgedy, the loss of a loved one, illness .. anytime we are not in control of a situation and ask ourselves why? Why didn’t Itake the time to go, to see, to be with? Why?
    I’ve asked myself why many times. Wby didn’t I get out to see my father the day he asked me to come? Why did I let my mother have a surgical procedure when I felt it might be too stressful for her and contributed to her death? Why didn’t I spend more time with my brother when I saw him only a week before he died? Why does an innocent young animal have to die in front of my eyes?
    Because HE has a plan for us all and who are we to question HIM.

  2. Our prayers are with you and your family John. I am so sorry to hear of Matt’s passing. I appreciate you so much over the years I have known you. Don’t be so hard on yourself over the past but continue to make the future brighter for others. We love you and your family.

  3. John I have to say what you wrote is amazing it brought more than one tear to my eye hearing you talk about how Matt was, brings back so many memories of our the H.V days. It took some really special people to do what we did. Depression is hard, After my dad died I would call home from college just to see if my mom was alive so hard to handle when you are 19. Matt was lucky to have people like you in his life. So sorry for your loss and sorry for the children who will no longer have someone like Matt to be there for them. We just have to hope that there are more people willing to reach out to those in need. Thank you for your passionate article And God bless!

  4. What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for posting it.

  5. This was kind of a shock to find out about a friend’s death on a blog, but I’m glad you posted it. Matt and I were friends years ago and I kept tabs on him through a friend that worked at Milton Hershey although we hadn’t seen each other for a few years. Very sad way to start the day, but you did a great job of highlighting his life. He definitely was always there for people and a gentle person with a big heart.

  6. John, thank you for sharing your thoughts about Matt. Many of us in his family did not know some of those happenings. You were able to share your thoughts so beautifully. We too struggle with thoughts of if only I would have done this or that. If only I would have heard his call on the Sat. before his death. Matt left his thoughts on paper, much of which I have not finished reading as of yet. If only he would have spoken those thoughts with me way back in 1993 after his Dad died and we could have talked about them I can’t bring him back, I can only trust him to the loving, forgiving Lord Jesus who loves us with an everlasting love and does not treat us as our sins deserve. A message of Hope is to be spoken to our nation at the end of this week by the great evangelist, Billy Graham, in celebration of his 95th birthday. For additional information, local listings, check out the website myhopewithbillygraham.org. I agree with you John, that we need to take the time to do the little things. Take time for your family too, they are a precious gift from God! Stay in touch, John. Thank You for all you did with Matt. Audrey Hollinger, Matt’s Mom

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