Christmas Eve is still more than a week away. But I already got the best gift possible. It wasn’t wrapped. It wasn’t new. And I had to pick it up myself – on Oct. 30.

Bill Murray, a 74-year-old member of my little Lutheran church on a hillside in Afton, overlooking the St. Croix River Valley, gave it to me. I met Bill in 1995 and we quickly discovered a couple of things in common: We liked teaching – and fishing.

For more than 30 years, Bill taught physical education and coached gymnastics at White Bear Lake High School. He was co-captain of the men’s gymnastics team at the University of Minnesota in the late ’50s and later inducted into the university’s Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

It was gymnastics that left Bill with painful assaults on his neck, shoulder and spine. He had a half dozen surgeries and none took away the pain he felt in the 15 years I knew him.

But when we were in a boat together, bass fishing, I never heard a complaining word. He loved everything about it, from the bass we caught – some 5 and 6 pounds – to the sandwiches we ate and the stories we told.

Bill talked about a few “bad” boys he ran into in high school who fooled around too much, studied too little and bullied others too often. Bill would find an occasion to call the kid for a chat, drape an arm around his shoulder (you could do that in those days) and ask him what was going on in his life.

Without raising his voice, Bill would spell out the realities of the path the boy was on and offer an alternative. If you change your ways, he’d say, I’ll be there to help you through the rough spots; if you don’t, I’ll cut you loose. The boys usually took him up on the offer to help.

His impact on students was obvious in a story written about Bill in the Vadnais Heights News following his induction into the hall of fame. It quoted Bill Kerchner, the 1970 Minnesota high school all-around gymnastics champion, describing Murray as the man who made him a champion.

Bill stayed in touch, to one degree or another, with dozens of the students he had coached or had in gym class. “You know, Dave,” he said, “I love it when they come up to me and say that I made a difference in their lives. I’m usually surprised and always humbled.”

Humility was Bill’s gift. He didn’t brag. He didn’t exaggerate. And he didn’t swear. Occasionally, I can be slightly profane – OK, more than slightly. Bill was not and, finally, I realized that I might have to find another word for the stuff that hits the fan.

July of this year was the last time I fished with Bill. He had developed, in addition to heart and orthopedic troubles, pulmonary fibrosis that made it difficult to breathe. When I visited him, he told me he was ready to pack it in, to move on to the next life. “I’ve had a great ride,” he said. “I don’t want to be around if I can’t get down to a boat.”

I understood but I told him I would miss him in the front seat, especially with all his gear: three or four rods and reels and a 20-pound tackle bag. “You have the professional gear,” I kidded. “Stuff I can’t afford and am not good enough to use.” He smiled.

“Well, you’ll get your chance to find out if you’re fisherman enough to use that bait-casting rod and reel of mine,” he said. “I want you to have it.” I thanked him and said I wouldn’t take it as long as he was around.

Bill died on Wednesday night, Oct. 28. I picked up the rod and reel from his wife, Elaine, two days later. The reel is silver-plated, with more ball bearings than my first bike. The rod is a 7-footer, medium heavy.

But the best thing is…they both have a few scratches on ’em, a reminder that they were once used by one of the good guys in the world.

The church was packed for his funeral. They came in suits and furs. They wore jeans and T-shirts.  They told funny stories about Bill and they cried over him. And they also sang, closing with “Amazing Grace.”

“Through many dangers, toils and snares…
We have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far…
And Grace will lead us home.”

Well, Bill Murray is home. I was “graced” by his friendship. And I got his fishin’ pole.

Merry Christmas.