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Bully makes amends: Is there anyone you owe an apology?

• May 7, 2018 at 5:00 PM

Do you owe someone an apology?

Not for a recent slight or modest wrong you committed, but for a past act that you suspect caused another person deep pain. Do you need to make amends? Maybe the answer comes quickly — a yes or no — or perhaps it’s buried deep.

For Bruce Smit, the answer was a searing yes. He carried guilt and shame for decades, occasionally bursting into tears at the thought of how he and others mistreated the Rys sisters back in sixth and seventh grades. That was some 60 years ago. Smit, now 71, wished to repent but was still struggling with the burden until — supported by his wife — he was able to locate and seek forgiveness from Kathleen Rys, 72, and her sister, Lorraine O’Kelly, 70, for his role in bullying them.

“We were cruel,” Smit told the Daily Southtown’s Donna Vickroy. “And for apparently no reason other than following the crowd.”

Maybe there are instances in life where a person who feels responsible for a wrong exaggerates or imagines the hurt, and with an apology all bad feeling is swept away. Oh that? I never even noticed. Such was not the case with the Rys sisters, who — for unexplained reasons — were treated as pariahs their entire school careers. Their isolation and anguish were all-encompassing. No one ever intervened.

In grammar school, no one would eat lunch with the girls, or play with them or sit with them on the bus. Smit remembers in sixth grade being part of the gang giggling at lonely Kathleen. The torments continued at Crete-Monee High School. “When we climbed the stairs to go to our other classes, if someone bumped into us, they’d run to the washroom to wash their hands,” Lorraine said. “We only had each other,” Kathleen said.

Smit was in medical school when he began to consider the tragedy of the Rys sisters’ mistreatment and contemplate his participation. But atonement is not always a fast or simple act to pursue. Expressing contrition requires reflection, selflessness — and bravery. It’s difficult enough, given the ego’s influence, to stand in a church or synagogue and privately ask God to forgive our sins. Imagine then, how Smit felt arriving at a restaurant for an arranged meeting with two women whose childhoods he had helped destroy.

Smit was at the restaurant with his wife, Tammy, still gathering his thoughts, Vickroy wrote, when Lorraine yelled out from a nearby table, “I forgive you.” Kathleen did, too.

What generosity. We can’t see the scarring, but Kathleen never married and has few friends. Lorraine, who has a family, also suffered deeply. We can’t see the healing either, but it’s there, the sisters say. “It’s just wonderful that a person from 60 years ago can ask forgiveness,” Lorraine said. “It’s like a miracle to us. It’s a healing to us.”

Smit said he was ashamed, embarrassed — and relieved. “I’m so happy they’re still here and that I can finally apologize,” he said.

He had a message, especially for former classmates, but everyone, really: Take action, before it’s too late, to seek forgiveness from those you’ve wronged.

So we’ll ask again, as we ask ourselves: Is there anyone you owe an apology? Do you need to make amends?

— CHICAGO TRIBUNE (TNS)

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