Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Sept. 29, 30 or Oct. 1, 2016
“A little help, Lord,” I sniffed to myself.
After church and a good cry – an apt phrase – I started to write Dad’s obituary, a blessing and burden for any journalist. I thumbed through a short memoir he’d written – appropriately outlined around the many dogs he’d had and loved – and ran across another line he’d penned.
“I treat my dogs like children,” he wrote. “I think they go to Heaven, too.
“My picture of Heaven,” he added, “is to live my life again.”
My Dad, who used my name 21 years before I was born a Junior, had left reassurance that he’d been content. More than that, he’d been happy.
Preceded in death by his folks and our Mom five years ago, plus a great group of animals – from Duke and Bucky to Benji and Em (a one-eyed cat he rescued from a ditch while he was working as a rural power company lineman) – Dad was determined to be joyful. In fact, he also wrote what passed as his philosophy: “Be a good boy or girl and look out for other kids. Enjoy life with lots of humor.”
He loved to laugh. After retiring from 40 years as a lineman, engineer and supervisor, he read voraciously, especially humorists such as Groucho Marx and S. J. Perelman, history, and his favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which he repeatedly devoured. And every morning, he drove six miles to pick up the daily newspaper that wouldn’t deliver any closer to his small town – and share coffee and jokes with a handful of other characters.
Dad also had a serious side. A lifelong Republican, he was progressive, too. When he discovered a club he’d joined excluded African-Americans, he resigned; he refused to endorse the death penalty and was bumped from a jury that later convicted and sentenced the defendant to be executed (a man later exonerated, it turned out). When Donald Trump came on TV, he muted the sound.
But most of his life was upbeat, from a whirlwind courtship with Mom after meeting her at a riverside dance outside Hamilton, Ill., to coaching baseball, singing with a barbershop quartet, playing the ukulele or cards at bridge club, dancing at an Eagles Club, watching the Cardinals and Bears, and playing golf after picking up the game in his 40s.
He was always busy, too, balancing interests and impatience and finding fun in Dixieland jazz (from recordings to a trip to New Orleans, also playing golf in Memphis and other sites along the way), volunteering with Hancock County’s SHARE Food program and serving as an Elder with his church, even using his Kubota to clear snow or mow (as recently as a week before he passed on).
In his 60s, he taught himself piano and recorded original songs, learned woodworking, furniture refinishing, and clock repair, and researched genealogy that traced the family to Robert De Dene in England before the time of William the Conqueror.
As I wrote for Father’s Day this summer, “Many children of any age probably share that sense of colossal luck, deep gratitude and intense fulfillment with parents. [And] I cherish mundane memories: vivid recollections of being a toddler ‘camping’ on the living-room floor during a thunderstorm, with Dad reassuring me the storm would pass, or several years later pitching curveballs to him in the backyard.
“As award-winning poet Pam Brown wrote, ‘Dads are most ordinary men turned by love into heroes, adventurers, storytellers and singers of songs’.”
In the end, weeks after an unexpected diagnosis of a terminal condition, he worked the puzzles in the paper, watched a ballgame on TV, and lay down to die about 100 yards from where he’d made a legendary, over-the-shoulder catch of a long fly ball to the outfield in a softball league.
Fun, from beginning to end.
An ordinary man, he really had a wonderful life.
Thanks for the help in remembering that, Lord.