On this day eighty-six years ago the greatest man I ever knew, and likely will ever know, was born to an immigrant family of Italians in the tenements of Pennsylvania. Everything I learned about what a real man should be was learned at his feet.
He was a feisty boy, youngest of ten, born to parents who spoke no English. His dad worked the coal mines of Pennsylvania and probably died from black lung. Grampa remembered his dad coming home from the coal mines one day, dirty, exhausted and drinking milk. My grampa wanted it and… so he asked, and… so his dad gave him the milk.
As my grampa relayed the story, he stopped to collect himself. Seventy years later and he was still humbled about taking a refreshing drink from an exhausted man’s hand. Up to that point I’d never seen my grampa cry. I don’t know exactly why but I think that was a pivotal moment in his life. Not that he took the milk but that a man who had already worked so hard and done so much to take care of his family sacrificed his moment of refreshment for the simple pleasure of another.
I imagine my great-grandpa was as wonderful a man as my grandpa, but I never knew him, only Grampa.
And what a man to know!
Dignified… so dignified! Respected, admired and well thought of. He was no buffoon and yet he could make everyone laugh with his quick wit, magical tricks, stories and jokes. From the boat, classroom, pulpit, social event, dinner table or anywhere, he always carried himself in a way that commanded respect without alienating anyone or disgracing himself.
Faithful… so faithful, to his friends, to his congregations, co-workers, grandchildren, children, wife and most of all God. Never once have I heard anyone say anything remotely untoward about his character or integrity. His biggest downfall was believing others held the same standards.
Smart… so smart! He was a lover of learning; science, math, fishing, the Bible, technology. Always bettering himself, never letting moss to grow, encouraging everyone around him to know more. He would take it in and then share his knowledge, like he did the rest of his life, with those around him.
Kind… so kind! He talked to the down-trodden and the most elite in society with the same affect and demeanor. He took time to pull nickels from a child’s ear or give them a piece of candy from his pocket or slowly, patiently help a little old lady up a ramp with her walker. He did not judge prostitutes, drunks, thieves or wayward prodigal grand-daughters when they decided to come home. He believed, through the cross, everyone was allowed forgiveness and that all men deserved kindness shown to them.
Firm… so firm, never wavering from the tenants of his faith or a well-planned decision once he set his mind on it. Never giving in to popular opinion to keep a following or please a superior. Prepared to deliver a tough, honest moment of correction but always in a way that left the hearer feeling better for having been reprimanded or stronger for having been corrected or directed under his guidance.
Busy… so busy, being active, productive, mindful and intentional about life. Maybe he did work too much, but I never remember feeling like he didn’t have time for me, because when he was with you, he was WITH you! You mattered, he welcomed you with bright eyes that said, I have so much to do but, right now, “I am excited to see you!” Everyone was worth his time whether it was a moment of passing in a hall or a lazy conversation on a potluck Sunday or a story recounted from his squeaky office chair that somehow related to your own life, but you didn’t realize he was reading your mail until later.
Most of all godly… he was a good, godly man. He shared stories of frustrations, difficulties and trials with work and ministry and family. What struck me was that he filtered everything through what he knew of Christ’s character. He didn’t always hit the mark but he tried to serve Christ well in all his dealings with people, his intention was to be like Christ. That didn’t mean he was always loved, or his ideas were always chosen, or his family (particularly a stubborn grand-daughter hell-bent on figuring life out her own way) listened to his wisdom, but it meant his focus was on doing right, first by God, then by man.
He’s almost eight years gone and I still think of him close to daily. I’m grateful for having such an amazing man in my life. I miss him! Happy Birthday Grampa!