Three years ago I started a project. Once a week, my Mom and Grandpa would come to my house for lunch and afterward I would put my boys down for a nap. Mom, Grandpa and I would sit in my living room and I would ask Grandpa questions about his life, all while a video camera was recording.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to do this because my Grandpa could be a man of few words. The interview I did was mostly chronological, and at the beginning it was difficult to get words out of him, not because these memories were from so long ago, but because it wasn’t easy to talk about them. He was born in the summer of 1919 and grew up during some tough times for our country. Grandpa grew up a “city boy” living in the downtown areas of Camp Washington, Northside and Covington, KY. He told the story of how during the Depression his mom sent him down to the corner grocery with a paper sack and ten cents and told him to make sure it was filled up.
He and his friends would play baseball in between the buildings in the sandlots. They would also catch a street car heading over to Crosley Field, hoping to get a chance to see the Cincinnati Reds play baseball.
While he lived in a tenement building in Northside one of the things he loved doing with his mom was planting flowers. This struck me because as many of you know Grandpa was a master with plants. Flowers, vegetables, any kind of plant--he taught himself how to grow from seed and had them thrive. I can barely keep a poinsettia alive through the Christmas season and he kept one alive for an entire year. To think that this love of plants had its beginning in his humble background!
But it was an accidental early finding of a Christmas present from his mother Hilda that probably had the biggest impact on his life. He told the story of how he stumbled upon a BB gun in his house and he would come home from school at lunchtime to shoot it while his mother was at work, then neatly put it back in the box and its hiding place waiting for Christmas morning.
This BB gun sparked what turned out to be a lifelong love affair with nature, hunting and fishing. He was an avid duck hunter, even belonging for many years to “Ducks Unlimited” because he wanted to preserve ducks and geese and their natural habitat. He used to say that when he hunted you couldn’t find a duck or a goose with a “search warrant” in this area. Now you can’t go anywhere without seeing way too many ducks and geese crossing roads, city parks and golf courses. I guess his mission was accomplished by preserving these creatures, but after hearing him tell the stories of not seeing a duck or goose while he hunted it’s kind of sad because nowadays he would have a field day.
But in typical Grandpa-fashion, not seeing many ducks when he hunted didn’t bother him much because he just loved being out in nature. His thirst for knowledge was such that even though he didn’t see much of what he was hunting for, he did recognize many types of trees, plants and other animals, and if he didn’t he’d go to the library to look it up.
Grandpa had an 8th grade education and yet he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He married Grandma in 1941, was in the Navy during World War II, and worked at General Electric and various places doing tool and dye work. While at GE he one of his jobs was to create the transport for a nuclear jet engine, this a man with limited education! In 1979 he retired and my Grandma passed away in 1981. For many people, life slows down after retiring and a spouse passes away.
Not true for Grandpa. While I was interviewing him, I distinctly remember him smiling more, opening up more about his life. He lived for 31 years after he retired. He took trips, volunteered, and was active in his grandkids’ lives. His dear friend Elizabeth was a companion of his for many outings. I know they enjoyed going to performances at Music Hall, seeing plays and their weekly dinner night.
This is the Grandpa that I knew, the one who built bird houses and put them up in state parks; who enjoyed fishing; who hunted, until he decided he didn’t want to kill anymore. He would cook for us, often using what meat he got from hunting. He deceived us kids by serving spaghetti with meat sauce, true “mystery” meatloaf, and most recently, although not from a hunting trip, he made “Bunny Balls” for one of our Jungle Jim days.
Grandpa was in tune with nature and I remember him stopping me from picking a flower on one of our hikes. He told me that I should leave it there so that the next person has a chance to see it. He loved flying kites and would build them from kits, then take my siblings and me to a park to fly them. One of his favorite places to go was the Krohn Conservatory and although it changes very little, each visit he would take his time, slowly going through each exhibit.
It is in nature that I believe Grandpa was closest to God. He was sure to pass that love of nature and God to his children and his grandchildren. We came to understand that God works His miracles through the wonders of nature.
Something that will always stick with me was how Grandpa knew something about just about everything and he was completely self-educated. He always wanted to learn more about the world. The latest technology failed to intimidate him, as he was well-versed in the world wide web. He loved to read and loved reading about history—whether it was local, American, world, or sports history—specifically baseball history and trivia.
He loved sports and was an avid golfer, playing on a weekly basis up until last year. He may have quit playing because my Mom started beating him on occasions. He was the number one fan for my Dad’s baseball team, even traveling to Florida to root them on at the Roy Hobbs World Series.
He cared deeply for his family, wanting to be involved in their lives. He loved the many times he and Uncle Paul used to go out on Lake Erie in Uncle Paul’s sail boat, as well as the trips he took with Uncle Paul and Alex to Nova Scotia and to Acadia National Park in Maine.
He made a point to be involved in his grandkids’ lives taking us on outings and some of us on trips. Once he took me, my brothers and sister to Kings Island by himself. We were really young and I don’t remember much about the rides, but what I do remember is leaving the park when it started raining and probably the most upset I’ve seen him when he couldn’t find his car and had four small children following him around in circles.
He and Billy went to the Rose Bowl one year and the next year he went with Joe. Grandpa was never afraid to try new things—Joanie and Mom accompanied him on a special 80th birthday trip to go white water rafting in the New River. Mom was so worried Grandpa would flip out of the raft and it ended up being her to plunge into the water instead.
In recent years he would not only keep close ties to his grandkids, he also entered into a new and special relationship with his great-grandkids. Going to their school and sports functions kept him young at heart.
If there is one thing Grandpa taught all of us over the years is: no matter what hand we are dealt in life, you can always make it into something special with the right attitude and the will to succeed. Ending the video, I asked him if there was one thing he’d like us all to remember. His response was “to always keep God in your life.”
Grandpa lived—truly lived for all of his 33, 429 days. This self-made man loved the life that God gave him and devoted his days to thinking of others and living a simple life. For Grandpa, things kept getting better as life went on. He was the “American Dream.” He lived his dream. He was a hero to us all.
Grandpa, you will be greatly missed.