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Remembering Grandpa

Thursday, February 6, 2014

My grandpa died a year ago Friday. I wrote a eulogy and read it at his funeral, and meant to post it online back then, but things were a little hectic. I know he'd like people to read about him, though. He was a celebrity that way.

Being a journalist has taught me how to ask questions and listen, something I take for granted most of the time. But it made me think it was really special to be able to use those skills to interview my own family. And then it made me think that it doesn't take special skills to talk to each other more, even if it's sloppy. Share the stories, good and bad. Write them down. Don't forget. It's simple if you do it.

Here's the eulogy. 

The baby came screaming into the world on Oct. 18, 1924. When his parents gave him a bath, he turned the color of blueberries. They were certain he would die so they called in a priest and a doctor. He was baptized once and named Adam. Then, in his first great act of defiance, he lived. He was baptized again and named Wilford. 
He sunk fast and breathless into the things around him. He made a scooter from an orange crate and a two-by-four, tin cans for lights and a dismantled roller skate for wheels. He made a model airplane powered by rubber bands, and when it crashed, he fixed the front with strips of bamboo. It kept crashing, so he tied a lit match to the plane and watched it come down in flames. 

After high school, his parents gave him a 1937 Harley Davidson motorcycle. He painted it by hand, dashing a lightning bolt down the side, and posed against it in leather boots and gloves, leg cocked and lip curled.

During World War II, Wil’s friends were being called up. Wil was not, so he asked why. The draft board workers found his papers stuck in the back of a drawer. He picked the Coast Guard because no one else was in line that day. He learned to shoot guns, to lower life boats, to speak in Morse code.

He learned ju-jitsu and boxing, how to save people and how to march in parades. He was lost at sea for a week. He spent eight hours at a time searching for overturned sailboats, kids on rafts, helpless fishermen, stalled and broken ships. At least twice, luck and instincts kept him off planes that crashed. 

He met Rita Smith at the roller rink back home. He asked her for a spin during couple’s skate, and they waltzed together on wheels. When she came to dinner, he made his mom set the table with their finest dressings. Rita’s mother loved Wil. She made him cream pies, and when they didn’t turn out, he promised to drink them with a straw. Wil and Rita worked together like a see-saw. Where Wil was wild, Rita was steady. Where Wil wanted the sky, Rita wanted the ground. He took her up in an airplane – once. He took her on his motorcycle – once. He proposed at Lakeview Park in January 1946. She had been ready for it since Christmas. 

Wil was a pipe inspector, a salesman, a tool designer, a foreman, a process engineer. He was president of KTS Met-Bar until 1995. He ran Wil’s Radio Shop, fixing radios on the nights and weekends. He worked two jobs at once to support his wife and their six children. 

He bought the lot next to the family home on 21st Street so his kids could have a place to play. He loved to invent stories, letting the kids fill the holes in silly voices. He took them to the drive-in movies in their pajamas and sprung for large root beers and Snyder’s chips. After seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, he bought everyone chocolate bars. Rita kept a tight budget, but when Wil did the grocery shopping, he brought home cigarettes and moon pies. 

He hated going to bed angry, so he’d apologize to everyone, even if he wasn’t wrong. He often slept on the floor. Maybe he liked how it felt. Or maybe he wanted to see his teenagers come through the door at night. Just when they turned off the television, he’d pry open an eye and say, “Hey, I was watching that.” 

Wil connected with each of his children in different ways. Mickie was his oldest, and he was the only one she would let teach her to drive. Barbara was his baby and he picked her up every weekend from college, even through snow and ice. Nancy and Wil critiqued each other’s writings and spent hours in his computer room learning new gadgets. He loved to talk about the military and engineering with Dennis, and visit real estate properties all over town with Dale. Pam drove him everywhere, and when he finally gave up his car after much protest, he told her he’d repay the favor one day when she couldn’t drive. 

He loved his 14 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren and was genuinely interested in our lives. He passed on stamps and books and gadgets from his basement. He showed us things he invented and saved specifically for us. He taught us about history, how to write cover letters for jobs, how to beat the high score in Snood. He called us all “George,” and told us to save our money for good whiskey. He picked up his grandsons from school. “Did you learn anything today?” he’d ask. “Nope,” they’d say. “Good,” he’d say. And they’d buckle in and drive away.

He and Rita were their own Bonnie and Clyde. When the kids told them to lay off the McDonalds, they went in the morning before anyone was awake. They knew all the breakfast spots in town, where Rita ordered eggs over medium and Wil ordered his softly scrambled with rye toast, “Toasted,” because he didn’t want warm bread. Wil enjoyed a monthly Manhattan, and Rita knew one was enough and two was too many. She knew, too, that her husband needed to do things to feel like himself, needed to mow the lawn, needed to visit Kathy at Subway and bring Julie the turkey at Thanksgiving, needed to pass out Christmas bonuses at his old shop. And Wil knew Rita needed him there, sitting at the helm of the table making jokes and sneaking cookies, starting big ideas with, “I was thinking…” So at night, when the errands were done and the visitors had left, they would lie in bed and hold hands until they fell asleep, and in the morning, Wil would wake up, look at Rita and say, “You’re my favorite person in the whole world.” 

Wil faded, quieted in body but not spirit. While sick in bed he drew a stunning portrait of his doctor.

He examined the tissue boxes in his hospital room and invented new uses for them. He fought and fought and fought, raised his hands in the air, then left softly with his faculties, his curiosities and his visitors around him. 

The day Wil died, his grandson, Max, walked through Wil’s basement. He found a little yellowed sheet of paper Wil had written on years before, buried beneath a book on a desk. It said, “If a tiny baby could think, it would be afraid of birth. To leave the only world it has known would seem a kind of death. But immediately after birth, the child would find itself in loving arms, showered with affection and cared for at every moment. Surely the baby would say, “I was foolish to doubt God’s plan for me. This is a beautiful life.”


  1. It's crazy it has been a year. This street is not the same anymore. We miss him daily!

  2. Stephanie, this is so beautifully written. You are one of my favorite writers at the Times.

    I once interviewed my grandfather about meeting and marrying his wife, who I was named after but died long before I was born. It turned into an essay for a school assignment, but when he died two years ago, I regretted not having interviewed/recorded him more.

  3. This is so good, Stephanie. What a wonderful memorial to a beautiful life.