I was fortunate to have all four of my grandparents into my young adult years. All four were at my high school graduation. Today I have one living grandparent remaining — my mom’s father. I call him Grampa. I have wanted to write about my Grampa for a while now, but I keep putting it off because I am afraid I can’t do him justice. Today I am going to take a stab at it.
I got an email from my mother last week, informing the family that Grampa is going to be given a prestigious award in the business world next month. There is a banquet and awards ceremony involved, and many family members will be in attendance.
My Grampa is the textbook definition of a self-made man. His life is a picture of the American dream. He grew up "on the farm" in rural America where he learned responsibility at a young age. Every summer when we visit Grampa, he tells my kids about his pony named Ted. His father gave him the pony when he was six years old, and it was Grampa’s job to care for the pony. At SIX years old.
One night, Grampa was taking his boots off to get into bed, and he realized he had forgotten to feed Ted. When he started to put his boots back on, his father
asked him what he was doing. He said he forgot to feed the pony. His father told him he better go do it. It was dark, so he
took a kerosene lantern because there were no electric lights.
Can you imagine!? When my kids realize they forgot to put their bikes away after dark, we run out and bring them inside. (We meaning my husband.) And the kerosene lantern? Oh my word.
When Grampa was about 12 years old, his family sold the farm and bought a store in town. It was May of 1929. In October of that year, the stock market crashed. They lost their house and moved into a small building on the side of the store. Those were tough times. Grampa talks of snow piling up on the window sill in the room where he slept.
When he was 14, he had to drop out of school and to help support the family. His mother ran the store while he "went to work on the truck" with his dad — hauling potatoes, vegetables, and lumber across the state. He was clearly no stranger to hard work.
When Grampa was 21, his father died suddenly. The oldest of the three children, he became the head of the household, and he and his brother took over running the family store. Somehow, while running the store and paying off creditors, Grampa managed to take a few business courses at a nearby college, although he never graduated. Ironically, years later he would be awarded an honorary doctorate by this college.
In 1942, Grampa was drafted into the army and spent the next three years fighting in World War II. While on a furlough, he married my Gramma. In 1945, he came home and took over running the store. Grampa ran the store until 1954.
Meanwhile, he and Gramma had three children. Grampa wanted a better life for his family, and at the urging of a family friend, he sold the rural store, bought a house "in town", and started selling insurance in the evenings after working all day at a paper mill. After long days of manual labor, he rode to the country to sell insurance policies. My mom remembers taking turns with her siblings riding along on these trips.
Grampa had a manual typewriter on the kitchen table, where he did his paperwork. Eventually he got a desk and put it in the corner of the dining room. That was his first insurance office. My mom says that every time the phone rang, Grampa would shush all of the children, saying, "Be quiet. This might be something." The irony of those words was yet to be fully realized.
In 1963, with five children now, he bought an insurance agency and moved to an office downtown. From there, he built a business that today employs
over 300 people through 27 offices in two states.
At 91-years-old, my Grampa still drives himself to the office where he works five full days a week. According to my uncle who works with him, Grampa arrives at work every morning at 7AM and stays until about 5PM every night. He also works a half day on Saturdays. It hasn’t been very many years since he was riding his bike to work, and as far as I know, he still does exercises every morning. I’ve heard him tell of doing these exercises when he was in the army.
As committed as he is to his business, Grampa always has time for us. Growing up, my family visited my grandparents for a week every summer, and I remember Grampa leaving the office to meet us for lunch when we were out about town, and he was always home for dinner.
Now I take my own family to visit Grampa every summer, and my children adore him. When he comes in the door for dinner, he often brings a king size bag of M&Ms that we put out in a bowl with a spoon. A spoon for M&Ms — did I mention that I come by my germophobic tendencies honestly?
My Grampa has five kids (all married), 14 grandchildren (6 married), and 10 great-grandchildren. Every summer we all get together for a family reunion — as many of us who can make it. It’s always guaranteed to be a loud, boisterous event. We are not a shy group of people, that’s for sure.
I can’t help but think that no matter how notable his business empire is, my Grampa’s greatest legacy is his family. I’m sure he would agree.