My father-in-law loved people. And people loved him. The son of a Methodist minister, he grew up moving frequently as his father received new church assignments. As a boy this had its downside because in each town the other boys would have to size up the newcomer to find his standing in their school and neighborhood. He learned early to throw a hard first punch to eliminate any further questions. In his era, this was a common practice, although it might sound shocking to our modern sensibilities. This moving and sizing up served him well in several ways. First, it honed his punching skills, and allowed him to become a Golden Gloves boxer during his service in the Merchant Marines. Second, it forced him to take in a big picture through noise and chaos, and make sense of it by filtering out distracting details, a very useful talent in his life’s work. Third, by the time he left for college he had lived in so many small towns that he already had lots of acquaintances, and was adept at meeting and greeting and making connections, also necessary in his career choice.
Right out of school he became a History teacher and coach, and pretty soon afterwards, a principal. As county administration took notice of his leadership skills, he was offered the position of Superintendent of the local school system, an office he held for nearly thirty years. During his tenure he consolidated the city and county school systems, then oversaw the building of three centralized high schools within the district, and finally integrated all the schools a year before federal mandates required him to, a move that won him both admiration and notoriety. Because of his obvious care and respect for his neighbors, fellow citizens, and all the teachers, students and families involved, and his unsurpassed diplomatic skills, I have heard he was the only school superintendent in the nation to hold onto his job during the era of consolidation and integration. He was known for doing the right thing, because it was the right thing to do.
He was also known for his love of sayings. “Always be as pretty as you can be, no matter how ugly you are,” was a favorite that elicited many thoughtful laughs. He frequently greeted me with the question, “How’s your conduct?” and after hearing my review, would respond, “Good report.” If asked how he were, he would often reply, “If I were any better there’d be two of me!”
In May of 1990, while at his kennel training field trial dogs, the house he had built with his wife in 1977 began to burn inside the walls due to wiring that had been slowly melting down after a recent lightening strike. By the time my mother-in-law alerted to the problem, there was only time to grab the dog, her purse, and a tackle-box that contained a few precious mementos, such as the marriage advice his own father had hand-written him, and his Golden Gloves pin. She ran next door to use the neighbor’s phone to call the fire department, but by the time they arrived the house was completely engulfed in flames. My father-in-law arrived shortly afterwards and stood with neighbors and friends watching the house burn while firefighters did their best to extinguish the flames and protect nearby homes.
My husband, their youngest son, had recently moved back from Nashville, and was temporarily living with his parents. He received a call at work informing him that the house was burning, so he quickly drove home to assess the damage. It was obvious at first sight that the home and all possessions were a total loss. And then he spotted his father, laughing to the side with friends who had come to offer comfort and whatever material help the family might need.
My husband, exasperated with the disaster in front of him, and frustrated with his father’s lackadaisical attitude, demanded, “Daddy! What’s so funny? How can you stand here and laugh? Don’t you know your house and everything you own, everything we own, is going up in smoke?” His father, not unsympathetic to his son’s upset, turned to him and placed an arm around his shoulders. “Well Boy, I’m not happy that my house is gone, and I was worried when I first heard what was happening, but then I got here and saw it for myself and I took inventory. Your mother is alright, none of my five children were in there, I’m okay. Even the dog is okay. I’ve got everything that was important to me, so it’s all good.”
In the billowing dark clouds of smoke, the light of that fire had illuminated for all of us what was really most important, and even in the face of loss, there was peace and joy. My father-in-law pointed us to it. Over the next few days, the family was amazed at the outpouring of love and comfort that walked through the front door of their new, short-term rental as they made plans to purchase their next home. People brought food, clothing, and household necessaries, shared stories, hugs and prayers, and offered many words of hope and encouragement. A lifelong practice of reaching out to others generously, in love and respect and kindness, now came flooding back and sustained them in what would have otherwise been a difficult time.
No matter what you are facing today friend, birthday candles or your own all-consuming inferno, I pray you are able to take inventory, to find a moment of peace, a moment of joy, and with hope, to discover that what is most important to you is intact, and it’s all good.