Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Avatque Vale

The Legend of C.I. Miller
My Grandpa's Eulogy

He meant so much to so many people in so many ways. I know I cannot capture everyone’s memories, but I have been listening and I have been paying attention. So in honor of this great man, allow me to share with you the Legend of C.I. Miller.

He was born Clarence Ingram Miller on August 2, 1924 to Appalachian farmers in the depths of the Scaly Mountains in North Carolina. His parents, Noah and Florence, raised him with his sister Flossie, and his 3 brothers Thomas, Edgar and Jim. They had very little but they ate good, worked hard and learned much. Grandpa, an exceptional student, was educated in a one-room schoolhouse that wouldn’t have even made a good barn, let alone a decent place to learn. I remember riding in a car as a child and whenever we passed a ramshackle old barn, we would all exclaim, “There’s Grandpa’s barn!” By reminding us of his humble beginnings and by sharing the fruits of his labor, we learned that the American Dream is possible.

After getting his eighth grade education and working in the farms, he decided to leave his home and family in order to defend our country. He joined the Navy at 17 and served in the Pacific Theater on a troop and supply transport vessel. He fought in a battle in the Marshall Islands and was one of three sailors who lived to tell about it. He suffered a very serious head wound and spent the following six months in Pearl Harbor Hospital. A very different sounding man he must have been when he left the hospital in New York where he completed his rehabilitation: learning how to walk and talk again. He earned a Purple Heart for his sacrifice.

Very soon after, Grandpa met, briefly courted and then married my Grandma Jean. Legend has it that on the way to meeting Grandpa for the first time, Grandma conned her sister Donna out of every stylish accessory she was wearing. Lucky for Grandma, my Grandpa appreciated style. I will always remember him as a dapper and handsome man. He wore a moustache, from a full blown, award winning goatee to a slide rule-perfect, pencil thin moustache. He learned to sew at his mother’s knee and used that skill to tailor his own clothes to fit his five foot five frame. His fine clothes and perfect hair enhanced his good looks. He was always the best looking man in the room. Even up to last week, he made sure he was sharply dressed and that his hair was perfect.

After he left the service, Grandpa attended Barber College on the G.I. bill. Once a barber, my Grandpa joined and became very active in the barber’s union. Because he was a very warm and joyous man, people were always drawn to him. He made friends very quickly, and he did this all of his life even after his stroke a year ago made it difficult for him to speak. With his love of his fellow man and now a cause, my Grandpa became a politician. He ran for Stark County Commissioner and worked for the Democratic Party, serving on a committee whose responsibility it was to choose nominees to run for local elections. While working as a barber, my Grandpa decided to learn how to sell insurance. He got his certificate and opened his own business, which he ran up until last summer. It eventually became known as Financial Planning Associates where he worked along side with his daughter Gail, his son-in-law Charlie, Grandma and various other family members from time to time. Throughout his working life, he was always striving to learn new things and share his knowledge with others. He trained his agents and he also taught insurance classes to college students and helped them achieve their certifications.

When he wasn’t spending time working or learning, he was spending time gardening and playing cards with his family. You can bet that all of his grandchildren and even some of his great grand children learned to play black jack before they could read. He loved to plant gardens and flowers and he was a man obsessed when it came to pruning trees. He loved to climb those fine trees in his backyard and work in the heights, sometimes surrounded by bees that never bothered him. Legend has it he took several falls from those great heights. Luckily, his Judo training in the service taught him how to fall correctly and avoid serious injury.

My Grandpa had a great love of tools. He and my Grandma used to prowl the garage sales, she for plates and linens, he for anything Stanley tools had to offer. He was a tremendous do-it-yourself-er. He found a use for all of those tools and built homes for them. He didn’t, however, have any use for instructions or guidebooks, or even the law, sometimes. He preferred to use his imagination and try to solve the problem on his own. Grandma was sure that every attempt was going to burn the house to the ground. But somehow, while not pretty, his solutions were usually successful.

Because he was wise and resourceful, our family usually turned to him in time of need. He was a very generous man and was free with whatever was in his means to offer, even if occasionally, we may not have deserved it. But he adored all of us and we knew it. He was always so full of pride and joy when we would enter the room. Whenever someone cooked a meal for him, he always blessed it and proclaimed, “This is just like downtown!” The highest compliment you can be sure.

He especially could deny my Grandma, his soul mate, nothing. From the very beginning, they knew any future they had together was a gift, as he learned from his doctors that his injuries could come back to end his life on any given day. After his stroke last summer, he really didn’t recognize anyone but her at first. Whenever Grandma left the room, he always asked where she was. She was the love of his life.

He loved their children very much. I’ve heard the tale of Grandpa watching the kids while Grandma went to card club. She came home to find the three of them surrounding him on the couch, one of them combing his hair as ice cream melted on the coffee table. This is an image that is so clear in my mind, even though I did not witness it. It will always be there to remind me that, every now and then, I need to throw out the rule book and just enjoy my children. He is the only Grandpa I know who has his own list of catch phrases. Most of them expressed his joy of life. These are our favorites: “How about those apples!” “Run, hop, skip like a bunny…let’s go! G-O-W-X-P-Q!” and at special occasions, he always wondered how the poor people were doing. He taught us to be amazed, to embrace life and to remember that not everyone had such bounty.

Over the years he has opened his home to people in need. He helped his family from the south by inviting them to stay with him until they could find work and a home of their own. My father, Jeff, his son-in-law, fondly remembers Grandma and Grandpa taking him in and welcoming him into their family during a time in his life when his own home was not a haven for him. Their side door was never locked and family and friends were welcome to enter unbidden and unannounced anytime. There was always Coke in the fridge. My Grandpa later became a landlord, combining his two passions: being a handy man and providing homes for people who needed them. He supported the handy man trade by hiring his friends to help him with jobs around his house and with his rental properties.

He was a devout Christian, although not a church-goer. He could quote any passage from the Bible on demand. He lived by the Golden Rule and loved his neighbor as he loved himself. He always kept his eye on the world by tuning in to CNN and keeping the conversation going about how the world should be. His sense of right and wrong fueled his passion for politics. Grandpa taught us that it was important to be a steward for good.

His zeal for learning was passed on to all of us. He taught the family business to his daughter Gail, who has grown her own insurance agency and who is a leader in her field and of other professional women. His daughter, Donna Kay, my mother, recently retired from her career in human resources, where she was also a leader in her professional organization. She is now a certified insurance agent working alongside Gail in her agency. Together with Grandma, they carry on Grandpa’s charitable work through the Fraternal Gleaner organization. His son, Bob, is a nurse who works with infants in intensive care and has a special gift for comforting and entertaining the very smallest of us. All of Grandpa’s children are continually learning and giving to others less fortunate. His grandchildren finished high school and have attended college. We are homemakers, writers, counselors, servants of the Lord, artists, musicians and teachers. His great grandchildren will surpass our generation to even greater heights as singers, thinkers, leaders, athletes and dreamers. And there is one thing we can all agree on: Grandpa is our hero.

I know I have not told every tale in the Legend of C.I. Miller. I hope that during our time together today, we can share those tales and continue to add to his legacy. Let’s look after one another the way he looked after us and remember the lesson of his life: Every day is a gift.