He was tall, standing about 6′ 4″, and he was strong from hard work. He was a good man, and well-respected personally and professionally by everyone I knew.
I really don’t know a lot about his childhood. Years ago, I asked all of our son’s grandparents and great-grandparents to fill out a memory book which asked questions about their years growing up. Sadly, neither my dad nor his mother filled them out. It devastated his family to lose one of his little brothers in a car accident when he was a young adult and I’m certain that made looking back difficult for them. Most of his family lived nearby. We didn’t see each other often, but they had a presence in my life and my grandma usually spent time at our house on holidays. Dad often fixed things at his mom’s house after his father was gone. I’m glad to have pictures to fill in at least some of the blanks from dad’s growing up years.
I do know he was born in Marshfield, Wisconsin on March 26, 1930 and was the second born of five children – two girls and three boys. The first name Eldon was put on his birth certificate by an aggressive relative, but his mother drew lines right through those letters and replaced it with her choice of James instead!
I remember a story he told from his childhood. His sister liked to play house when they were young. One day she said “Let’s play house. You be the pop, and I’ll be the…. mop”. He laughed hard every time he recounted the memory.
The pictures of his family show happy faces.
When he was 18 years old, he took some time off from school to go to Florida on his motorcycle with friends. He was in the naval reserves from 1947-1959, and he did two weeks of training per year during that time. I remember him commenting that he hated the seasickness. Dad said he was so skinny that his Navy buddies would tell him “don’t turn sideways Jim, we can’t see you”.
As a young man, Dad met Mom and had the “smarts” to marry her (that’s how he would say it).
Dad’s first job was working for a lumber company. Then he assembled, made and repaired neon signs for a company. He worked other places over the next year, then went back to the lumber company for a year. After that, he worked for a mason, and then for a carpenter, gathering experience from each place of employment. I remember him describing the personality of one of his boss’s and the lack of positive feedback given by him. Dad learned from that negative experience how to be an encouraging boss when he eventually started his own business in 1955. In the beginning, he would do his day’s work, then go consult with his experienced father who would instruct him how to accomplish the next day’s tasks. I guess he gained much of his knowledge through a “trial by fire” method. The only formal training he had to make floor plans was 9 weeks of drafting in 9th grade but he designed and built wonderful homes. He later became a realtor also, so he was adept at planning, building AND selling houses. His garage workshop collected a wide variety of sizes and shapes of wood and organized piles of tools to cut and connect them. He had a number of different employees over time, but one faithful foreman who he trusted for many years. That man arrived at our house early in the morning to get instructions for his job that day and he was often there at suppertime completing tasks, discussing choices and troubleshooting problems.
Dad built a beautiful home for us, his family. Ironically, we rarely fully relaxed there because customers regularly came to his home office for appointments, toured our house and its amenities as a showcase of sorts and called at all hours of the day. Among his business ventures was building and maintaining rental property, so tenants called when there were complaints or repairs were needed. The garage usually hummed with the motors of power saws and banging of hammers and always there was the smell of sawdust in the air and on his shoes from the latest creation evolving from his imagination through his hands and into the wood in front of him.
He was elected President of the local Board of Realtors and chosen as Realtor of the Year. It seemed he could fix anything. He often fixed things for friends and relatives but also tinkered with things for fun. He had a number of old watches that didn’t work. Intrigued, he took them apart thinking there must be a way to make one of them function with all of the parts. The disassembled watches sat on a t.v. tray in the family room for a long period of time while he thought about possible solutions. He had a La-Z-Boy chair that comforted him after long days of physical and mental work, but he was rarely there without a yellow legal pad of paper scribbling notes for a newspaper ad or shifting windows and doors on a floor plan. His business consumed his thoughts most of the time.
As a father of young girls, he was adored. He spent quality time with us both inside and outside. I remember being elevated horizontally by his stretched out arms and him flying me in circles as I pretended to be an airplane. He would grab our forearms and spin in circles fast enough so our feet rose off the ground and we would spin around and up and down until we were all too dizzy to stand on our feet. He could be silly. Like others, he would reach out his hand to the middle of our faces and snap it back toward him, slip his thumb between his first and second finger and proclaim with sincerity that he “got your nose”. We pleaded until it was returned. If we were out to eat, he tore off the end of the straw wrapper and blew in the straw to propel the rest of the wrapper across the table at one of us. That never got old to him. He told corny jokes to waitresses that made us giggle when we were little and made our eyes roll as we got older.
He had a routine in the morning which included stretching his arms up toward the ceiling after he sat down at the breakfast table. This was always accompanied by a verbal “sssttrrretcchh” (just in case you couldn’t figure out what he was doing). He liked honey on his cereal and lots of butter and salt on just about everything else. He actually enjoyed brussel sprouts and parsnips. He had many wonderful qualities, and the one I admired the most was how he would stop to help anyone in need.
Some days I lived as a child were too good to end by going to bed. Occasionally, I was allowed to fall asleep on the couch. I somehow still remember how wonderful it felt like to be carried to bed. I was safe and secure in my daddy’s arms. He came to my school band concerts and taught me to drive.
One of the fondest memories I have of my Dad is at bedtime. It certainly wasn’t every night….not often enough to take it for granted, yet often enough to build a strong memory. My sister and I would be all settled into bed when he would appear at the door and the competition would begin. We each wanted our dad to lay on our bed, but whichever was chosen, he was going to sing. His voice was deep, with just the right amount of vibrato and was always in tune. He had favorite songs he’d “perform” for us there in the dark – everything from “How Much is That Doggie in the Window” to “Slowpoke” to our obvious favorite “Daddy’s Little Girl”. There were a lot of things that I suspect my mother had a hand in encouraging, but she is adamant that this gift of love was his own idea done because he enjoyed it.
Daddy’s Little Girl by The Mills Brothers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-_6_3sOnxw
He loved to hunt with his buddies. He mostly deer hunted, but he also hunted elk and once shot a bear when he explored a cave to see if a bear might be hibernating inside….one was…and it chased him out!! Good thing it gave him time to turn around and aim!
He earned his private pilot’s license and enjoyed trips traveling to see relatives. I remember him generously giving rides to the members of my girl scout troop a few at a time.
He laughed less as the years rolled passed. He started spending more time accumulating wealth than collecting memories. He made some bad choices. He became a smaller version of the Dad I wanted to remember. But he was still my dad. He remarried and I did my best to maintain a relationship with him.
I am grateful for the loving environment my parents both provided for me while I grew up. The little girl I was knew her daddy loved her. I value the things I own that were made by his skilled hands and the many memories my long-legged daddy left me with.