Friday, June 12, 2009

My Uncle Gene 12/31/08

On the Monday morning before Christmas, with wind chills well below zero, Gene went out in his pajamas and flip-flops to get the newspaper. At the end of the driveway he slipped, hit his head on the ground, and fell unconscious. It would be a half hour before he was found.
In my childhood Gene was a bachelor uncle and a Pied Piper of sorts. When he visited our house my siblings and I often piled in his car and he’d take us to nearby Highland Park in Kokomo, where we’d see the stuffed bull, Big Ben and ride the “curly-slides.”
I have a clear memory of a summer day spent at Clear Lake in northern Indiana with my brother and sisters on Gene’s sale boat. He could see I was bored, knew I wanted to go swimming, so he encouraged me to jump in the water, grab the rudder and just let the boat tow me around the lake. What fun to be pulled through the water by the wind.
When a sharp gust of wind jerked the boat forward, the force swept my swim suite down around my ankles. I can still recall Gene at the tiller, looking back at my bare butt in the water and laughing uncontrollably.
Picking up my sister, Cindy at the airport the day before the funeral, we drove across Indianapolis and reminisced about Uncle Gene.
Cindy had a crush on him when we were kids. Riding in Gene’s car when she was a little girl, Cindy would sit on her knees in the passenger seat to make herself look taller. She hoped people would think she was Gene’s girlfriend.
It is often said that there are givers and takers in this world. Well, Gene was a giver. He listened more than he spoke and was generous to a fault. He rarely talked about himself and would prefer to ask about you. He was a Purdue grad and a mechanical engineer who took his vacations in the winter so he could snow ski out west.
As our childhood wore on Gene spent years helping take care of his father, our grandfather, whose Parkinson’s disease had bound him to a wheelchair.
Drinking a glass of wine with my other sister, Jama the night before the funeral, she recalled how he had noticed and encouraged her athletic ability. When she was a young teenager, Gene bought her a set of golf clubs and a season pass at the local golf course.
Chatting with relatives and strangers at the funeral home on Monday I heard story after story like that.
He finally married in his early forties. Early in his marriage when his daughters were small, his wife would encourage him to sit and relax after dinner, perhaps read the newspaper. But he would not. Instead he cooked and cleaned right along with her, saying, “I’ll stop when you stop.”
Thanks to him and my dad, his brother, I grew up in a family where the line between men's work and woman's work was not so clearly defined. Men did not sit at the table and wait for the women to clear and clean. Everybody did it together.
The life Gene made in that northern Indiana town was built upon service and generosity.
He sat on the school board for 20 years. When a remonstrance was filed against a plan for a new high school, he quietly and methodically organized supporters in the community and the project went forward. As construction began, he gladly and very successfully stepped into the role of project manager though he had no specific experience in the field. He was so involved in the school system and such a supporter of its students and athletes, the high school basketball team came to his funeral.
When his daughter was nearly killed in a car accident, he spent months caring for her. When his mother weakened in a nursing home because she refused to eat, he went there at meal times and patiently fed her himself.
If he ever complained about any of this, I never heard about it.
He was a rabid Boilermaker fan who bled black and gold. He was a good Methodist. Raised in a man’s world during the depression, he and his wife purposefully raised two smart, thoroughly modern daughters. He was a conservative Republican. He was as hard a worker as you’d ever find and a family man with a quiet determination that is hard to overstate.
When I was growing up and trying, as all young boys do, to figure out what it meant to be a man, along with my father, Gene was an irreplaceable role model.

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