What Constitutes Greatness; or Two Sides of a Dead Man

I keep resisting the urge to describe my Grandfather as a “great man”.  Lots of people think he was.  And I suppose in a lot of ways he was.  But what makes a man great?  Is it his deeds?  Is it his legacy?  Is it how his family reflects on him?  Is it how his children see him?

My father is not a great man.  He’s just a man.  He’s a man who made mistakes.  He cheated on his wife.  He abandoned his family.  He broke the law.  He alienated his children…  More than once.  He is the eldest child of my “great man” of a Grandfather.  What could have happened?

You see my Grandfather was a life long minister.  He was the second youngest of eight children all of who were raised by a single mother after their father walked out on them.  I don’t know that much of his history but I’d imagine that it was a typical scenario of the older children raising the younger.  When at the age of legal consent, whatever that was in the early 1900s, He joined the army.

After the Army, Papa, as my siblings and I called him, came back to the US and began working with a youth/young adult ministry called the Navigators.  Being in need of a home, Papa moved in with the head of the Navigators and his family and while living in this home, he met the families Nanny.  A lovely young woman nearly ten years his junior.  It amuses me the scandal that such a thing should have created, but after sometime living under the same roof, Papa and the Nanny fell in love.  Eventually, they married and they had three children.

No one doubts that Papa loved his wife and children, but his first commitment was to the ministry.  At some point after his time in the Navigators, Papa joined an organization called Youth for Christ, an organization with which he would maintain an affiliation for many years.  It was in fact at the Youth for Christ office in Kansas City, Missouri that Papa’s oldest son (my father) would meet his first wife (my mother) who was working as a secretary in the offices.  “Granny and Papa”, as we called them, almost like it was one word, one entity, as I suppose they were in a way, “GrannyandPapa.”  “Hey kids look at these gifts you received from GrannyandPapa.”  “GrannyandPapa are going to be in town next week and would like to see you guys.”  “GrannyandPapa are very upset with you because you didn’t write a thank-you note after they sent those gifts.”  That was the one that always put me off, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Sadly, Granny and Papa didn’t approve of my parents relationship and made no secret of it.  And naturally, that only drove my parents closer together.  The first, in a number of steps my father would take to draw judgment and disappointment from his own parents.

There’s great irony in the fact that my Grandfather was a shy man.  A timid speaker.  He stuttered over his words and was not terribly eloquent in his early days.  But he believed that he had a calling and he was going to see it through to the end.  In his 30s, Papa was hired by the Billy Graham Association.  I don’t know what all the positions and responsibilities were that he held, but at some point there was a need for additional teachers to go out into the communities where there were to be Crusades, and teach the volunteers what they would need to do when the time came and the attendees of the Crusade came to them for prayer and counseling.  Papa had a burning inside to be one of these teachers.  Those who were in authority at that time loved my grandfather and knew he was on fire for this work…  But how could such a timid speaker be sent out to do what they were asking?  They acquiesced and gave Papa the work he so desperately desired…  But they sent him to the outskirts of the territory “where he would do the least amount of damage.”

I do not know exactly how the tale goes but I do know that Papa triumphed over his own fears and speech difficulties.  Over the course of time, he came to head this part of the organization.  As the head of this group, he touched hundreds of lives, ministering one on one to many people who would then minister to masses.  Eventually, Papa became Crusade Director and was responsible for everything that goes into planning and executing a Crusade.  He was Billy Graham’s right hand and they became best friends.

Two years ago, my grandfather turned 90 years old.  My aunt planned a surprise birthday party for him… Perhaps not the smartest thing to do for a man of 90 years, but surprise him, we did.  More than 150 people came to this party, and there were dozens more who couldn’t make the trip.  Billy Graham himself sent his regrets and his congratulations.  Ruth Graham was quite ill and couldn’t make the trip and Billy didn’t want to leave her side.

So many people, with such wonderful, glowing things to say about their mentor, about this “great man.”  I can only imagine the kind of bitterness that my own father must have felt.

You see all this marvelous work my Grandfather did always came at the expense of his own family.  Much of my father’s childhood was spent with what amounted to a single mother.  Papa was traveling the globe, doing his work with the BGA, often away from home for months at a time.  On a few occasions, he was away from his family for 6 months.  There were trade-offs, of course.  When school was out, Granny packed up the kids and off they’d go to meet up with Papa, where ever on the face of the earth he might be.  My father has seen parts of the world I doubt I ever will.  He always wished he could take my siblings and me to these places but it was never possible.

I had one of the best conversations I’ve experienced with my father that day after the party.  My father was hurt by the glowing, wonderful things these people had to say.  Had they any idea how my father had suffered for the work Papa did?  Could they understand how hard it was for him that Papa was such a wonderful “Father Figure”, as so many had called him, but he wasn’t much of a father to his own flesh and blood children?  I suppose there’s often a tremendous price to pay for “greatness.”

About six years ago, Granny was diagnosed with cancer and Papa finally retired for good…  From BGA.  Ministry was in his blood.  Without opportunities to minister his life had no purpose.  Fortunately, for him, the town in Colorado where they finally settled happens to be the home of three state prisons.  Naturally, he found a way to engage in prison ministry.  Four years ago,  Granny finally succumbed to the cancer that had been ravaging her body.  And when she died, something in Papa died too.  Oh, he continued with his life.  He continued with his ministry, but he was fading.  And then the final indignity.

Papa had been conducting a bible study with some of the low security inmates when he lost control of his bowels.  He was always a proud man and didn’t desire to be any more humiliated by this than he already was.  He did something that was out of character for sure, and certainly showed very poor judgment.  He handed his car keys to one of the inmate trustees and asked the trustee to bring his car around to the front.  Fortunately, the trustee did the right thing.  He brought the car to the front of the prison, helped my grandfather inside and walked back to the prison entrance.

Later that day, Papa received a call from the head of the prison ministry and informed him that the prison had asked that he not come back.  The explanation that was given my grandfather was that they feared for his safety as he was very old and getting more and more frail.  But everyone knows that they couldn’t allow a man who gave car keys to an inmate to return.

This happend about three years ago.  After that, there was nothing left.  His life no longer served a purpose in his own eyes.  His mind began to go.  He no longer could retain names and dates and new information.  And he missed his wife.  He wanted to be with her, and the only thing he wanted was to die, peacefully, at home, in his own bed.  And that’s just what he did.

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