The Greatest Man I’ve Ever Known
On February 26, 1971, the greatest man I have ever known passed away. And though he passed away that bitter February night, he lives on in my heart and in my memory. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by in these last fifty years that I have not thought of him. He might not have been a great man to the rest of the world, and he surely wasn’t famous, but he was a great man to me – he was the greatest man I have ever known.
On the 50th anniversary of his death, this is my humble tribute to my grandfather… the greatest man I’ve ever known.
I’ve seen statues of great men: Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt, Pasteur, Churchill, and others. They were all heroes in their time.
I’ve met famous politicians. But I have never considered any of them my heroes though. Politicians today are a breed apart from ordinary folks. That’s a good thing, I think. Whenever I hear a politician speak, I watch their eyes as they read the teleprompter and I wonder if they have any sincerity at all in their hearts. They’re reciting words. Just words. Is it just me? It’s my jaded mind I bet. Whatever they may be, I don’t consider any politician that I know a hero or great man. They may be a lot of things, but “hero” isn’t one of them.
I see kids, and even grown men and women, wearing the jerseys of their favorite sports heroes. I shudder. Some of these sports heroes aren’t heroes at all, they’re not even decent human beings. Some people idolize them because they can kick a ball, hit a ball, run with a ball, or throw a ball, or batter an opponent into senselessness. Some are idolized because they possess decadent wealth and dazzling fame. What a scanty litany upon which to build mankind’s heroes.
And, then we have actors, singers, and other entertainers. Most of whom became heroes because they look better than Fred or Sally at the local grocery store. We idolize their appearance and oftentimes their skills. But heroes? Hardly.
What about those great men and women to whom we’ve erected statues? I didn’t know any of them – but indeed some must have been great heroes of their time. At least history tells us so. But I didn’t know them.
I live in a world today where pseudo-heroes are a dime a dozen. But, in this era of instantaneous insincerity, superficiality, and selfishness, it’s hard to find a real hero, and that’s a fact.
I consider myself lucky though because I do have a hero. And he’s a real hero too.
He wasn’t famous. Few have ever heard of him. Just a couple of neighbors, co-workers, and friends. He wasn’t much to look at. In a room full of people, I doubt any of you would have noticed him. Indeed, he was short, fat, and bald. And he wore bifocals in horn-rimmed frames. He ate too much and ate too often and didn’t exercise at all. And boy! Did he love ice cream.
Despite all that, he is my hero. Because he was in my life, my world a better place. And, because of him, my kids’ worlds, are better places too –even though, I’m sorry to say, that neither of my sons got the chance to meet my hero.
My hero died fifty years ago – on February 26, 1971. But there has not been a single day that has passed since then that I have not thought of him. I haven’t visited his grave very much – I can’t remember the last time I was there.
But I know he’s not there anyway. He’s with me every day. I often find myself asking his advice knowing somehow, he’s listening. I feel him nearby always. He’s alive in my mind and he’s alive in my world and that’s the greatest tribute and honor I can give anyone.
My hero is someone you don’t know, and I’m sorry for that. I wish you could know him. My hero is my grandfather. He’s the greatest man I have ever known.
He didn’t hit baseballs and he didn’t kick soccer balls or score game-winning touchdowns. He didn’t write novels, or star in movies, or entertain folks on television. He wasn’t a politician. He didn’t sing very well. He wasn’t handsome or dashing, or even sophisticated. He wasn’t the least bit famous. But that makes him even more special because he was such an uncommon man. I’m honored to have known him. I’m honored to call him my hero.
Though decades have passed since he died, I can remember those soft summer nights when he would take me for walks. I was just a little kid, perhaps five or six. Sometimes we’d walk to Battery Park on Sandusky Bay and sit on the park bench for what seemed an eternity – and I enjoyed every minute of it.
He’d tell me stories and we’d talk about books, inventions, and other things which he noticed interested me. He cared about me; he cared enough to care to talk about what I wanted to hear. Even when I was only five or six.
Back then, June bugs, on certain nights in summer, would cover everything by the bay. They were harmless, benign, and strange-looking insects. Sometimes they would become so thick, if you weren’t careful, you’d slip as you walked because they covered the ground. My grandfather was smart. He knew almost everything! He’d fascinate me by telling me that June bugs only lived for twenty-four hours. I remember being fascinated by that. He told me that to a June bug, twenty-four hours was a lifetime. He’d explain that time passed so slowly for them that they lived an entire life in one day.
I was in awe of him. He was so smart.
Sometimes on summer evenings, we’d take a walk to Otto’s. Otto’s was any kid’s favorite place. And it was one of my grandfather’s favorite places too. Otto’s was a dairy with an ice cream parlor added to the front of it. I can still smell the inside of that place. I can still see the red-cushioned counter stools and the gleaming green-white counter. I can see the milkshake machines and hear them whirring and stirring up the best chocolate milkshakes in the world.
And sometimes we’d take a walk to the old railroad station. To a small boy, it was a huge, cavernous place with echoes. It was all wood – wooden walls, wooden floors, wooden ceilings. Not much of it was painted that I recall. It was a dark wooden place with echoes. Echoes are what I remember best about the old railroad station. My grandfather would take me inside and we’d sit on one of the big wooden benches and talk. I used to shout and listen to my voice echo around that huge place and my grandfather would smile and tell me a little about echoes.
Little did he know or imagine then, that his words and his memory would echo all through my life. Those echoes of days gone by still make me pause in the middle of the busiest day and smile as I remember my grandfather and the many days and evenings I spent with my hero.
In the winter he would take me ice skating at the boat basin near Battery Park, and he would stand there for hours in the cold watching me try to skate.
In the spring he’d break out the baseball gloves and play catch with me. In the fall we’d take “hikes” and go on buckeye hunts. We’d fill grocery bags with buckeyes and make necklaces out of them or just polish them up to look at. I don’t know what became of all those buckeyes.
Though I seldom visit his grave, I can tell you there are no monuments or statues erected in his honor. It’s just a grave with a headstone bearing his name and it’s right next to the grave of my grandmother.
Just a grave among many and so ordinary you’d never recognize it if you walked past it. Yet buried there is the greatest man I’ve ever known… my hero… who means as much to me today as he did all those years ago.
My hero is buried in an ordinary grave, in an ordinary cemetery, among ordinary people in an ordinary small town in Ohio.
But my hero is not dead. He lives in my mind and more so in my heart every day of my life. When he spent time with me, I always felt he did it because he wanted to and not because he felt he had to. I never felt like I was an obligation of that I was a burden. I know he enjoyed the time we spent together as much as I did. He called me his “pal” and I know I was.
His legacy lives on in me and in my two sons. When my sons were growing up, I tried to be like my grandfather was with me. I learned so much about life and love from him. And I truly enjoyed the times I spent with my children when they were growing up. But I don’t think I was as good with them as my grandfather was with me. I could have done better, I think.
My grandfather would be pleased to know that because of him my sons and I had some incredibly special times when they were growing up. Times they’ll remember many years from now and share with their children.
I don’t wear the jerseys of NFL stars. I don’t have any heroes that sing or dance. I don’t buy things because some sports hero tells me I should. My hero isn’t a senator, congressman, or any other sort of politician.
To the world, my hero would seen the most ordinary of men – just a short, overweight, bespectacled, bald man, whose heart was bigger than the sky. And though it was noted, in a tiny obituary printed on an obscure page in a small-town newspaper, that he had passed away – he will never die because he lives in my heart. And he lives on in the hearts of my children and their children.
I honor him by remembering him. And I will always remember him because my grandfather was the greatest man I have ever know.
And though he’s been gone fifty years to the day, he is and has always been my hero.