Thursday, October 22, 2015

Get Busy Living . . .

Sunday evening my grandfather passed away. Today was his funeral. I thought I would post the eulogy I gave as a memorial to him.

Ben Smith Eulogy

My grandfather, Ben Smith, was bigger than life. There is no better way to describe him. If you met him, you didn’t forget him. He was someone who always made a strong impression. This was in part because he was a strong personality but more importantly it was because he was genuine. He was honest to his core. Honest about who he was, who he was not, what he liked, what he did not, what he expected of you, and what you could expect of him. There was nothing fake, artificial, or put on about Ben Smith.

For a few moments I would like to give a small picture of this man relating a story to each of a few words that I believe aptly but not fully describe him. This is itself in veneration for him because he was such a wonderful storyteller. He had an amazing memory and a great ability to tell a story in a compelling manner. His knowledge of local history, immense wisdom, and unique way he experienced life for 93 years will be greatly missed.

FEAR: Like all of us, Ben Smith had his demons, but like him his were bold, and they shaped his life distinctly. Foremost among these demons was the hurt and confusion that came at age five when his father left the family never to be heard from again. He would cling to the few memories he had as the absence haunted him his whole life. Out of this came a principal he would firmly live and promote in his law practice—family was paramount and a man should always standby his family. That he did.

There were other fears. When he was born, he had a heart murmur. The doctors’ and his family’s fears for his health would lead him to be held out of sports, not allowed to “play too hard”, and told he was sickly. Their fears led to Ben developing a fear of imminent, early death. Despite or perhaps in defiance of this, he proved it quite wrong.

Ben Smith . . . He was always “grandpa” to me, but I’ll say his name a lot because he used to put his name on everything he owned, which actually wasn’t a lot. He was . . . frugal. He was very careful with his money. VERY CAREFUL. He was not someone to spend money including on himself. By any reasonable measure he lived a life of material deprivation. Growing up in the Dust Bowl and the depths of the great depression gave him a fear of economic ruin. This was the source of his frugality. He would proudly tell you that he never signed a promissory note in his life. He was never in debt. He never, ever bought anything on credit.

There were other demons he fought. He was a horrible swimmer; so of course he joined the navy. The things he saw in World War II gave him nightmares that would wake him in terror the rest of his life. Despite an upbringing in an era that embraced racism and other forms of prejudice and himself being a child of that era, he grew up to be a lawyer whose clients were among the most vulnerable including racial minorities, single mothers, and disabled veterans. His clients were the poor, the downtrodden. He faithfully fought for the little guy. He showed kindness to those who needed it most.

Ben Smith wasn’t ruled by fear; he wasn’t conquered by demons. These stories aren’t about fear; they aren’t about demons. They are about defiance. Ben Smith was defiant.

DETERMINED: Visiting a wounded friend in the hospital during the war, he saw a beautiful nurse. She had recently lost her fiancé and had no desire for a relationship. But he was determined and told her he would sit on the stairs outside the building refusing to leave until she went out with him. She did. He was married to this nurse, my grandmother, for 66 years.

Determined . . . One might say hardheaded. At times that was indeed true. Once he set his mind to something, it happened—one way or another. He had a saying that he tried in vain to live up to: If at first you don’t succeed, try a few more times and then quit—no sense making an ass of yourself. Like, say, when the city was tearing out the interurban streetcar lines, he decided a piece of rail standing vertically in his yard would look nice. So he went down to the construction site, cut a 25-foot section of rail, tied it to the bottom of his car, dragged it 10 miles scrapping a gash in the street the whole way. Then he had to get it to stand up in the eight-foot hole he had dug. As he struggled to get this several-ton piece of iron into position, he decided to call a wrecker to help. The wrecker itself tipped over getting the rail into position. He cemented it into place, built a planter around it, put a weathervane on it, and it stands to this day. Ben Smith was determined.

HARD WORKER: Work was his drive and his lifeblood. He hated sports. He hated fiction. He hated television (except for Sesame Street, All in the Family, Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street Week, and perhaps a couple of others). He wasn’t interested in watching other people do things because he was a doer. He wanted to make things.

He built a house, basically by himself with the help of his wife, young daughter, and the occasional mailman who always just happened to be walking by when he needed to raise a wall. He built a law practice, a tax practice, and a real estate office. He built flower planters and storage barns. He carved wooden sculptures. He grafted pecans. He grew an orchard. He must hold the record for the most entries in the county and state fairs because he had no fewer than 100 blue ribbons.

And of course he had his farm where when most men are slowing down in life, he was just getting started. At age 63 he embarked on a series of projects at his Coal County getaway that included three log cabins, a stone cabin, several rock-retaining walls, and four stone bridges including one Roman-arch bridge strong enough to allow construction trucks to cross. All of them built by hand with no more machinery than a pickup truck and a chainsaw. I remember many trips as a child to those fun, spooky, challenging woods. I remember helping him on those many projects. I remember the dedication and expertise and incredible hard work. Ben Smith was a hard worker.

DARING: He was his own man. He charted his own course. This is a quality he had his entire life. At the age of 13 or so he would drive his grandmother from their home to downtown Enid. After he would drop her off, he was always to wait for her in the car. One day he decided he wanted to “see what this baby can do”. Imagine the sight of a young Ben Smith barreling down Main Street going 100 mph. Such was the way he lived life.

In the early 1980s inflation and interest rates were at all-time highs. Where many saw fear, Ben saw investment opportunity. They told him he was a fool to buy long-term U.S. Treasury bonds when 2-year interest was 17% and high-inflation looked permanent. We are now 35-years into the great bull market in U.S. Treasury bonds; Ben rode it all the way up. He still has bonds purchased at par value that command 50% premiums. Ben Smith was daring.

I’ll leave you with one story that he loved to tell that gives a glimpse into how he looked at the world. He would begin, “Let me tell you a story about my law school rival. He was always the sharpest guy in the room. The guy had always been great at whatever he did, and it always came easily for him. He was good looking, charismatic, smart, and humorous. He always got the top grade in the class and the girls always loved him. He was the big man on campus, and he knew it.” Ben would then ask, “Do you want to guess what happened to him after school was over and he got out in the real world? We’ll let me tell you: he got rich! He worked hard and was a big success. Won lots of big law cases. But do you want to know one other thing? I saw his obituary in the paper a few years ago. I OUT LIVED THE MAGNIFICENT SON OF A BITCH!”

Ben didn’t have to be the world’s greatest anything. He was his own world’s greatest doing great by his own measurement—not anyone else’s.

Ben Smith, my grandpa, went to sleep last Sunday night . . . I like to believe he woke up in his cabin to a bright dawn, kissed his wife, and walked down the hill to work on his bridge.