My father died last Wednesday, one day after his 77th birthday.
I’m sure I will have a lot to write about my father in the months to come. My relationship with my father is a key part of who I am — for better, and for worse. I’ve had to do considerable work as an adult sorting out my childhood and my adult relationship with him to find happiness and good emotional health. Writing about him and about that process will help me grieve this loss.
Today, I want to tell his life story. Settle in for a long read, because even treating his life in thumbnail I wrote more than 3,500 words.
James Wilson Grey, Jr., was born January 9, 1941 in Handley, West Virginia, a small railroad town just down the Kanawha River from Charleston. His father, James W. Grey, and his mother, Bertha (Legg) Grey, were from that little town’s two most prominent families.
Prominence is relative, of course. In the remote hills of West Virginia, what qualified those families as such was that Dad’s grandparents owned the town’s two most important businesses. His paternal grandmother owned a tavern and boardinghouse that served the rail workers, and his maternal grandmother owned a general store. Dad’s parents lived in an apartment above the general store.
“Everybody in town owed money to my grandmothers,” my father said many times. “It let me go anywhere and do anything in that little town. I was the prince of Handley.”
But there is no way to sugar coat it: Dad had a difficult childhood. He was born while his father was away in the Navy fighting World War II. He remembers clearly his father coming home from the war: this man he did not know walked into the apartment and embraced his mother. It angered my young father, who ran to this strange man and started pounding on his legs in a vain attempt to protect his mother.
His parents’ reunited marriage did not last long: late one night, Dad’s mom suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Dad, his younger sister Karen, and his parents all slept in the apartment’s one bedroom, and the commotion woke everybody up. My father, at four years old, watched his mother die.
Dad entered school that fall and refused to speak to his teacher. I’m sure this was in part because of his shock over losing his mother. But Dad said it was also because his teacher was an unkind woman who took pleasure in pushing children down the side of the hill when their backs were turned. Dad had to repeat the first grade because of his recalcitrance, but fortunately a different woman taught first grade the next year and Dad participated.
Dad’s dad was a laborer who had quit school after the 8th grade, and was also a drinker and a fighter. He had no idea how to raise small children, and he had to work. So Dad and Karen went to live with their grandmother, Ethel Grey. The whole family called her Mom. She was a tough, ornery woman, busy with her tavern and, I believe, still raising the youngest of her many children. While I’m sure she loved her grandchildren, the last thing she needed was more children to raise.
The stories Dad told me about living in his grandmother’s tavern, in a room directly above the kitchen, make me think he felt like he was a burden to his grandmother. And he missed his dad, whose work took him away for long periods. Sometimes his dad drove a truck, and he would delight his young son by making his route run through Handley. I believe one summer Dad even got to ride with his dad on one trucking trip. Other times his dad took factory and construction work in South Bend, Indiana, where some of his brothers had relocated. Other of Dad’s uncles and his one aunt remained in West Virginia and were involved in raising my father and his sister.
All I have are Dad’s stories, which I heard over and over throughout my life, to have any idea what growing up in Handley was like. Through them my sense is that it was a scrappy place, one where you were expected to fight for your honor. You especially did not say unkind things about anybody’s mother. Casual words about Dad’s mother having passed on led to a few fights.
Handley was a place that the law could not easily reach. Mom Grey famously used to stand on her tavern’s front porch and kill squirrels with her shotgun so all would see she was a good shot and know not to mess with her. She locked the tavern door at 11 pm each night, and instructed all of her children that she guarded that door with her shotgun and that if they tried to enter that door after 11 pm, she would assume it was an intruder and would shoot them right through the door.
But for all her pluck and drive, raising two children may have become too much for Mom Grey as Dad and Karen got older. The story as Dad tells it was that the family liked to pick on Karen at the dinner table. Dad kept silent, but never liked it. His anger grew until one day he had quite an outburst over it. This upset and frightened Mom Grey enough that she immediately sent Dad and Karen to South Bend to live with their father. Dad was 11.
Dad learned quickly that while he might have been the Prince of Handley, he was considered just a dumb hillbilly in South Bend. His dad reinforced this thought, telling him point blank that he was going to have to fight the boys who dared call him that. But my father was anything but dumb. The schools in South Bend assumed they’d have to put this kid from West Virginia’s hills back a year, but Mom Grey insisted to school officials that he be tested for placement. He tested well and was able to stay in his grade.
Dad was tall and athletic, so he was recruited to the basketball team, his first time ever playing the game. He also played a lot of baseball and, at least by his stories, developed a pitching arm good enough that he was being scouted. His father valued work over baseball dreams, however, and insisted that his son quit baseball and get a paper route. By the time Dad reached high school, he had been recruited to the swim team.
But as he moved through high school, he no idea what he’d do with his life. He felt sure college was out of the question. Even if it wasn’t, what would he study? Nothing really interested him. I think he was angry, feeling shortchanged in his life: having lost his mother, not having felt wanted by his family, not seeing a future for himself. And so his senior year he simply didn’t attend several of his classes for the first 23 days of the first semester. It earned him automatic Fs in those classes, cost him his place on the swim team, and earned his father’s anger. “You blew it, kid,” Dad told me his father said to him. The manufacturing plant where he worked was offering scholarships to employee children to attend Purdue University, and those Fs scuttled Dad’s chances.
Upon graduating, unsure what was next for himself, Dad disappeared for a couple days. Knowing he’d have hell to pay when he got home, he stopped by the U.S. Navy recruiter’s office and enlisted. Dad walked into his father’s apartment and, without a word, laid the enlistment papers before him. “It’s about damn time,” was all his father would say.
Dad said many times that while he was in the Navy, he was drunk as often as he could be. Yet he also expected to make a career out of the Navy. He became a radarman. He served during the Bay of Pigs Invasion; his ship raced toward Cuba as fast as it could but it was all over before they arrived. Dad’s ship also participated heavily in building US goodwill, possibly as part of Dwight Eisenhower’s People to People program. Dad’s ship visited many ports all over the East with the purpose of allowing sailors to meet and mingle with local people. Dad told stories of a state dinner in one obscure country where he got the governor’s son in trouble, of eating sushi in a dark Japanese pub where when he got to the bottom of the plate he found two fish eyeballs staring up at him, and of singing his best Elvis impersonation on stage in a small Philippine town.
Dad’s sister Karen was found to have ovarian cancer while Dad was in the Navy, and she died. He was granted leave to attend her funeral. The timeline is not entirely clear to me, but it was during this time that he lost his zeal for a Navy career and let his enlistment end, and that he met my mother.
Carole Ann Frederick grew up in an upper-middle-class South Bend neighborhood, the daughter of an engineer who worked for the Bendix Corporation, a prestigious South Bend employer. There was no end to the men from her family’s social circles who were interested in her, but none of them drew her in. Then she met my father. She knew he was a drinker, that he was always out at bars hustling pool, and that other women hung loosely around him all the time. But she fell, and fell hard. And so did Dad.
Mom expected she would live a party lifestyle with my father. Her parents didn’t approve, and it wasn’t how she was raised, but she was head over heels for my dad and was going to live whatever life he made for them. But when they married, Dad turned his life around. He learned to weld and got a decent factory job, ending up at the Oliver Corporation, which made farm implements. He stopped drinking and insisted that they be asleep by 10 pm each night so he could be ready to work each day. Dad built his life around his work and his wife.
They first rented an apartment in South Bend above a real-estate office. Mom worked downstairs while Dad went off to Oliver’s.
But then in July of 1964, one month to the day after their wedding, Dad’s father fell to his death in a construction accident. It was an awful blow to Dad, who adored and idolized his father. Dad withdrew deeply into himself. It was a terrible strain on my parents’ young marriage.
Everyone to whom my father would have been closest in childhood, his parents and his sister, were gone. But Mom Grey was still alive and had retired to South Bend. Three of Mom Grey’s children, Dad’s uncle William and uncle Tom, and his aunt Betty, all lived and worked in town, too. And, in time, Dad remembered that he had his wife and was building his future with her.
I came along in August of 1967. I was named for my grandfather, a man I never had the fortune to know. My parents moved from their apartment into a tiny ranch house. Dad made little money then; were they not able to assume a mortgage from a family desperate to get out, they could not have afforded even that basic house. We lived there, in a neighborhood we called Rabbit Hill, until 1976.
My brother Rick came in July of 1968 and then our family was complete. Dad kept on at Oliver’s, which became White Farm Equipment, and moved from the factory floor to be the plant’s quality control man. With increasing fortune we were able to buy a larger home in a nicer South Bend neighborhood. Our lives were typical for the time: a nuclear family with Dad working, Mom staying home, and the kids walking to school.
We lived a quiet life. We weren’t joiners. We didn’t go to church. We were home a lot. It was by Dad’s design. His young life had been so chaotic that he absolutely insisted upon stability for his family. It was stability almost to the point of stagnation — yet there was real comfort in knowing that Dad would be home by 4, dinner would be on the table by 5, and we would spend our evenings quietly, with the newspaper, the TV on low, and our homework.
In the early 1980s, as manufacturing began its downturn in northern Indiana, White was sold and its pension fund liquidated. Soon the plant closed. Dad had nothing to show for 18 years of service. Dad spent a lot of time in bed. It wasn’t spoken of, but I assume now that he was deeply depressed.
But back on Rabbit Hill, a couple had moved in next door in about 1966 who became my parents’ best friends. Dean Porter moved from New York state to South Bend with his wife Carol to join the faculty at Notre Dame and curate the school’s art gallery. My parents played Canasta with them almost every Saturday night for more than 40 years. Dean achieved his Ph.D. during those early years, and worked to fulfill the university’s goal of building a large, new art museum. He raised the funds and oversaw the construction, and when it completed he became its first Director.
This was about the time Dad lost his job. Dad had dabbled in woodworking as a hobby and had made a small wooden keepsake box for Dean as a birthday gift. Dean called Dad: “I need someone to design and build benches for patrons to sit on, and pedestals for art to rest on, throughout my new museum. I want you to do the work.” Dad said, “But Dean, all I’ve ever made are little boxes like yours! What makes you think I can make these benches and pedestals?” Dean’s reply was simple: “I know you can do it.” And with that, Dad went into the cabinetmaking business. It was a family affair: Dad designed and built the pieces, my brother and I did grunt work like moving lumber and sanding, and Mom managed the books. Mom also got a job as an aide at the nearby elementary school. It kept our family going. If you visit Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art today and sit down in a gallery, you will be sitting on one of Dad’s benches.
Dad alternated between cabinetmaking, including building furniture for private clients, and working in various manufacturing management jobs. These were the years my brother and I were in college. My father’s entire goal of parenthood was to see that his sons went to college. He always felt that his lack of education limited him. There was evidence for that: at one company where he rose to Plant Manager, when it came time to build a larger plant (because my father had increased productivity so much) they replaced him with a fellow with a master’s degree. But more than that, I think he was ashamed to have only a high-school education. A college education would prove to all that he wasn’t a dumb hillbilly.
My brother and I were both intelligent and did well in public school. Thanks to need-based federal financial aid and a large grant from the Lilly Foundation, which was then helping first-generation college students attend private colleges, I was able to attend Rose-Hulman, a top engineering school, and Rick was able to attend Notre Dame. Still, the portion of tuition, room, and board that Mom and Dad had to bear left them with next to nothing during our college years. But my brother and I both graduated, Rick with honors. My father wept openly when I graduated.
Dad kept making furniture and running various manufacturing operations after his sons had transitioned into their adult lives. Mom continued to work in the school system. They settled into empty-nested lives.
But then Dad and Mom decided to make a go at building furniture full time. It turned out Dad was better at building than he was at sales. Moreover, he insisted on making only the finest furniture, bespoke, and there wasn’t enough of a market within reasonable range of South Bend. Cash flow became a serious problem. It drove Dad to look again for a manufacturing leadership job. He found one, helping build operations at a startup company. But it did not work out and he was fired.
These two failures flattened him. He never sought a regular job again. Mom found a job as a clerk in the county probate court to make ends meet. Dad took cabinetmaking work when it found him, mostly through word of mouth around Notre Dame. He also bought a mat cutter, and matted and framed art for the museum at Notre Dame.
Dad turned his energy to service. He became involved in the Republican Party in his county, serving as Treasurer of his local party office. He also sought to advance social concerns that would improve conditions on the impoverished west side of South Bend, where he lived as a teen with his father. He hoped to build entrepreneurship and encourage higher education in those neighborhoods. He worked hard to turn a vacant west-side K-Mart into a community market where locals could produce and sell wares, as a way of helping people find their way to brighter economic realities. His dream never came true, unfortunately, as he was never able to build a sufficient coalition of backers. He also joined the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senior Men’s Club, a group of men who promoted social concerns in South Bend.
And my father began to actively practice Stoicism. He declared that he was a natural born Stoic, that the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus resonated so deeply with him that he felt they were kindred spirits.
Dad had smoked for 50 years in 2007 when lung cancer struck. In the eleven years since he had his left lung surgically removed and underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
We have all felt like most of these last eleven years with him have been bonus time. And he has been in reasonable health, all things considered; he was able to do most things he did before. His reduced lung capacity limited his activity a little. And we believe the chemotherapy affected his cognition; he struggled to make connections and once in a while even to form coherent sentences. It also made him grumpier, to the point where it was sometimes challenging to be around him. And macular degeneration was robbing him of his eyesight. Rick and I kept buying him vision-assistance gear so that he could see well enough to argue with people in Internet forums, which had become his second favorite pastime after he and Mom retired to Indianapolis in 2014. His favorite pastime was telling stories from his life. While I readily admit to being frustrated to hear the same story for the hundredth time, it was this repetition that made Dad’s life story stick so that I could write it.
Last summer Dad decided to drive Mom to South Bend for a family reunion. He had been keeping to himself that his eyesight had recently and suddenly gotten much worse. While on that trip he crashed his car into a median he simply could not see. Fortunately, neither he nor Mom was injured.
His rapid vision loss seemed suspicious to my brother and I, and we pressured him until he agreed to see his doctor. It turns out that not only was his lung cancer back, but it had spread to his liver and his brain. By this time, he was functionally blind. A scan showed a tumor pressing on the part of his brain that controlled vision. Radiation at that site restored enough of his vision that he could see to walk around, but his Internet-trolling days were over and he never drove again.
Dad’s doctors warned us that this would be the end of him, that he had weeks, maybe months, left. He received good care that kept him in the family game and in pretty good spirits through autumn and the holidays. He told his old stories to anyone who would listen at our Christmas Eve family gathering. But in the new year he took a sudden and rapid downturn. He lived to see his 77th birthday last Tuesday with his family around him, but on Wednesday he slipped away, quietly and peacefully.