A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker
I have known Neal for 30 years, but I guess I didn’t really know much about him.
I knew that he had every tool in the world and that he liked to use those tools to tinker with . . . well . . . everything. I knew he loved the out of doors. I knew he loved John Wayne movies. I knew that he ate oatmeal for breakfast nearly every day. And I knew – or at least, strongly suspected – that beneath his quiet, crusty, 96-year-old exterior was the heart and soul of a good old boy.
But that was about it.
In fact, when he died a couple of weeks ago I was troubled. Not necessarily because he had died – he was 96 years old and his health was failing, so we were all kind of expecting it. But because, from my limited perspective, it didn’t seem that he had lived much of a life. There was no long list of educational or professional awards or accomplishments for his obituary, no community clubs or civic organizations to notify of his death. He didn’t leave much of an inheritance for his children and grandchildren – in fact, I’m not sure he left anything at all other than his much-modified, much-maligned pick-up truck (solar panels included).
And nobody seemed to want that.
“There probably isn’t going to be much of a crowd other than family,” I said to Anita as we drove to Neal’s funeral. “I just don’t know that anyone else will care.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The church was filled with neighbors, friends and family members, and they all had a Neal story to tell – or two. One neighbor told how he mentioned to Neal that he was having some trouble with his car. After he explained the problem Neal told him to replace a certain part (tube? Hose? Cable? It’s all car innards to me). The neighbor said that was the one part that didn’t look worn – he didn’t think it needed to be replaced. Neal said, “Well, that’s where your problem is – if you don’t want to fix it, I guess that’s OK.” So the man replaced the part – and you already know the end of the story, don’t you?
I knew Neal was good at fixing stuff, but I didn’t know he was THAT good.
One of the speakers at the funeral talked about how Neal was hired by a
local church to do some difficult and expensive technical repairs on their
building and how he did the job – superbly well – and then gave the
congregational leader a bill that said: “Paid in full – God doesn’t charge interest.” Someone else mentioned how Neal had secretly
paid for one of the young people in the neighborhood to do volunteer work for
their church in
Evidently stuff had a way of breaking when Neal was around – and he had a way of fixing broken stuff.
And that isn’t a bad legacy to leave behind, when it comes right down to it. Neal wasn’t educated, but he was smart. He wasn’t eloquent, but he was profound. He wasn’t wealthy, but his life was rich. There won’t be any buildings named after Neal, but he leaves behind countless homes, offices and motor vehicles that felt his knowing touch – and were fixed.
I learned a lot about Neal at his funeral. And it turns out I was wrong about him, as we so often are when we judge people – even people we have known for years and years. This was more than just a gruff old guy who sat in a chair and said little whenever we visited him. This was a good man who lived a good life – a life worth celebrating.
Even if nobody wants to inherit his truck.
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