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A last gift from father who passed on

Don Rogers

These are the core thoughts as I sit in a pew, listening to the preacher guide the grievers through the ceremony, reliving my own memories as I take in the words of brothers and sisters in law and a close friend of the deceased, my wife’s dad.

The sting behind the eyes and the welling, the words that suddenly cannot find voice. All this remains faintly embarrassing, even as it is testament to how much someone meant to you. We are WASPS, after all, and control is everything, even now.

I find sudden interest in the yellow flower pinned to my suit coat when these moments come, even when talking with my immediate family, and they come more often than I had imagined. Having missed the early steps, at the hospital, the kids and I are a little behind in the process of death to sprinkling of ashes, with the assortment of rituals lighting the path back to life.

Ben had smoked for better than half of his 80 years, and it was lung cancer that got him. Still, he lived a long, good life, though his mother and her sisters made it past 100.

The disease was agonizing, for him most of all of course, but also for the rest of us who suffered vicariously through the cruel turns over summer. The final hospital stay came suddenly, even though we anticipated as best we could, bracing ourselves for heartache.

I imagine there was meaning, a purpose in the how of his dying. Ben embraced life, he lived it rather than the other way around, and he played it well. Perhaps the suffering at the end somehow helped him let go.

To me, he embodied what Tom Brokaw calls The Greatest Generation. Poor Depression kid, picking up stray coal along the train tracks in Decatur, Ill., to keep the house warm; minor league baseball player signed right out of high school; Army medic during World War II; eventually president and CEO of a credit union he turned from shoebox into the 24th largest in the nation, and easily No. 1 in innovations.

He was a giant in his field. The fellow who succeeded him said it was like following Vince Lombardi and he would always strive to live up to the standards of Mr. Hawkins. We learned during an open house downtown in the headquarters he had built just before retirement 15-16 years ago that he was still revered. Person after person remarked on how they found him incredibly down to earth and yet they could only think of him as Mr. Hawkins, head of the table. The fellow who rolled the dice early and set the place on track for remarkable longstanding success. He remained on the board up to his death.

At home, he was Dad, Ben, Poppy. Interested in everyone, and naturally programmed to push with advice for how we could do better. For me, it was to make sure I wrote even when my main work was behind the scenes. Every visit, every phone conversation: “Writing that column yet?”

Both parents are gone now for my wife, her sister and two brothers. Mom, the heart of the family, died of cancer nearly two decades ago. Now Dad, the head, though he didn’t lack for heart either, is gone. The two of them have been mixed and sprinkled beside the lake at the University of Notre Dame.

From here it’s memories, hardly the substance of their hugs and full embrace of us and our lives. The preacher explains how they live on in us in this way. By at least one definition, their spirit endures. Somehow this sentiment doesn’t seem so trite today.

In time, I suppose and hope, we’ll come to understand these memories as a last gift from lives we were privileged to share. Now we have a legacy to carry on, a Lombardi to live up to. That’s a gift, too.

Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com


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