Note: The following is something I wrote a few years ago as a tribute to my father. It is accurate to the best of my knowledge, though I suspect when and if my sisters read it they will tell me things that need to be corrected – especially the stuff that happened before I was born or too little to know much about. I am publishing it here as a memorial to my father who passed about fifteen years ago around this time of year.
Bruce Williams, my father, was born in April 1914 near West Liberty, Kentucky. He was an honest, decent man who was raised on a farm. All he knew was farming. So, it was natural that it would become his life’s work.
When he was starting out, he worked for the government in a federally funded recovery program called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Dad worked on reservoirs in the Tennessee River valley and helped construct roads throughout Appalachia. He saved his money and, after two years in the CCC, he returned home and married Alta Ferguson, my mother, in the early spring of 1935.
Jobs were scarce in Morgan County, Kentucky, where my parents grew up. Bruce heard there were better opportunities in Ohio. So, in late summer, he left my pregnant mother behind with a promise he’d send for her when he saved enough money.
He found a job as a laborer in a feed and grain store that serviced farmers in west central Ohio. The last throes of the Great Depression still stifled a good portion of the economy. He worked all week for enough money to buy denim overalls to wear at work. He saved every cent he could spare. Mr. Ballenhoffer, who owned one of the largest farms in the area, offered Bruce a small place to live. It was actually an old chicken coop that my dad cleaned out to make ready for bringing his wife from Kentucky to live with him.
My brother, Barris, was born on May 4, 1936. Shortly afterwards, Bruce brought Alta and the baby to Ohio.
Despite his responsibilities as a new father, one day he had an argument with his supervisor. He never told me exactly what the argument was about, only that it was a matter of principle and ethics. So, I’m sure it was something he considered wrong. My dad hated no one except for liars and cheats and would never compromise his beliefs for any reason. I’m sure his personal integrity was challenged. What he did tell me was that being right does not always matter in an argument. When his supervisor threatened to fire him, Bruce quit.
The same day, Mr. Ballenhoffer hired him as a farmhand. Maybe they didn’t need another hired hand, but Mr. Ballenhoffer knew Dad from the feed and grain store. He witnessed first-hand how hard Bruce worked.
It was a struggle for my parents to survive their living conditions in those first years of marriage. To keep out the cold winds of winter, Alta had to chink rags into the cracks between the clapboards of the chicken coop that was their first home. She blamed those harsh conditions for why my brother Barris was sickly as a young child.
In time, Bruce was offered a sharecropping position on a farm near South Charleston. As part of the deal, my folks could live in the property’s farmhouse. During that time, Dad suffered a severe injury. While attempting to straighten a nail to be reused in repairing a loose board, the nail snapped in two, and one piece flew up into my father’s face, putting out his right eye.
Bruce’s position as a farmer was considered critical and exempted him from being drafted into military service. Although Dad was patriotic and wanted to serve, he was not allowed to volunteer. His eye injury prevented him from going to war. Perhaps the reason my sisters and I were born was that he lost his right eye in an accident – if you want to believe in accidents.
In 1945, a few weeks before his birthday and the end of the war in Europe, my brother Barris, died. He succumbed to seizures that my mother called Epilepsy, though they could not afford proper medical treatment and so the illness was never diagnosed. He was buried in Kentucky, at the Cold Iron Cemetery, near where my parents were born.
Bruce and Alta were devastated as they grieved the loss of their firstborn child. Parents are not supposed to outlive their children. It was several months before the emptiness in their life seemed bearable. It was over a year before my mother and father attempted to replace him.
During that time, Bruce was offered a job managing the farm where he had once worked as a hired hand. It was considerably more money and so he decided to take the position. Still, my father left on good terms with the Wildman’s, whose farm he had been operating for several years. He helped them find someone to replace him.
Joyce, my oldest sister, was born on February 7, 1947. She was not the son Bruce wished to replace his loss, but he doted on her all the same. My family’s living conditions were dramatically improved from when my parents last lived on the Ballenhoffer farm. They were allowed a farmhouse as part of the compensation, and land to use for a garden and raising their own chickens.
Two and a half years later, William E. Bailey, a young attorney in Springfield, contacted my dad. His last surviving parent passed on, leaving him the family’s two farms. The Wildman’s recommended Bruce to Mr. Bailey. My father accepted the position, establishing a business relationship and friendship borne of mutual respect that would endure for their lifetimes.
Subsequently, when Mr. Wildman died of a heart attack, Anamelia Wildman offered the operation of the two farms she owned and the farmhouse where my parents lived before. Between the Wildman and Bailey farms, Dad was overseeing the operation over 2400 acres and had four hired hands working for him.
Still, Bruce wanted to have a son to carry on the family name and to inherit a farm he dreamed of buying, a goal for which both my parents were saving for since they were married. Again, they tried to replace Barris.
Genette, my other sister, was born on January 10, 1952. Once more, my parents brought a beautiful daughter into the world. At that point, with the doctor’s recommendation, my parents decided two children were enough.
Over the next three years, many things changed for my mother and father. The crops were good and the livestock markets were rewarding. My parents saved enough money from their share of the profits from the farms to buy two acres of land from Mrs. Wildman. They planned to build a new home.
My mother told a strange story that I am sure she believed happened. Dad was convinced it happened, too. She heard a voice telling her to have another child. When she consulted with Dr, McIntyre, the family doctor, he confirmed that she was not too old but he warned her, as he had after Genette’s birth, that it would be very risky.
It was not an easy pregnancy. There was a point when she was convinced she would miscarry. With her faith and the prayers of others, she weathered the crisis. On May 7, 1956, eleven years to the day after the end of the war in Europe, I was born. Finally, my parents had a son to replace Barris. I grew up in my dead brother’s shadow, more so than either of my sisters.
My dad asked his cousins who were carpenters to come stay for the summer and build the new house. When it was complete, my parents moved the family into a modern home, the first they ever owned.
As I grew up, Dad referred to me as his buddy – his little helper. As I grew older, I could help with the chores and a good deal of the backbreaking labor of working on a farm. The days that I worked with my father wore me out. It was time well spent, though. I appreciated how hard my dad worked for a living. I was amazed at how smart he was. He seemed to have the solution for every problem. Nothing was beyond him.
When I was big enough to reach the pedals and steer the tractor, I spent many a summer day in the hot sun. Whether it was piloting a tractor towing a baler along windrows making hay bales for my father to stack on the wagon we pulled behind or cultivating the corn and soybeans, it was what I did and Dad paid me a man’s wage.
Joyce graduated from Southeastern High School in 1965. The event fulfilled a part of one of Bruce’s personal goals, that his children would earn diplomas. Dad always wanted a high school education. But when he was a teenager, the Great Depression began. He had to quit school to work on the farm and help support and feed his family. He had a ninth grade education. Mom finished the eighth grade. Education of their children was paramount in importance to both my parents. They wanted to offer their children the opportunities they never had.
Around that time Dad and Mom realized their lifelong dream; they bought a farm. It was adjacent to Mr. Bailey’s farms so, even though father now had an additional 160 acres of his own land to work, it was close enough to some of the other farms that it was not as much of an increased burden. The new farm also allowed expansion of beef cattle production. The problem was that operating Mrs. Wildman’s farms, which were several miles away from our new farm, was increasingly difficult. Bruce continued to do it for an additional year, but all the time he was seeking someone to take over the operation from him.
The other logistical consideration was that we still lived in Selma, on land adjacent to the Wildman’s farms. Mom wanted to build a new house on our farm so she could correct all the deficiencies she found with our present house. I was ten at the time and had mixed feelings about moving away from the only house I remembered living in. The idea of a new house excited me and living on the new farm made a lot of sense. But I had memories. The house where we lived was my home.
Once again, Bruce called on his cousins to come spend the summer while they built another dream home. Meanwhile, Dad and Mom were remodeling the interior of the farmhouse on our new farm, with the intention of Joyce, her husband Jerry and their newborn son, Jame (Jay), living there.
While driving back from working on the old farmhouse, Mom, Genette and I were in a car accident. Other than the bloody nose I received from slamming my face into the back of my sister’s hard head and the resulting knot on Genette’s noggin, my mother was the only one injured. Her wrists were badly sprained from where she braced herself against the steering wheel in anticipation of the impact. Her right kneecap was shattered. Our car, a Candy Apple Red 1963 Chevy Impala, was totaled.
Mother spent the summer in a full leg cast in a house that was built before central air conditioning was common. She spent a lot of time sitting on the front porch, with her cast propped up on a chair while she hoped for a cool breeze. When it didn’t come, she used a box fan and an oscillating fan to fend off the heat.
Despite recovering from her injuries, she had to take care of the new baby while Joyce worked. Of course, Genette helped, not only in caring for the baby, but also doing housework and cooking.
It was not an easy summer for anyone. We had two house guests. I gave up my room to Marvin, one of my dad’s cousins. Norman, the other cousin, slept in the room we called the breezeway, a family room we had made from enclosing a walkthrough between the house and the garage. My bed was a foam rubber pallet on the living room floor.
Mom’s cast was removed in early September. She was leery of driving but she liked our new car, a 1966 Chevy Caprice.
A few weeks later, we moved into the new house. Regardless where I lived, I was still attending school in Selma. That was where the school district’s consolidated middle school was located. The only difference was I rode a bus to school instead of my bike or Mom dropping me off.
I matured a good bit over the next couple of years. My dad and I began to work together as a team and sometimes we traded places. My muscles recovered much more readily from the aches and pains of strain and overexertion. It was a welcome relief for Bruce to have someone he could count on to do some of the things he was never able to trust to hired hands.
As I entered the eighth grade, the newly constructed elementary school in South Charleston was ready to open. My class received the honors of naming the school and selecting a mascot. There were several suggestions and a good bit of campaigning, culminating in a school assembly, after which everyone was allowed to vote. The school’s name became Miami View. It was apt as a branch of the Little Miami River flowed behind the school. The mascot for every athletic team was The Patriots. Of course, the school colors were red, white and blue.
The chores continued, either in the morning before going to school or in the afternoon after I returned home. On weekends I helped my dad on the farms. Sunday was the only day either of us had off. Dad refused to work on Sunday, except to feed the livestock. Dad believed that God understood His animals needed to be fed. Otherwise, Dad refused to do any business whatsoever on a Sunday.
Dad purchased an adjacent 90 acre farm that had belonged to a man we referred to as the Old Bachelor. He was descended from the family that had once owned not only the farm where he lived and our farm, but also much of the surrounding land. He died in his house. As I was on friendly terms with him and went to see about him from time to time. It was an unfortunate circumstance that I discovered his body.
The family farm was now 250 acres.
When I worked I was constantly analyzing everything, figuring out more efficient ways to doing nearly every task. Dad said it was because I was lazy, but really it was not. When given the option of working hard or working smart, I opted for the latter. If an easier way could be determined to do the exact same thing with less effort, I would take that course. Anyone would.
The problem with my father’s dream for me to take over the family farm was related to my allergies. A day of baling hay, for example, would result in irritated, itching, swollen and watering eyes. I’d sneeze throughout the day. At night, I was beset with coughing fits. Still, by the next morning, I was ready to go at it again. I had to endure the discomfort. However, it was obvious I was not cut out to be a farmer.
Genette’s goal was attending Wittenberg University in Springfield. It was an outstanding private college with high academic standards. If she attended Southeastern High School, he believed she could not receive the sort of education she needed to qualify for admission. From her sophomore year to graduation, Dad and Mom paid tuition for her to attend Shawnee High School in Springfield, reputedly the best public school in the county. As a result, Mom drove her to school every day until Genette was old enough to get her driver’s license. Once Genette was able to drive, Dad bought her a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda.
In the early summer of 1970, Genette received her diploma from Shawnee High School. She was preparing to attend Wittenberg in the fall, to study art education. She became the first of our family to go to college.
My dad and mom wanted me to follow in Gennete’s footsteps. Obviously, Shawnee prepared her well for college. But, because of the overcrowded conditions in all the public schools due to the ‘baby boom’ of the 1950’s, Shawnee was no longer accepting tuition students.
At the time, I was seriously considering a military career as an officer. I wanted to attend the United States Air Force Academy. I felt that if I attended a military school it would be a great help in meeting the admission requirements. Mr. Bailey, my godfather, was a personal friend of Congressman Brown who represented the US Congressional District where we lived. So, obtaining a letter of recommendation for appointment was no problem.
Greenbrier Military School in Lewisburg, West Virginia accepted me and I began classes in late August 1970. Although I got over homesickness and adapted to the structure of the school, there were very few students who were there for the sake of getting a quality education. Most needed correction and many of them were still resisting the effort. Drugs were a problem and my roommate was one of the people involved.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, I told my parents what was going on at school. My father called the school and had a lengthy discussion with the administration about what I told him. They promised my father I would be moved to a private room. It seemed everything was resolved.
While I was home for Thanksgiving break, my father and I discussed everything and I was fine with going back to school. But when I returned, the new room to which I was assigned was a disaster. It needed repairs and there was a big inspection coming in a few days. There was no way the room could be made presentable before the inspection. It was obvious to me that I was set up to fail. It was punishment for opening my mouth to my parents about what was going on in the school. In the minds of the school administration, I broke a code of conduct. If I had a problem, I should have gone directly to the administration. No parents needed to be involved. The reputation of the school did not need to be tarnished.
I was in fear of the retaliation I might suffer from the other students. I called my parents to come take me back home. While I waited, I did anything to avoid being in my room.
When my parents arrived at the school, they had a lengthy discussion with the administration after which I packed my things into the family car and returned home.
Although I was prepared to attend Southeastern High School, my dad and mom insisted that I not. They rented an apartment in the Springfield Local School District so that I could live there, ostensibly with my mom, and attend Shawnee High School. I was never to tell anyone at school that I lived alone. Not only was it no one’s business but also I knew my parents trusted me. If anyone found out Mom wasn’t living with me, she could get into a lot of trouble with the State. Despite my emotional and mental maturity, I was still a minor.
At first, Mom came to the apartment regularly, almost daily. I always had food. Although I could do my laundry and knew how to cook for myself, whenever she was there, she took care of those things. She let me clean my apartment, vacuum the carpet, mop and wax the kitchen floor, clean the bathroom and carry out the trash. At night, I set my alarm clock to wake up in time to get up and get ready for school. The bus stopped for me in front of the apartment complex.
Twice, my mother slept in the apartment. That way she could say she stayed there without telling a lie. The phone was in her name. Each morning, when I woke, I called home. Each afternoon, when I got off from school, I called home. Mom would call me some time in the evening to see how I was doing. She called at random times, even two times in an evening. Although she said she trusted me, I understood she didn’t want me to think I could get away with anything. She was minimizing the opportunity for me to become a bad boy. On Friday afternoon, when I got off the bus, Mom would meet me at the apartment. I slept at my parents’ house on the weekend and helped my dad on the farm every Saturday. On Sunday morning I did the chores and then went to church with Mom. In the afternoon, I did my laundry and folded it. In the evening, after dinner, Mom drove me back to the apartment.
As far as anyone at school knew, I lived with my mother. They assumed my parents were divorced. No one bothered to ask for clarification, and so, I never provided any details.
Over the summer before my sophomore year, I periodically stayed in the apartment. I told my parents that for appearance’s sake I probably should spend time there. Besides, I liked some of the freedom and privacy I acquired. All of my things were there, so when I was at my parent’s house, it felt a lot less like home to me.
One of the nosier neighbors at the apartment complex stopped me in passing and asked where I had been all week.
“Oh, I was helping my dad. He has a farm,” I said and started to walk away.
“Where’s your mom been?”
“She was seeing her sister. She’s been sick,” I replied. It was true that my mom had seen her sister and Aunt Verna was sick. Despite my inference through omission of detail, Mom did not stay with her sister, though.
“Where’s she now?”
“Working,” I said. That was also true. My mother was a housewife. So, when was she not working? Then, I smiled at my neighbor. “Okay, it’s my turn. Why is any of this your business?”
“I was wondering where you’ve been?’
“I always help my dad on the farm when he needs help. He pays me. I can always use the money.”
Apparently that satisfied her. No one else at the complex ever bothered to ask me anything about my business.
Sometimes, Genette came to see me. She was taking summer school classes at the university. She moved onto campus when she pledged to join the Sigma Kappa sorority. Although Mom maintained her room at home, like me, my sister was seldom there.
Genette and I would see movies together. Afterwards we went shopping in Springfield or at the Upper Valley Mall. She took me to her sorority and hung out with her sorority sisters and her friends who were in fraternities. I sat in on some of her classes and met her professors. We went to the library and the Student Union. I really liked the learning environment and the campus atmosphere.
My primary means of transportation throughout that summer was a ten-speed Schwinn. I rode it everywhere, into Springfield, across town to my friend Brice’s house, and sometimes to Wittenberg to see Genette. Sometimes I rode the bike to my dad’s farm, which was thirteen miles from my apartment.
I rode the bus for another school year. It was pretty much the same routine as during my freshman year, except I spent some weekends at the apartment. My dad decided to get out of the livestock part of farming and so he raised grain only. There were fewer chores to do and less need for me to help him on weekends.
The summer before my junior year, I took driver’s education in summer school. I was eager to get my license. The irony was that I had been driving for years. As a farm kid I was allowed to drive farm equipment on the roads between farms. On the farms, I drove my dad’s trucks to and from the fields.
I rode my bike to school every weekday until the conclusion of the course. The day I received my certificate of completion for the course, I took my driving test and received my license. I acquired the gold 1972 Camaro my mother had been driving. As she liked Camaros, dad bought an orange and black one as a replacement for her.
Once my junior year ended, I was grandfathered into attending Shawnee for my senior year. I did not need to live in the school district. So, I moved back home and drove to school each day from my parent’s house.
It felt strange being back home, especially since I had grown accustomed to considerable personal freedom. I also played bass guitar in a rock band and had a number of outside activities. During my senior year, I think I tried my parents’ patience to the limit more times than not.
Wittenberg University accepted me a few weeks after I submitted my application. I figured that since my sister was a senior there, they would not turn me down. But I wanted to attend a major university and study journalism, a course that was not offered at Wittenberg. So, I applied to some Big Ten schools. Purdue University accepted me.
In the early part of the last summer I lived at home, I received my diploma. Bruce and Alta saw the last of their children complete a goal neither of them ever reached. A few days after my graduation, Genette received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wittenberg University, making her the first in the family to graduate from college. I don’t think I ever saw my dad and mom as proud as they were of Genette. She worked hard and even struggled at times to receive her degree, but she would not quit. I was proud of her, too.
At the end of the summer, when I moved to West Lafayette, Indiana to attend Purdue, for all intents and purposes, all of my parent’s kids were grown up. I think the realization that I would not be following in his footsteps disappointed my dad. The dream of carrying on the family farming traditions would perish with him. He and my mother had saved to buy a farm that they could pass on to their children, yet their only surviving son was not going to be a farmer and neither of my sisters had any interest or inclination toward owning a farm, let alone operating one.
After a year of substitute teaching in the public schools, Genette decided that she really did not like teaching as much as she thought she would. She enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1975.
My oldest sister, Joyce, her husband, Jerry and their son, Jame (Jay), moved to Clearwater, Florida in 1978. Joyce became a successful administrative assistant for an executive before leaving to handle the office work for her husband’s private business.
Having endured the blizzard in January 1978, Mom said she was tired of living in a cold place. My parents sold their farm and some of their household furniture at auction. My dad had always dreamed of living in the southwest, so they moved to Texas – just about as far south in Texas as they possibly could go. They relocated to a little town called Mission that was just north of the Rio Grande River, near the cities of McAllen and Edinburgh. Genette’s first husband and I helped them make the trip.
At some point during the next year, Genette divorced Andy, her first husband. She received a commission through Officer Training School and, after a few years ended up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where she eventually met her second and present husband, Michael ‘Scott’, an Air Force pilot.
When I finished my degree in Mass Communication, the economy was suffering from a curious mess called ‘stagflation’, a combination of double-digit inflation and double-digit interest rates. I interviewed with several prospective employers but no one offered me a job. I spent a summer with my parents in Mission before moving to Austin to attend the University of Texas, majoring in Marketing.
Shortly before I graduated from UT, my parents moved to Clearwater, Florida and eventually to Palm Harbor, just to the north of Clearwater. I lived with them for a time, and then moved out into an apartment in Dunedin while I worked for a small advertising agency. A year later I joined the Air Force and learned Chinese Mandarin.
Before I left for my first overseas tour of duty in Korea, I sat with my dad on his driveway in front of his garage. There was a cool breeze that afternoon as we enjoyed sitting in the shade of a large oak. The subject was one we discussed before but never in as much detail as that day. He was a little concerned about what I was getting into with the Air Force. Genette was an officer. He was concerned about her but figured she was safer somehow. He did not understand what I was going to be doing and, frankly, I really could not tell him much because nearly everything I worked with was highly classified.
Dad expressed how proud he was of each of his children, not because of what we accomplished but that we were decent, caring people.
“I’ve had to work hard all my life,” he said. “I didn’t have the kind of education a man needs to get ahead. Your mom and I scrimped and saved everything we could because we knew what it was like not to have anything. We didn’t want for our children to know that kind of hardship.”
“I don’t know how you worked as many years as you did as a farmer. It’s hard work.”
“It’s honest work,” he responded. “I love the land. I enjoy watching things grow and taking care of animals. It’s not an easy job feeding the world. But that’s what I did with my life.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t take over the farm.”
“Farming isn’t what it used to be. It won’t be too many years before having a family farm is nothing but a memory. The world is changing very quickly. I’m not sure how it is going to work out. I’ve always heard that the world will end sometime after 2000. I don’t know if it will. Only God knows those things. But I think if you are ready, it doesn’t matter when it happens. Until then, you need to live as good a life as you can, be honest and always keep your word. When you make a mistake beg forgiveness. When you succeed, be humble. When you have children, teach them how to be good people. That’s the best anyone can do.”
I married in 1985. My son was born in 1986 and my daughters were born in 1988 and 1990, giving Dad and Mom three more grandchildren. My nephew married in 1986 and had a daughter in 1987, my parents’ great granddaughter.
Bruce Williams was an ethical man who raised his family to honor what he stood for and what he believed was right. He fed us, clothed us, and gave us a roof over our heads with warm beds to sleep in. We never worried for a thing as children. If there was not enough for everyone, he would do without. I never knew a soul who didn’t like him. Most respected him and considered it an honor to know him. He was generous to a fault. He helped people who had nowhere else to turn, cosigning for loans when the bank would not give them the money they needed for something urgent.
My father died a few days before his birthday in April 2000. The family gathered together for the funeral. By then Mom was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s and could not attend. She would pass on nearly on her birthday in April 2003. People came from everywhere my parents had lived to pay their respects. My parents both lived to be nearly eighty-six.
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