My grandpa, Wayne C. Smith, passed away on March 16th, 2011. He was an amazing man and deserves much more than just a little blog post by his loving granddaughter. But it’s the least I can do.
Grandpa and his only granddaughter
I could tell you the timeline of his life – where he was born, his career path and how he spent his retirement. But I encourage you to read all of that in his obituary.
I want to tell you about the Grandpa I know. We traveled to Birmingham, AL every year to see my grandparents. And as kids, the time leading up to the trip was always so exciting. Mom would buy us new clothes and my brother and I would pack our little red suitcases (that read “Going to Grandma’s”) with things to entertain us on the 12-hour drive down (crayons, markers, paper, puzzles, etc). But one of my favorite things was receiving THE letter from my Grandpa. It was always written on yellow memo paper and was a checklist of the things we wanted to do when we were in town. We would pour over our options and check the boxes next to the things we had to see: the Children’s Museum, a Birmingham Barons game, shopping at the Galleria, hunting for golf balls, driving the golf cart and of course, seeing Vulcan.
Grandma & Grandpa with us kids in Birmingham
This past weekend, as my family celebrated the life of my grandpa, it was easy to reminisce over these times. My brother and I laughed about how my Grandparents were the ones to first introduce us to “happy hour.” Each day, around 4-5pm, they would pull out tons of snacks – crackers and cheese, veggies, cheese dip, etc and we would sit in the family room, eat and chat. Everyone in the family looked forward to this time, because we all loved snacks. Or so that’s what Matthew and I thought. We didn’t know that happy hour really involved gin & tonics and Scotch on the rocks!
But most of my favorite memories are from the times when Math and I would rise and shine early to search for rogue golf balls with my grandpa. We would search through the woods, through the brush and in the ponds to spot a brand new Pinnacle revealing it’s white shiny self to us. We’d stuff them in our pockets and once we got home, Grandpa would go through them to evaluate our treasure. And there were at least two times when I, wearing a brand new outfit, would climb up a big muddy hill, only to lose my footing and go sliding all the way down. Laughing all the way. Grandpa was never amused as he knew it was he who had to face my mom, carting his dirty, muddy granddaughter back home.
Before things got messy.
My Grandpa could sneeze 16 times in a row. I know because I counted. He let us drive FLOG the golf cart (golf backwards) even if meant me driving over the green on occasion. He watched the stock market each night and started each morning with a glass of coffee, a newspaper and a long walk. And as we ate breakfast with him, we were advised not to put “that poison!” (sugar) on our cereal.
Grandpa taking us on an adventure
Before my time, my Grandpa’s life wasn’t easy. Drafted into the Army when he was in college, he left my grandma to fight in WWII. He was captured by German soldiers and became a prisoner of war. For over a year, he lived in a German camp and was marched. Marched and marched and marched – all across the country of Poland. And if you couldn’t walk, you died. So when one of his comrades fell, it was my Grandpa who carried him on his shoulders and pulled him in a wagon across the country. He was a true hero from the moment he entered the Army to the moment he was rescued by the Russians. And the whole time, my grandma, living in Iowa, waited for any word of her MIA boyfriend. She finally got word – a telegram that only said “I am a caged bird” which was a song lyric back then. She knew he was alive, but captive.
After his rescue, the Army doctors evaluated every man to determine if they were healthy enough to come back to the states or whether they needed additional medical attention. Given Grandpa’s lack of nourishment (he ate frozen pigeons for heaven’s sake!) and excessive walking, he was told he needed to stay back and be treated. It doesn’t surprise me that my stubborn grandpa immediately sneaked into the “healthy” line so he could go see his honey. He vomited the entire plane ride home. He spent the next 64 years married to my grandma.
Wayne & Jean - a beautiful couple
My Grandpa was hugely successful in business, as a writer and as a speaker. He had a large variety of interests and could speak articulately about all of them. Even when he moved to Alabama, he remained politically liberal. (And as the minister said during his memorial service, when you are held captive the way my grandpa was, it’s no wonder that his empathy and passion aligned with those that were oppressed). Working in insurance, he mentored the younger associates and moved all over the country with his wife and three kids.
At age 44, he had his first heart attack. Later it was determined that the cause was an enlarged heart due to his time as a POW. He had another heart attack years later. He also suffered and conquered a bout of lung cancer (the non-smoking kind). But he led an active life, even in retirement. He walked. He ate healthily. And he golfed constantly. He loved socializing with the Inverness Country Club crowd. They lived on the golf course so as we sat on their deck we could wave at all their friends as they lined up for their next shot.
He was an amazing man, but he was always difficult to please. Multiple times he told me “Meggie, you are an accident waiting to happen.” He glossed over my accomplishments to learn more about my brother’s – not because he didn’t love me, but because I was a girl. When I once dared to talk through the Democratic National Convention, I was “shushed” loudly. He sometimes wrote me letters (even recently) and though they were encouraging and I knew he was proud of me, there was always some advice on how I could be better. His approval was as important to me as Simon Cowell’s was to the American Idol contestants. Yes, it might come with some pain and criticism, but when you receive it, you know you’ve earned it.
I wish I could know for sure whether he was ever truly proud.
Over the past 5 years, his health declined. Dementia set in and he was quickly diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. What a blow to the family to have both my dad and now my grandpa with PD. His activity level subsided but he still maintained a constant presence at church and made an effort to see his friends.
He died a dignified man who could rock a red and green plaid blazer more than any man I know. He loved his family which is evidenced by the hundreds of photos he had all over his house of his children and his four grandkids. He spoke passionately about politics and social equality. He cared about the weather, landscaping, humming birds, books and a good Scotch. He would have loved to see us all together this past weekend.
This weekend truly was a celebration of his life, but his graveside service was heart wrenching. When we arrived, two men in uniform stood at attention on the side of the road. They saluted the hearse upon arrival. They saluted his flag draped coffin as we removed it and carried it to the vault (yes, I was a pall bearer in 4 inch heels). After the minister completed his part, we noticed another Army member who had been standing on the hill. He played Taps on his bugle. And when it was over, the other two removed the flag, folded it into a triangle and handed it to my grandma, thanking her on behalf of our nation. They gave one final salute to her and walked away. It was the most amazing, impressive and emotional thing I have ever witnessed. Grandpa earned every bit of and I was so proud to be his granddaughter. (Don’t be surprised if I sign up for the Army this week – it was that powerful)
There wasn’t a dry eye in the cemetery.
I love you Grandpa and I miss you. I hope you know how much I wanted to make you proud. I will spend my lifetime in an effort to do so. I hope that wherever you are, you are eating Cracklin Oat Bran, golfing in beautiful weather and watching the stock market ticker. We’ll see you eventually and the reunion will be worth the wait.
A few more pics I found at my grandparents’ house below.
a play that the cousins put on for Grandma & Grandpa
cool Fraggle Rock drums, Math.
a drama queen even back then...