Photographs and Memories: Father's Day Wishes for My Grandpa, a Man of a Different Time

Grandpa - A Man of a Different Time. (Credit: Ward Clark)

While it’s Father’s Day, and rightly so, we shouldn’t forget those men who have leveled up their Dad skills to become grandfathers. There’s an old saying that grandparenting is the revenge we get for having been parents, and there’s a little nugget of truth to that. But the best part, now that I’ve hit the Grandpa level myself, is the “all the fun, none of the work” aspect.

Nowadays, when we’re around our grandchildren, Grandpa has great spoiling opportunities. Granted, we always mind our kids’ wishes; one of the best pieces of advice I ever got on grandparenting was from my own dad, who advised, “Never forget, you’re not the parent.”

But if a fudge-coated Oreo pop accidentally finds its way into the grocery store basket, and I happen to have a young granddaughter who just loves fudge-coated Oreo pops, well, we can’t let that go to waste.

I was lucky to have two outstanding grandfathers. I’ve written about my father and my maternal grandfather before, but my paternal grandfather was likewise an interesting old man, and on this Father’s Day, it’s his turn to be the subject of my reminiscing.

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Grandpa Clark was, literally, a man out of a different time. Born in 1894, he served in the stateside Army as a cook during the Great War, raised his family during the Depression, saw America go from a regional nation with a huge, open frontier to a global superpower, and watched as the first cloth-covered biplanes gave way to the swiftly changing technology that put men on the Moon.

A farmer in his younger years, when the Depression came along, Grandpa and Grandma – whom I never knew, as she died suddenly in 1944 – had two young sons to feed, so Grandpa went down to Cedar Rapids and got a job in a garage, ending up as a Ford mechanic, which trade he pursued until he retired. The Depression presented opportunities for people who could fix things, and Grandpa could fix almost anything; he often said that keeping people’s old Model T and Model A Fords kept them all fed through the ‘30s. 

His life was not without adversity. Three of his five children died in their youth; Grandpa’s youngest son Lee died of pneumonia at three years of age, and he and Grandma later had twin daughters who lived only a few hours after a difficult delivery. Sadly that wasn’t an unusual event in those days. In his lifetime, he saw two world wars; in the Second World War, he was head of a two-star household and saw his older son come home from Europe terribly hurt. But we were and are a tough family, and with support, his older son – my uncle – pulled through.

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Like his son, my dad, Grandpa had an ironclad work ethic. A man works, Dad used to remind me; he works to take care of his family, or he isn’t a man worth the name, and I discovered when I got a little older that my father learned that from his father.

By the time I was old enough to get to know him, Grandpa had married his second wife, a rather bitter old woman (who I won’t name), and moved out to western Iowa near Sioux City. This resulted in my not seeing him very often. We usually went out to visit at Christmastime, and sometimes in the summer, but a few key things from those visits stand out.

Unlike my maternal grandfather, Grandpa Clark was as bald as an egg, with only a fringe of white hair around his head. But he had a thick beard and shaved every day, no matter what he had planned for the day. In his home, he shaved in a sink off the kitchen, using a small mirror he had fixed to the wall. One morning, I remember hearing him call my name.  “Come here,” he called, “you have to see this!”

Being about seven or eight years old, I couldn’t imagine what was up, so I ran to see. Grandpa looked at me with excitement in his eyes. He had a comb and was running it through two long white hairs growing out of the top of his head. “Look!” he said. “My hair is growing back!”

His hair wasn’t growing back.

He loved a good joke, and he loved to sing. He had a pretty good voice, a solid baritone, and he was fond of the song “Billy Boy.”

 Grandpa also enjoyed fishing and spent many summer afternoons in a boat, or on a riverbank with a rod and reel. He didn’t much care what he caught, as long as it was edible, because he was of a time when catch-and-release didn’t exist. He fished for the table, and he was pretty good at it.

In time, as he moved into his ‘80s, his health started to slip. One night, he had a bad fall and broke his hip. When he suddenly became the one who needed help, his second marriage dissolved, and he came back home to Eastern Iowa, where he lived with us until his ongoing rehab and occasional bouts of confusion made it necessary for him to move into a senior citizens’ home in Waukon, Iowa. The doctors told him that a man his age with a broken hip would likely never walk again, this being a time when hip replacements weren’t an option.

Grandpa’s will proved greater than the docs' predictions. He walked again.

He quickly made friends with a gang of elderly rogues who spent most of their time hanging out in the senior center’s TV room. One of the men had a harmonica, another a guitar, so Grandpa joined three other seniors in starting a band, where they would play in the center’s day room on request, with "Billy Boy" one of the more common requests. He even accompanied his buddies on their Saturday afternoon bus trips to the local tavern, where they would have a beer or two, which Grandpa declined; he would remind my brother and me that he had never touched alcohol or tobacco in his life. That’s something unusual for a man born in 1894, and it’s a piece of information that would cause my brother and I to share a look and remain respectfully silent, as neither of us could make that claim.

Grandpa passed away in 1985, at 90 years of age, after a short stint in that Waukon seniors' home, a few miles from his two surviving sons. He left a great legacy, a legacy of self-reliance, courage, and fortitude. He lived his life with a singular wit, with optimism, without fear; a year or so before he died, he told my mother that the one thing in his life he regretted was marrying his unfortunate second wife and moving away from “his boys.”

Today, on Father’s Day, I can’t help but remember not only my Dad but my grandfathers. My kids and grandkids are often bemused when I remind them that three of my four grandparents were born in the 19th century. But they are a part of who I am, as I am part of who my children and grandchildren are. That’s how it works. That’s why this is a special day. 

Happy Father's Day, Grandpa. Know that your legacy lives on; you are remembered.


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