Sunday was my father’s birthday. Born in 1921, he would have been 97. His brother died at age 99, his sister at 96, both parents in their nineties. It seems unfair that he died in 1984 at age 62.
But “life is not fair” is a mantra my children heard often. Things happen. Heart disease happens. I’d like to blame his heart attack on his eating habits, but they were no different from his father’s, who was almost 99 when he died. Good country cooking, using lots of lard and bacon grease. Yum! I still remember those great dinners my mother and grandmothers cooked. Much as I like olive oil, it just isn’t the same.
My father was multi-talented. He sang, taught high school science, farmed, taught Bible classes, and played any instrument he picked up. How he could sit at a piano and play without looking at any page of music was a great mystery to me. Years of piano lessons did not give me his talent. It was a gift that he thoroughly enjoyed.
He usually tried to please my mother—a challenge for us all—and most of the time he succeeded. But one thing he would do drove her crazy: When he was ready to go somewhere and she was not, he would start playing the piano. The minute I heard him playing, I made sure I was ready to go and also steered clear of my mother. Rather than seeing it as a signal that she should hurry to get ready, she saw it as a sign saying, “I’m ready and you’re late.” But it did work to speed her up!
I never tired of hearing my father play the fiddle. When he was young, he was in a bluegrass band—just a bunch of guys from the neighborhood, but they had lots of fun. Now I wish I had asked him more about that. My main information comes from a few old photographs of the group and some of Daddy playing guitar by himself. I thought that picture looked like Roy Rogers, who was quite famous at the time. Of course that was before Daddy lost his hair, which happened when he was young. I was born when he was 23, and in my memories he was always bald or balding. When I was an adult, he had a lovely gray fringe that still needed barbering, and usually I was the one who did it, using the clippers he’d used on my brothers, growing up. I still have those clippers, for nostalgia’s sake.
Watching him play the saw, using his fiddle bow, was a special treat. I wish I could show you the video we have of Daddy playing the saw. But this YouTube video will give you a good idea: Tenderly. It is a lovely and haunting sound.
When I was about 8, he taught me to drive his big Farmall tractor, and I drove it to help on the farm until my younger brothers were old enough to take over. Even as a teen, I loved working on the farm with my father—not because I loved getting hot and sweaty, with chaff all over me or tobacco gum on my hands; I loved it because I was with my dad.
At our local country church, he and Mr. Morgan Moore shared song-leading duties. My father, however, was in great demand elsewhere. Many country churches would host “gospel meetings” and hire both a preacher and a song leader for the week. One summer, around 1960, he was booked for every week of the summer to lead singing. The whole family often went with him, but of course my favorite was when I was the only one to go with him.
These days, families plan father-daughter date nights. We’d never heard of that term back then, but that’s what it was. On the way, he’d let me pick out the songs he’d lead. He started every gospel meeting with “We’re Marching to Zion” and ended the last service with “Are You Coming to Jesus Tonight?” But otherwise, he’d sing a variety of songs each night, keeping a list so he wouldn’t repeat. He told me that the very first time he led singing for a gospel meeting, the preacher, J. B. Gaither, told him, “You sing and I’ll preach. No need for you to get that mixed up. Just announce your song without any commentary.” So Daddy stuck with that for the rest of his life, always using a tuning fork to get his pitch.
He had an excellent tenor voice, great for leading congregational singing. I was always proud of my father’s singing abilities. He read “shape notes” as well as notes on a staff and sometimes taught singing classes. For several years, he was the choral director at Sumner County High School, where he taught in his early years. In 1959 he was enticed away to Peabody Demonstration School in Nashville and that was the end of his leading school choruses. At least I did get to be in his chorus class for one year.
He was a defender of the Bible and that God created the world and all that’s in it. He was beloved by many students, but the administration changed and he was told he must teach not creation but evolution as fact. That ended his teaching there. I was proud of him for sticking to his beliefs. He went back to Sumner County to teach and taught his classes at White House High School the Friday that he had the heart attack that killed him.
He and Mother were at a county-wide singing that night. He led “O Lord, Our Lord” and then his friend, John Braswell, led a song. When his friend sat down beside Daddy, Daddy said, “Good job.”
John said, “I think it was a little low.”
Daddy responded, smiling, “Just a half step.” He knew his music.
He was an expert at many things. Whether singing, teaching science classes, teaching Bible classes, or playing an instrument, I was always proud of him and to be his daughter. I cannot believe I was so incredibly blessed.
“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3