My dad was born in Hollis, OK on December 8, 1928, and died in Canyon, TX on March 18, 2010. The family moved from Oklahoma to a homestead in West Camp, TX when he was a very young child. The first house they had in Texas had two rooms, with no running water or electricity. He told my sister Deana and me wonderful stories about that house and what it was like to grow up there, taking baths in a number 3 washtub with water his mother Bonnie had heated on the stove. He attended school at the West Camp schools for some time, but eventually went to high school at Farwell, which is 9 miles north of West Camp and is the town in which I was raised. That is where he met my mother, and played football with her brothers on the five man football team.
Dad attended Texas Tech University for a while, then joined the Air Force, serving from 1950-1953. He was initially stationed in Fairbanks, AL. He proposed to my mother via mail from there, and his parents drove her from Texas to Alaska to marry him. My mother despised cold weather, so the fact she would travel for weeks with her future in-laws to the northernmost parts of Alaska to be with my dad is a testament of love.
After leaving the Air Force, Dad returned to Farwell to farm. Farming was more than an occupation for Dad, it was a vocation, a place where his great joy met the world's deep need. To say he had a green thumb would be an understatement. He grew lush fields of wheat, corn, maize, and cotton, and at one point was among the largest growers of watermelon in the nation. Every few days he would haul a few watermelons home from the farm in his pickup truck for me to sell for $1 each in the front yard, and I got to keep the money. Farwell is a sleepy little town, so doing the actually selling was kind of boring. Making the signs, setting up the stand, climbing the willow tree in the front yard, and fighting / playing with my sister was where the real action was.
Dad retired from farming in the early 1980s with a worn out back and creaky joints. In 1985, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which is fast moving and always fatal. Her mother had died of cancer when she was a girl, and having cancer was one of her greatest fears. She faced the next 18 months with bravery and grace, and died at home with him at her side.
The following year, he married Liz, a close family friend who taught me 7th and 8th grade history. They had 19 good years together, although Liz contended with cancer for more than a decade of their relationship. She was cheerful and brave even in the toughest of situations, and Dad was a devoted caregiver. All told, Dad spent more than 14 years caring for the two women he loved as they faced cancer.
Shortly after Liz died, we realized that Dad was becoming more erratic and forgetful. He had developed vascular dementia. We had a couple of more good years with Dad, but he declined fairly rapidly and died in 2010.
Like many people of his generation, Dad saw amazing changes over the course of his life. He went from living in a tiny house without amenities to the era of cable and the internet. When he was born, antibiotics hadn't been discovered and bacterial illness was often fatal. As a boy, he plowed the ground with a team of mules. By the time he died, tractors had television and GPS to guide them. He was a boy during World War II, saw the booming but fearful America of the 50s, and witnessed the upheaval of the 60s. He and Liz were directly affected by the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s, giving love and support to me and Liz's son Craig in the midst of tremendous challenges. He lived to vote for and see the inauguration of the first black President of the United States.
Through all of these changes and challenges, my Dad had a few sayings that he repeated to Deana and myself, and that he lived by:
- Learn to accept people as they are.
- Remember that God is love.
- Work hard and make whoever has hired you "a good hand."
- Smile and the world smiles with you.
- You're the only son I have and I love you (he said the same thing to Deana about being his daughter.)
Dad taught me that the measure of a man is how generous he is with those in real need, not only financially, but in terms of time, love, and money. He had a wicked sense of humor, and he helped me learn that nothing is unbearable if we can find something to laugh at. He loved his family, and took great delight in and adored his grandchildren.
I was blessed that he was irrationally proud of me, once telling a startled close friend that he was "real proud of my t-cells" after I got a good lab report. Three days before he died, he turned and looked at me and said, "Son, I'm so proud that you met a nice young man like David," a saying that delighted my slightly older husband.
He was salt of the earth, the apple of my eye, and the best dad that anyone could have or hope for. I feel him with me every day and I am grateful for his presence in my life. Happy Birthday Don Williams.