Jan. 21st, 2011

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My grandfather was 98 years old – a year and a few months shy of his 100th birthday – when he passed away on Wednesday afternoon.

Think about that for a second.

A century. A century, contained in one single life. An extraordinary life.

This is a lifetime that saw World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf War, the war in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan.

Seventeen U.S. Presidents have come and gone and an eighteenth is in the middle of his term. Eleven of those Presidents died before Granddad did.

My granddad saw the invention of everything from sonar, modern assembly lines, hearing aids and frozen food to television and talking motion pictures; from the basics of powered flight to the jet engine onward to helicopters, rockets, and honest-to-God space travel. He watched nuclear reactors, microwaves, computers, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and contact lenses change the way we live.

He saw the discovery of penicillin, the advent of organ transplants, open-heart surgery, laser surgery, polio vaccine, the CAT scan, the eradication of smallpox, and the beginnings of genetic engineering.

He witnessed Pearl Harbor, the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, Prohibition and desegregation, the birth of the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, JFK's assassination, Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon, the creation AND tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

All this and more. My granddad started working full time at an age when most kids are riding bikes and talking about girls because he had already lost his mother and father by that time and he had to support his sister and himself. He worked for five decades in factories as a mechanic and machinist, first with Airco, and then with Watson-Stillman, working his way up from janitor and floor sweeper to senior machinist and eventually a division manager supervising hundreds of people. He used to tell me stories of his factory turning out sixteen-inch guns and shells for our battleships in World War II. They also built the first bathysphere, or deep-depth submersible, and a few years ago he remarked offhandedly that they had also created parts for the engines that sent the Saturn V rocket into space. Incredibly, unbelievably epic, and he just mentioned it casually as if it were nothing. Because that's the way he was – for all the amazing things he did or saw, he was remarkably quiet and modest.

I remember a project for my AP History course when I was in high school. We were assigned to create a presentation on a historical figure, an American who had seen and done great things. Most of the students went with predictable, safe figures: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Jackie Robinson. But me, I picked my granddad. I spent hours talking with him about his life. While the other students had standard boilerplate, boring text about people long dead, I brought to life vivid recollections of a living legend, someone who still had gas coupons and mementos from World War II, could tell you what it was like to hear FDR's fireside chats, was deemed "too crucial to the war effort" to be allowed to fight in World War II, and was there in the Polo Grounds when baseball player Bobby Thomson hit his famous “Shot Heard Round the World”. I showed them fifty-year old newspaper clippings he'd kept, related his factory tales and war stories, showed pictures of his first car, the tattered and faded receipt for his first paycheck at Watson-Stillman, and more. The class was enthralled.

His skill with his hands saved my bacon time after time. Granddad helped me fix – or more often fixed himself -- flat tires, broken chairs, faulty toasters, a grandfather clock, and an endless parade of car-related problems. When my first car developed serious engine problems, Granddad, my father and I spent a week rebuilding it pretty much from the ground up. It's not often that you have three generations of the same family working on the same car. And of course, when we got done with it, it ran like a dream. He helped my brother carve and paint an exquisite Pinewood Derby car when Michael was in the Boy Scouts. He was expert with woodworking, machining things, carpentry, tool-and-die work – pretty much anything that required manual dexterity and an encyclopedic knowledge of tools. Machinery just came naturally to him, something I always envied when I watched him effortlessly aligning a sprocket on my bike or swiftly tightening the last nut on a home repair project.

Personality-wise, Granddad was a giant teddy bear, really. He loved hugs – from his family, from friends, from pretty girls. When my girlfriend Leslie and I were home visiting, I used to remark that I had to keep a close eye on him because otherwise he would steal her away from me. It was a joke, of course, but it wasn't far from the truth. Because she loved him too. You couldn't help loving him. He had such a zest for life! Such a warm and friendly spirit.

That warm and friendly spirit showed itself in his impish sense of humor, too. My mother loves to tell a story from when she was first dating. A boy had come to pick her up for the evening, and he was waiting for my mother in the kitchen. My grandmother had offered the fellow a piece of pie, one of the last pieces that was left over. The fellow said sure, he'd love a piece....and then out of the depths of the living room came a deep bass rumble from Granddad: “You aren't giving him MY pie, are you?” The poor guy went white and immediately said “No thank you!” Unfortunately, after that, no matter what they said, they couldn't convince him Granddad was just kidding.

And he was loving, too – oh, yes! Married to my grandmother, Gladys, for more than sixty years and I have rarely seen two people as much in love as the day they met. The stereotypical image of two seniors sitting on a couch holding hands – that sums them up rather neatly. They could say more with a smile and a glance at each other than I could say in a week of typing this out. I can't count the times I would watch a baseball game on TV with the two of them, the three of us saying little, but my happiness at being with them positively palpable. It wasn't because I couldn't find the words – it was because words weren't necessary. Their love for each other shone like the sun: steady, bright, and unwavering forevermore.

Granddad's love showed itself in plenty of other ways, too. He worked overnight to finish up a handmade cradle for the baby Me when my mother went into labor sooner than expected. He played catch and frisbee with me and my brother times without number. He taught me to throw a hook when bowling, although I never got anywhere near as good at it as he was. He tried to teach me golf – I think one of his great disappointments was that I never got the love for the sport that he did. He bought me my first bicycle as a present when I was just a kid. Predictably, I wiped out about an hour later. Granddad's reaction when I came crying into the house, bloody and scraped up from the fall? He exploded –- not at me, but at the bicycle that had dared to hurt his beloved grandson. He promptly went outside and was all set to throw it into the dumpster -– “I'm not going to let this thing hurt him any more!” -– before my mother convinced him to let me give it another shot. Fiercely protective, that was my granddad to a T.

He was a loving father, bringing up my mom with care and wisdom. He nurtured her gentle and sunny spirit, encouraged her love for music and for reading, taught her the compassion and friendliness and warmth that is part of her character to this day. No matter how tired he was after work or after whatever he was doing at home, he was never too busy to listen to her, always available to help her out, always ready with encouraging words and loving kindness.

I'm not going to dwell on the sadness of the last few years, when Granddad lost his beloved wife and his aging body began betraying him. I prefer to remember him as he was almost all the time I knew him: hale and hearty, attacking life every day with inexhaustible energy in his movements and a smile on his face. I could always tell when Granddad was up in the mornings because of the crashing of the dishes out in the kitchen. He just couldn't do anything halfway –- everything was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, give a hundred and fifty percent whether you're making breakfast or plowing a field or giving your grandson a hug. At the age of 90, he was still beating people a quarter his age on the golf course every week.

I learned so much from Granddad. Wisdom, compassion, respect, love, and the principles of inner strength, pride, and indomitable will. He was a wonderful father, grandparent, friend, and a fine example of what others can and should aspire to. He was and is one of my role models. I would be proud if I could call myself a man even a quarter as great as he was.

I miss him already. I will never stop missing him.

I love you, Granddad. Rest in peace.

William Dolan – July 9th, 1912 – January 19th, 2011

[[Myself, Leslie, and Granddad in happier times, circa 2008.]]


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Phil C.

April 2011


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