Choosing Character

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My father was born in Skiatook, Oklahoma in September of 1923. Skiatook, a town with a funny name, is about twenty miles north and a bit west of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was founded by a chief of the Osage tribe when he opened a trading post there. By 1923, oil had been discovered in the area which is no doubt why my grandparents were living there when my father was born. My grandmother had been working as a cook in a boarding house when my grandfather met her sometime around 1919. Grandma was a widow whose former husband had died in 1918. I have often wondered if he had been a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic of that era but my grandmother never spoke of him one way or another.

Anyway my grandparents were both in their forties when they married and started a family together. They seemed to enjoy living in Oklahoma but my grandfather frequently spoke of the horrific treatment of the native Osage tribe members by most of the whites who had flocked to the area in search of oil. It bothered him that people took advantage of the native people, sometimes purchasing land for the price of a car battery. He would never quite forget how angry it made him feel to see such egregious actions but he generally understood that the world has always had its share of scoundrels and outright evil people. He tended to be rather philosophic about the inevitability of man’s inhumanity to man but insisted that each of us had a duty to be better than those who lacked ethics.

He told lots of stories many of which carried the same theme of character overcoming greed or violence. I suppose that when all was said and done he thought that the world was moving slowly but surely to a better place in spite of its imperfections. He pointed to ordinary heroes who had impacted his life, like the uncle from West Point whom he chose for his guardian when he was essentially orphaned at the age of thirteen. Grandpa picked the military man because he “was honorable.” High moral character along with compassion for others was incredibly important to my grandfather and throughout his lifetime he always strove to model the traits that he so admired in others. I suppose that many of my own philosophies were greatly influenced by my Grandpa’s example.

My grandfather told me about a terrible depression at the end of the nineteenth century and how a man named Coxey protested by traveling across the United States on his way to Washington D.C. Along his march he was joined by hundred of people suffering from unemployment, homelessness and hunger. Coxey and his “army” passed through Grandpa’s childhood town and he remembered how thin and careworn they looked. He wanted to go with them but he was just a boy and his grandmother insisted that he stay home. 

Grandpa often told stories of people who lived in poverty and the folks who helped them. He spoke of the smallpox epidemic that almost killed his relatives. He remembered Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. Many of his most often told tales was about how he had learned to be frugal and adapt to difficulties. Virtually every life event that he described involved an individual who was remarkably devoted to understanding and helping others. 

He had many heroes both famous and ordinary and he urged me to learn from them just as he had. When I graduated from the eighth grade he gave me a book entitled Great Lives, Great Deeds suggesting that I pattern my own life after people who were generous of spirit and determination. I don’t think he ever knew that he was the hero who would most impact the way I think and live. 

Grandpa walked to the polls to vote in every election even after he turned a hundred years old. He had given his car away years earlier because he felt that old people driving around after a certain age were dangerous. He liked walking because it gave him an opportunity to exercise and he never missed an opportunity to vote. His measuring stick for choosing one candidate over another had as much to do with moral character as stances on issues. He insisted that a man or woman who was boastful or unkind was not the sort to whom we should give power. He voted for the best man mostly on his observations of how he treated others. Grandpa could not abide with anyone like those he had seen taking advantage of the members of the Osage tribe in Skiatook and he said that far too often such scalawags ended up in positions of power that were dangerous to the rest of us. He voted from candidates as diverse as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan both of whom he admired for their compassionate natures. His heroes were Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt both men who were unafraid to do what was right and just.

My grandfather and grandmother were good folk. Neither of them ever had much money or many possessions but they were happy with their lives. They were loving parents who raised good children. They were particularly proud of my father who not only graduated from high school but also earned a college degree. My daddy read as voraciously as Grandpa and devoured historical tracts with relish that he would then discuss with his father. They were a remarkable team and their impact on me has been immeasurable. 

As I make an important decision regarding how I will vote in the next election I clearly hear my grandfather’s voice. I believe that he would lean toward the man who is modest and genuine which in my mind is Joe Biden. As a matter of fact Biden is much like my grandfather. He is rather humble and unassuming, quietly compassionate. Grandpa would no doubt think that Biden is a fine young man. My grandfather’s folksy lessons taught me so much and his nuggets of wisdom have never steered me wrong. I feel confident that he continues to guide me to choose character.  


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