If you will indulge me, I want to spend a few moments talking about Dad. I’ll start with some of my little sister April’s written thoughts: “Dad was a no-nonsense, hard-working, sincerely loving, genuinely caring, fun filled, God respecting, and humble man.”
He was a humble man….all pun intended. It’s OK to smile about that. We can make jokes about being humble. Just as I’ve endured 25 years of Homer Simpson jokes, Dad bore his share of jokes about being or not being humble. It was made worse by Mac Davis’ hit song in the 70’s, “Oh Lord it’s hard to be Humble, when you’re perfect in any way.” I’m reasonably sure Tony Willingham was the chief culprit behind endless strains of that verse around dad. Someone at the paper mill gave him a hat printed with that verse which he humbly wore for many years.
The humble jokes were eventually replaced by the debut of Jim Varney’s commercials. Most of you remember Jim Varney as Earnest. Remember those commercials? It was years before anyone could end a conversation with dad without closing with “knowutimean, Vern,” or “my daddy used to work on them.”
Dad regaled us with his version of the regular dad catch phrases and some of his own, like: “Money don’t grow on trees.” Or, “Do I look like I’m made of money?” Or, after coming home from a shift at the paper mill and finding all the lights in the house turned on, “Do I smell like I work for Alabama power?”
Long before the terms became educational buzzwords, our introduction into critical thinking and problem solving could be summed up in one of my favorite Dad phrases, “Son, use your head for something besides a hat rack.”
April’s notes expounded on the hardworking attribute: “…whether it was at the paper mill or packing Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes, dad gave his best when performing a task.”
His children, grandchildren and co-workers had ample opportunity to learn from this demonstrated work ethic. To this day his voice echoes in my mind every time I face a long but necessary task, “You can’t look it done, Son.”
His message on personal responsibility, especially to us boys, was also eloquently simple, “You get put in jail, don’t call me. I ain’t gonna get you out.”
As it turns out, I was the only one of the four children that ever got hauled in (I think)…y’all probably didn’t know that about me? And you spent all these years thinking I was the good one.
I was 14, had a brand new motorcycle license and was stopped for passing a car in a double line, no passing zone. In my defense, it was going maybe all of 10 mph and billowed oily smoke all over me. I passed it on a turn and a cop coming from the other direction almost ran over me. Fortunately he didn’t, but he did stop me and make me follow him back to the old Demopolis Police Station and City Jail on the corner across from Elk Food Mart. He took me inside and had me wait on a bench for what seemed like several eternities. All the time I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh God, I’m gonna die in here, my Dad will never bail me out.” Finally the officer took me into what turned out to be the chief of police, Johnny Johnson’s office. Chief Johnson sat there quietly looking at my license and finally asked, “You live over on Strawberry Street?” “Yes Sir.” “…in that big yellow house?” “Yes sir.” “Your dad Vern Humble, works at the paper mill?” “Yes Sir.” “Come on go with me.” He didn’t even have to say it; I knew he was taking me home. “Can’t you just please write me a ticket?” “Nope, your dad will take care of this.” As suspected, Dad took care of it.
We were kids and acted like kids and received discipline like kids should. I can honestly say I never received any punishment that I really didn’t deserve; although, he did actually once accuse my brother Gus of breaking an anvil. Really, I don’t think Gus did it. I’m pretty sure it was forged in China and probably already had a crack in it.
Punishment was always dished out evenhandedly…well most always. I’m not saying he showed favorites, but April is the only one of us that ever really got away with anything. I’m not saying I’m bitter about it, but letting her off easy just because she was in a wheel chair, just didn’t sit right. It’s OK April, we’re all over it now.
It didn’t take the rest of us long before we figured out how to take advantage of Dad’s soft spot for April, or as we called her, “the crippled child.” Don’t judge us, she wasn’t your sister. She was our sister. Like most dads, he hated to make frequent stops when travelling, but we knew he would stop for April. With our bladders about to pop, we would whisper, “April, tell Dad you have to go to the bathroom,” or when hungry, “April, tell Dad you want to go to McDonalds.”
Again, from April’s words; “No nonsense means dad was truthful. He was direct in his way of conveying his thoughts on a matter. You know where you stood with him when he spoke, not bullying, but honest.”
Indeed, one of the things he had little tolerance for in life were thoughtless words, written or spoken. He also prized the economic use of words, their appropriate application and was prone to plan their shock value. This didn’t always win him points, and maybe at times his judgment on when and where to speak in this manner may have been a little skewed, but you knew where he stood when he spoke…and that is exactly as April said, honest.
The words, “not bullying, but honest,” speak volumes. There are those that selfishly never learn this lesson. Displaying empathy and understanding in normal discourse between two human beings regardless of the situation is always a better choice than inflicting nothing more than self, personal will or anger on others. As parents, level headed and selfless communication with those in our charge is a task to which we should all aspire.
April also wrote of Dad, “Sincerely loving and genuinely caring, these attributes go hand in hand. He not only loved people but he cared for them.” April got this one right too. OK, dad was no saint. Few of us are. The L-word never easily rolled from his tongue. But if love’s greatest expression is sacrifice, then its demonstration is not with words but by the active offering of one’s self in caring for and providing for others. There are many examples I could share, but I would like to mention a couple:
An elderly aunt, with whom there was a history of strained family relationships, needed to continue making the long trip back and forth to Mobile for another series of chemo treatments. With her husband too ill to take her, and others unwilling, without hesitation he rearranged his work schedule so he could make sure she could get the care she needed.
As a union leader, he helped to start a program that became a model used by other companies for alcoholic rehabilitation and job preservation for employees with substance abuse problems. I’ve had men come up to me on the streets of this town, men now retired from Gulf States Paper with tears in their eyes tell me, “your daddy saved my job for me.”
I think it is safe to say he had a clear understanding of the difference between simply being sympathetic and truly having and exercising empathy.
April also used the words “fun filled.” His brother, my uncle David said that among the 3 brothers that dad was always the practical joker and instigator of mischief. This is easy enough to understand. He could work for some time on an elaborate practical joke…like the time took an old wine bottle, filled it full of Mad Dog 20/20, re-sealed it, re-labeled it, covered it with dust and old spider webs and gave it as a gift to a friend that had recently taken up wine tasting. The only thing actually funnier than some of his escapades was seeing how many times he could retell the story, how much the tale changed over the years and how much fun he had retelling it.
Dad knew how to enjoy life and didn’t have much respect for those that took life or themselves so seriously that they couldn’t share in the potential for childlike joy for which even the aging human spirit has tremendous capacity.
Perhaps one of his greatest gifts to his children and grandchildren was to both encourage and provide life experiences outside our existing world. Whether it was through whatever travel he could afford to provide us or requiring we use our library cards on a regular basis or sharing his own experiences, his contention was that we understood the world was full of people not just like us. So we traveled.
You have to remember that this was also in a time before the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many state and federal parks or most any place didn’t have wheelchair access to locations and vistas like there are now. Often he picked April up and carried her to the end of the trail to insure she saw the same views and had the same experience as the rest of us. Dad was April’s American’s with Disabilities Act.
Again, April’s words, “God respecting.”
Dad had what I would call a healthy disrespect for both politics and organized religion and, in his words, “…man’s abundant capacity to negatively influence a good idea.” This attitude greatly hindered his ability to comfortably maneuver within the confines of the typical church setting. No one of us can truly know what is in a man’s heart, except partly by their words and mostly by their actions. Like a true intelligent protagonist, over the years his mind began to allow his heart to soften as he saw with his own eyes the actions of some true Christians. The Jesus he knew, respected and accepted into his heart was not necessarily the one preached from a pulpit, but the one demonstrated by some real men of God. Some in this room today and some no longer with us.
His relationship with his heavenly father was never without good, light-hearted thought. Later in life as he began to participate in more church activities, I questioned him about these activities and his motivation behind his participation. He sensed where I was going with the conversation and quoted his lifelong friend and Dean of Adult Education at the University of Alabama, Dr. James Condra, who referred to his increased interest in religious activities later in life as “cramming for finals.”
So, what is the real measure of a man? How do you look at the aggregate actions of a life at its closing and apply value? Human nature is to use a ledger. We all do it. We do it to ourselves. We do it to others. We say this was wrong and that was right. We judge. We Christians are guilty of continuing to place check marks in our mental ledgers about ourselves and others even after accepting Calvary’s negation of any need for the monitoring of someone’s debits or credits. Only when we can completely understand that concept will we ever see the real value of what Jesus did on that cross.
So let’s look at his ledger.
On the debit side Dad didn’t have many real vices to speak about. He did have a tendency to stretch the truth some…especially when telling a story; of course only for poetic license.
He was prone to curse at times…but that usually was for emphasis. However, my brother and I did learn to cuss while with him underneath the hood of a 1963 Oldsmobile. I was well into my first year of grade school in Mrs. Strother’s class at Westside Elementary before I realized my first name wasn’t Damnit.
I suppose his only real vice was fried chicken livers. He liked to go to town and pick Crystal up from school. She tells me they would stop by the BP Station/Bus stop on the corner by the old High School, get an order of fried chicken livers and drive around talking. He always told her, “Now Chrystal, we don’t have to tell grandmother about this.”
I am confident his credit entries are many. Here is a man that loved living life. Gave people the benefit of the doubt regardless of race or creed, offering them ample opportunity to prove that they were worthy of participation in the human race. He married the love of his life and without question adopted, loved and raised her children from a previous marriage as his own.
The proudest memory I have of my brother Gus was when he reached the age when his natural curiosity about his birth father brought him to find and contact him. Later when I questioned Gus about how that episode in his life went, his reply to me was, “Vern Humble is my father.”
When his youngest child was born with difficulty, he made sure she had access to every medical or educational opportunity possible to live life to her full potential and he did it willingly and without complaint.
He worked hard at a hard job for many years to provide for his family. He managed his money well and left an estate to ensure both mother and April are taken care of for the remainder of their lives. He did it every day, willingly and without complaint. If this was all you knew about the man this should be all you need to know to conclude that he completed his journey with his ledger well in the black.
It has been said that the true measure of a man is how he treats those that are not in a position to do anything in return for that treatment. There is plenty of evidence here today in this room that he usually passed that test.
What is the real measure of a man? I’ve attended too many funerals of late and have spent too many hours pondering this question. I truly believe that the real measure of a man can only be gauged by the length, breadth and depth of the space he occupies in the hearts, minds and souls of those remaining on this earth after his final breath.
I can with all confidence say he measured up.