Jack Woodward would have turned 92 today. Here is the eulogy I wrote about my father. Please excuse more typos than usual. It’s a hard document for me to edit.
To understand the kind of life Jack Woodward lived, all you had to do was look him in the face. He wasn’t born with that nose, that indomitable schnauz — he earned it the hard way, one punch at a time. And the dentures? He didn’t lose his teeth all at once, but he lost his top front pair just after boot camp, catching a bar stool across the mouth. The big wrinkles were chiseled by 87 years, the fine wrinkles from smoking nearly as long. His workingman’s tan never quite faded. But the thing I always noticed, and will remember most, was his lopsided grin.
Dad had Bell’s Palsy, a form of facial paralysis. Basically, one day the muscles on one side of his face didn’t work as well as they should; one half of his face drooped, a bit like the side effect of a stroke. It changed his appearance significantly, made it look like he was perpetually scowling. With time, the affect receded, but the palsy was always there if you looked for it. His smile was raised up high on one side, low on the other. On most guys, it would come off as sarcastic, a smirk. On Jack, it was rakish and sly.
It was a smile that had to overcome adversity just to be seen.
It was half a smile that did twice the work.
It was the smile of an optimist.
And that’s what my father was, at heart. Not an instant optimist. Not a grin and bear it optimist. Not a prepared for a rainy day optimist. He was an optimist … eventually. Give him a minute to catch his breath. Allow him to sleep on it. Let him forget about it for a while. Then, sure as sunrise, he’d come around.
“Things ain’t so terrible,” I heard him say more than once.
“We had it worse before.”
“We’ll figure out something.”
You could hear that resolve when he talked about his Yooper childhood. He was born in Marquette in 1925, and from his stories, his youth can best be summarized as part Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, part Grapes of Wrath. Working as a kid. Hungry far too often. Life shared with some hard customers. Dropping out of school.
If a man had cause to bellyache about his childhood, he did. But he didn’t, or at least not much. He had a knack for making good times, too. Hunting for dinner. Making it rain crayfish. Walking with his pit bull. Picnic rock. His sisters and his brother.
If you ever sat with him at a kitchen table, no doubt you heard one or two stories about his early days. He told me once about how he worked all day picking crops on a farm. At suppertime, however, there was nothing to eat. He was maybe seven, eight years old. Desperately hungry, he went to the farmhouse and begged for something to eat. The woman gave him a peanut butter and lard sandwich. When he told me that story, I remember how sorry I felt for that hardscrabble kid, but Dad just smiled, a look of contentment remembering that moment. Peanut butter and lard. It was the best sandwich he ever ate.
“You got to take the good with the bad,” he’d say.
“Luck like this can’t last forever, can it?”
“It’ll come around.”
Dad went off to war, served in the Army Air Corp. He was always proud of his service, but he never bragged of it. He came home, met and married Mom, had us kids. He didn’t go to college or graduate high school, but he worked hard—moving furniture, factory labor, driving trucks. Dad’s dad used to say, “A farting horse will never tire, and a farting man is the man to hire.”
If that’s the case, Jack Woodward was definitely the man you’d want to hire.
Or my brother, Steve.
Life still had its ups and downs for Dad and the family. I can’t let his passing be an excuse to omit the obvious—he had a very rough start in life, but the old man called trouble down on himself. You don’t get in as many bar fights as he did without, one, spending too many nights in bars, and two, sticking out your chin to every guy who crossed your path.
It wasn’t until midway through his life that he stopped causing problems for himself, or well not nearly as much. He drank more coffee. Fished and deer hunted. He built the office in the garage. He bought a motorcycle, gardened, worked in stained glass. Retired up north. Beat cancer twice. Mom and Dad moved to Wisconsin, and he enjoyed living in Plymouth, even though you can’t get good fish there. They overcook it. You just can’t get good fish in Wisconsin, you just can’t.
In the years after Mom passed, Dad became the sweet old man. He mellowed even more, enjoyed the quiet, the security of his pension, and relatively good health. He kept his curiosity about life, about learning, about doing something. And he never stopped looking for the bright side. Even after being in the hospital for almost two months, he still expected to return to a normal life. Even in his last hours, and he knew that those were his last hours, when asked by the nurse how he was feeling, he responded as he always did—“I’m doing good, real good.” And he meant it.
So be glad, everyone. Jack Woodward had it good, real good. He saw the world. He raised a family. He raised some hell. He lived far longer than he probably should have, and was as sharp as he ever was right until the end. Dad never grew tired of life, he only grew tired of being sick.
And if that doesn’t take away some of the ache, if your heart still feels raw and abused, then let me give you advice given to me on more than one occasion.
Don’t you go being sad. This? This ain’t half so bad. Things are going to change, you’ll see. Besides, look how far we’ve come. We’re almost there. We’ll make it. We always do.