My Dad (also named Jack Pelham) died at the age of 85 on November 24, 2019. It was my privilege to have been invited to speak at his funeral. I’m writing this post to share my remarks for those who could not attend. What follows is a mixture of my intended comments, which I had pre-written, and at least a little bit of my memory of what I actually said. Even if it is not an exact copy of my remarks that day, I am certainly proud to post it as a tribute to Dad, and I look forward to posting other memories and thoughts as they come over time.
It’s such a joy to see so many here today to celebrate Dad’s
life. I’m sure I speak for all my family
when I thank you for coming. Indeed, I’m
sure I can safely speak for Dad, too, because I know he loved gatherings of
friends and family. I’ve heard him say
many times at such a gathering, “It doesn’t get any better than this!”
Since he died, I’ve followed the outpouring on Facebook, where I’ve read many statements such as, “He was a good man”, or “…a great man”, or “He was a great educator” or “….a great principal”. And even greater than those comments are the special Dad stories that still stand out to people after all these years. And I’d like to share a couple of special Dad stories from my own memory.
Now I hope you’ll just bear with me if I should get a little choked up during this. I have some great things to share about Dad, and it seemed worth the risk of cracking up a little bit in order to share them, rather than to have somebody else read it to you. Just so you know, when I get choked up, it normally lasts about 3 or 4 seconds, and then I’m back on track. But if it should get out of hand today, I have my dear son James on stand-by to come read the remainder of this to you.
What I’d like to share today is just a tiny sampler of what all I’m thankful for about Dad. Surely, he did many more things for us than I have yet to perceive, and I could write a book about what all I did notice, and still not have room to tell it all. So today, I thought I’d just focus very narrowly on two or three things that I remember—special moments, or special things about Dad, or about our relationship that have influenced my own life, and even the lives of others that I’ve been able to pass them onto so far.
The first things I want to share concern my brief, 2-year career in Cub League Baseball, where I played Centerfield, mostly, for Coach Lee Vause and the Cubs. I was an adequate fielder, but at bat, I had suffered some early embarrassment at striking out, so I had made that most regrettable decision that the best strategy for me was simply not to swing, and to take my chances that the average Cub League pitcher is simply incapable of throwing three strikes in one at-bat. I walked to first base often, but I was also struck-out frequently. And I have two stories about this.
The first one is about fairness.
One day we had a game scheduled at a park on Magnolia Drive, and the umpire didn’t show up. To keep the game from being canceled, Dad volunteered to serve as the umpire. And when it came my time to bat, up to the plate I go, determined as usual not to swing. Unfortunately, the opposing team had a better-than-average pitcher, and it fell to Dad to call me out on strikes that day—and probably more than once, if memory serves. Years later, he would tell me “that was one of the hardest things I ever did, to call you out”, but he knew that it was right to be fair and impartial, no matter the situation. And I think that this is one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned in life. And what better example of that lesson than that gray and cloudy day on that baseball field. And as a parent today, I can share from my own experience that you never know when your kid might just catch you doing something right, and learn a great life-lesson from it!
But that was not the end of my baseball career. I went on into a second season, where Dad’s frustration at my no-swinging policy continued to grow. As we’d get to the park early to practice a bit, he would push again and again for me to “Just swing the bat”, but I was afraid I’d miss, just as I had done what seemed to me like a million times before. He would push by saying “Just TRY it!” and I’d push back silently by standing there swing-less as each practice pitch would go by. At length, though, he would win that pushing match. One day, before a game at Leonard Wesson Elementary, he got me to take a swing at a practice pitch and I managed to tip the ball. And it was then that something just clicked inside me. In the game that followed I hit a single and a stand-up triple, with two RBIs for the day. And from there, I would go on to be a fine switch hitter in softball in my high-school years. I never learned to hit them over the fence like some of my classmates could, but I could generally get on base and bat in some runs.
But what if he had quit pushing before I was done pushing
back? I would be a different man from
who I am today—less courageous and confident, and likely about more things
than just baseball.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Now I want to talk about humor. We had a lot of that between us—a lot of running jokes that lasted for years—silly things that nobody else would understand. And humor has become a major part of my life, and of the collective life of my own family. So, when I tried to think of what story to tell, many episodes came to mind, but I settled on this particular story because it involves his days at Wakulla High School, and it involves Frank Jones, whom many of you will remember as a teacher in the social studies department.
Now, to set the stage for this story, I have to remind you that those were, in some ways, very different times than today, and some things that might strike some today as shocking were then commonplace.
Back in Dad’s first year at Wakulla, when he was a Social Studies teacher, it seems that Frank Jones had made some manner of a trade with a student, involving a double-barreled shotgun. After acquiring the shotgun, Frank stood it up in the corner of the Social Studies office at the High School, wrapped in a sheet, as I recall. And there it stayed for weeks—even after multiple mentions from the other teachers that he really ought to take it home. So, as the nagging from the others mounted, and as Frank’s procrastination managed to keep pace with the nagging, Dad sensed that the time was right to strike.
I can’t remember whether he had an accomplice or not, but here’s what I do remember. Dad took the shotgun, and with wire and screws, attached it to the underside of Frank’s desk. Their desks consisted of a pair of two-drawer filing cabinets on either side, with long stretches of countertop laying across them. So, Dad attached the shotgun such that it would literally be right in Frank’s lap every time he sat at his desk.
Naturally, it was soon discovered that the shotgun was
missing from the corner where it had stood, and to no one’s surprise, Frank was
somewhat perturbed about it. He knew
that someone had taken it, and as I recall the story, Dad pretended to be
Frank’s ally in the ordeal, asking him questions, as if to be trying to help
solve the mystery. After some days,
however, Frank had become sufficiently tortured over the whole thing that Dad
thought it best to have someone deliver a note to Frank while all the Social
Studies teachers were present with him in the office. The note said, “Look under your desk.”
And Frank did look. And there was the shotgun. And everybody laughed—everyone except Frank, possibly. And that was that.
But as the office eventually cleared out such that just Dad and Frank were left, Dad said, “You know, you really ought to take that shotgun right now and lock it up in your trunk so nobody can get to it again.” And Frank said, “That’s a good idea!” and he marched out immediately with the shotgun to lock it up in his trunk.
Little did he know that when Dad had borrowed his car a day earlier to run down to Pigott’s Cash & Carry, Dad had had a copy of Frank’s trunk key made. After Frank had put the shotgun in the trunk, and went off to teach a class, Dad went out with his new key and got the shotgun out of the trunk. He took it back into the Social Studies office and attached it again under Frank’s desk, where it had been before.
Meanwhile, Frank thought nothing of the gun for a few weeks until a shopping trip provided the occasion for opening his trunk again. It occurred to him when he opened the trunk at home to remove the groceries, that he should get the shotgun out and take it inside. But it wasn’t there. And so began another round in the case of the missing shotgun.
Now, I don’t remember how the story ended after that point, but this is certainly enough to illustrate the depths of Dad’s commitment to humor. And that’s one of the richest things takeaways that I got from being raised in Dad’s company. And now as a Dad, I have with James a similar relationship when it comes to the humor part, and it’s one of the most enjoyable things in my life. And I think on what a great gift it is to know humor. It reminds me of the lyrics to one of James Taylor’s songs, which says, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” The humor certainly helps with that.
There are probably hundreds of such stories about Dad, and I hope that we’ll hear some of them from you all today as we have opportunity throughout the day to visit.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to sum up an 85-year life in one speech. Surely, each of us is made up of much more than can be recounted in such a short time. No, I think that it would take years of reflection to put a finger on all the good that he did for us, and on all the things about him that were especially noteworthy or memorable. And similarly, though we may all say “goodbye” to Dad today, I don’t think that that’s a task that can be accomplished fully in one day, either. I think we’ll be saying goodbye for years to come, just as our friends and family who have lost their dads are still saying goodbye, and still realizing the blessings that came to them through their dads’ lives.
The generations come and go. It has always been thus. And we have come to this point, where we see it happen to us. And even with the pain, life is very good. And now it falls to us to take what is good, and to pass it on to others.
Thank you all again for being here today.