Column – Reflections on a father’s enduring influences
Published 6:20 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2022
I’ve got an important obituary to write — on deadline, of course — but first, some quick reflections on the Rev. Ed Stewart, preacher, veteran, counselor, author and my dad, who left us Sunday at age 88.
An early mentor in column writing gave me sound advice to write rarely about yourself and your family, deferring to topics people care about. It’s served me well. Indulge me this week for one of those rare occasions.
Of life, Dad always said he’d “live to be 100 or die in the attempt.” And what a grand attempt it was, with few opportunities missed along the way.
When we lose our parents, we tend to focus on the ways we were like them. That’s a long list for Dad and me, but I’m struck in recent days’ reflections by the ways we were different.
Dad was, in a word, uninhibited. He’d tell a corny joke to a total stranger, hug (harmlessly, in his uniquely gentle way) a cute waitress he’d just met, share his Christian faith in the grocery store aisle, or don a Santa Claus suit and greet children outside Walmart — not because he was asked or paid to do it but because it was the second Saturday of December, Santa was nowhere to be found, and, well, every kid deserves a wave from Santa. As a kid, I’d regularly be embarrassed by his public displays of joy. Today, I’m thinking life would be more fun if I were a little less inhibited.
Dad was also firm in his convictions, whether about his faith, politics or who should start at quarterback for his favorite football team. Some say that doggedness, on both sides, is the problem in modern politics. I’m sure I’ve written the same in this newspaper. But as one who struggles with the shades of gray in life, I sometimes envied Dad for sleeping soundly at night, never losing a wink over the possibility that the other side just might have a valid point or two.
Though we were more different than alike, Dad instilled in me important life lessons that stuck early and will carry me to my finish line.
If there’s an alternative to hard work, I never knew it. One spring Saturday morning in the ’70s, Dad said to get in the car, “we’re going to TG&Y,” one of several department stores in my hometown of McComb, Mississippi. TG&Y sold toys and bicycles, among other fun stuff, so such a trip was exciting for a 12-year-old.
Instead, we left the store that day with a push mower and a “bargain”: Dad fronted the money for the mower and I would pay him back in installments over the course of the summer from the money I would earn mowing yards. I can’t recall if he charged me interest.
On the way home from the store, Dad stopped the car in front of every house with tall grass so I could knock on the door and ask if the owner wanted the yard cut. I quickly booked enough regular customers to cover the monthly payment to Dad and have some spending money left over.
Dad, like me, was a fierce competitor. Other dads and sons hunted and fished, but we played ball. Did we ever play some ball — baseball, football, tennis, basketball. Had soccer been a thing in the South in the 70s, we’d have played that too.
Our one-on-one driveway hoops games were epic. Most dads let their sons win at least occasionally. Not mine. My record in the “rivalry” was probably zero wins and 200 losses before I beat him for the first time around age 15 and thought I was Larry Bird.
Later in life, he was fierce over the Scrabble board, relishing wins over his wordsmith son. Long past 50, he won his church ping pong tournament with no age divisions. He beat the church’s teenagers in a jump rope contest.
Dad scored his ultimate victory Sunday over the pain and suffering that left him a shadow of his former self in recent weeks. Of all his firm convictions, none was more certain than the eternal life that awaits those who believe.
Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.