Normally, on a day like today, after many of America’s so-called “leaders” have decided to perpetuate fear and xenophobia across the country in the wake of the attacks in Paris and Beirut, I couldn’t resist tearing into their despicable behavior. You see, my brain has this incessant need to lambast spineless, irrational numbskulls charading as politicians. Most days, I just can’t help myself.
But not today. Today, on the day of my grandfather’s funeral, I’m going to honor his legacy by focusing on a good person that left an indelible mark on this world. It’s easy to forget about the good because the news is so often flooded with the bad. But, by example, my grandpa taught me to focus on people. Get to know people, and you’ll find that most people are good. So, Grandpa, here’s to more people getting to know you, as you were a man worth knowing.
My larger-than-life grandfather, Willard C. Holm, passed away on Sunday. As his grandchild, I viewed him as the Andrew-Carnegie-John-D.-Rockefeller of the Goodhue County, Minnesota road construction business. He was a larger-than-life character to me, a man who served in the Army and was stationed in Japan. A man with a wife and 12 kids who had Twins’ season tickets and saw Willie Mays play, in person, back in 1951 when Mays played AAA ball for the Minneapolis Millers. A man whose business occupied prime real estate on the edge of town, a man who had the foresight to buy up the land which the small town would eventually need to buy from him in order to expand. A man who bought scotch by the case (Cutty Sark, to be precise), and ordered my sister to “Put some god-damn meat on these burgers!”
While these are fun facts that enhance his larger-than-life persona, I realize they don’t necessarily mean “Grandpa Willy” was a good person. One might even assume that a good person wouldn’t have been so successful in business. But Grandpa, all-American entrepreneur, had a sharp mind and a Paul Bunyan-sized heart. And I have two stories to share that exemplify both sides of this venerable man.
Grandpa loved to golf. He and my grandma had golf memberships at the local Zumbrota golf course, and they wintered in Arizona, where they played golf all the time. In 2004, I was fortunate enough to visit Grandpa and Grandma in Arizona, and it was the weekend of the Masters tournament. At the time, Phil Mickelson was the talented-but-enigmatic-loser, a great golfer best known for having never won any of the major tournaments.
On this weekend, Mickelson was in contention. He was tied for the lead after 54-holes, and the golf world was abuzz: would Mickelson finally break through after so many missed opportunities, or would his risky play again be his downfall? Grandpa Willy, speaking like he was reciting a fact from an encyclopedia, predicted Mickelson needed to shoot a 69 on Sunday in order to win.
Sunday afternoon rolled in, and Mickelson was locked in a duel with Ernie Els on the back nine. After Els shot an incredible 67 to put the pressure on, Mickelson needed a birdie on 18 to win his first Major. After landing his approach shot 18 feet from the hole, Mickelson stared down the biggest putt of his life, a putt that would win the Masters. He sank the putt, giving him a 1-shot victory over Els. His final-round score? 69.
It wasn’t the last time Grandpa would prove prescient.
A few years later, I introduced my girlfriend to Grandpa. Grandpa had 46 grandchildren, so to expect him to take any special interest in me, let alone my new girlfriend, wasn’t realistic. My girlfriend was unique, though, a brown-skinned, brown-eyed beauty whose parents grew up in Bangladesh. Looking back, knowing Grandpa was a charmer, I probably should have realized he would take an interest in her. Grandpa chatted her up for a few minutes, learning about her and her family and making her feel genuinely special. As matter-of-fact as he was about Mickelson needing a 69 to win, Grandpa looked me in the eyes and declared, “She’s a keeper.”
A few years later, we were married.
Maybe Grandpa was lucky those days. Maybe he predicted other winning golf scores that turned out to be wrong, and maybe he told others that they were keepers but they didn’t end up married to my cousins. None of that really matters. What mattered to me, and what mattered to my wife, was the genuine interest that he showed in her that day, and that he kept showing in her until the day that he died, which happened to be on his wedding anniversary.
Last November, my mother-in-law died (she was an amazing person herself, and someone I’ve been trying to write about ever since). In June, my wife and I saw Grandpa for a few minutes. Despite his declining health and his almost overwhelming number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he remembered how to connect with my wife. I don’t know how – maybe it was because he lost his wife, too – but somehow, 88-year-old Grandpa remembered to sincerely ask: “How is your dad holding up?”
There was a tone of recognition and understanding in his voice that I can’t adequately describe. He reached out to hold her hand when he spoke, and there was something about the way he looked and sounded that quickly melted us. With a simple question, Grandpa communicated that he knew it was a difficult time for her dad, and that he genuinely cared not only about her dad, but about her. That ability to connect with people, regardless of circumstance, is what made Grandpa so special.
So while the world continues to teeter on what feels like the edge of insanity most days, I’m going to try to remember there’s a simple way to ground myself in the good that’s all around me. Grandpa taught me that if I talk to people and genuinely show that I care, chances are, I’m going to find myself surrounded by good people, and then maybe the world won’t seem so mad. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll be remembered for the way that I connected with people, too.
Rest in Peace, Grandpa.