Sunday, June 2, 2013
A Lifetime of Teaching - Lessons from my oldest brother, Gene
If I say the word, teacher, many of you would think of someone who instructs classes at a school or university. Many people in my family are or were teachers. One of the most memorable and effective teachers in my life, was my brother, Gene, who earned his living in the trucking industry, rather than the classroom.
A few years ago, in February, my sister and her husband, my brother, Gene and my 2 daughters and I went to North Carolina to surprise my brother, Gary, on his 60th birthday. Gene asked my daughters how they would continue their school lessons while we were on this trip. They told him that they were learning all the time, and Gene said, "I see." Soon, he started to tell them about his days as a long distance truck driver, and how he had driven through this same area, where we were traveling, many, many times. Suddenly, he held up one finger, and shouted, "History lesson #1" and then proceeded to tell the girls about a Civil War battlefield that was "just on the other side of that hill." Gene was an excellent storyteller and his 5 minute history lesson was fascinating.
As we drove through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, Gene shared many history lessons, telling us about famous landmarks, historic figures and the names of several mountains, as well as taking us to the most scenic places to view the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The girls and I loved it!
After celebrating Gary's birthday, and spending a few fun days in North Carolina, we were ready to head for Ohio. As soon as we got in the car, both girls began begging, "Uncle Gene, will we have more history lessons on the way home?" So, all the way back to Ohio, Gene not only shared some new lessons, but also, asked them to tell him what they remembered about several of the locations that had been part of the earlier trip's lessons, and he did it in a way that was fun and interesting.
As we sat and talked with Gene during his final days, those history lessons were mentioned many times, and each time, others who were visiting would ask, "What history lessons are you talking about?" And the girls and their favorite uncle would tell the story of that memorable trip to North Carolina.
Hearing them talk, I was reminded that our lives are filled with teachers. Nearly everyone we meet has a lesson to teach us. Some teach us math or history. Others may teach us to play music or to appreciate art. Some teach us patience or courage. There are infinite lessons for us to learn.
As in school, teachers we meet do not all use the same methods to teach their lessons. We may learn patience from someone who is infinitely patient, or our teacher may be someone who annoys us to such a degree that we must learn patience, or explode from frustration.
As I thought about these things, I realized that Gene had been teaching people all of his life, and in those last weeks, as he rested in his recliner at his home, his students came to thank him for all that he had shared. Many times, the family room was filled to capacity with friends and family, all eager to let Gene know how much they appreciated all that he had done to help them during their lives. Again and again, I heard people say, "I hope that I can be like you." Gene taught with love and kindness and led by example.
After high school, Gene had enlisted in the U. S. Army, and was sent to Korea. I was born during his tour of duty there. We were 20 years apart in age. When he came home, he began driving truck for Sugarcreek Cartage, a trucking company whose main cargo at that time was bricks. He delivered bricks in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New York, Indiana and Illinois.
Our cousin, Wayne, was Gene's best friend. They grew up on neighboring farms and remained best friends throughout their lives. Wayne delivered the eulogy at Gene's funeral. He told of the time, he and his wife and 3 small children had gone to Chicago, in a car that should never have been taken more than 20 miles from home. As they were traveling on one of Chicago's huge multi-lane highways, the axle broke, and miraculously, Wayne was able to steer the car to an exit ramp and then to a gas station at the end of the ramp. Wayne said he was "poor as a churchmouse" and didn't know what to do, so he called Gene. Gene told Wayne that he was just leaving for Pennsylvania with a load of bricks, but if Wayne could get his brother, Dean, to drive to Chicago to bring them home, Gene would figure out what to do about the car. When Gene finished delivering the load of bricks to Wilkes-Barre in eastern Pennsylvania, he drove his empty truck to Chicago to pick up Wayne's car. Someone loaded it on Gene's semi-trailer, and he brought it back to Wayne's hometown, so that a local mechanic could make the repairs. When the car was finally unloaded in Holmes County, Gene looked at Wayne, and said, "Well, wasn't that fun!"
There was seldom a situation so dire that Gene could not find something humorous in it. He loved to tell jokes and stories, and to make "smart remarks." He would never say anything to hurt anyone. He knew which people, he could "wisecrack" with and who would be offended or hurt. He and my oldest daughter, Kylia, loved to trade wisecracks with each other. On that wonderful trip to North Carolina, we happened to watch the movie, "Ice Age." Gene, not much of a fan of animated movies, wrinkled his brow, and said, "You would think they could have made those animals look more realistic." Kylia shrugged her shoulders, and replied with a smirk, "I wasn't around then, so I wouldn't know what they actually looked like." Gene just shook his head and smiled. He loved being on the receiving end of a wisecrack as much as he enjoyed coming up with them himself.
Gene was never afraid to try new things, and he learned from everything he tried, and everyone he met. At one time, he thought he wanted to get out of the trucking business, so he partnered with a former high school classmate and they bought a gas station. Unfortunately, the friend disappeared with the money after a few months in business and Gene was left with the bills. It took him several years to pay them, but he did it, and he never complained. He always talked about the lessons he learned during that experience, and never held a grudge against the man who took his money. My mom had a much more difficult time forgiving, and Gene would just laugh and say, "Well, he must have needed that money more than I did. It's OK. It was a good experience."
Gene returned to the business he knew best and loved most... trucking. He soon became acquainted with a man who would become his greatest teacher, Howard LeFevre. Howard was one of the owners of B&L Trucking in Newark, Ohio. B&L was one of the largest trucking companies in the eastern United States. Howard and Gene liked each other from the very beginning. Howard shared all that he knew about the trucking industry, and Gene was an eager student. With Howard's encouragement, guidance and support, Gene and his wife, Sue, started their own truck leasing company.
They were a great team. It's often difficult for a husband and wife to get along during their time together at home, but Gene and Sue worked together all day, then went home together. This type of business did not have regular hours. They put in 50-60 hours each week at the office, and when they were at home, they were on call for all of their drivers, and all of their business clients, coordinating delivery times, solving problems with tariffs, truck repairs, traffic tickets and more. They were a great team. Often they disagreed, and after a brief discussion, one of them would say something funny, and put everything in perspective. They loved and respected each other.
Six years ago, Sue learned that she had cancer. Gene taught us lessons of kindness, compassion and support, as he cared for her. He would go to work very early in the morning, and then to the hospital, cellphone/radio in hand, to spend the day with Sue, and handle business when there was time. Sue was always the top priority. Business took a back seat, but the drivers who drove for his leasing company knew that they could reach him if they needed him.
During the time of Sue's illness, our mother, age 94, was also experiencing failing health. Whenever Sue felt well enough to travel, Gene would bring her to visit our mother. My mom and Sue were great friends, and Gene made sure they had time to chat and to do things together that they enjoyed.
Gene taught all of us how important it is to learn as much as possible about our health care, and not rely totally on others to handle things. He always told us that Sue had wonderful nurses and doctors, but with the volume of work they must handle, there is always the possibility of error. Sue had a number of allergies. She had extreme reactions to latex, and also, to a number of drugs. Although her room was clearly labeled "NO LATEX" on more than one occasion, a busy health care worker came in with latex gloves or latex tubing or a blanket that had a binding that contained latex. Gene was vigilant, and nearly always noticed before it reached Sue. On one occasion, a prescription was written for a drug that Sue could not tolerate. The doctor had used the brand name of the drug on the prescription. In the past, Sue had reacted to the generic version. Luckily, Gene had done the research and recognized that it was the drug that had caused the allergic reaction. At first, the doctor was sure that Gene was mistaken about the drug, but upon checking his records, he discovered that Gene was correct, and changed the prescription.
Before Sue and our mother had been ill, Gene and Sue would make the 1½ hour drive to the retirement home each weekend. They always took my mother to a restaurant that she enjoyed, and then Gene would take them on a scenic drive. Sometimes they went to the farm where my mother was born. Other times, they might go to Gene and Sue's home in Newark, or to visit cousins, or if it was near Christmas time, they would drive to Oglebay Resort, in Wheeling, West Virginia to see the huge Festival of Lights.
When his daughter-in-law, Donna, developed breast cancer, Gene drove to Florida, every month to visit her, and called her nearly every day. When Donna's cancer went into remission, Gene's cancer was diagnosed, and Donna and Kevin, (Gene's son) were the first ones at Gene's side. When Gene was doing well, Donna's cancer returned, and Gene once again headed for Florida. This time, things were more serious, and he visited her each week. If anyone suggested that he take a week off to rest, he would say, "I'm fine." Donna was the top priority.
After Donna's death, Gene went to Florida each month to visit Kevin, who was struggling to come to terms with Donna's passing. Gene listened, encouraged and lovingly advised Kevin on ways to cope. He would spend a week with Kevin and then come home for a few weeks, before heading back to Florida. He taught us that it is possible to survive the most difficult challenges, if we have the loving support of family and friends.
Gene knew how to listen. When my car was totaled in a winter accident a few years ago, Gene gave me his van. He brought it to Akron. It was freshly vacuumed, washed and waxed. Gene's, vehicles from his eighteen wheelers to his pontoon boat to his lawn mower, were always bright and shiny. As we sat in the van, reviewing all of the van's features, Gene said, "You know, many family members think that you should put the girls in school, and get a regular job instead of homeschooling them and running your own business. It might make things easier for you." With tears in my eyes, I explained that there had been so many changes in our lives that year (my mother and Sue had passed away, Gary and his family had moved to North Carolina and we had left the only home the girls had ever known and moved to Akron) and putting them in school seemed as though it would be the "straw that broke the camel's back." I told Gene that I knew that I had made many mistakes in my life, but that homeschooling the girls was the one thing that I felt sure was a good decision. Gene listened carefully, and then said, "OK. I'll never mention this again, and I will do whatever I can to help you do this." I will be forever grateful to Gene for listening and for his support. He kept his word.
Gene never seemed to worry, even in dire circumstances. Instead, he looked at the situation, and took whatever steps he could. He made plans, but he was always willing to change them, if another approach seemed better. Throughout the many challenges he faced during his lifetime, he remained positive. He said that as far as he could tell, worrying never helped anyone solve anything.
He stood by his family and friends in good times and in bad. His five sons shook their heads as they thought of times in their teen years, when they had been in trouble. He was a strict but loving father, and they remembered how he had made sure they faced the consequences of their unthinking actions. They, also, remembered how they often thought they had fooled him, but they learned later, they never had. And no matter how angry he was at the things they had done, they knew that he loved them.
At Gene's funeral, my brother, Gary said that if he had to use one word to describe Gene, he would say it was "giving." Gene gave of his time, his love, his money, and so much more. He gave without expecting anything in return.
When Sue died five years ago, he told anyone who would listen not to put off doing the things you want to do. He and Sue had planned to do many things when they retired, but she passed away before they had done very many of them. He decided to do as many things as he could with his 5 sons. One of the things they wanted to do was go white water rafting. At 72, Gene was a little nervous, but he was never one to shy away from trying something new. They had a great time on the trip, although Gene was tossed out of the raft in a very rough section, and nearly drowned. Everyone was very scared, and wished they hadn't suggested going, but when Gene was rescued, he first admitted that it was very scary and then he proceeded to tell them exactly what it was like in that rough river. He turned it into a hilarious tale, easing the tension and making them glad that they had gone. Every outing with their dad was an adventure to remember.
When he learned that his cancer had returned, he told us that he planned to take one day at a time. He said he still had a lot of things on his list that he wanted to do, and he would do as many as he could. After his first chemo treatment, he called his doctor to find out if it was OK for him to travel. His doctor said that they had used a form of chemo that was not as harsh, and that it would probably be fine. Gene answered, "Good, because I'm at the airport getting ready to fly to Florida to see my sons."
When he returned from that trip, he was noticeably weaker, but he still managed to do a little golfing with his good friend, Dwayne. Within days, he was too weak to leave his house. He maintained a positive attitude throughout his illness. His trademark sense of humor was intact. Friends came and went constantly. He refused to sleep if anyone was there, because he didn't want to miss anything or anyone. He continued to teach from his recliner in the family room. During his lifetime of teaching, his lessons included: honesty, determination, forgiveness, true friendship, trustworthiness, acceptance, knowing what was important in life, thoughtfulness, learning every day, counting his blessings, great courage and love. And that is why so many said, "I want to be like Gene."
I hope that each of you have a Gene in your life!