I’ve been away for a few days. You see, my Dad passed away last week. So, I’ve been pretty distracted. I wanted to share a little bit about him. As I’ve relived so many stories that reveal the kind of person he was, I realize that putting them into words is virtually impossible. So, I’m going to share the eulogy that I gave at his memorial service. It sums up much of who Dad was to us, his family and close friends. It’s kind of long, nearly 2,500 words, but I think it’s a pretty easy read. I hope that it honors his memory.
Bill was born March 2, 1929 to Tom and Goldi Helbert in Ashland, OH. When Bill was 6, Goldi died from tuberculosis. Tom got remarried to a woman named Ola. Not too many years later, Ola divorced Tom. Tom moved out of state and left Bill to live with his step mother.
Now, this period of his life is kind of hazy because Bill never shared his feelings openly. I think in many ways he was embarrassed. The memories that we were able to pry out of him were not pleasant. He told me of the time he tried out for the school football team. In practice he sustained a hit that caused him to lose some teeth. When he got home, his step mother told him that she was not going to pay for the dental care he needed. Bill had to work in order to raise the money for this. As I was looking through his high school yearbook I noticed that many of the students had long lists of clubs and activities they were part of. In fact, my mom’s list was one of the longest out of all of them. Bill’s? Blank. He was too busy working to have had time for extracurriculars. From the time he was fourteen he worked. He spent time working on a farm where his duties were to care for chickens. In payment, he received food and a bed. He worked for a local grocery in the butcher shop. He got to clean up the mess. He was not afraid to take on any job. He was the product of his generation. Honesty, loyalty, patriotism and faithfulness were characteristics of these folks that were forged in the crucible of depression and war. Hard work was simply a way of life.
He did have time for some fun, though. He and friends would drive up to Ruggles Beach from Ashland. It was there that he began a relationship with a fiery red-head named Marilyn Shanefelter. The two were married in March of 1948. Shortly after he and Mom were married, Bill was at the Ashland Elks club having a beer with his father-in-law and some others. A man who worked for the local draft board told him that his name was going to be selected for the draft. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, he enlisted in the navy. He told me that the recruiter had promised that he would be stationed in San Diego. So, of course, he wound up in Norfolk, VA. As with everything else in his life, Bill energetically applied himself to his duties. He served on a troop transport sailing between Greenland and Cuba carrying troops for training and other duties during the Korean conflict. He was honorably discharged in 1953.
After Dad got out of the navy, he found a job in Elyria at the Chronicle Telegram. Soon after, they moved to a house in Elyria, and then to the house we grew up in here in Avon Lake. Mom and Dad were unable to have children. So, in 1955 they adopted me, even though I was considered ‘handicapped’ because of a birthmark I had on my face. Then, in 1960, Dave was added to the family. We were welcomed into their home and loved much, probably more, than any natural child. We were not flesh and blood, but we became family because that is what Marilyn and Bill wanted. With one mind they poured themselves into the two of us. Together, we were the Helberts…period.
He would take me to work with him sometimes on Saturday. He would set me up with a pair of scissors and some samples of things they had printed, mostly pictures of cranes, and I would cut out the pictures and generally make a mess.
Our first home was near Lake Erie. One time I was down by the lake playing. I noticed a fairly large school of fish rippling the surface. I ran home to tell Dad to get his fishing pole and come down. Well, he said that he was busy at the moment. So, disappointed, I went back to the lake. A few minutes later I looked up and here came Bill with his fishing gear. (I suspect Mom had something to do with his change of heart.) He cast out and within minutes we had a bucket full of white bass. He then said that they were pretty small, so he released them. But, that was OK. Because as far as I was concerned, Dad had come through.
Dad did have a love of fishing. We would regularly take trips to look for the biggest and baddest fish that could be found. One time, Dave had gone with Dad and Mom to Canada to fish. Bill caught the biggest largemouth bass that he had ever seen. With great pride, Dad put it on a stringer and put it in the water. After a time, they decided to move on to another location. So, Dad fired up the motor and down the river they went. As they were cruising, Dave happened to notice the stringer skimming on top of the water. He told Dad, who stopped the boat and pulled in the empty stringer. Oh, the loss! The look on Dad’s face was priceless.
Over the years Bill tried various types of hobbies and activities. My earliest memories of these were of him building model airplanes. He spent hours attending to every detail. He made sure that the wheels and props were painted accurately. Every decal was meticulously applied. The wheels and props turned and the flaps flapped. We would have them on display here today if it wasn’t for the fact that I tried to make them fly. He tried out model railroading for a while. He played volleyball, tennis and golf. He and mom played cards and dominoes with friends. He filled his days with activities with others.
He was a regular guy. He was unpretentious. As a manager at the Lorain Printing Co., he never acted like a ‘boss.’ He treated everyone with equal respect. He continued to treasure the friendships that he had made there. It was not uncommon for his coworkers to refer to him as an Ashland Hillbilly. I think that part of the reason for that may have been because of some of the things that he would say. We have affectionately named these things “Billy Tisms.” Here are some examples:
When something worked easily: it was Slicker’n owl shit To the person who stole pennies from his desk: May you live to be 100 and never shit When it was raining hard: The rain’s coming down like a cow pissing on a flat rock After a few beers: I gotta pee like a racehorse When something went wrong: Oh, bat shit! When someone offered something Bill didn’t think much of: I wouldn’t hit a big bull in the ass with a banjo for that About that piano player: he’s good at playing the cracks. (between the keys) About food: I’ll eat anything that doesn’t eat me first! About another person who is confused: He doesn’t know if he’s a foot or horseback When someone poked his belly: Ow! That’s nothing but mainsprings and rubber bands! When the dog has jumped up on him: Nope, 4 on the floor! When things don’t work out just right: Balls! And one that he told me many times when I was growing up: If you don’t have something good to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.
Bill continued to work into his 70s…until his memory and Mom’s health began to fail. Dad was fiercely devoted to his family. At the white hot center of that devotion was Marilyn. She was his joy and his strength. She was the queen of his world. He trusted her to love him and was faithful to her like no one else I’ve ever known. Dave and I were talking and neither of us can remember a time when there were raised voices between them. Every day when he got home from work, Marilyn greeted him with a kiss. His loyalty to her was incredible. There are some in this room who have experienced Bill’s loyalty. If anyone spoke ill of Marilyn, or tried to get into ‘our business’ he would react…well…with gusto. Sometimes, that would even be directed at Dave or me. If we caused Mom trouble, Bill would not hesitate to adjust our attitude.
We watched as Mom’s health began to decline. The times that Mom was in hospital with serious illnesses found Bill at her side. These times were the only ones when I saw Bill cry. He cared for her every need. He provided everything to make sure she was comfortable and happy. One of the hardest things for him was to admit that he could no longer care for her by himself. Because of her stroke and the weakness that caused, she had to move into a skilled nursing facility. Bill then modified his life in order to be with her. He displayed his faithfulness by spending every waking hour with her. The only times he was not by her side were when she had to go for dialysis or other medical treatment. Many times we would go to visit Mom and find them both sleeping. Mom in her bed and Dad in the chair next to her. As long as she was able, he would take her for rides in the car. Just to get out and spend time together.
On a day in late Sept. 2010, Bill’s world ended. As we were all together at Mom’s bedside, she left us. Bill was holding her left hand when he suddenly cried out, “Oh, God! She’s gone!” He never got over that moment. We tried to comfort him. That was not going to happen. Over the next years he would keep telling us that she wasn’t supposed to go first…he was. I don’t think he really ever forgave himself for not leading the way into the next life. He never took Mom’s things out of their home. He left everything as it was. He allowed her ‘ghost’ to remain with him.
As the dementia began to overtake him, he seemed to forget that Marilyn had gone. Every now and then he would ask us where she was. One time Sarah told him to behave himself as she was leaving his home. He responded that he had to; Marilyn wouldn’t let him do otherwise. Then wondered where she was. At the nursing home, he believed that Marilyn was there somewhere…maybe in the next room. At first I was concerned with this. But, then I realized that Bill’s world was not the same as mine. In Bill’s world, his beloved Marilyn was still with him. She was just in the next room.
The writer of the book of Hebrews penned these words: Heb. 10:38 – “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”
This faith is not simply ‘believing’ something. This faith has nothing to do with creeds and doctrines. There is no church polity involved in this faith. This faith has everything to do with action.
The story of Noah was about a man and his family who heard God warn them about impending disaster. They trusted God’s words and faithfully took action. God found them trustworthy.
Abraham, whom the apostle Paul referred to as “our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not” (Rom. 4:17b), did not simply sit in his tent and ‘believe’ God. He left his homeland and wandered as an alien in the land that God had told him would one day belong to his children. Children that he did not even have! Yet, he trusted God. God found him trustworthy and gave Abraham and Sarah children in their old age. At that point Abraham could have easily said, “Yep, God is good. God came through and gave me an heir. Now, I can sit back and eat grapes and pomegranates and chillax in my retirement.” But, he did not. He continued to trust God. He continued to be ‘faithful.’ So, when God asked him to sacrifice the son of the promise, Abraham trusted God. He had ‘faith’ that God, who had promised Isaac, could raise Isaac from the dead. This is faithfulness.
Moses, the one person about whom the scripture states was God’s friend, became that friend because he, too, trusted God and was faithful to act on that trust. After 40 years of exile, he returned to Egypt where there was a death sentence on him, and defied the most powerful person in the known world. Because of Moses’ faithfulness, God displayed acts of power and wonder that revealed God’s supremacy over the gods of Egypt, which included Pharaoh. It was because of Moses’ trust and faithfulness that God was able to show God’s own faithfulness to Moses.
Example after example in this text, as well as many others, show us that to have faith has nothing to do with religious belief. It has to do with trust, honesty, faithfulness…action. It has to do with moving forward, while performing the duties of day-to-day life with no concrete reward or achievable goal in sight. The writer stated, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”
Bill was not religious. Yeah, he was a member of a local church. I think, though, that I can count on one hand the number of times he actually attended. He was busy being faithful. Faithful to his family and friends. He worked 7 days a week in order to provide for us. After working 10 hours, he would come home and always find time to play catch or go fishing. He coached both Dave and me in little league. He taught me how to play tennis and watched as I competed in swimming. He made it possible for me to learn to play music…and tolerated the noise of an aspiring rock-n-roller. He made sure that he and Mom made it to their grandchildren’s activities. Whether it was soccer in Avon Lake or Mount Vernon. Or, baseball and horseback riding. If he was able, he would make every effort to support us all. He knew that the world was going to continue well after him. He had faith that what he was doing in the present would bear fruit sometime. When? He didn’t know. I’m not sure that he even cared about ‘when.’ He saw the promise of the future. Yet, the final reward eluded him in this life. We, however, have already received a reward. That reward was to have been loved and cherished by Bill.