June 18, 2008

Measuring Greatness

2008 1517 page27 capS MODERN SOCIETY MEASURES greatness, my father would not be considered a great man. Dad emigrated to North America with a meager education, spent much of his life farming, and the rest of his life as a janitor. He lived through the biggest cultural transition in human history—from the horse and buggy era to the space age.
The transition wasn’t always easy for him. He came from an uneducated and somewhat insensitive early family environment, yet he dealt with his own children and grandchildren in a way that strongly contrasted with what he had experienced. I don’t know where he learned the qualities I came to admire in him, but they were important in shaping the values that have guided my life.
His Own Man
Dad came to the Canadian prairies at 14 years of age and lived in a German farming community. He and his brother farmed their homestead during the day and spent evenings in the pool hall drinking and gambling.
When he was 27 a neighbor introduced his sister to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This became a turning point in both their lives. Dad left his farm, his liquor, and his gambling and moved to the United States to return to school. As a 27-year-old bachelor who spoke only German, he entered a boarding academy and began the ninth grade along with his teenage, English-speaking classmates. He finished academy in three years with high grades and entered college. After one year of college he accepted a job as a colporteur with the local conference. He realized later that he should have stayed in school.
2008 1517 page27Dad was never satisfied with doing something just “good enough.” He put out extra energy to do his very best. For some years we raised about 5,000 turkeys. The usual practice at the time was to keep the turkeys in a small enclosure of perhaps an acre, and fatten them on commercial feed.

Dad wouldn’t hear of doing it that way. Each spring we fenced off a 40-acre field of alfalfa, corn, or oats and raised the turkeys there. About every two weeks a whole Sunday was spent moving their shelters and food barrels to a new, clean part of the field. As a kid I didn’t always rejoice at this extra work on top of my usual chores!
Another aspect of this turkey-farming strategy was that all summer long someone had to sleep in the field with the turkeys—every single night—to keep the coyotes away. The turkeys lived in a cleaner environment, with fresh food to supplement their diet. The extra work and expense gave Dad the healthiest turkeys in that part of Kansas.
Not long after we left the farm and moved to California, Dad was placed in charge of the janitor crew at La Sierra College (now University). He had never been a janitor, but he bent his abundant energies to learning to do the best job possible.
Several years after he retired from that position, a teacher ran his finger in disgust through the chalk dust accumulating under a blackboard. Right in the middle of German class he looked at me and said, “When your father was here it was never like this; the place was always clean.” At that point I was young and immature enough to be a little embarrassed by the fact that my dad was a janitor, but I was beginning to appreciate the principles that governed his life.
He Taught Confidence
I’ll always cherish the way my father consistently showed his confidence in me. One day when I was not yet a teenager I was peacefully enjoying the shade of the osage orange trees at the edge of an alfalfa field. I watched Dad riding the big tractor, pulling a machine that raked cut alfalfa into rows. He drove over to where I was and said he had some other work to do and he wanted me to finish the raking. I was experienced at driving the tractor, but with some reticence I reminded him that I didn’t know how to use the rake. His response to my reluctance was to patiently show me how the rake worked, and how to use the controls to make it do what I wanted it to do.
2008 1517 page27Then he simply walked away. From my relationship with him over the years I knew he didn’t walk away out of lack of concern, but to show he had complete confidence that I could do the job.
To this day I remember in vivid detail the scene as I finished the raking and looked back over the field. I felt the reward of Dad’s confidence in me as I recognized that my rows were as straight as his.
I learned more about my dad’s trust in me the day I left home to attend boarding academy as an adventuresome but somewhat shy freshman. We made the long drive across Los Angeles County to Newbury Park Academy. I didn’t know a soul there, and there were the tasks of choosing classes, registering, and finding my place in this new group of friends-to-be. Dad moved me into my dormitory room, paid my tuition at the business office, then drove home. Mom later said he cried the whole way.
As I look back at that experience I realize how much trust they had that I could make it on my own. To someone not acquainted with my parents it could sound like they had little interest or concern for their son’s welfare. That wasn’t the reason they drove off and left me there alone. I’d heard Dad’s many prayers for his children, and had experienced his nurturing care through the years. His whole life was devoted to reaching out to help his children and other people.
I had seen my big strong dad shed tears of concern or pain over some difficult event in the lives of my older siblings. These experiences left no possibility that I could interpret any of his actions as lack of love or concern.
No Mere Mortal
As my academy years neared their end a buddy and I planned to buy a sports car (an Austin-Healey would do) and spend the summer after graduation traveling around the United States. I can only imagine what my father must have thought of our plan, especially as he considered the cost of my college for the following year.
He didn’t arbitrarily squash my enthusiasm. He waited patiently for reality to seep in, then reminded me that I had no money for such a venture. (Incidentally, I got that summer trip around the United States three years later as a student in Ernest Booth’s traveling biology field class, sponsored by Loma Linda University—a marvelous summer!)
Although my father didn’t have the privilege of receiving much of a formal education, he placed a high value on education and would gladly give the shirt off his back so that his children could be educated in a Christian school. About the time I finished college some family friends mentioned that my parents were hoping I would be a doctor. That was interesting information, because my parents had never said a single word to me about it. They did not impose their aspirations on me, but they gave me the freedom to choose a career that matched my interests. My appreciation for them grew even higher.
My father was not superman; he was human. In my relationship with my own wife and children I have avoided some of Dad’s ways, because I don’t think they were constructive. For example, he never understood the concept of adapting family worships to my age level.

Questions for Reflection

1. What's the one lasting legacy left by your father or another father figure?

2. How is your life a reflection of the values your parents passed on to you?

What values from your parents do you want to make sure you're communicating to your children?

About what would your parents say they are most proud of you?

In spite of that, it was clear to all that his relationship to God was an important, daily part of his life. It also seemed clear that there was some relationship between his love for God and his ability to be a good father. When he sang hymns, prayed, or preached (yes, he was a farmer, but he also sometimes preached sermons), he did so with his whole heart and soul. He was an avid reader, and I have become the owner of his much-read and underlined religious books. I have been inspired by his comments in the margins of those books, especially as I can relate them to some of the struggles he had in his life.

He was always alert for opportunities to share God with someone who needed Him. At dad’s funeral a former La Sierra faculty member told me that when he was struggling with his personal life at that time, my dad came to his office and prayed with him.
At the age of 88, Dad finally retired from his last paying job—half-time custodian at Loma Linda Academy. Two years later during one of my visits with him one Sabbath afternoon he was in good spirits, carrying around a letter that had just arrived from one of my sisters. The letter expressed her appreciation of him as a father and reminisced about the good times they’d had together. He read it over and over.
Her timing was perfect. He went peacefully to sleep that night and the next morning did not awaken. How fitting it will be for him to wake up on resurrection morning with the memory of that letter on his mind, when a great dad reaps the reward of a life dedicated to God.
Leonard Brand is a professor of biology and paleontology at Loma Linda University School of Science and Technology.