Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Tribute to My Late Grandfather

Russell Godfrey, 1923-2010

On Tuesday, August 24, 2010, my grandfather and namesake, Russell Godfrey, died following a severe stroke a few weeks prior. On Friday, August 27, I will stand in the pulpit of Ardmore United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem with Rev. Jock Ollis to conduct his funeral. As I have been asked to deliver his eulogy, I have prepared the following remarks to pay tribute to his life and his impact on mine. I post these words here for a wider audience than will hear them on that day. For those who do hear these words on that day, perhaps they will be clearer in print than through my grief-choked voice and stammering tongue.
Somewhere among the countless pieces of art that my grandfather collected over the years is a painting of the Thames river, flowing through London at evening, with the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral aglow in the background. The present St. Paul’s was designed by the famous architect, Sir Christopher Wren, after the original building was destroyed by the fire of London in 1666. Wren not only designed it, but he was also the first person to be interred in the crypt of St. Paul’s. There, above his tomb, inscribed in Latin is the phrase, “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” Today, I cannot help thinking that if you want to see the monument of my grandfather, Russell Godfrey, look around you at the people in this room. You are here today, no doubt, because he touched your life in a special way, and left you with memories that you will carry on for the rest of your lives.

In the center of my grandfather’s back yard stood a small replica statue of Michaelangelo’s David. Shortly after I left his bedside Tuesday afternoon, I got the news that he had died, and I thought about the words that David spoke when he received news that Abner had died: “Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel? I am weak today.” Indeed, a prince and a great man has fallen, and I am one of many who are left weakened by his death. His impact on my life is inestimable.

Russell Godfrey was born in Charlotte on March 15, 1923. The first line of Shakespeare I ever learned was taught to me by him, as he would quote from Julius Caesar to me as his birthday approached each year, “Beware the ides of March.” He was proud of his family and his roots, and had a lifelong special bond with his parents and his siblings. As a child, the family moved to the Sanford area, and then here to Winston-Salem in 1934, just a stone’s throw from this church. He graduated from R. J. Reynolds High School in 1943. I think my brother and I are about the only ones in the family who did not attend Reynolds, and my grandfather often expressed how unfortunate we were for that.

He served proudly in the United States Marine Corps during World War II in the Pacific. My grandfather showed me with pride his photo album from his years of military service and all of his medals and various treasures that he brought back from the Pacific. He had a way sometimes of embellishing tales, all in good fun, of course, and when I was a child, he showed me one of his medals and told me that he had received it because he piloted the P-38 fighter that shot down Commander Yamamoto. When I was studying about World War II in school, the teacher mentioned Yamamoto, and I raised my hand and said, “My grandfather shot him down.” I remember the disappointment of discovering that he hadn’t really done that, and my grandfather just laughed because he couldn’t believe that I had gone along with it. The medal, as it turned out, was the victory medal that was given to everyone who fought in the war. It didn’t matter to me. He was still a hero in my eyes.

After the War, he enrolled in Elon College, and in 1950 he began working for Piedmont Airlines, where he retired in 1986. Between his military journeys and his work for the Airline, he traveled to amazing places and each one of those places found its way into his heart and into his home. His eclectic collections of artwork, sculptures, and momentos were all reminders to him of the places he had been and the things he had seen. I was fortunate as a child, because my mother also worked for Piedmont, that we got to travel together as a family, and Gran was always with us.

In 1958, Russell married my grandmother, Betty Francis Roberts, and became a father to her two children, my dad, John, and my aunt Julia. He loved them as much as if they were his own. And he loved my grandmother. She died in 1975, just a short time after I was born, but his love for her never died. My grandfather, as you know was a handsome man, and quite the charmer, and often women would flirt with him. Once I asked him if he ever intended to get married again, and he let me know that no one would ever be able to replace my grandmother in his life. His undying love for her is an example I cherish every day. When I married Donia, my grandfather told me that he would be honored if I would wear his wedding band, and I have seldom removed it since. But every now and then, I will pull it off and look inside at the inscription, BFR to RGG, 4-4-58, and think about his devotion to the love of his life.

There were so many interesting things about my grandfather, that just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about him, I would learn something new. I knew he loved me, I knew that he cherished our relationship, but I never really knew why. Other kids I knew didn’t have that kind of special bond with their grandparents like I did. Donia asked him one time how he and I became so close. And I learned something that I never knew. He said that he and my grandmother had once lost a child during pregnancy, and it grieved him deeply. He had reconciled himself to the fact that he would have no biological children of his own, and that God must have intended for him to be the father that my dad and my aunt needed in their lives. But he said when I came along, right around the time that my grandmother’s illness was progressing aggressively, he thought that God had sent me into his life to love and care for like he had desired to do for his own child that was lost before birth. And he did it. I have been blessed with a loving family, and many dear friends, but I dare say that my grandfather loved me, encouraged me, and was there for me more throughout my life more than any other human being. Whenever my life’s foundations were shaken, there has always been one constant – my grandfather. I never wanted to be like another person more than I have wanted to be just like him. I carry his name with pride. I was always proud to be seen with him, and we both got a chuckle out of folks who would say to us, “Oh I see so much resemblance between you two.” Biologically, there is no way; but in every way besides biology, he rubbed off on me in more ways than I can count.

As most of you know, my grandfather was somewhat of a renaissance man. He knew a little bit about seemingly everything, and a lot about a lot of things. He loved literature, theater, paintings, sculptures, just about all of the performing arts and visual arts. He was more than a spectator; he was a collector, as anyone who ever visited his home can attest. He didn’t want to look at a piece of art, he wanted to possess it and cherish it. He saw a painting once while traveling, and he told me that he couldn’t sleep that night thinking about that painting. So, the next day, he returned to the place where he saw it, and he bought it. He saw value in things that others didn’t necessarily see. He would stumble upon a simple picture in a magazine, or receive a post card in the mail, and he would cut it out, mount it to a backing, brush over it with paints and glosses, and have it matted and framed, and you would think it came from a museum somewhere.

Gran would browse through the broken items at L.A. Reynolds or Belk, and buy something that was nearly destroyed, but he would bring it home and mix up a little concrete, or get out a little clay, and a little paint, and he would put it back together piece by piece, painstakingly, lovingly, until it was ready for display. And you know, I can’t count the times that he did this very thing for me. When I was broken, when I was in a fragile state, when it appeared that I was of little value to anyone else in the world, my grandfather would pour his love out into my life. He would invest his time in me, putting me back together as it were, piece by piece, until I could stand up straight again. And as he was dying, there were so many things I wanted to tell him, but only two things would come out and I must have said them a hundred times there by his bed. “I love you so much,” and “thank you.”

Once upon a time, Julia had a science project due for school, and the night before it was due she tried her best to mold a human mouth out of clay. She gave up and went to bed, content that she would fail the assignment. But the next morning, she awoke to find her project completed on the kitchen table. My grandfather had taken that lump of clay into the bathroom, and looking into a mirror, he sculpted the lower half of his face, from the nose to the neck, mouth open, and inserted a dental mold that he had in a drawer somewhere as teeth. And I mean, Michelangelo himself couldn’t have done it better! He told me that he always wanted to take it to beach and bury it part way in the sand and just stand back and watch people react to it. Today it sits on my desk. People come in my office and see that thing today and they say, “What’s that?” And I say, “Oh that’s my grandfather’s head.” And they just kind of look around nervously and say, “Uh, OK. Where’s the rest of him?” And that may be a question some would ask today. His body is here before us, but where is the rest of him? The Bible tells us that, for the follower of Jesus Christ, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

My grandfather was very private about his spiritual life, private almost to a fault. As I told Rev. Ollis yesterday, I know he was a member of this church, but if you asked him, he would tell you he was a Presbyterian. And Jock said, “I know, he told me that.” His Scotch-Presbyterian Calvinism would come out in conversation, and he would say, “If I am predestined, I will go to heaven, and if I am not, there is nothing we can do about it.” And while I think the Bible affirms much of what he said, I also know that the Bible says that we can be certain that we are among the elect of God by responding in faith to the Gospel of Jesus Christ when we hear it. As I told my grandfather on several occasions, “Even Scotch-Presbyterian Calvinists believe that.” And today I have hope based on his own words to me from time to time, and conversations that he had with others over the years, that there had come a point in his life wherein he had placed his faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. He was a good man, better than most in my opinion, but I know I am biased. But heaven is not a place for good men; it is a place for redeemed sinners. All of us, no matter how good we are in one another’s eyes, fall short of God’s standard of holiness. We have all sinned, and none of us have any hope of heaven on our own merits. But thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our sins can be forgiven, we can receive the righteousness that God requires as a gift by faith, and have the assurance of eternal life. John Newton, who wrote that hymn we know and love, Amazing Grace, said near the end of his life, “My memory is almost gone, but I remember two things: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” All of our hope for life’s hard moments like these is anchored firmly in these two truths. Where those two truths are known and cherished in a person’s heart, we can say with a sure and certain hope that death is not the end. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe in Him will live even if they die. It is my very great hope and trust that this is so for my grandfather, and for each of you as well.

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