Things have been chaotic and emotional for our family over the past week. On Monday, my wife’s grandfather, J.W. Starr (known to his grandkids and great-grandkids affectionately as Papop), died at age 85 after a very sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer. Turns out the cancer had been incubating silently within him for a while only to make it’s full presence known at the end. The time from when we first heard the heartbreaking news to the moment he died was less than a week.
Fortunately, my wife scheduled a flight a couple of days before he died and arrived in time to see him and hold his hand one last time. Shortly after he died on Monday, Caroline called me and told me to pack up the kids for the 1000 mile drive from Austin to Albany, GA.
That long drive-time in the car sparked an internal dialogue and reflection on Papop’s remarkable life and the wonderful legacy he left for all of us. He taught us so many lessons just through his simple actions. He modeled the values he felt were most important without ever needing to preach. He gave us the blessing of showing us how to live.
Have the courage to follow your faith even when it may not make sense to others
When he was in his early twenties, Papop volunteered for the military and fought in World War II as a bomber pilot in the Pacific. But before he completed his pilot training, he made the fateful decision to propose to and marry the love of his life, Mary Smith (who we all now call Mimi). Mimi held on to the letter that Papop sent to his own parents announcing his intentions and in that letter he acknowledged that their decision to marry may not make sense to their parents. In particular, Mimi’s parents reasonably feared that she might find herself a war widow before their first anniversary. However, Papop had faith that this was the right decision and knew that it was their love that would bring him home safely. Papop and Mimi were married for 62 years and their relationship is known in our family as “The Great Romance.” Together, they offered a model of what a strong marriage is for all who knew them.
It’s never too late to find your passion
One of Papop’s great legacies is his artwork. His paintings can be found in each family member’s home as well as the homes of art collectors throughout Georgia. He primarily painted landscape scenes of his life: the beaches, lowlands, and marshes of South Carolina and Georgia. As we sorted through some of his unframed works in his attic studio this week, we also discovered some lesser known works, such as portraits and still-life. The amazing thing is that this passion didn’t come out until he was much older. When we asked Mimi about how Papop started painting, she told us a story that surprised all of us. When she was a schoolteacher she had to grade papers. At that time, Papop enjoyed watching television, but it was distracting to her papergrading. So Mimi bought him some paints and brushes and hoped that this less noisy diversion would keep him busy. Turns out it not only kept him busy, but unleashed a vibrant yet untapped talent that inspired him throughout the rest of his life.
Soulful work can last a lifetime
After returning from WWII, Papop continued his education by getting a Master’s degree in Social Work and served as the Director of The Family Service in High Point, NC and then worked for the Federal Probationary Office in Macon, GA. Eventually, he and Mimi came to Albany, GA in 1952 and there he worked in his father’s typewriter sales business. Not too long ago, he retired, but continued to work in the Career Development Office of a local college. He often told us that his work helping young college students figure out their future plans was the most fulfilling work that he had ever done. Papop also gave his time to his church community that meant so much to him. For Papop, work wasn’t something to be shunned or avoided, but something that gave meaning to his life. It was his way of sharing the blessings he had with others.
These are just highlights. Putting Papop’s life into a brief retrospective is nearly impossible, though my sister-in-law managed to do this in what must be one of the all-time great eulogies ever delivered.
We talk about living a full life with no regrets. We talk about how to live in service to others. We talk about leaving a legacy behind us. It’s a blessing to encounter a role model who shows us how to do these things with grace, love, and humility. By reflecting on their lives, we’re challenged to find the magic in each day, to give far more than we get in return, to be the type of individual who makes a positive impact on each person they encounter. One way of thinking about Papop that has stayed with me is that it didn’t matter whether you knew him for an hour or a lifetime, he left a lasting impression that made you want to be a better person.
We all miss him and were blessed to know him.
John Walter Starr (1922-2007)