I never met my grandfather because he died before I was born. But his legacy and influence live on because he took the time to write down a blessing to my father in the form of words of advice. This blessing has been passed through my father to me and is now passing on to my sons.
My grandfather was an amazing man. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended the University of Arkansas receiving his law degree while participating in cheerleading for the Arkansas Razorbacks. After college and law school, he moved to Texas to practice law. When World War II broke out, he gave up his practice and joined the Army, where he served as chief of staff for then General Eisenhower. After the war, he returned home, became the district attorney in Fort Worth, Texas, and later became a judge.
My dad and his dad didn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, as Dad was a free and rebellious spirit. From what I can tell, they had an explosive relationship: the judge and the juvenile delinquent. It came to a head when my father announced he was going to drop out of high school to pursue a career as a rock and roll drummer. I understand the argument was ugly; the words from both sides were hurtful and it ended with my grandfather yelling out to my dad as he left, “Son, if you drop out of high school it will kill me.” Dad slammed the door as he left, did what he felt he needed to do, and dropped out of school. When he returned home for lunch, an ambulance was in the driveway and my grandfather was dead from a heart attack.
Dad went on to pursue his rock and roll career, playing drums for stars like Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and many others throughout the late 50s and early 60s. But, the pain of the broken relationship with his dad haunted him and he became an alcoholic.
He drifted from relationship to relationship with women. Everywhere he went he seemed to hurt those he loved. This all came home to me when I was 12 years old and learned that Dad had been arrested and charged with murder for hire. For the next two years, when I wanted to see him I had to do so by going through numerous heavy metal doors with bars to get to the maximum security section of the Tarrant County Jail during his trial. I have vivid memories of those Saturday morning visitations. I had to talk to my Dad standing on my tippy toes looking through a 4×7 metal grate built into the door of my Dad’s 4×8 cell.
When he was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair I thought I had lost him. My visits were now held at the Ellis Unit which is the Maximum Security Prison that houses death row for the State of Texas. At least I could see him through a larger metal grate but there was still no physical contact. I really thought I had lost my dad and never knew which visit would be the last. I had to endure two last-minute stays of execution not knowing if my Dad had been electrocuted or not.
However, shortly after I turned 15, I was surprised to find out that my father’s conviction was overturned and that he would go down in history as the only man to ever walk off of death row as a free man in Texas. I got my father back, and had a second shot at having a real father-son relationship.
Over the years we did develop a close relationship. My dad made a lot of mistakes during his life, but the one thing he did right was to make sure that I knew he loved me and was very proud of me. Everywhere I went people would say, “You’re Chip’s son! Your dad is always bragging on you.” Those words mean a lot to a young boy, and helped my self-esteem as a man.
By the time Dad passed away about 11 years ago, he had been married 15 times to 13 different women. I am, amazingly, the only child he had. As I was going through his stuff after he died, I ran across an old Bible and in it I found these words written from my grandfather to my father:
To my son Chip, from his dad – with these words of advice:
1. Fear God
2. Be right and fear no man
3. Love the truth and hate a lie
4. Tell the truth regardless of the consequences
5. A thief and a liar are the same, trust neither
6. Once confidence is established, be loyal
7. Be energetic and hunger for knowledge
8. Have compassion for the unfortunate
9. Be prudent but not prideful
10. Always love your mother
11. Build character and respect for your word
12. Try to see all sides and then decide
13. When in doubt do nothing
14. Be tolerant – Be kind
15. Be a square shooter and a good loser
With love for your first birthday,
Some of these things I remember my father saying to me, some were new. My boys often hear me quote these same pieces of advice to them.
My grandfather’s legacy is still alive in spite of being tested by a prodigal son because he took the time to write down the values that were important to him. These words are now being passed from generation to generation and I pray they will be defining characteristics of what it means to be a Whitmore.
What defines your family? What words of advice and encouragement do you need to pass to the next generation?