Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In Passing

My foster father, Charles Franklin Leonard, passed away peacefully in his sleep at home yesterday, aged 90.  He will be greatly missed.

Who was he?

Charlie, or "Bud" as he was called in his youth, was born and raised on a farm in central Illinois, Vermillion county, near Indiana in what is commonly known as the "Corn Belt".  His family farm was in Hoopeston, Illinois, a very small town near Danville.  Charlie was born to a family of older sisters and as the only son worked hard on his father's farm growing up.  He did what most farm boys did, fishing and camping and enjoying the simple outdoor life.  Charlie loved westerns and identified with John Wayne, as did most of the boys in those days.  Charlie was born on April 26, 1921.  To understand his life and times, the chcocolate chip cookie was not even invented until 1930, when he was already 9 years old!  Imagine growing up without chocolate chip cookies...

They didn't have television, of course, but Dad loved listening tothe radio shows such as Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, Untouchables, and so on.  ironically, he would go on to work on some of the earliest vaccuum tube model TVs in the 1950s, as well as working on prototype PCBs, computers and even large-scale electromagnet coils during his time at Argonne National Labs, where he worked as an electrical technician for more than 30 years.  None of these things were even figments of his imagination when he was a boy.

Dad played football quarterback in high school and was nicknamed "peaches" because he loved the canned ones.  He was likeable but mostly solitary.  He joined the Army and was sent to Saxmundham airfield in Suffolk, England where he served in the emerging USAAF attached to 357th fighter group 363d fighter squadron as a P51D Mustang crew chief.  Charlie had the luck of being the crew chief for Chuck Yeager, who would later become one of the most famous test pilots in Air Force history, flying such prototypes as the X-1 and being the first man to break the sound barrier.  Dad said that during the war, Chuck Yeager was fearless and pushed his Mustang past the limits on many occassions.  Charlie had great stories to tell of Chuck Yeager's adventures.

After the war, Dad settled in Chicago and did odd jobs as a handyman and mechanic, working at places like General Electric and Royal Typewriter (where he met my foster Mom, Dorothy Schultz), before eventually joining Argonne National Labs where he worked until retirement.  After marrying Dorothy, they bought a small house in Villa Park, Illinois, the sleepy Western suburb of Chicago where I grew up.

Dad was a man of few words but of strong opinions.  Despite being raised on a farm, he had a great interest in politics, and watched the evening news religiously, as well as reading Newsweek and US News and World Report every week.  He was one of the few people I ever met who read the whole Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune (except the comics).  He was very well read on issues of domestic and foreign policy.
Every Sunday he would watch shows like "Face the Nation" and listen intently to politicians debating each other and commentary from other analysts.

He did not read books much when I was growing up, but later read the entire collections of Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, and other western novella authors, numbering in the hundreds.  He would frequently exhaust the local public library collections of all western novels, and have to seek them out at bookstores and collector shops.

Dad was raised Irish Catholic, with 6 of 8 of his grandparents being Irish and the other 2 being English.  He went to church regularly until he married Dorothy, who being that she had been Lutheran, and married once before, meant his excommunication.  He accepted that without hesitation and never went back to Catholic church again.  Growing up we sometimes went to Lutheran church together at saint Paul Lutheran Church in Villa Park, mostly for Easter and Christmas Eve services, but I think he did so more to appease Dorothy than out of any genuine desire on his part.  After she died I am certain he never went inside a church again.

Dad was not a man of big, sweeping dreams.  He did not aspire to much other than the task which was right in front of him.  He lived simply and honstly, and did what was asked of him in every case without any complaint.  He was content to go to work and come home, watch the news, drink two beers with dinner (never more and rarely less), and that was that.  On Saturday nights he liked to go to the horse races, especially harness racing which I think reminded him of his childhood on the farm.  As a boy, I have fond memories of Arlington Park, Maywood park, and Sportman's Park in Chicagoland and of standing by the finish line watching the horses run.  Dad did not ever wager much, as it was only a hobby for him - nothing more.

After he retired from Argonne, he and Dorothy moved to Reno, Nevada.  Mom couldn't take the Chicago winters, and they both liked to pass their time at the casinos there - mom playing video poker or nickel slot machines and Dad playing blackjack, again not for any big stakes but for entertainment and to keep his mind sharp.  Mom died in Reno suddenly in early 1994 and dad couldn't bvear to stay there anymore without her, which brought him to Las Vegas where he eventually passed away 17 years later.

Dad grew up in a time where people did not openly talk about their feelings or emotions.  This was cemented even stronger by role models like John Wayne, whose actions always spoke louder than his words.  Charlie was not one to say he loved us in words, but you knew he cared about you by the little things he would do.  Charlie provided a stable home for Casey and I without which we would never have had even the slightest chance of a normal life.  Our house had no drama or crazy happenings, except what my brother and I caused by our misbehavior.

In his early twenties, on the farm, Charlie suppered a appendicitis and needed surgery. I think in such small towns as Hoopeston, Illinois, good medical care was hard to come by, and he was lucky to have survived. He bore an eighteen-inch scar across his belly from that operation, that I suspect also rendered him impotent. He and Dorothy had no children except for Casey and I (and our older brother Tim, who was Dorothy's son from her first marriage and nearly 20 years older than us).

Charlie's life was full and complete, with very little stress, and he was able to enjoy a long retirement doing what he liked to do.  Until suffering a debilitating stroke 6 months ago, he appeared little shanged in the past 40 years, still driving himself to the casino for afternoon blackjack and enjoying his books and favorite shows at home.  My Dad was careful to teach us right and wrong (although I was not such a good student) and patient with us at home.  I owe him my values of hard work and perserverence more than anything else.

I am left with many fond memories of him, and of the many things he taught me.
Despite none of us in our family being of any actual blood relation, our bonds have been stronger than many "real" families.  As sad as I am for his passing, I am glad he is at peace, and without suffering.  From the bottom of my heart I wish him a restful eternity with Dorothy by his side, and hope he will continue to watch over us.

"live life simply and honestly without regret"



CWeegar said...

What a wonderful tribute, John. Charlie touched many lives in many ways. While I lost touch with him when he and mom moved to Reno and I went south, there was always a place for him in my heart. We'll miss him. Chris

trisha said...

Very touching Uncle John. I will always have fond memories of Grandpa Charlie.

Kimbo said...


That was a great and moving tribute to Charlie. We'll all miss him but I know he's now back with Dorothy and they're at peace watching over you and Casey and are very proud of both of you.

Love, Kim