The father I knew

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Had my father lived, he would have been 95 yesterday. However, in September 1996, after a valiant struggle against lung cancer that spread to the brain, he died at the age of 69.

My mother and brother wanted me to do his funeral. I had never done a relative’s funeral service before, and it was even more difficult than I had imagined. After nearly 26 years, I still miss him. His name was William Elmer Epps, Jr. His family called him “Junior,” while the rest of the world called him “Bill.” I just called him “Dad.”

My dad was born during the Great Depression and was the oldest of eight children. At the age of 17 he left school and joined the United States Navy to do his part during World War II. After the war, he returned home to upper east Tennessee and received his high school diploma from Surgoinsville High School in Hawkins County.

I don’t really know all that much about his early years or even how or when he met the girl that would become his wife and my mother. Somewhere around 1947, they were married and I came along four years later. My brother Wayne would be born almost nine years after that.

I remember my father working a series of jobs trying to find his niche. He sold life insurance, worked in a factory, opened a general grocery store, and, later, owned an antique store. He hated selling insurance and disliked working in the factory and the two businesses he started failed. But he kept at it. He had to. There were no safety nets.

During a down time, he took a job as a general laborer for Bays Mountain Construction Company and worked himself to the point of exhaustion nearly every day. Because the pay was minimal, he would take side jobs at night and on the weekends digging ditches, installing septic tanks, building fences … anything to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.

He eventually learned that Bays Mountain was looking for some young men to become apprentices and train to be electricians. My dad, in his early 30s at the time, was considered too old. But every chance he got, he let it be known that he wanted into this program. Finally, worn down by his persistence, he was accepted.

It meant about four years of on-the-job training with an electrician and lots of night school classes for the academic work. He successfully completed all the requirements and became an industrial electrician for Bays Mountain and, later, for Eastman Chemical Products Corporation, a division of Eastman Kodak that employed 15,000 workers in Kingsport, Tennessee.

On the weekends, he would buy, sell, and trade guns at the local flea market at the stockyards in Kingsport and, when the laws changed, he obtained a federal firearms license and continued in this sideline which was as much about having an enjoyable hobby as it was about making extra money.

My father was not a touchy-feely dad. He wasn’t big into hugs, especially as I grew older, and let me know that “I’m not your friend, I’m your father. If you want a friend, find someone your own age.” Yet, when I played football in junior and senior high, he was there in the stands at almost every home game, even if I rode the bench that year. Looking back on it, both my mother and father were incredibly supportive and tried their best to make sure I wasn’t needy.

Dad, beginning in the middle of junior high, was on my back about my grades, and with good reason. It seemed that he was continually disappointed with my report cards and let me know it. For my part, I loved high school, I just didn’t like to study.

Consequently, when I reached college, I discovered that I had developed no study skills and was in the process of flunking out and being drafted. Instead, I enlisted in the Marine Corps on a Tuesday and left for Parris Island on Thursday. At the bus station, he shook my hand and, as I got on the bus, I saw my dad cry for the first time in my life.

My dad was much more “hands on” and affectionate with my younger brother. I think he realized that he needed to be a different kind of father and I’m glad for that. Later in life, he would hug me instead of shake hands and, I must admit, I didn’t know how to respond at first.

He was a brilliant man and accomplished in many areas. In some ways he was a “Renaissance Man,” who taught himself to do most anything in which he was interested. He learned taxidermy, to be an armorer, he painted, learned masonry, carpet laying, roofing, plumbing, and learned to fix things with scraps of materials he had in the basement. He built a carport and later added two rooms onto our house, all by himself.

He was curious about the world and was forever reading to increase his knowledge. In his short retirement years, he took art lessons and learned to oil paint. Perhaps because he never went to college, his expectation was that his sons would earn degrees, and we both did.

It would be misleading to say that he didn’t have flaws or shortcomings but, with the passage of time, most of those seem to have faded into insignificance. And, as it is with so many teenagers, the older I have become, the wiser my dad became. And when I had three sons of my own, I understood and appreciated him more and more.

When it became obvious to him that he was dying, all his energies turned to taking care of my mother. What he could repair or fix, he did. He made preparations for her that she knew nothing about until we went through his desk after his death.

He even left a very personal note to be found by her after he was gone. I found it in the top drawer of his chest of drawers, read it, and quietly put it back where she would find it the next day. Even today, when I recall what he wrote to her, it brings tears to my eyes.

One of the Ten Commandments says to “honor your father and mother.” The English definition of “honor,” is “high respect, great esteem.” I know there were times when I was disrespectful to my father. There were times when I thought I would be a better man than he. I was wrong.

On a social media page some months ago, the question was asked, “If you could spend three hours with anyone who has ever lived, who would it be?” I had no hesitation. I would spend it with my dad. The father I knew was the greatest man in my life. I just wish I had told that to him even once.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). The church has worship services at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but is also live streaming at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]