My Uncle George died last month. He had a long life and had surpassed his 92nd birthday but, still, it came as a surprise.
George Epps was one of eight children born to William E. Epps., Sr, and his wife Mary. My father, George’s older brother, passed away 26 years ago this month at the age of 69 having fought the good fight against cancer. There are three brothers left.
Uncle George was the first veteran of the United States Marine Corps I had ever met. Truthfully, I had no idea what that meant at the time. I was just a child and played “army” in the woods with friends. Only later would I understand what it took him to successfully navigate Parris Island, SC and the other challenges Marines through the ages have encountered and met,
As a child, I was always comfortable around George. He had an easy way about him, a laid-back attitude, and a perpetual smile. His accent was a cross between a Southern drawl and a mountain twang … common among the natives of the Appalachian Mountains of northeastern Tennessee.
He was married to Mary, and they had two sons, Greg and Steve. Greg was two years younger than me and, when we were kids, I spent the night there numerous times. Later, we would both be students at Dobyns-Bennett High School, and both be on the school’s first and only karate team / club.
But before all that, there was the lake cabin. George and Mary had a cabin on one of the local lakes and going there was the closest thing I had to a vacation trip growing up if one doesn’t count occasional day trips to the Smoky Mountain National Park. Sometimes, the family in the area would join there together and occasionally George and Mary would loan the cabin to my folks and we would spend a day or two fishing and swimming in the lake. Those were memorable days.
At 19, I was thinking about enlisting in the military and leaning toward the Marine Corps. My dad did not want me to be a Marine during the war in Vietnam and tried to dissuade me by saying, “You know, son, your Uncle George was a Marine. That’s a really tough outfit and I’m not sure you can hack that.”
It had the opposite effect. I knew Dad had a great affection and respect for his younger brother and so I enlisted that very next day in the Marine Corps. Dad was right among one thing though … it was a really tough outfit. My respect for Uncle George increased, especially because he was one of the “Old Corps” that had it even tougher than I did in boot camp. As far as I know, Uncle George was the first person in our family’s history to be a United States Marine.
There were two great tragedies in George’s life. One was the untimely death of his youngest son Steve and the other the loss of his wife to a lingering illness. George was the caregiver for Mary and doted on her and held out hope for her recovery until it was all over.
George was a member of the local chapter of the American Legion where he served on the Color Guard. He was also very active in the Shriners and raised money for the charities supported by that organization. He also served as a volunteer at the Veterans Administration Hospital in nearby Johnson City, TN.
He was a faithful man who enjoyed reading his Bible, fishing, spending time with his family, and telling stories. On August 18, in the comfort of his home, he peacefully passed from this world to the next. I didn’t get to attend his funeral as I was still recovering from an infection in the aftermath of a knee replacement. It was just too far to make the round-trip 13-hour drive to Kingsport, TN.
Sometimes preachers will say of someone who has died that, “He was a good man.” Uncle George really was “a good man.” As the family of my father scattered from Florida to California, George and my father remained close until Dad’s death. If my dad had a best friend later in life, I suspect it was George.
I left Tennessee for good during the Christmas season of 1980, going to wherever the ministry took me. There are times I wish I had stayed in East Tennessee (yes, we capitalize “East” if we hail from those parts). While I have experienced so much, I have also missed a great deal by being gone. Even though the only correspondence we had in recent years was via Christmas cards, I have a sensation of loss at the death of Uncle George. He really was one of the good guys.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays but are also live streamed at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]