Gerrit Towle made friends everywhere he went.
Gathered here today are friends from church, fellow Masons, friends from golfing and friends from Wooding Road. Friends he made while volunteering at the Senior Center, Habitat For Humanity, MasonicCare and The Wallingford Community dinner (where he was fondly known as Mr. Smiley).
Despite an abundance of friends, he was not an easy person to get to know. A "tough nut to crack" if you will. He lived in the present, didn't like talking about the past. He had strong opinions but had perfected the art of "choosing one's battles". Despite a hearing impairment, he seemed to prefer listening to talking.
So, to the friends and family who wished they knew more about the man you didn't need to know much about to love, here is what I know. I know enough to know I don't know it all.
Despite living in Connecticut for most of his life, he always identified as an Ol'Mainer. He liked to do things the way they were done "way back when". A good example of this was his refusal to get a bread making machine, instead preferring to use a huge metal drum clamped to the countertop with a mixing mechanism he would crank by hand with great effort. Canned whipped cream was similarly unnecessary and he would whip his own cream with an egg beater. He embodied the wartime philosophy of "make do and mend" and remade his riding lawnmower from parts from multiple broken machines. He also kept his midnight blue diesel Oldsmobile running until it was one of the last on the road. He wasn't a man defined by his possessions but he sure loved that car.
Some things that couldn't be fixed were still too good to throw away. A few of us are lucky enough to have known him as "the waffle king" for his always perfect and fluffy waffles made from scratch. What I learned recently is that the waffle iron that yielded such golden results had been broken for longer than I'd been alive. The cord could only bring power to the iron if it was laid on the table at a certain angle and the indicator light that tells you when the waffle is ready had never actually indicated anything. He was able to divine the doneness of the waffle by hovering his hand over the top and assessing the amount of steam that was emitted. When the steam slowed down, the waffle was ready. This waffle wizardry just can't be taught and I'm afraid that the heir to the waffle throne had to buy a new iron.
In contrast to his old fashioned ways, he was usually ahead of the trend in philosophy. He could be considered a progressive thinker since he cared about the environment back when resources felt limitless, he became certified as a master gardener and grew organic produce before the dangers of pesticides were part of the discussion. I'd even venture to call him a feminist even though he never applied that title to himself. When he married Virginia, his career was winding towards retirement and hers was just gathering momentum. He offered to take her surname of Richards instead of her taking the Towle name as a way to support her career. They ended up sticking with tradition but the gesture was meaningful. After he retired from the CT Department of Transportation, he took on the role of being a full time stay-at-home Dad for me while I was still in Elementary School and widened his role to care for foster children from many different backgrounds.
Perhaps his forward thinking could be attributed to a lifelong commitment to learning. He was a familiar face at the Wallingford Public Library because reading was part of his daily life. He took out practical books on plumbing, home repair, puppy training, construction, sailing and anything else that interested him as well as books for pleasure like courtroom dramas and spicy mysteries. He did his civic duty by reading a few biographies of presidents and historical nonfiction. I doubt if he ever had less than three books going at the same time. Many people who knew him later in life will be surprised that learning to read didn't come easily to him as a young boy. He was one of the last kids in school to learn how to read due to a learning disability. Never one to draw attention, he disguised his difficulty with his keen ability to memorize. When reading aloud for the class, he was able to seem like an effortless reader, when in reality, he had probably practiced the passage many times at home. It is possible that his struggle to learn to read made him value literacy more than most.
As much as reading meant to him, I think it is more likely that his personal philosophy came from a place of compassion. I believe the most important part of his legacy is his lifelong commitment to caring for people. He cared for his first wife Alyce during her long battle with Lupus. He provided daily assistance to his Uncle and Aunt-in-law when Jenny was bedridden with osteoporosis and again when Chet needed wound care. He was willing to do the hard unpleasant work that sometimes comes with caring about someone. Even outside his circle of loved ones, he advocated for handicapped access for people with mobility problems before those simple courtesies became law. All this was what he considered his duty and then he went and volunteered on top of all that! As we all know, he did it with a smile.
Rest assured, as much as he did for others, he knew how to treat himself once in awhile. He had a signature sundae at Friendly's- coffee ice cream with swiss chocolate topping, whipped cream and a cherry. At home, in the evening, he'd make himself a dry gin martini with olives later falling asleep in his chair with a book on his lap and a dog at his feet.
I'm going to try to hold that image in my mind. Many of you have already sealed your iconic Gerrit moment in your memory.
In choosing how to remember someone, we often fall into trying to oversimplify the person by a few qualities or a story and creating a character that way. Complicated, heavily detailed memories are hard to hang on to. By now most of us have experienced the way that memories fade or change with time despite our best efforts. This week, I have been digging through closets and boxes looking for meaningful souvenirs of his life and assembling 86 years of photographs to try and tell his story. Of course he was more than the habits he had, the objects he surrounded himself with, the things he said and did. We can't catalog and preserve a whole person or a whole life. We can't even promise to always hold on to the memories. What will last longer than anecdotes or trivia or snapshots in our mind is the simple way that he made us feel. This will be different for everyone. For me, he made me feel special and safe and loved always.
I can't forget that and I will always be thankful and proud that he was my Father.
I also posted the slideshow we made of old photos over on Vimeo- http://vimeo.com/33114234