This is the title of a book my son, whose name is taken after his grandfather, wrote about his beloved grandfather at the age of 11. I recently discovered the hard-cover illustrated book amongst some other treasures like my Master’s thesis, my brother’s journal of our cross-country trailer trip in the late 60’s and a book of poetry I wrote in high school. I read Benson’s masterpiece to my dad over the phone last week and choked through the tears as I realized how much my son idealizes his grandfather. As I reflect on my father’s life, I realize what a tremendous gift my father has been to his students, his friends and his family.
These are the reasons that Benson Noice Junior is so great:
My dad is the oldest of three kids and was born in 1925. Being born in 1925 means that the depression had a long-standing impact on him and his family. His father, Benson Noice Sr., left the family after the stock market crash of 1929. Imagine being my grandmother with three kids ages under the age of 5 as my grandfather took off. The impact is that my father has always been very self-reliant. He ended up moving 28 times by the time he graduated college. My father hitchhiked, survived on donuts and milk and spent the night on the Staten Island Ferry as a young adult. All of these hardships are in line with his oft quoted motto “toughen you up for life.” Dad had a tough life especially in the first 30 years, and the result shows up in his perseverance.
My dad taught eighth grade history for over 30 years. In my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, I can remember running into his former students at the mall, school district picnics and at the grocery store. At the time, I would be mortified that people would come up to him and thank him for being a great teacher. There were several men who saw my dad as their mentor. He would meet them either as students or counselors at a boy’s camp where he was the waterfront director. I can remember them either writing or phoning or making the pilgrimage to our house in Wilmington to see their teacher and mentor. As a kid, I was jealous of the attention my father garnered. I can remember hearing him talk extensively about history or economics or politics late at night as I feigned sleep in the bedroom above the living room. Now I can see what an impact he had on these young men and all the students that went through his classroom.
Considering my father is almost 94, he has an incredible memory. He may not know what he had for lunch or what television show he is watching, but he can still tell you practically anything about the Civil War, the American Revolution and World History. Does he know when Napoleon was born without using Google? Yep. Can he discuss with me the importance of the siege during the Civil War as he did on the phone yesterday? Yep. Can he reflect on George Washington’s merits as a President and how King George couldn’t understand why Washington would relinquish power after 8 years as president? This is amazing to me that he can have a conversation with a neophyte like myself amid his breaths from his oxygen tube to carry on a complex conversation on a subject that is near and dear to him. This conversation, by the way, was brought on by my reading of a book he recommended by Ron Chernow called Grant. I was never a history fan as a kid, or even adult, but over the last ten years, I believe my father’s love of history has infected me or maybe I just wanted to tap into his treasure trove of historic memories; extend the conversation with him.
This is my father’s greatest gift and very few possess it. As I have reminisced with him recently and I asked him what he learned from his mother, he said “unconditional love”. My dad was never a good student or at least that his what he professes. He didn’t marry until he was 30. I can imagine that moving from college to college and not settling down, probably caused my grandmother some heartburn as well as ache. But he said he always knew she loved him. Well, as I sit here, I know I caused my father a fair share of pain over my lifetime between being a rebellious teen ager, an impulsive young adult, and a single mom on the brink of financial ruin. My father always has been there for me. Without fail. He has been there for my children including uprooting my mother to move from Northern California to North Carolina so that he could sit in cold and windy football games on a Friday night, drive for hours to Marching Band competitions or walk two miles to my daughter’s graduation from Duke. I know that I haven’t committed a felony or been a high school drop out but I sorely tested both of my parents. My dad recently received a cell phone. Yes, my dad learned how to use a cell phone at age 93. I am so amazed when I see his number flash on my phone and know that somehow, he figured out (with the immeasurable help of my brother Rick and my mom) how to dial my phone. He reaches out to connect from Albuquerque, New Mexico to make sure I’m OK and let me know that he’s OK and to maybe impart a history lesson or two. Benson Noice Jr. is unconditional love.
If you measure a life by the impact you’ve had on others, my father has had a very rich life. He has spread his knowledge through countless students, campers and proteges. He was a stable, patient father who rarely raised his voice and only became passionate during debates with my older brothers around the dinner table. He was courageous to serve in the Merchant Marines during WWII and in the Army during the Korean War. He was a phenomenal chess player, writer and sailor. I would bet my life that there is not a single person who wasn’t better off for meeting such a generous, patient, humble man. Benson Noice Jr. the Great is my father and I wouldn’t have it any other way.