By Michael Willard
Growing up, I never really had a chance to “know” my grandparents. Three of the four were alive for my early childhood, so I have some recollections of a couple of grandmothers and a granddaddy. That said, my relationships with all of them, unfortunately, was little more than that of a child with their doting grandparents.
Fate, in all the ways it works, took my grandparents away before I could really ever build a solid relationship with the people who brought my parents to this earth. As an adult, I never got a chance to know them or appreciate the life they led during a very different time in the course of our nation’s history.
When I married into a new family a little more than five years ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to know new grandparents. Marrying my wife meant that three grandparents entered my life, even if they are “in-laws.” Now, as an adult, these grandparents mean more than extra gifts on Christmases, birthdays or other holidays. They are more than a grandparent who happily produces grilled cheese sandwiches and pink lemonade on request, as my own grandmother once did.
To my wife, her sister and their cousins, I know there is a unique appreciation for “Gramps,” “PaPaw” and “MeMaw.” At the same time, however, I also know these grandchildren have been around their maternal and paternal forerunners for a lifetime, so their relationships are one healthy part doted-upon-grandchild and one part grown-up who is fortunate to still have grandparents around to enjoy.
For me, these additions to my extended family present an opportunity to develop relationships I’ve never really known, as well a more or less unbiased appreciation for a generation of people who had an enormous impact on the formation of our state and nation.
And during the past couple of years, some of the skills — such that they are — that I have honed from a decade or so in the newspaper business afforded me a unique opportunity to achieve special insight into the people who are now my living grandparents.
Specifically, in recent years, my wife’s maternal grandparents celebrated a couple of milestone birthdays. As “official chronicler of news” in the family — more or less — I was invited to compile family memories, as well as a lifetime of photos into mock newspaper editions to commemorate a couple of 80th birthday celebrations. In completing these projects, I enjoyed the chance to learn a little bit about the lives my wife’s grandparents have led — lives they enjoyed long before my wife was even a twinkle in the eyes of her parents. Through this process, I reported a little bit on their wedding and life together, the growth and development of their family and some of their high points and adventures in life. I compiled anecdotal stories from children and grandchildren and included all the details in a one-sheet limited edition newspaper. In completing these “special editions,” I learned a lot about the people ultimately responsible for the life of my wife. I also developed a greater appreciation for having these people in the life of me and my wife.
This weekend, my wife’s paternal grandfather celebrates his 90th birthday with a collection of family and friends from throughout the nation (and the party is a surprise, so if you run into Gramps before mid-day Saturday — “mum” is the word!). Once again, I was offered a great opportunity to put together a newspaper commemorating the life of a grandparent I have been fortunate to know for only a handful of years. It gave me a chance to appreciate, celebrate and salute the life of an individual who is truly part of our “greatest generation.” And let me tell you, as I put together “Miller Messenger,” I learned just how “great” Gramps and the people of his fading generation truly are.
A current resident of the Village at Abernethy Laurels, Paul J. Miller was born July 19, 1921. About 20 years later, he married his late wife, Lillian, and just a couple of years later, he joined his American volunteer peers and marched off to join World War II. Like so many who joined the overseas war effort, P.J. left behind a young wife and a young son as he was stationed thousands of miles away in the China-Burma-India Theater of the war. A member of the U.S. Signal Corps, he was part of the U.S. Army’s Signals Intelligence unit and was part of a covert “American Enigma” operation linked to a code-breaking effort that helped turn the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor.
When Japan surrendered, he returned to the U.S., and, again like so many in his generation, he quietly went to work shaping the America we know today. He fathered two more children, joined the U.S. Postal Service, where he became an inspector, and ultimately held important positions in the USPS’s headquarters in Manhattan.
Even after he retired, Gramps never really rested. He continued to be actively involved in church congregations and councils and with the Lutheran Services for the Aging. In fact, it has only been within the past couple of years that he has even showed signs of slowing down, but hey, approaching 90, he’s earned the right to slow down.
He’s earned more than that, too. He, and others like him that are quickly fading from our company, have earned our recognition and our respect. They have earned our gratitude.
As a grandson who has married into his distinguished family, I am proud to have a chance to offer a bit of appreciation, even if it is just through a mock newspaper that salutes some of the highlights of his life.
Meanwhile, at age 35, I can’t help but think about the accomplishments Gramps achieved by the time he was my age. In doing so, it is easy to find cause for renewed dedication to my career, family and life in hopes that I can somehow rise to the example he set. If I can become half the person Gramps has been in his life — and if others of my own generation can do likewise — we might finally be able to help lift our nation to the lofty foundation our “greatest generation” laid for us.
Michael Willard is the publisher of and a columnist for The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the weekend edition. Reach Willard at firstname.lastname@example.org .