I was remembering almost exactly ten years ago when i did a pretty crazy thing… i flew from Japan to Los Angeles to defend my PhD dissertation and then flew on to New Jersey- with a two month old baby. I pretty much had to do the PhD thing; but the New Jersey part – and flying with our amazingly beautiful little Owen — were not required. But I flew home to surprise my Dad, who was turning 75 years old. He came to the Philadelphia Airport – he thought he was picking up my sister Hannah. I went over to him in baggage claim and asked if he would hold my baby so I could get my luggage off the belt. He said sure, and put out his hands to hold a stranger’s baby. NO CLUE. I said, “Dad?” … his legs buckled and my sisters and I all grabbed the baby who almost was dropped in the shock of things. It was an awesome surprise (but I decided not to risk doing it again for fear of a true heart attack!); we had a really special 75th birthday celebration.
Ten years later, and alas, I was not able to fly home to celebrate this time. But my two sisters Allison and Beth, and their husbands, did an amazing job last night celebrating a life well-lived. What was going to be a small dinner party grew to about 25 – people in the area who have been significant to my dad over the years. I would have loved to be there, but I’m thankful for the video that was made and can’t wait to see it! I was able to skype in for a short time but it was a bad connection and I didn’t want to pull him away from such a special event. (Below is one of my favorite pictures of my Dad and my youngest son! Hilarious! Taken in Lancaster, PA)
Rather than me trying to write what I love so much about this man, I am going to use excerpts of(without permission!) the letter that my sister Hannah from Montana sent to be read to my dad. She too was unable to get back for the celebration. I am sharing this to a) to brag about the dad I love so much; and b) to inspire us all as parents, mentors, and lovers-of-life. My Dad has such an amazing way of celebrating life and loving people. My sister says it best.
This summer, I had the privilege of having dinner with two of my father’s students [and a fellow teacher of his]. … Under the big starry sky of my Montana home, I was given the rare opportunity to sit with men who knew my dad in a way I had not really known him before. Story after story came out about my dad as a teacher. How Merry figured out a way to sit in on his class, even though he did not need those credits and would not get credit for it, simply because he wanted to learn from Mr. Plumb. Even in Middle School, these two extra-ordinary students figured out that my dad was an extra-ordinary teacher and sitting under his tutelage meant learning and being challenged and getting prepared for the ivy league schools they would later attend. There were stories about his tests that required more than memorizing answers – they required thinking and learning. And stories about using history lessons to convey the deep faith he had in God. Somehow, my dad wasn’t able to bring these guys into the fold of the Republican party so we had a few laughs at his expense that we imagined he would have enjoyed as a good start to a long discussion that would range from politics to history, religion, and somehow, always, the NY Times. Long into the night, I learned about my dad, the beloved teacher, the green thumb gardener, the colleague and friend. And I was proud in a my-heart-is-filled-up grateful-to-be-his-daughter kind of way.
While John and Merry got to have my dad as their teacher, I got to have him as my mentor. Teaching was something he deliberately chose to do. Mentoring was something I think happened almost without his knowing it. Growing up, my father became that wise and trusted counselor and teacher to me. It happened when I was out in his old beat up Chevy truck hunting for hidden sources of peat moss or firewood. Or the hours I spent with him driving the back roads of S. Jersey, the summer he took a job counting gypsy moths. Days spent in the garden and greenhouse, I learned how life springs from a tiny seed and some care, and how to build compost and grow fruit trees; I discovered how to grow plants from cuttings and watched him turn what we deemed a crazy idea into a boxwood empire. Time spent in the woods of the Poconos, I learned the names of plants and birds and trees. With all the knowledge I received as a kid, I should be a walking field guide [that I am sadly, not.]
Besides the workings of the natural world around me, my dad taught me things that are not written in books or taught in classrooms. They are taught by doing and living and those are the lessons I count most as the gifts I received for being a daughter of Bill Plumb.
My dad never turned away a friend or stranger. I grew up in a home with a revolving door that brought to our table missionaries, long-time military buddies, colleagues, students, pastors, and teachers. Late in the night he was holding the head of the man struggling with an addiction after everyone else went home. Or finding odd jobs around the house to help out the young friend struggling to make ends meet. Offering friendship to the father from Russia who barely spoke English but broke into a smile that spoke it all when he saw my dad. Living under the same roof as Bill Plumb meant Thanksgiving would probably look a lot like that first Thanksgiving with people who didn’t speak the same language. I recall one Thanksgiving in particular when we had a Frenchman, an Italian student, a Japanese couple, and a seminarian from Korea. It was a very quiet meal with a lot of pointing. People mattered in the house I grew up in.
And I learned about integrity from my dad; saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Even more challenging – living it! I learned about generosity and extravagant giving from my dad – I watched him bail out a once-millionaire headed for bankruptcy; offer money to a young man struggling to keep his family together; help me buy land and build a home so I would have a permanent place to live after moving around a lot. I learned what it is to give of your time when my dad would go to the fruit packing plant down the road and pick through the fruits and vegetables they were throwing away. There was so much good food being wasted that, for a man who had been through a war and lived in a third world country, is was about as wrong as any criminal offense out there. Twice a week we would go dig around in the big food bins of discarded food to salvage the good stuff. We would load that old red Chevy with it and drive it into Camden to a few different food banks he had worked with in the past. It was about investing in people and lives and programs because people mattered. The list of those giving lessons goes on.
I could go on but I realize there are others who would like to share what my dad has been to them, or taught them. There are literally hundreds of people walking around in the world today who had my dad as a teacher and I believe are different because of it. They are lucky. But I got to have him as a mentor, as a father, as a living example of the things I would not have learned without his life.
Dad, I have so many things to thank you for today. Thank you that I know the difference between a fir tree and a spruce tree. Thank you that I know the importance of composting and good soil. And that I turn off the water when I brush my teeth because our resources are limited and we are responsible for what we have been given. Thank you that you let me ask questions and have doubts in my faith while always encouraging me to continue seeking and trusting God. Thanks for the debates we will have the rest of our lives because you allowed me to have different opinions – and express them – even when you disagreed. Thank you that I was drawn into the work I do at the youth shelter because you taught me to love people – even broken, seemingly unlovable people – in a way that calls me out of myself and into the lives of others.