Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Happy Birthday, Uncle Jack!
My Uncle Jack was born 102 years ago today. He died in 1987 at the age of 80. He was the third of four children in the family where my mother was the youngest, three years his junior. Born near Philadelphia, he lived his entire life in the state of Pennsylvania. In his later years he also owned a winter home in Tequesta, Florida. He earned an M.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania around 1930 and set up medical practice in the little town of Annville, between Hershey and Lebanon, where I believe he was also the campus doctor at Lebanon Valley College for a time. He ended up marrying his nurse, my Aunt Ruth, who hailed from Pittsburgh.
During my senior year of high school, my mother died at the age of 47 after a long bout with cancer. I was valedictorian of my class that year and received a one-year, tuition-only scholarship from the small school district, but most of the money my parents had tried to save for my college years went to pay for my mother’s hospital bills and funeral expenses. The summer after I graduated, I traveled all the way from Texas to Pennsylvania on a bus to visit various members of my mother’s family I had met four years earlier. While I was there, Uncle Jack presented me with a check for $750.00 (a lot of money in 1958), enough to pay for the dormitory and cafeteria fees and all of my personal expenses for the whole year. He also gave me a plane ticket so that I could stay a little longer and return home on something other than a bus. (“Now I know why they call it Greyhound,” my mother’s sister said after one trip, “it’s because you feel like a dog when you get off.”) It was my first plane ride, and I traveled on a DC-3 from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, where I changed to a DC-6 and flew on to Fort Worth. It was heady stuff for a kid of seventeen who lived in a house without indoor plumbing.
When our children were small and Mrs. RWP and I were living in south Florida, Uncle Jack and Aunt Ruth flew to Fort Lauderdale to go on a Caribbean cruise out of Port Everglades. They invited us to meet them aboard ship before they embarked so that they could meet their great-niece and two great-nephews, and we went. I presented them with a bottle of champagne I had won in a contest on a big jet plane while returning from a business trip for IBM.
More years passed. Each family is different. Some families live close together and gather frequently. Our family never gathered at all and lived hundreds of miles apart. But if we didn’t see each other for ten years, we still loved one another and were glad it hadn’t been twenty.
A couple of years after my Aunt Ruth died, Uncle Jack married for a second time to Aunt Harriet, the widow of a doctor friend of theirs. Although we had never met, I spoke with her on the telephone after his death and told her how much Uncle Jack had meant to me and what he had done to help me through my first year of college. She said that she had received calls of a similar nature from several other people also, and that she hadn’t known he had helped so many because he never spoke of it. He just did what he thought was right and didn't look for applause.
Here’s Uncle Jack and my mother around the time he graduated from medical school.