A Tribute to My Grandfather:
On the morning of Sunday January 18, 2009, my grandfather suffered a severe stroke. When it happened, he was shoveling the driveway so he could get the Sunday paper. On that snowy Sunday morning, he was 98 years, four months and twenty days old. And may I say, his wasn’t just a short, level little slab of asphalt. His was a steep—precipitously steep—long (even for those of us many years his junior)—backbreakingly long—driveway. I wouldn’t have wanted to shovel it. Especially not if I could see that my neighbor was out shoveling his driveway, and I knew that in twenty minutes or so that neighbor would be over to shovel mine, as was the case that day. But I am not Poppop. And I daresay no one else is either.
I had the great privilege of knowing my grandfather for 39 years. I am aware of how rare and how lucky that is. But that almost 40 years was just a fraction of his long and extremely productive life. He said to me quite recently, “When you get to be as old as I am, so much of life just seems like a dream.” I suppose this is no wonder.
Harry James Colver, Jr. was born on August 30, 1910 in Philadelphia, PA, the second of three sons born to Harry J. Colver Sr. and Laura Stetler Colver. The April before he was born, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth, and though the Model T had been introduced two years earlier, most Americans still traveled via horse and buggy.
My Grandfather was two when the Titanic sunk and seven when the U.S. entered the First World War. He was ten years old and already working hard at his father’s feed mill business in Boyertown, PA with his brothers Erve and Don, when the first radio stations were set up in the U.S. He often recalled standing atop the big mill water wheel, riding it down, and leaping off just before it plunged into the stream.
When the stock market crashed…the big stock market crash in 1929 (he would weather several others after), he was working his way through Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. He told us stories about how he’d attend school one year, then take the next year off to drive the feed delivery truck all over the Pennsylvania Area, from Boyertown to Philadelphia and back again, to earn enough money for next year’s tuition. He regaled us with his ventures on the basketball court and the soccer field at Catawba. He earned a varsity letter there. He traded it for a raincoat.
My grandfather attended Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA and was ordained in 1937, the year Roosevelt was sworn in for a second term and Amelia Earhart disappeared over New Guinea.
He and my grandmother were married on October 28, 1939 and began 69 years of marriage by riding down the main street of Stroudsburg in a horse-drawn carriage with a hand-lettered sign perched on top, reading, “Just leaving on life’s tour…A Little Slow but Happy! “ They made quite a scene, the carriage adorned with streamers, the driver bespectacled and top-hatted, townspeople hanging out of windows and hooting. Much to my surprise, I have learned that my grandfather thought this was something unbecoming for a young, upstanding minister. They had their first and only child, my mother, several years later.
Poppop did his earliest pastoring at St. Peter’s Evangelical and Reform Church in Allentown PA where he served from 1937 to 1941. And as the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, my grandfather began what would be a thirty-four year tenure at First Evangelical and Reformed Church, later called First UCC Church in Bethlehem. Poppop always just called it “First Church.” He served this church on the South Side of Bethlehem during the height of the steel era. While there, he would oversee a membership of nearly 700, three choirs, an active youth program and a yearly Easter Sunday service renowned in the area for its giant cross of lilies, accessible and entertaining sermons, and remarkable music.
During the nineteen fifties, my grandfather was elected President of the Bethlehem School Board and hosted his own radio show, “Religion of the Air.” In 1955 he traveled to Europe with 65 cows as a part of the Heifer Project, to aid farmers in post-war Germany. Though at the time he was leading a large, urban church, his heart always remained with farmers. He was accompanied in Europe by his friend and fellow minister, Clarence Moatz. Ever a great fisherman, Poppop frequently told us of Canadian fishing trips with Clarence. He and Clarence would pick a stream in Ontario, drive up in a day, pitch a tent, fish for a few days and then return home to Pennsylvania with a cooler full of fish the size of watermelons.
In 1965 he was appointed chaplain of the State Senate of Pennsylvania. Two years after he married my parents and one year before he baptized me, Poppop saw men walk on the moon.
He “retired”, and I put that in quotes, in 1975. I was five years old.
This began another thirty years of interim ministry, first in the Lehigh Valley and then in Central Pennsylvania after my grandfather and grandmother moved to Lewisburg in the early 1980s. He and my grandmother served churches in Spring Mills, Pillow, Freeburg, Herndon, Rebuck, Sunbury, Mifflinburg, and Milton, to name a few. Though he achieved his greatest success in a large church, his love, particularly in his later years, was in serving the small country churches where he said he could throw in his trout line during the prelude, check it during the offertory, and pull it up right after the benediction.
During his many decades of ministry, he preached fifty consecutive Easter Sunday services.
He presided over countless weddings including mine when he was 85 and my brother’s when he was 89, and he baptized scores of babies including my mother, myself, my brother Wes, and in 2007 at the age of 97, my daughter Cate.
In 2003, squarely in the center of the digital age, my grandfather was honored by St. John’s United Church of Christ in Milton, PA for sixty-five years in the ministry. When asked by a reporter for the secret to his years of service and dedication he responded, “I never felt that I worked. It’s been fun all the way through.” My grandfather did what he loved, and he loved what he did. He loved talking to people. My grandfather could make conversation with a fence post. He loved becoming a part of people’s lives and learning about their kids and grandkids. He loved inviting them down to the cabin in Virginia to fish for flounder, crab and rake clams. He loved being part of a community. And he loved being a minister.
Poppop preached in illustrations, aphorisms, and stories. My mother and grandmother can recite most of them by heart. But I remember in particular, one little saying he included in his again, quote, “retirement” address. It went like this “I was looking back to see if you was looking back to see if I was looking back to look at you.” I have no idea what the context was, and honestly I remember nothing else from the speech, but this phrase stuck with me. I liked the way it sounded, of course. But more than that, I was puzzled by it. As I tried to work it through in my mind, I created a mental image of two people on a roller coaster, one in front of the other. If “I was looking back,” (i.e. looking over my shoulder), “to see if you was looking back,” then you, logically, must have been sitting behind me. But if “I was looking back to see if you was looking back to see if I was looking back”….how could that be? How could you be looking over your shoulder to see me if I was sitting in front of you? What it took me, I am embarrassed to say, literally years to realize is that the two people in this little saying are walking away from one another. “I was looking back to see if you was looking back to see if I was looking back to look at you.” Which, given that this was a quote in a retirement speech, makes sense.
The irony of this is, of course, that my grandfather NEVER looked back. I think it was one of the primary keys to his remarkable health and longevity. That and the willingness to make frequent trips to the doctor. Though he could walk into the kitchen with a fish hook squarely through his finger and just show it to you like it was an oddity and maybe even a little bit funny, he had no reluctance whatsoever about frequent visits to the doctor. He was a lesson in preventative medicine.
But my Poppop was also the most forward-thinking person I have ever known. An avid and genius gardener, the tomatoes he had planted on his sun porch were up two inches and the beds around his driveway had just been rebuilt for spring planting, when he passed. He walked forward through life with no regrets about the past, never second-guessing his choices, steadily welcoming tomorrow. I am trying to learn this from him. When Poppop did look back, it was primarily to revel. To tell and retell stories from his remarkable past, and to ensure that those he had valued still remained fresh in his, and our, minds. Perhaps the notion of that phrase that stuck with me, “I was looking back to see if you was looking back…” was that though we may walk away from one another, we will always look back to keep an eye on those that mattered. And they, God-willing, will be looking back at us.
When I walk away from Lewisburg, and head back to New York City I will look back. I always look back. But I will also go home to my small apartment, get out the pots and the potting soil, place them under the window, and plant my tomatoes for the spring.