Saturday, May 16, 2015

My Father, My Mentor

I spoke these words at my father's celebration of life on 15 May 2015, before a room full of family and friends at Sheets Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, NC.

Charles Earion Sutherland overcame much, giving me a better start than he had. 
Growing up in the prevailing poverty of depression-era Gilliam Bottom, a coal-mining community in West Virginia, limited a young persons options. It was sometimes said that a young man had three choices: coal mine, moonshine, or moving on down the line.

The harshness of a rough start can distract a young person from doing well or from finishing school. That is what happened to Dad. My father’s grandpa, James Buel Sutherland, took notice and invited him to join him in the coal mine. 

"Since you are done with school, it's where you'll will wind up, eventually."

Still just a boy he must have been impressed with the long elevator descent into the deep darkness of the coal mine revealed a dank world where hard-working men traded their health for the wages to put food on the table for their families. He remembered the water as waist-deep, and the spectacle of a rat swimming from one wall to another remained fresh in his mind decades later. That was the last time, the only time he went into the mine. He decided to move on down the line.

Grandpas are important, but that’s another story.
My Dad joined the Navy, who schooled him to be a machinist. During a shore leave in 1952, his mother, Katherine, introduced him to my mother and what farm girl can resist a wiry young man in uniform?

After he had left the Navy, General Motors employed him as a tool and die maker in Flint Michigan. Not long after that, he was laid off and instead of waiting to be called back, he moved his family to Martinsville VA where he searched for full-time employment. Being a skilled machinist but lacking a high school diploma meant, he was able to obtain only one temporary position after another. When I was a boy, he often told me “to stay in school” because he had lived the consequences of not having done so.
He also followed his advice, after he rejoined the military, the Army. He completed his GED along with many other military schools, and after he was working for the Civil Service, he even earned his MBA. Of course, he knew it would have been better to have completed his education as a young man, but he also knew you can’t start where you were, you have to move on from where your are.

His naval experience proved invaluable in 1965 when the Army commissioned the USNS Corpus Christi Bay (T-ARVH-1), a helicopter repair ship designed to perform depot level maintenance for the extensive helicopter corps engaged in combat and support operations in Vietnam.

Two years later, while assigned to the 5th Infantry Division, he was awarded the Bronze Star for saving two American lives during close-quarters combat, where he was also awarded the Purple Heart for a bayonet wound and other serious injuries.
The nature of bayonet wounds suggest a personal level of violence, the details of which would be upsetting for many people; therefore, I will end my description here, but for anyone interested I will freely share them with you during a sidebar discussion, if you ask me for them. Needless to say, his example of physical courage under difficult circumstances influenced me throughout my life. I believe such examples are essential for boys to reject child-like fears and to become men, and here’s a secret all men know and women would do well to try to understand, men desire to be known as dangerous men. My Dad was the most dangerous man I ever knew.

After his Vietnam tours, he went on to serve in the US Army in various capacities in many other assignments, culminating with his retirement as the Army promoted him to Sergeant Major. For personal reasons he elected to retire shortly after that, having served a total of 28 years in uniform, he then served another 20 years with the Department of Defense as an exemplary maintenance repair facilities manager.

During that time, he celebrated the significant milestones of my ongoing military career, and we maintained an increasingly close relationship, albeit from long distance, most of the time.
One event we shared was the passing of his closest friend. After the funeral, my Dad and I spent the night in his RV. Experiencing the loss of his friend, my Dad began asking me questions about the Bible and Jesus. From 8:00 PM to around 2:30 the following morning I answered questions until my voice eventually failed. At the time, I'd been a Christian for 22 years, and in those hours I shared most of what I'd learned. Later than morning, Dad accepted the salvation of our Christ, the Lord Jesus. How cool is that?

Over the next three months, my Dad read the Bible straight through. He later told me how he had been both impressed and embarrassed that his son knew so much about the Bible, while he did not. 

When my mother had a debilitating stroke in 1998, he began another journey of personal service. Aided much by my sister, Anita, and later on by his mother, whom many of you knew, he cared for my mother for 2 1/2 years during her most dependent years, until she passed away.

Then something extraordinary happened.
A series of interesting coincidences merged and my father met Vernell.  What followed was 14 years, where he was the happiest I’d ever known him to be. During those years, they visited my family in Louisiana and many other places as they completed their great adventure. I count myself fortunate to have shared a small portion of those best years with them.

Some of you have experienced a close relationship with my father in his mature years, where he transformed into a philosopher of sorts, for me he maintained the role as mentor by example, where his actions were object lessons from which I gleaned wisdom as I could. That remains true, even today, after his passing.

His form of teaching requires the learner to add value to the lesson, in order to discover the treasure hidden behind the words and actions.

 My Dad taught me a lot of things; I will share six of them with you:

1. Stay in school: In other words, “School, which includes high school, college, graduate programs, trade schools, profession education, etc., will reward the graduate with knowledge, credentials and a network which will establish the foundation of your reputation.”

2. You don’t have to stay where are, but you can’t start from where you were. We all have to move on from where we are to get where we decide to go. In other words, “you have the freedom to make your choices, but ultimately your choices will make you.”
3. Do things with your family and make friends wherever you go. Go places, dance with your Mom, and take a few pictures when you can. In other words, “Our life isn’t complete unless we share memories with other people. Those memories will be what remain after our family members, friends, and even when we reach the end of our life on this earth. God gives us a family to start our lives with, but He arranges opportunities for us to expand our network with friends, who can become closer than family.”

4. Help your friends when you can. Chances are your friends will survive the challenges that come their way; however, if you can help them, then you get to celebrate the victory with them. I’ve had several people share personal/private testimonies over the last few days of how my Dad had helped them during their challenges. The cool part is that he had never told me those stories; I remained impressed with his humbleness. In other words, “Leave your friends some good, untold stories to tell others about you when you are gone.”

5. When he left his childhood behind, he decided to live his life without fear. Imagine how great was his joy when he discovered that the “Sutherland Coat of Arms Family Motto” read “Without Fear”. He often advised me to avoid trouble when possible, but when trouble leaves you with no escape, then hit it with everything you can and get out of there as fast as possible. During such times, surviving is paramount; smiling is optional. In other words, “Don’t live in fear of anything; go around trouble if possible, but when that’s not possible, boldly go through it as quickly as possible.”

6. This brings me to the final lesson. We’re living it right now. My Dad taught me not to be sad because something was over; instead, I should be happy because it happened. Today we are celebrating my Dad's life because it happened from July 28, 1930 to May 10, 2015. Thank you for being part of this celebration.