The greatest man I ever knew died on Monday.
Harlan Walls was 84 and had lived as rich and as full a life as most men ever dreamed of. On Friday, I will get to help carry him to his grave in Tazewell County's rich earth.
The last of seven sons, the 12th of 13 children for Andy Reid Walls and Martha Ann Jestes Walls, Granddad was born in Coalfield (Morgan County), Tennessee, on Dec. 7, 1913.
In 1938 he married Anna Clemons.
Granddad's family made a living from coal in Tennessee. And when he finished his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Tennessee, he was offered a way out of coal country: the Tennessee Valley Authority offered him a job. But one of his professors at UT told him that the TVA was just a political program and probably wouldn't exist in a few years. So Granddad turned it down and went to work instead in the coal industry. It was a story he told often and with a smile; he never seemed to regret that twist of fate...
Before long coal brought my Granddad to Buchanan County, Va., and to Jewell Smokeless Coke and Coal. Until 1964 he was Jewell's general manager. Then he moved to Diamond Coal in Pike County, Ky., where he was a vice-president until his retirement in 1980.
He and Grandma lived in Richlands, Va., in Tazewell County.
But Granddad's life extended far beyond the coal industry.
- He was a fairly active member of the Baptist Church.
- He served on the Richlands Town Planning Commission and the Tazewell County School Board.
- He was part of a Kiwanis Club.
- He started the first scholarship program at Southwest Virginia Community College, near Richlands.
- And he served on the Board of Directors for Virginia Intermont College - a Baptist school near Bristol, Va.
Granddad was the happiest man I ever meet. He smiled reflexively. He rarely seemed threatening in what anger or dissatisfaction he might have occasionally displayed.
Among my earliest memories is the ride from my childhood home in Georgia to the mountains of Virginia. The grass was greener, the sky was bluer, the water was clearer and even the bricks of the town's houses were a different shade of red.
I remember that Granddad cooked the best pork ribs on Earth. I remember wishing that when I got old enough to cook, Granddad would give me the recipe that he teasingly claimed was a secret when I was a boy.
I remember that even in those rare moments when Harlan Walls actually was too busy for me (or someone else) as a child, he took pains to be sure that he never seemed too busy.
And I remember that few people ever left Granddad with anything but a smile.
That strength of character, that graciousness in dealing with people and what always seemed to me to be an ability to do anything he wanted to, and do it well -- those things come close to summing up why Granddad was the greatest man I ever knew, but they are still not a sufficient explanation. And that truth is that some of the man's greatness defies explanation...
Death takes all...
When the funeral arrangements for Granddad began to be finalized, the idea of reading a poem was suggested. Dylan Thomas immediate leapt to mind:
Old age should burn and rave at break of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
But Granddad had specifically requested that another poem be read - a poem with almost the opposite message. The poem he asked for, only a day before his death, was William Cullen Bryant's Thanatopsis.
Dylan Thomas's poem is about a common experience: we all lose people we love. Thomas was writing about his experience watching his own father die. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is the poem for anyone who has been the cheerleader, watching someone else die.
Thanatopsis is about a rarer experience. It is a poem about facing personally the arrival of the appointed hour of death. The poem acknowledges that everyone dies, and suggests that we have a choice: we can go to the grave like a slave being beaten into submission; or we can go to the grave with grace and dignity, as if we are simply moving to a new home.
Few people get the chance to actually face death. We see death take others much more often than we see it coming for us. Granddad was afforded that privilege. Cancer tested my Granddad's character and personality and had little impact on him. At the age of 84, after being told he had a tumor in his lung that would probably kill him, he continued to mow his own grass, worry about his tomatoes and speak at college dinners.
And when the time came, Granddad faced death, and embraced it almost at will. When his life seemed spent and living made no more sense, he stopped living - before anyone really expected it.
May God grant that I do as well - both in death and in life...