Yesterday afternoon we said our final goodbyes to my grandfather, Maurice Pokarney. He was a wonderful man who lived a very full life. It was an honor and privilege to speak at his memorial service alongside my cousin, Krissy. I am so very grateful for the impact he had in my life and for the love that he gave. He will be missed.
My Grapa wore many hats in his life, and I mean that in both a literal and figurative sense. It wasn’t often that you’d find him without something covering his head – usually a baseball cap, or one of a variety of hats advertising his favorite seed company, farm implement brand or supplier, car dealership logos, and even in one instance at Walt Disney World a very festive sombrero. He was many things to many people – a devoted husband, a loving father, a patient grand and great-grandfather, a dedicated brother, and trusted friend – but when I think back on the most significant role Grapa occupied in my life, I think of him as one of my greatest teachers. It’s no secret that he valued education, both his own and that of his children and grandchildren. He even took a vested interest in the schooling of his great-grandchildren, going so far as to play school in his basement with my daughters, taking the role of teacher and ringing the bell to let McKenna and Elaina know that class was in session. Not a visit to Grama & Grapa’s would go by without him asking “How’s school?”. I’ve heard that question from him probably hundreds of times as I worked my way through grade school, high school, college, and now as a professional working in the school setting. He was a school board president for many years and was always present in our school activities growing up whether it was beginning of the year open houses, musical performances, Grandparent Days, or athletic events. Coordinating schedules for school based activities for eight grandchildren could not have been an easy task, but he was always there. He was not an educator in the traditional sense – standing in front of a classroom of 20 plus students, leading them through nine months of curriculum – but he taught me through his words and actions how to live with purpose and meaning, leading me through an unofficial lesson plan that taught me more than I could ever hope to gain in a lifetime.
He taught me to love and appreciate the arts – live musical performances and theater especially. He loved the sound of his granddaughters playing their musical instrument of choice and never missed a choral concert if one of us was performing. He had a deep appreciation for those gifted with the ability to perform either instrumentally or vocally. He always had holiday music playing at their house on Christmas Day and enjoyed the hand bells and singing hymns in church.
I learned about the art of story telling from my Grapa and the importance of sharing lessons learned and life experiences lived for the purpose of both entertainment and understanding of who you are and where you come from. A few years ago he put the finishing touches on his memoirs, a document that will forever be treasured by his family. You could always count on him for replaying a story from his childhood, and I cherish the stories he has shared with us over the years. One particular instance stands out for me among all the others. One summer weekend my parents, brother, Grama and Grapa, and I took a camping trip to Comlara Park. Late in the evening, we were all gathered around the campfire before turning in for the night. Admittedly I can’t remember the details of the story he was sharing, but I can picture him telling it like it’s happening again right in front of me. The ball game was playing quietly on Grapa’s radio in the background. Leaning back in his lawn chair, long arms reaching down to leisurely snack on the popcorn sitting next to him on the ground, Grapa was so engrossed reliving whatever life event he was sharing with us that night that he didn’t notice he had attracted another audience member. As he reached blindly for another bite of popcorn, he broke the peaceful ambiance of that night under the stars with a favorite curse word and a quick leap out of his chair when he saw a local raccoon had decided to join him in sharing the popcorn. Even though I don’t remember what he was telling us, I’ll always recall that feeling of traveling back in time with him. Grapa told stories in a way that made you feel like you were there and always gave me a better understanding of how he became the man I knew.
Grapa taught me about the importance of laughter and how to enjoy a good joke. I will never forget the sound of his booming laugh following what was, most likely, a rather inappropriate joke shared between his brother or one of his daughters-in-law. Even in his final hours as we gathered around him in our grief we found a way to laugh and maybe even make a few inappropriate references here and there. Humor and laughter is what our family does best through all of life’s most triumphant and most challenging moments.
Grapa taught all of us to embrace a sense of adventure. He enjoyed traveling, spending weeks during the winter in Florida and escaping to Minnesota and his angler’s haven on Lake Winnie during the late summer. To step up the adventure factor to an entirely new level, he even brought along some of his grandchildren on a few of these journeys. He took some of us to Minnesota to share in his love of fishing and others of us to Dubois, IL for family reunions. One year he welcomed my family of four as we invaded his restful Florida getaway, a trip that resulted in a well earned nickname of Chief White Legs thanks to his standard uniform of either jeans and a Hanes t-shirt or khaki slacks and a pressed buttoned up shirt. For the rest of my life, the two weeks that I spent with Grapa, Grama and Krissy traveling up the coast of California and into Oregon will forever remain some of my most magical, memorable, and cherished memories. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I am so grateful for the moments we shared traveling up the California coast.
I don’t think anyone would argue with me that Grapa was a model of what it meant to be loyal. From his life long dedication to his beloved St. Louis Cardinals, to his devotion to everything John Deere, to his allegiance to the Redbirds of Illinois State University, Grapa stuck by that which he believed in. Grapa also demonstrated his loyalty through his relationships with his pets. Can any of you remember a time when they lived on the farm when Grapa didn’t have a dog trailing him? When I think of Grapa walking the yard, working the garden, or driving the jeep, I always picture Dutchess or Rufus at his side. And, of course, this show of loyalty also extended far into his personal relationships, from fifty-nine years of marriage to my Grama to unbreakable family bonds and life long childhood friendships; Grapa was the walking definition of loyalty.
My Grapa possessed the most inspiring work ethic. He was never idle in body or mind, always finding a project to plan or execute. Grapa was one of the hardest working men I knew both through his work in the farming industry and by his acts of service through participation on boards in both our school district and church. I will forever be amazed at his ability to cultivate the most beautiful products, from crops in his fields to abundant garden produce and spectacular flowers of all variety. He had an appreciation for the land like no one I know, and I will never pass a beautiful display of wave petunias without thinking of him. He, of course, did his best to instill the importance of hard work in all of us as well. There were many summer days where my brother and I pulled our rickety wagon through our neighborhood pedaling Grapa’s famous sweet corn. One particular summer afternoon Grapa decided to bring his two townie grandkids out to the farm for some “hands on” field work. Armed with a bean hook, a handkerchief for wiping away sweat, and a small cooler of snacks, he taught Erik and I how to walk beans. I think we lasted two rows before collapsing under the shade of a large tree to suck down the Hi-C and Twinkies Grama had packed for us; I like to think that our work ethic has improved with age, and we can thank him and the example he set for us for that.
These are all things my Grapa has taught me through his words and his actions. None of these lessons compare to the most important thing I learned from Grapa, and that is the importance of family. Grapa loved his family. He enjoyed when we all gathered together at their house for homemade ice cream and fresh strawberries. He delighted in planning and attending Pokarney family reunions. He loved when extended family came to Illinois for visits and could often be found walking with his camera, taking pictures to permanently capture those moments when we were all together in fellowship. He was present for us whenever we needed him and wasn’t afraid to show his affection for us, especially later in life. Nothing made Grapa’s eyes shine brighter than being in the presence of his great-grandchildren – all of them brought him so much joy. The final words he said to me, sitting in his chair with a smile on his face, were “Tell that husband of yours and those girls I said hi. I love you”. Our last visit together was one I will always cherish.
Grapa lived a full life. He was respected and loved by many, and I am honored to have had him in my life and to be able to share some of these special memories with all of you. Thank you, Grapa, and my hat's off to you for eighty-one years of an A+ effort. Class dismissed.