John Craighead died last month in Missoula. To most people he was known as a grizzly bear expert and an outstanding conservationist. To me, he was all of that, but he was also the guy who broke my Uncle John’s nose.
I hasten to add that it happened under legitimate circumstances, during a boxing match at Penn State somewhere around 1938. This memory came to my mind like a gift from above as I was thinking about all the depressing current events I could write about today. So this column is about a man I thought the world of, my Uncle John.
For as long as I can remember, my family, without fail, has had a family reunion every 43 years, which means I remember two of them. The first one was at my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1949, and the second in 1992.
My father had died in 1972, and I had not seen Uncle John for at least 30 years. It was at that reunion that I thought, “This is a man worth knowing,” and I made it a point to visit him almost annually after that.
Uncle John was 15 years younger than my dad (whom he worshipped), rose from poverty to become a nuclear engineer, and rose from that to become a humanitarian.
His father was a farmer, and not a good one under the best of circumstances. They farmed near Letcher, S.D., during the Dust Bowl era. This was when the earth blew away in great dust clouds to cover everything but the seeds, which blew away with the rest of the dirt.
In 1930, after three successive crop failures, my father drove to South Dakota, packed up his mother and father and brother and sister, and moved them to Pennsylvania, where he farmed. Uncle John was about 13. He finished his secondary education and with great trepidation applied to Penn State. He worked his way through college by icing refrigerated railroad cars, moving 200 pound blocks of ice from icehouses to the ice bins in the cars.
Like my father, he was a Republican, and like my father he hated Franklin Roosevelt to his dying day. In fact, in one of our last conversations in 2000 he was still blaming Roosevelt for the ills of the country.
So he got his nose broken, got his engineering degree, and went to work at DuPont, eventually working at the Savannah River Nuclear Authority near Augusta, Ga.
“My life began,” he once told me, “after I retired.”
He lived in Aiken, S.C., near Augusta, a pretty little town with broad streets with dirt “boulevards” separating the lanes. Remembering the Dust Bowl, Uncle John thought the bare ground was unsightly, and he asked the town council if they would plant flowers there. The town pleaded poverty so, with their permission, he bought flower starts and planted, watered and cared for them himself. This eventually shamed the town into taking over the job.
In the once-segregated South he was colorblind. He built homes with Habitat for Humanity, founded homes for unwed mothers and was appointed to the South Carolina Parole Board. His kids told me that growing up they never knew who they would find at their dinner table, and one Christmas my Methodist Uncle John invited a small group of visiting Muslim Pakistanis home to share their holiday dinner.
I admired him because he was a conservative who believed in personal service to his community and in helping people whatever their social situation. He told me, as he told many others, “Everybody deserves a second chance in life, and some people deserve a third and fourth chance.”
He believed in the American capitalistic system, the goodness of people, and kindness to strangers. He put his money where his mouth was.
Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.