Sad Thanksgiving News and the Celebration of a Great Life

On Thanksgiving Eve, Fred Bryan (my wife’s 96-year-old uncle) laid down to sleep on his farm in beautiful Walworth County in southern Wisconsin for the last time. Before he closed his eyes, I’m sure he thought of the family Thanksgiving he was to host the next day at the Big Foot Country Club, which is located in the picturesque hills just a few blocks from Lake Geneva. More than 40 family and friends would gather to enjoy a wonderful meal and companionship. After the meal, Fred and his family would head back to his farm and they would spend time together until well into the evening. The age range of the Thanksgiving celebrants ranged from Fred at age 96 to a two-month old, his great-granddaughter who he was to meet for the first time. Tacos and corn bread would be served when people grew hungry again after the big meal. Six pies waited on the counter to be devoured. And a fire would be built at the edge of the woods near his house to be enjoyed by a constantly changing group of family and friends. This had been the Thanksgiving tradition for years, and it gave him great pleasure to host this event.

But Fred (whom I knew for 22 years and considered an uncle in a way, too) passed away gently in his sleep during the night.

Most of us knew nothing of Fred’s passing as we drove from Chicago and its suburbs, from central Illinois, and the Milwaukee area to join this great man on yet another Thanksgiving. We only learned that he’d died as we waited for his arrival in the lobby of the country club. Shock and grief were two words that would aptly describe our reaction when we received the news that he had died.

It might seem strange to use the word “shock” in reference to the death of a 96-year-old man, but Fred was not a typical 96-year-old. He was a man of energy, intelligence, humor, and determination, and I think most of us believed he’d live another 10 years. Because, why not?

  • He’d been winning the war against cancer for a long time.
  • He’d beaten a serious infection that had developed after he badly cut himself while installing chicken wire on his farm just a year or two ago. The doctor told him that a lesser man his age would have succumbed to such a serious infection.
  • Because Fred was planning a trip to Arkansas in January with one of his daughters.
  • Because he had just played a round of golf with one of his grandsons a year or so before.
  • Because he still arrived at Sammy’s on the Square (in Walworth, WI), his favorite diner, as early as 6 AM some days (he loved talking to people regardless of their age or backgrounds); he ate lunch there on the last full day of his life.  
  • Because he danced with his granddaughter at her wedding when he was 95.
  • Because Fred planted a big garden this year, because he was known to still lift heavy equipment into his 90s, and because he was still as quick-witted as he was when I first met him more than two decades ago.
  • Because he had found love again with Dolly after June, his lovely and wonderful wife of nearly 60 years, passed away 10 years earlier.
  • Because, despite being the oldest member of our family, Fred didn’t seem like he would ever die.  

A Man of Accomplishment

Fred was born in Portland, Michigan, on April 28, 1923. His life was a steady path of achievement (with a few bumps in the road like all of us encounter) from his high school days to his adult years. Fred was the class valedictorian and senior class president of Melvindale High School. He earned an academic scholarship from the University of Michigan. While excelling in his studies, Fred played basketball, ice hockey, and football. He even won the campus heavyweight wrestling championship. Our nation’s fight against fascism during World War II prompted him to leave school and join the U.S. Navy in 1942. He served on a Fletcher class destroyer in the South Pacific from 1944–1946. After the war. Fred returned to the University of Michigan and earned a B.S. in chemical engineering and a B.S. in mathematical engineering. He launched several successful businesses. Things I didn’t know about Fred that I learned from a fascinating obituary written by his children: He was active in the US Trotting Association, racing up to 10 trotting horses. He owned a dairy farm, and also owned a diner called the Dandy Drive-in.

Fred had a great sense of humor and a great sense of fun about life. One example: When he was in his early 90s, he liked to tell people he met that he was 104. He’d soak up all the compliments about how vigorous he was and never corrected the story.

Fred was a self-made man with a knack for engineering and manufacturing ideas, which he turned into patents, which turned him into a successful man. When I think of the solid Midwesterner who has served his country and his community, worked hard throughout his life, and shared his success with family and friends, I think of Fred. Fred liked people who started their own companies and those who worked in nontraditional fields. For years, he would ask me about the publishing company I had started, and I could tell that he was impressed that I was still in business. (He knew how hard it was to start and run a successful business.) But his questions to me were always followed by a quick pivot to his niece Julie, who had achieved considerable success as a real estate developer in a male-dominated field. My story was nice, but hers’ was much better! He should have been a writer because he knew a good story. I always got a kick out of that. I loved that he almost always asked about my business, and that he cared about the lives of others. And I loved that he was so pleased by the success of his children, grandchildren, and anybody else in his life. And I’m pleased at how long his children and grandchildren got to enjoy him. My father died in 1997, and my last grandparent passed away in 1990. Fred had the chance to make a lifetime of memories with his family. (The hundreds of photos displayed at the funeral home on the day of his funeral attested to that.)

Thanksgiving Lunch and the Farm

How strange it was to attend a Thanksgiving lunch in which the loved and cherished host had died that morning. I don’t think any of us knew what to do at first as we stood in the country club lobby, but Fred’s daughter Pam, who was still at Fred’s home waiting for the medical examiner’s staff to finish their work, encouraged us to go ahead and eat because he would have wanted it that way. And while it was still terribly shocking and sad, that’s what we did. Fred was gone, but life had to go on. Thanksgiving Day turned into an impromptu wake filled with stories and reminiscences that brought both tears and laughs. 

After lunch we headed to Fred’s farm. And despite missing the day’s leading man, we enjoyed each other’s company. Many gathered in the kitchen and living room to share stories. I hiked the rolling hills of Fred’s huge property with his grandsons Dan and Tom. They told me stories of how their grandfather used to have horses on the property, and of all the times they would visit the farm. As we walked, men who had leased Fred’s farmland collected and removed bales of hay from his fields using big noisy farm equipment that careened down the winding dirt paths of the farm.

When we returned to the farmhouse, Brian (the husband of Fred’s granddaughter Beth) and I took our children on our annual Thanksgiving hike around the property. We dodged the hay bale men careening down the road and walked to the pond. The kids tossed rocks and seed pods into the water. We hiked a trail through the forest that Fred had built several years ago, the kids climbing the length of fallen trees. The kids climbed a big pile of dirt and stone and played King of the Hill. Geese flew over the farm. We returned to the farmhouse, and the kids asked to pick a few ears from the rows and rows of cattle corn that had yet to be harvested. This was the first time I’d ever seen unharvested corn at the farm on Thanksgiving, and the rows and rows of yellowed corn created a pretty picture.

Night fell, and we built our customary fire at the edge of the woods. The kids alternated between hanging out by the fire and collecting all the corn kernels and running back to the corn fields to pick more corn. It’s so strange how you keep your kids close in the city but let them walk 500 yards in the darkness to collect corn. Friends and family gathered by the fire, remembering Fred and catching up with our lives that are spread over more than 4 states.

Change

With Fred’s passing, change is in the air. It’s funny that we expected a 96-year-old man to live forever, but that’s the vitality that Fred projected. But now he’s gone, and we must move on regardless of how hard that is.

I want to thank Fred for hosting (along with his kind and wonderful wife June, and later the also kind and wonderful Dolly) so many Easter and Christmas dinners at the farm and Thanksgivings at the Big Foot Country Club. Visiting his farm and seeing him and other family has always been a highlight of my year. For including my mom in all the celebrations. For his humble generosity; he never tooted his horn about his good deeds. For once fixing the headlights of our car late one evening when he was in his early 80s, so we could safely drive back to Chicago.

As a city dweller, I want to thank Fred for returning me to nature with each visit. Chicago is great in many ways, but it’s too packed with people for my taste. Most of the city is covered by concrete, and light pollution has ruined our view of the stars.

At Fred’s farm, his nearest neighbor is probably half a mile away, you can see all the way to the horizon (the sunsets are amazing), and the only sounds you hear are the wind blowing through the trees and the wildlife. One year, I heard the yips and howls of a pack of coyotes echoing through the woods and farm fields. It was awe-inspiring. And, unlike Chicago—with its streetlights, brightly lit entertainment districts, and skyscrapers—it gets very dark at my uncle’s farm once the sun sets. It’s a powerful and humbling feeling to be out in the country once the sun drops beneath the horizon. It’s so dark away from the farmhouse that you can barely see where you’re going. You feel both exhilarated to be out of your element as a city person, and a bit disconcerted because there are no walls between you and nature. And, unlike the Chicago skies, you look up and are gifted with one of the great wonders of life—a sea of stars in the sky. It’s a sight to behold that Fred saw every clear night from his porch.

Some family members wished that if Fred had to pass away, it would have occurred after he had attended Thanksgiving lunch (rather than before). While there’s some merit to that thought, I think it was almost fitting that he passed away before we all met. That way, we could be together in our grief—not separated by 4+ states back in our towns and cities. On the day Fred left this world, we had probably the fastest impromptu wake in the history of wakes.

I think Fred knew he was appreciated, but I also like to think that he received one last grace note before he went to heaven or whatever beyond you believe in. I like to think that he was present the entire day with us—from the country club to the farm—as we grieved him, celebrated him, and enjoyed each other’s company yet another time.

He saw the men working in his fields.

He saw his great-grandchildren and a great nephew joyfully pick corn and play near the fire together.

He heard his family and friends tell stories of his wit and good deeds.

He heard the geese honking in the sky and the wind breezing through the last leaves on the trees.

He saw his home filled with his family as night fell, his house illuminated like a beacon in the darkness of farm country.

He saw the fire in all its brilliance and the people who gathered there because of him.

He heard and saw everything on that day.

And we won’t ever forget what we heard and saw him do and accomplish in his long life. Goodbye Fred. Until we see you again.   

Postscript

I attended Fred’s funeral yesterday just a mile or so away from the Big Foot Country Club. Two of his friends provided wonderful eulogies that brought him to life in ways that I could never muster. (I hope someone recorded those eulogies.) You know you’ve done something right in life when people can tell what seemed like endless stories about your humor, generosity, kindness, quest for knowledge, and hardworking nature. And you know you’ve lived a good life when people (many with young children) journey from 4 states to remember you and say goodbye.

Just like on the day Fred died, we had lunch at the Big Foot Country Club. Fred was the oldest (age 96) and longest-registered (50 years) member. The dining room of the club is not usually open at this time of the year, but the club was kind enough to allow us to enjoy a special lunch hosted by Fred’s children to celebrate his life. It was wonderful to gather together one more time before we parted ways.

The view from Fred’s favorite table

But my wife Amy and her cousin Katie (Fred’s nieces) and myself were not done remembering Fred on this crisp, but sunny, late fall day. We stopped at Sammy’s, Fred’s favorite diner, to see where he spent his time. We introduced ourselves to the owner and staff, who gestured to a picture of Fred that was already placed near the cash register. Amy, Katie, and I sat at Fred’s favorite table and made a toast in his honor.

But time was short. Amy and I needed to get back to Chicago to pick up our son. We headed to the car and drove home in the bright sunlight. Sun pillars and sun dogs accompanied us much of the way.

The skies were filled with flocks of geese in their familiar v-formations traveling to their nightly resting spots. It was nice to be in a place where the birds were so abundant.

We traveled by farm fields and nicely kept red and white barns, past silos and yellowed winter corn, through the towns of Harvard and then Huntley, and eventually toward the interstate and home.      

Copyright (text) Andrew Morkes

Copyright (photos): Fred Bryan family on all images of Fred; Andrew Morkes holds copyright to the remaining photos   

A few years back, I wrote a story about my time at the farm and enjoying Thanksgiving with family. Click the link below to read it.

Thanksgiving Day: On Escaping Chicago, Spending Time with Family, and Enjoying a Fire and the Stars

5 thoughts on “Sad Thanksgiving News and the Celebration of a Great Life

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