By Brian Allen
My grandfather’s name was Perry Weatherly. He was born in the Summer of 1918 in Des Moines, Iowa to a mother who loved him and a father who would eventually leave him behind. He grew up a dutiful son with two older brothers who would alternately watch out for him and at the same time keep him in “his place.”
He grew up during the Great Depression. He was 11 when the stock market crashed. He, and millions of others, knew what it was like to grow up with nothing and to have to get through life relying on hard work and a lot of luck. He told me he remembers eating popcorn with a spoonful of milk and calling it cereal. He told me of others who had to resort to eating dog food. And of others who drank Canned Heat because they couldn’t afford alcohol to drown their sorrows.
While in high school, he met the woman who would change his life; Lorraine Keller. Both of them were practical people, but Lorraine was a bit more focused…at least early on. Perry, by his own admission, was smart but not a good student. During his junior year of high school, Perry told Lorraine he was going to leave school and go to work as a butcher’s assistant. Lorraine told him “I could never marry a man who didn’t finish high school.” Perry stayed in school and graduated.
In October of 1941, Perry and Lorraine married in Fulton, Missouri during a simple ceremony with a Justice of the Peace presiding. Six weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Six months after the attack, Perry was drafted into the 5th Army and headed for World War II.
He went into the war not knowing what to expect. Which ended up being a good thing. Because if he knew what he would ultimately face overseas, he might not have gone. The 5th Army pulled some hellish duty. They fought the Germans in the deserts of Ethiopia in northern Africa. They had to defend strange places with strange names like Algeria and Morocco. When the Allies invaded Italy to wrestle it from the control of dictator Benito Mussolini, it was the 5th Army who was put in charge. My Grandfather saw war from the front row. And death wasn’t very far behind at all.
The 5th Army set up headquarters in the Roman Colosseum in Rome. And early on in the invasion, the silence of night would be broken by blaring air raid sirens and German warplanes overhead. There were many nights where Perry believed he would die and he made peace with God, just in case.
He survived and came back home in 1945. He hadn’t seen his wife for four years.
Together, Perry and Lorraine worked together at her father’s electrical contracting company. It is a company the pair would eventually take over and make their own. They contributed to the Baby Boom with the birth of my mother, Kathy, in 1951.
By the time I was born in 1973, Perry was 55 years old.
I was part of a generation of kids, in the early 1970’s, whose Dads were shunning responsibility at an alarming rate. My dad was one of those guys. He left my mother and I when I was 2 years old. I have no independent memories of him and I have yet to see him face-to-face. I am now 40 years old.
My grandfather, who had every right to want to enjoy his later years in peace and quiet, made the unselfish decision to step up and be my father figure. For about the first 20 years of my life, I thought there weren’t very many similarities between he and I. In these last 20 years, I have determined that I am who I am based largely on his influence in my life.
He taught me, by example, the importance of family. The importance of taking care of the people you love. He taught me the value of hard work and individual determination. He taught me the difference between arrogance and confidence, and which one to avoid like the plague. He taught me to be true to myself and to not believe the comments of others, either bad or good. He taught me the important of trying to do things right the first time, so as to not waste time down the road.
He was, in short, the greatest man I have ever known.
He was able to see me begin my career; first in print, then in radio and ultimately in television. As I grew up, he always quietly supported my interest in writing; though he may not have fully understood it. He would drive me to debate competitions when I was in high school and listen intently to the arguments I would make…and then tell me later what he thought I did right and did wrong.
He was an independent man who, when he made a decision, saw that decision through to the end.
Towards the end of my Grandfather’s life, he suffered from a condition called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It was partly the result of decades of smoking cigarettes, a fact he would readily admit and bemoan. But he used it to remind me of the old saying “There is nothing more expensive than regret”.
The COPD had confined my Grandfather to an easy chair in the living room of his home. He was attached 24-7 to oxygen and could not easily go anywhere or do anything. His days were spent mostly with the TV. My mother lived with him but worked during the day…and I was working as a TV news reporter in Sioux City, Iowa.
On November 20, 1997 Perry Weatherly put a gun to the temple of his head and pulled the trigger… ending his suffering and bringing his 79 year journey to an end.
I don’t tell this part of the story very often. But when I do people ask me if I have any type of “survivor’s guilt” based on the fact that my Grandfather killed himself. I tell them “no” and I mean it every time. If you knew my grandfather, it made sense. He was suffering. His wife was dead. His brothers were dead. Nearly all of his friends were dead. And he was tired of being sick. So tired of it. He decided to fix his problem, which is what he did throughout all of his life.
I wrestled with the religious implications of his death. Suicide is a sin: one punishable by a soul being kept from entering Heaven. But I like to think that God is merciful and that he would look at all the good Perry did in his life…and decide that all that outweighed his final decision in life.
My grandfather remains to this day, the greatest man I have ever known.