He was born in 1803 in Fort Knox, Indiana, just a mile upstream from Vincennes. Story has it that he was born in that stockade fort during a native uprising. His dad and mom settled in what is now Busseron Township in Sullivan County but at that time, it was an untamed wilderness and Indiana wasn’t yet a state.
His name was William F. Williams and he was my 3rd Great Grandfather. Even though he lived so long ago and all I have today is this photograph and an old wood plane he used to carve the logs for his first log home in Southern Indiana, I feel like I know him. I feel close to my 3rd great grandpa who died in 1882.
How could I feel close to a man who died over 130 years ago, you may ask? His story was woven into the fabric of my life as I grew up. My grandpa, Burns P. Williams, told stories about him. I visited his grave many times in my life. Grandpa took me to the libraries in Vincennes, Sullivan, and Spencer, Indiana to research all I could about him. And he passed on William Williams’ wood plane to me. That old wood plane has little intrinsic value but it is priceless. Every time I look at it or hold it, the story of William F. Williams comes alive and I become connected to this early Indiana pioneer in an almost mystical way.
The story of William F. Williams grew and grew over the years until until much of what we tell today may or may not be fact but that doesn’t matter to me. You see, that old wood plane and his picture became synonymous for hard work, determination, service to family and community, and all the other qualities important for making our way in the world as a responsible and contributing member of society.
My grandpa carried the story to us in very deliberate ways, sometimes with a missionary zeal. He understood that it was his duty to tell the story, and to perhaps add to the story quilt some of his own patches. Because of those stories I grew up understanding that I have a deep and proud connection to generations before me and an immense responsibility to generations after.
I learned from the life of William F. Williams as told by his great-grandson, Burns P. Williams, that the life we live will tell a story long after we’re gone. It’s not a story of our telling, but a story told by those who come along after we’re silent in the grave. That story is woven from our lives. It is told by the way we live, the work we accomplish, the children we influence, and the example we become to others. We have no control over the story others tell, only the story we live.
I thought I’d have many years yet to share those stories. I thought I’d be able to tell the stories to my grandchildren for 20 or 30 years or more as my Grandpa Burns did for me. But if life proves anything, it proves itself completely unpredictable.
In June, 2016, I received news that I had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s 100% fatal and there is no treatment. Lucky for me though, I have a slower progressing form so I have time now to compress my 30-year retirement plan of story telling into a shorter time window.
This blog, many letters handwritten to grandchildren and great grandchildren, stories told while I still have a voice, and my book, “Used Car Lot Wisdom: Lessons From A Different Kind of Grandpa”, will all be an attempt to compress those years and pass on the stories. In so doing, I plan to become a story worthy of retelling.
Thomas Campbell wrote in his poem, Hallowed Ground, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” I figure if William F. Williams can do it, so can I.
My blog starts now and I hope you will follow me. It will be the proving ground for my book, which I hope to publish and print by Christmas of this year.
Let’s get busy. We have a story to live and stories to tell.