Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Crossing the Bar

Today I had the honor and privilege of speaking at my grandfather's memorial service in Pensacola, Florida. He passed away peacefully last Tuesday at 81 years old after living an unbelievably rich and meaningful life. There were some 200+ people who showed up for the service today. The audience encompassed everyone from students who were in the band he directed at Pensacola High School 50 years ago, to students of the school he started in the early 70s, to teachers that taught with him, to students who graduated from his school in the last decade and even the last week. I share with you the remarks I made about him, but it doesn't come close to encompassing all of the touching stories everyone shared with us after the service about how my grandfather, William J. Holston, who we call Shoopa, greatly impacted their lives. I am humbled after learning what an amazing legacy he leaves, and I realize even more how blessed I am to be his granddaughter.

Remarks at the Memorial Service of William Joseph Holston, May 16, 2011:

Thank you all for coming this morning to celebrate the life of our grandfather. It's hard to know where to begin in telling you about this amazing man who had so many layers, personas, and philosophies. So I will start with the words I wrote about him when I was 17. These words are from my high school journal, written in July 2000, nearly eleven years ago.

"Undoubtedly prominent in my fond memories of what I call my childhood home lies my grandfather - the single wisest man I've ever known in these 17 years. I chose tonight to sit with him and converse until 11:30p over escaping upstairs to the "Teenage Den." I love my grandfather. I love his wit and satire of the absurd things that bother him like Jim Carrey, Howard Stern, and federal taxes. I love his dedication to his wife, his family, his students, and his projects. But mostly, I love his wisdom. Tonight he gave me timeless advice about how to get things done. "There are only two things you need to do in life to be successful," he told me. "Number one: Learn the rules (and follow them). Number two: Work hard."

Great advice. Shoopa was always giving us great advice and no question he worked hard his entire life. But the ironic thing, of course, is that Shoopa was never really one for following the rules. As grandkids, I remember joking about how he wouldn't wear his seatbelt because he felt it was one more way the government was trying to control him. And when the public school system no longer met his standards, he did what many people would only talk about doing. He started a school from the ground up and ran it the way he thought a school should be run, and the number of lives impacted through the Pensacola School of Liberal Arts only continues to grow decades later. His role as an educator often overlapped with his role as a grandfather, and us grandkids would often get quizzed at the dinner table. Whether it was math problems, English questions, or even philosophy, we always had to be on our toes. And to those who got an A, there were handsome prizes of dollar bills and sometimes even fives that he rewarded to those who knew the answers.

Long before Shoopa was ever involved in teaching, he was a member of the U.S. Navy. One story I remember him telling me about his time on the USS Midway, was how he remembered waving goodbye to Bea who stood on the pier as the aircraft carrier pulled out to sea in the late 1940s. Loaded with nuclear weapons, he said he was certain they were going off to start World War III. He still had a sadness in his eyes as he told me he thought he would never see our grandmother Bea or America's shores again. Luckily after 18 months, his ship returned. As a Navy wife myself, I can't imagine being apart for that long. But through writing letters, he and Bea withstood the obstacles of time, distance, and war and started a family together shortly after that.

Personally, one of Shoopa's greatest gifts to me was a love of sailing. Our family grew up taking day trips accompanied by the sun and the wind on the majestic Valkyrie and we spent summers working with him on the endless battle to keep the boats up and running. I thought I had the coolest grandparents in the world because they had a working replica of a Viking Ship, presumed to be the only one of its kind in all of North America. My grandparents put us through sailing school and we learned to sail on our own. In recent years, I followed in my grandfather's footsteps and became a sailboat owner myself, and I loved calling and sharing stories of sailing and broken boats and tales of the sea with the man I often heard called Captain.

Among his other personas, Shoopa had a tendency to be mistaken as Santa Clause by small children. I remember one time all of us grandkids were out to breakfast with him and a little boy came up to our table and asked Shoopa for a computer set for Christmas. Not missing a beat, Shoopa played right along, "You be a good boy and I'll bring you that computer set at Christmas," he said, winking at the child's poor mother. We all had to laugh after that one. Our very own Santa Clause.

Shoopa's affinity for music also permeates my memories of him and time spent at his home. Family dinners would often end with music blasting, people --- especially Shoopa --- singing from the tops of their lungs. Whether it was Don McLean or big band music or Abba didn't matter.  There would be various instruments spontaneously picked up and played. And above all the raucous, you could often hear Shoopa's most impressive belly laugh rolling over all of it. There was so much joy in the music in their home. Sometimes he'd be talking to one of us grandkids and would just break out into song. Beryl Ives Little White Duck or Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar. My favorite song he made a point of teaching me was from the WWII era.

You've got to accentuate the positive, 
eliminate the negative 
and have faith in the affirmative, 
don't mess with Mr. In Between 

Between the music and the poetry, I think all of us could claim to be impressed by his library of memory for lyrics and sonnets and melodies.

All this and yet, more than anything, Shoopa loved his family. One of my favorite all-time memories of Shoopa is from just a few years ago. I was back in Pensacola for Christmas break during college. One crisp, sunny December afternoon I came out onto the dock behind their house about 4:30p.m. as the sun was setting and saw Shoopa rowing Bea back toward land in a brand new dinghy. As they came to shore, I realized they were halfway through a bottle of Champagne, and Bea was holding a beautiful long-stem red rose. Before they had embarked on their journey, my hopelessly romantic grandfather had gone to the end of the dock and thrown the rose into the bayou. As he rowed Bea out into the bayou, he scooped the floating rose up out of the water and surprised her with the flower to hold for the trip. Once back on land, as he helped her out of the boat, he gave her a big kiss with a proud smile that I was so lucky to catch a glimpse of. Christmas on the Bayou, that's what he called it. I never saw my grandmother, who was well into her 70s, beam with such joy as on that day.

The last few years have certainly introduced their trials as Shoopa had to say goodbye to his lifelong love several years sooner than any of us were ready. The day of Bea's memorial service, I wrote in my journal Shoopa's words that he said after it was all over: "We have to move all of this into the world of memories now." Of course, Shoopa knew, as we do now, that that's an easy thing to say and a difficult thing to do. For many of us, it will be difficult--- even painful--- to walk this earth knowing this great visionary William J. Holston no longer does. His Crossing the Bar, in some ways, signifies the end of an era, not just for our family, but for our whole community, really, where he was such a passionate advocate of education, always encouraging young people to follow their dreams, always ready to ask questions and learn more, or impart his timeless wisdom with a smile.

But focusing on this monumental loss, I know, is not what Shoopa would want. No. Today he would want us to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. To dream of hanging from a star and bringing moonbeams home in a jar. And so today, that's where my heart will be. And no matter what you called him, be it Mr. Holston, Bill, Shoopa, Captain, or Dad, know that his spirit lives on and is calling you to never stop learning; to follow your dreams; to listen to the sea when it speaks to you; to always have a song in your heart; to strive, to seek to find, and not to yield. We are forever grateful, forever blessed, and will forever miss you, Shoopa.

A favorite poem of Shoopa's that he taught his students:

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star
   And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
   When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
   Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
   Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
   And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
   When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
   The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
   When I have crossed the bar.

1 comment:

  1. Peyton,
    That is a beautiful remembrance of Shoopa's life. Wish I could have been there to celebrate it with you. Can't wait to see you soon. Love - Nick


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