William Elder Gaston was born in Sheffield, Alabama on May 7, 1913, the youngest son of William Henry and Lena Gaston. To some he was Brother, to some Uncle Brother. To others he was Deacon Gaston and yet others called him “Professor.” A very few called him Bill. My mother called him “Babe.” To me he was simply . . . Daddy.
Daddy was all of 5’8, a man with a gentle and quiet spirit, unassuming. Some may say he was reserved. I remember a man full of jokes (he was the King of Corny), and when he got tickled (usually by his own corny jokes), his whole body vibrated with laughter. I remember a man of prayer, a man who cherished family. I remember a giving man. A man who trusted God.
I remember a man full of wisdom. I remember a man full of love.
I admit I was a “Daddy’s girl.” My father couldn’t leave the house without me tagging along. It didn’t matter where he was going – the hardware store, the post office, the gas station – I was right by his side. To this day, hardware store smells stir memories of Daddy and me shopping for hammers, nails, paint and sundry DIY items. It was on many of those excursions that I learned the most from Daddy – invaluable lessons that are indelibly etched in my soul. It wasn’t always by what he said to me, but by what I observed in his interaction with the people he encountered.
Daddy was a very intelligent man, I might even say brilliant, a lover of learning, an avid reader. He taught me a bit of Latin when I was in the third grade (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres and Veni, Vidi, Vici). He was a true bible scholar with an extensive knowledge of ancient history and mid-eastern geography, who made every bible account come alive by adding nuggets about the culture and customs of the times. He was well-educated, yet humble. If you didn’t know, he’d educate you without being condescending. If you thought he didn’t know, he’d educate you without being pretentious. He taught me the value of education; he taught me to be a life-long learner. But more importantly, he taught me never to flaunt my knowledge, but to use it in ways that help others discover greatness within.
Daddy was a teacher extraordinaire who genuinely cared about his students. I remember him bringing two male students home with him. They didn’t have fathers at home and Dad wanted them to experience something other than their personal reality. He’d pick them up, bring them to our house, give them little jobs to do, pay them, feed them. He talked to them about life, about the importance of respecting themselves and others, about the value of hard work, about the importance of a good education. He talked to them about God. He wanted them to aspire for something greater; he wanted them dream big. He wanted them to know their worth.
There was a furniture store in Madisonville that Daddy frequented. He never bought any furniture. But weekly, we went to the furniture store. Daddy walked around, looked at sofas, dining rooms sets and easy chairs, washing machines, dryers and refrigerators. He talked to the store owner, inquired about his family, his health, his business. They’d joke and laugh. They’d discuss world events and Daddy would always find an open door to discuss the store owner’s relationship (or lack thereof) with God. Not in a “hellfire-and-brimstone” way, just lovingly asking questions that would leave the man thinking that maybe, just maybe, Jesus really is the answer. An hour or so could pass in the furniture store where Daddy never bought anything . . . just talked and laughed and showed concern for a man’s soul.
What I observed through his discourses at the furniture store and in other settings was my father’s deep love and concern for people – all people of all walks of life. They mattered to God, so they mattered to him. He would engage anyone – from the illiterate to college professors to doctors – in meaningful dialogue. He treated everyone — from the child to the elderly– with dignity. Their opinions matter to him; their ideas were valued. He showed everyone respect, and they, in turn, respected him.
There was a handyman in our neighborhood, Mr. Saturday. He was a transplant from the deep South with, I’d guess, no more than a sixth-grade education which was evident in his speech. Once when I railed about his poor command of the English language (I mean, if I had used a singular verb with a plural noun, my parents would read me the Riot Act. And I better not say, ‘I be’), Daddy turned all Atticus Finch on me: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” He helped me understand why a poor black man who grew up in Georgia under Jim Crow might not be well-educated. He taught me to consider where a person’s been, what he’s been through before making judgments.
Daddy would hire Mr. Saturday to do work around the house: he added a half-bath in our basement, laid cement in the driveway, built a retaining wall. Daddy would watch Mr. Saturday as he worked and would ask him questions. There were things Mr. Saturday knew, things he could do that my father, with all his degrees, didn’t know and couldn’t do. Dad let this man know he was significant, that there were things he could teach my father. Dad gleaned wisdom from Mr. Saturday.
My father was like that not only with all the Mr. Saturdays in his world, but with everyone he encountered. He invariably seemed to recognize that despite where people landed in life as result of circumstances, they are all children of God, created in His image. He knew that deep inside all of us, the best and the worst of us, the young and the old of us, the Black and the White of us, the educated and the uneducated of us, the rich and poor of us, was a treasure, and that perhaps a little concern, a little interest, a little conversation would draw that treasure out. That perhaps one life could be changed by just spending a little time, by just extending a little grace.
Daddy taught me the importance of knowing what I believe and of speaking the truth in love. On Saturday mornings, when our neighbors were drawing the curtains, closing the blinds and holding their breath until the knocking of Jehovah’s Witnesses ceased, Daddy would welcome them heartily, invite them in, offer them a seat and some beverage. And in his Socratic way, Daddy asked questions and listened. He’d quote scripture, never debating the Word, only pointing out what the Bible said and what he believed it meant, always pointing out illogical reasoning. And whenever one would mention the 144,000, my father would muse: “Well, by now I’m sure there are already 144,000 in heaven. So, where does that leave you?” to which the JWs had no reply. They’d offer a copy of The Watch Tower. “No, thank you,” Daddy would say. “You haven’t quite persuaded me. But come back. I’ve enjoyed talking with you.” They’d leave, flustered and, I’m sure, questioning why they believed what they claimed to believe.
There is so much more that I could share about life with William E. Gaston. Sitting in his lap as he told stories, sang to me, played silly games with me, and read to me from the Bible. Barbecuing for my friends (everything was just a bit Cajun). Taking me to the Madison Building and Loan when I was 8 to open my first savings account. Teaching me to value of saving for my future. Teaching me the power of words, encouraging me with my writing. Teaching me to ride my first bike; teaching me to drive the Buick. Making me get back behind the wheel after my first car accident (“You can’t be ruled by fear,” he’d said). Grilling every boy who came to take his baby girl out on a date. Teaching me how to respect myself and how real men treat women. Teaching me to strive for excellence in all I did. He beamed with joy when I received my Bachelor of Science and then again when I received a Masters of Education. He’d cry each time I sang one of his favorite hymns, “It Took a Miracle.” How proud he was when I signed my first teaching contract (for all of $9,000), bought my first car, bought a house.
He taught me to pray, to love and trust God, to love His word and to regard it as my “necessary food.”
Daddy was not perfect by any means, but he was perfectly chosen by God for me — to be my protector, my teacher, my earthly provider, my wise counsel, my buddy, my daddy. I am ever grateful to God for William Elder Gaston and all he taught me through his life. I can only pray I honor him by living the lessons well.