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Lessons My Father Taught Me

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 few called him Bill.   My mother called him “Babe.”  I simply called him “Daddy.”

Daddy was all of 5’8,  an unassuming man with a gentle and quiet spirit.  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.  He was a giving man.  He was a man who trusted God.

My father was a man full of wisdom, a man full of love.

Yes, 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 him—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—an avid reader, a lover of learning.  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. He had a way of making 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 to value education and to be a life-long learner. But more importantly, he taught me never to flaunt my knowledge but to use it in ways that add value to others.

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 small jobs to do, pay them, feed them. He talked to them about life, the importance of respecting themselves and others,  the value of hard work, and, of course, the importance of a good education.  He talked to them about God. He wanted them to aspire for something greater, to dream big.  Most importantly, he wanted them to know  God and see their own worth.

There was a furniture store in Madisonville that Daddy frequented.  He never bought any furniture. But weekly, we went to the furniture store.  Dad walked around, looking at sofas, dining room sets, easy chairs, washing machines,  dryers, and refrigerators.  He talked to the store owner, inquiring 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, he needed to know Jesus.  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 from all walks of life.  They mattered to God, so they mattered to him.  He would engage anyone—from the illiterate to college professors to—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 fourth or fifth-grade education. 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 Mississippi under Jim Crow might not have had an opportunity to be educated. He taught me to consider where a person’s been and 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 his degrees, didn’t know and couldn’t do.  Dad let this man know he was significant and 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 a result of circumstances, they are all created in the image of God.  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.  Perhaps one life could be changed by just spending a little time and 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.  The same two never came back.

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 ‘blackened’). Taking me to the Madison Building and Loan when I was 8 to open my first savings account.  Teaching me to the value of saving for my future. Teaching me the power of words and encouraging me to write.  Teaching me to ride my first bike and to drive our 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 Master 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, and 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.


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