Our dad died five years ago today, May 7, 2015, at 10:45 a.m., two thirds of the way through his 92nd year. His absence continues to leave a hole in our lives. The passage of five years means that we can talk about him mostly without tearing up. Each year we salute him on this day as a marker to his end of life just like we celebrate his beginning on September 7th.
To celebrate our dad, I asked my family to write up something that they cherish in their memories of him. It could be a frequent saying, what we called “Homerisms,” like, “Oooh, Mahtha, that’d make a bulldog break his chain!” which he would say after tasting something, usually of something sweet, or after stirring crumbled cornbread into a glass of buttermilk.
He also had a quick and inventive wit that took advantage of a moment, something someone said, or just something that happened. It displayed his unique and optimistic view on life. His love of good humored fun, although his wit could also be sharp. He called it, “The Needle.” It was never calculated. It just happened, frankly before he even thought about it. You could be pricked and not realize it for a minute or two. He honed it with his golfing buddies as they constantly threw good natured but sharp barbs at one another during a round to see if they could get a bit of a rise out of their friends.
So we dedicate today’s post to the original Homer Lindell Riley, 1922-2015, recalling these Homerisms.
From Marti, the first born, with her wife, Susan
It was late November, 2000, and Mom and Dad moved to Croasdaile. We had been to Beech Mountain one weekend, and – on the way back to Charlotte, there was an advertisement that there were CHEAP flights to London – less than $250 round trip. We called Mom and Dad on the way home to see if they had “any hairs left”. Told them about the fare, etc., and they said they would love to go. Also checked with Rosemary to see if she wanted to join us, and she was a “go”. We all quickly purchased tickets and were ready to go! I found a three bedroom, 3 bath apartment near Harrods, and we were set.
There are too many memories of this wonderful trip to recite here – like getting Mom out of Harrods’s basement grocery by way of the jewelry dept. Almost had to keep her on a leash!
One event that was anticipated with great enthusiasm was “high tea” at the venerable Savoy Hotel. Homer donned a sport coat and tie while the “ladies” dressed in their best attire. We sat in the big “tea room”, ordered tea and cucumber sandwiches while becoming immersed in the parade of patrons and their activities. With great sophistication, Homer would point out the “working Girls” mixed in with paying clientele.
When tea arrived, we were a tad disappointed – it was just TEA!!!!! So we mimicked several tables nearby, and ordered a bottle of champagne – actually Homer did. That was much better and we moved on to a 2nd bottle.
When departing for dinner, Homer called for the check. We protested that we would get it knowing what was coming. He insisted, so we acquiesced. The check arrived, and Homer did a magnificent – if not altogether successful job – of hiding his shock at the tab. With his customary aplomb, he handled it – much as he has for family and friends for years.
From Lin, the namesake, Homer Lindell Riley, Jr.
So many things to remember and love about who he was and how he chose to handle himself. Always so positive about everything…wish I could be more that way. I remember caddying for him at Willowhaven which was not a chore at all. To be in that group of Homer, AD Turrentine, OZ Wrenn and others was fun to watch. The needles were always sharp and steady but they always enjoyed themselves. I can only imagine what things were really like at the Teer’s cottage in Myrtle Beach when they all gathered for the Surf Club Tournament. Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall!! Or maybe Not!
It always surprised me when meeting people in the construction industry for the first time and they would say, Damn, you gotta be Homer’s son. Yes sir, and thank you very much! He knew so many people but not all of their names. He always introduced himself when greeting people. “Hi, Homer Riley” and they would say, “Yeah Homer, I know you” and they would talk and when the conversation ended he would turn to me and say, “Why would that person not tell me who he was? I introduced myself, can’t they take a hint?”
It was special to be involved with him from the business side of things as well as the family. And he approached issues in the same methodical manner. Not rush to make poor decisions but to know all the facts and then make a stand.
We all miss him terribly but we were all very lucky to have had him for 90+ years and the impact he had on our lives was special. Love you Dad and thank you.
From Maggie, wife to Page, on who Dad could be…
I sat down to write several times and could not stay on track. I’ve heard so many stories, so many times, but I just didn’t feel like I could do the stories or Homer justice.
He could be the dad that just wanted to pinch your head off when you were a kid. At least that’s what you and he have told me.
He could be the “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” guy when making a midnight requisition to build Martha a little fence at Vetville at NC State College.
He could be the diablo that sat at the end of the pool letting his daughter-in-law know it was three minutes until the house “no swimsuit” policy would go into effect.
He also was a guy who could tell his kids he loved them. Homer was a pretty amazing father for someone who lost his own father at such a young age.
To which Page added, he could also be the guy who would advise that you never leave more than you can make – good advice for putting, or for life decisions.
From Steve, the middle child: Golfing moments with Dad and his ever present “needle.”
Through connections at work in Pittsburgh, I was invited to play Oakmont, the famed course that has hosted the US Open many times. My boss, John Howell, said, “Hey, we need a fourth. Invite your Dad.” So I did and he and Mom drove the nine hours from Durham to Pittsurgh for a week. As the sun rose and mist was lifting in the early morning of our game, John drove us over to the club. We met our host, Rose (I forget her last name), an excellent 12 handicapper at the legendary club famous for being tournament ready every day.
Somewhere around the fourteenth or fifteenth hole I hit a particularly good drive. As we walked from their tee shots to my ball quite a bit along, Rose remarked, “You really caught that one Steve. Great drive.” I was feeling pretty good about it, after all, it had been a very challenging round in which four putts were accumulating. After Rose’s compliment, Dad didn’t miss a beat and said, “Rose, I believe the boy done out-drove his knowledge.” I glanced at him and he winked at me. Then, I hit my second shot clear over the green. I showed him. Once again, he was right.
Years later, again through work in Atlanta, I was invited to play Eastlake, the home course of Bobby Jones and the host to the PGA Tour Championship. When one of our foursome dropped out I asked if I could invite Dad. Our host graciously agreed. Mom and Dad drove down from Durham to spend a few days. It just so happened that folks at the TV station had set up a Saturday round at Chastain Park Golf Course, a muny in town. About 20 staffers signed up to play. I signed us up for that as well.
Eastlake is a very exclusive 6 Star set up. Everything is immaculate. You drive up, they take your clubs and point you to the entrance to the clubhouse. You put on your shoes in the members’ locker room amid the personal lockers with PGA tour players’ names on them. You walk down to the range and there is your bag and caddie waiting for you with a pyramid stack of shiney new Titleist balls. Just top drawer all the way. We both played well. The walk was beautiful. We had the course to ourselves. After the round, we sat in the pub, enjoyed a beer and sandwich with our host, a radio sales guy. We drove home and told Mom and Julie all about our day.
The next morning, we got up early, drove down to Chastain Park, parked on the street. Got out, opened the trunk, put on our golf shoes leaning against the car, heaved our clubs out and carted them over to the small clubhouse. On the way, the clubs clanking in his stride, Dad observed, “Damn! What a difference a day makes!” I laughed about that all day, at every turn, from the $35 tab to play, the rickety cart, the barren fairways and sad greens. Balls flying all over the place from other fairways. But, you know what, we had a great time enjoying the day, the people and the game.
Also, it was the day Eric Robert Rudolf, the Olympic Park Bomber, was finally caught. Word spread fast and all of the golfers who worked in our news department rushed off of the course to the station.
Dad and I finished our round, loaded up the car and drove home. What a day. And we regaled Mom and Julie again on “what a difference a day makes” as we cooked steaks on the grill and toasted our time together with a glass of wine.
And, from the last born, R. Page, or Front Page, as Mom called him
This story is “Classic” Homer. It is Dad’s explanation for having their first child (our oldest sister, Marti) while still in school at NC State College.
A struggling couple with a new born baby living in Vetville (the schools Veterans Village) after WWII, Dad was studying engineering on the GI Bill at the prodding of his young wife, Martha. I remember asking Dad, “What were you thinking, having a baby while still in school with little or no income?” Homer looked at me and said “Son, you know that train track that splits the NC State campus in half?” And of course I knew having gone there as well. “Well, that train ran right beside our small trailer there in Vetville. It came thru every morning at 6 a.m. It was too early to get up, but it was too late to go back to sleep!!” And that’s how it happened according to Homer. (Just FYI…Mom agrees with that memory as well!)
Homerisms – One man’s take on things in general
Dad was playing golf one weekend with his favorite foursome of Jeep Wrenn, Nelson Strawbridge and Uncle Grover. Uncle Grover, Mom’s younger brother, was a man of short stature, much shorter than Dad and the others in the foursome. He had a great laugh and was like a cuddly bear.
These guys always played for a little money. Not much money, but just enough to put a game on and add to the fun of the round. Like many golfers, you’d think they were playing high stakes by how seriously they took the game.
On this particular day, Grover was paired with Nelson. On something like the tenth hole, halfway into the round, Grover’s first putt came up short of the hole and certainly wasn’t a tap in to tie the hole with Dad and Jeep. Nelson said, “That’s good in my book,” angling for the concession. Dad replied, “Sure. If it’s inside the leather it’s good by me.” Nelson started to measure using his putter. Dad stopped him right there. “It has to be inside the leather on Grover’s putter, not yours.” And, of course, with Grover being shorter, the distance from the end of the putter head to the leather was a few inches shorter than Nelson’s.
There was a moment where Nelson and Grover looked at each other, then at Homer to see if he was serious. Dad held his face. Nelson said, “I’ve never heard that rule before.” Dad replied, “Oh, it’s in the rulebook. The Book of Riley.”
Then they laughed, Dad conceded Grover’s putt to tie the hole and they walked off to the next tee with Grover mumbling something about Dad making shit up.
On Saturday’s, Dad would go into the office in the morning and work for four hours. He’d then ask his secretary that if Mr. Teer Senior came looking for him, tell Mr. Teer that he had left to survey a job. The job was at Willowhaven Country Club where he had a standing game on Saturday morning.
I was at his bedside in the hospital after he had his knees replaced. He was 85 years old and this surgery put his optimism of life and living on full display. It also showed how much pain he was in and how it was holding him back from a full life. As I was leaving to go home for dinner we were saying our goodbyes. He motioned to me to come a little closer. He reached up in a beckoning way. I bent over and he pulled me down, pulling my head right next to his. It was so touching and I was deeply moved. I whispered in his ear, “I love you, Dad.”
There was an awkward moment. “That’s sweet,” he replied. “I love you too, sport…Hey, when you come back, will you bring me a toddy?”
Also related to the knee replacement surgery, when asked by a friend if he had both knees replaced at the same time, he answered, “No. First they did the left knee, then they did the right knee…” He’d pause with great enjoyment before finishing, “but they did the surgery all in one day.”
Hey Dad, where did you get that…insert whatever? His reply: “At the GROW-sir-eee store,” drawing out the word “grocery” for full effect.
Mom and Dad moved into Croasdaile Village during the Summer of 1999. They were part of the original crew of residents and became like the welcoming committee for new residents. At some point, a lot of folks had begun driving golf carts around the property instead of cars and the administrators rearranged the parking at “The Big House” where Mom, Dad and most everyone living there went for dinner. The new parking layout reserved preferential parking for a limited number of golf carts. Soon after the parking modifications, Dad drove Mom up for dinner in their SUV. Finding no spots for cars available, he parked in one of the golf cart spots. A security guard politely addressed Dad and said, “Mr. Riley, that the spot is marked for golf carts only.” Dad quipped, “Well, I know that. I always carry my clubs in my car!”
When Arthur and Alice Axberg were moving in next door, Dad saw his soon to be new neighbor standing on the back deck and surveying the area. Dad shouted from his yard, “Are you the Axberg’s?” Arthur, a little startled, looked at Dad and answered, “Yes we are.”
“Well, good. You’re my neighbor and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!”
Arthur loved telling that story. He said that he knew right away that what he’d heard about Homer Riley was true and they were going to have a great friendship.
Nello L Teer Company, the Durham-based construction outfit that Dad worked for his whole career, did a lot of road building jobs in West Virginia. One winter he got a call from the superintendent on a new job. They were in the early stages of clearing the land and had a lot of wood, most of which they would push together in large piles and burn. He hated to see it go to waste as the weather was turning cold and asked Dad if it would be okay for them to cut some into firewood and put it on the side of the existing road for local folks. Dad liked the idea and immediately approved. The super said he would put a “Free Firewood” sign on it.
A week later, Dad and the superintendent were talking about how the job was going and Dad asked about the firewood. “Oh, no one has taken any of it.” Dad thought for a second and said, “Change the sign from ‘Free Firewood’ to ‘Firewood – $25 a pickup load’ and see what happens.”
The next time they talked the superintendent said it was all gone. Vanished almost immediately overnight. Dad said that the moral of that story is that folks were too proud to take something for free. But they were fine with stealing it.
When many from our childhood neighborhood at the corner of Indian Trail and Hillandale Roads were gathered together for the sad occasion of the sudden death of one of the boys from the neighborhood, Dad lightened the mood. He surveyed the crowd and asked in a loud voice, “So how many of you knuckleheads peed in my pool when you were kids?” Almost all of the now middle-aged neighborhood “kids” raised their hands, men and women, and they started sharing their memories of the neighborhood, their friend, Butch, and the Riley pool. It was classic Homer.
Dad told me that he came home from boot camp with his orders to ship out to San Diego, California. He wanted to see his fiance’ one more time. “As I approached the Glymph house on Englewood Avenue there was a crowd gathered outside. I wondered who was getting married and found out…it was me!
There’s no doubt that this world isn’t as funny as it was when Dad lived in it. Mom’s done a good job of her own over the years with her version of Marthaisms. They knew each other for all but twelve years of their lives. They had so much fun together, but certainly faced many difficulties, their share of sadness, and tribulations. That’s life. Dad summed it up like he summed up so many complicated problems, cleanly and succinctly. “It’s been a great ride.”
Thanks for reading this and celebrating the life of our father. He was truly one of a kind. As Julie said this morning, “I knew Homer longer than I knew my own father. He was such a comfort to me. So strong. Loving. Supportive. And, of course, funny. I loved him so much. He was such a figure, so beloved by everyone who knew him, I couldn’t believe that he died. Even at 92.”
Dad, we will never stop loving you, thinking of you and remembering the joy and happiness that you brought into our lives, along with your spirit of never giving up on any one of us, or anything to which you set your mind to accomplish.
If you’d like to read more about Homer, here are a few links:
- Iwo Jima and Remembering Hutch Dad’s chronicle of the day he and his Marine division landed on Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945, the loss of his best friend, Hutch, and how posting Dad’s letter on my blog revealed the connection between our family and our great friends, the Lockharts, here in Atlanta.
- The Odyssey of Homer – a eulogy
- The first Father’s Day without him