Today marks the first anniversary of our loss of this great man from our daily lives.
Today marks 365 days since the last time that Dad and I spoke to one another and it was just a brief time before he passed. I woke up this morning thinking about him and matched the ticking of the clock to the way this day unfolded last year, our last words, and the call that came shortly after from Lin to say that he was gone.
Ginger had dialed the phone for him that morning and when Dad got on the line he sounded like his normal self, cheery and optimistic for the day ahead. But Page had called the night before with words of foreboding. I told Dad that Julie and I were getting on the road shortly to come see him. We were in the middle of packing for the six-hour drive to Durham. He said, “It’s always a pleasure to be with you and Julie,” and that he looked forward to seeing us. He wished us a safe trip and then he said, “I love you, Steve. Thank you for all that you’ve done for your mom and me. You’re a good son.” I tried as hard as I could to sound strong, choking through how much I loved him. Then we said our last goodbye and he passed the phone back to my sister who said, “Hurry Steve.”
I’ll always be thankful to Ginger for her gift of that last call. Although we had been with him a lot through his struggle in the hospital, this turned into what we both knew was our last goodbye. It gave me some closure to know that in his waning moments we had reaffirmed our love for one another.
And now, on this morning, a year later, I am struck by how much Dad and I have been together since his passing. He lives in my dreams as alive and real as ever. He lives in my thoughts bubbling up in different moments of every day, so present that’s it’s like we just talked about the latest in our world. His hand is still on the tiller of my heart and I can hear his words, and see through his eyes. It makes me want to be a better man, a more forgiving man, a more fun-loving man who gave so much of his time to others.
I dreamed of my brothers last week, and could see Dad right there with them. I was smiling so much my brother Lin asked me what was up. I told him that Dad was standing right next to him. And then I woke up. I could feel that smile on my face as I lay in bed.
Do we miss his physical presence, the warmth in his smile, the way he lifted a gathering with that spark of fun in his eyes and rapid quips that helped you taste the moment? You bet. He was so unique in his point of view and his point in life that no one is able to replace him in mine.
Homer lived a great and long 92 years. It would be selfish not to recognize how truly fortunate we were to have him in our lives for so long. Long enough for most of us “kids” to reach our 60s, and most of our kids to reach into their 30s. For us all to know each other so well and to celebrate so many things together. What a blessing.
Maybe his long healthy life fooled me in to thinking he was not quite mortal. He was always so “bigger than life” to me. But you can’t beat this system of life and death. And yet, in many ways he did. He left so much behind for us all. And I cherish him and his memory so.
I remember the deep bottomless pit of sadness in my heart and soul that week together in Durham for the funeral. I’ve never seen such pain in the faces of my mother, my sisters, brothers, our children, cousins and our wealth of family friends. I think that we are all healing, but the hurt still works its way into my heart and causes me to take a quick breath in realizing that he really is gone.
Homer. Homer. Oh Homer. You were such a man. Such a father, brother, husband, grandfather and friend. Such a piece of goodness on this earth. These dreams make me look forward to sleep. I hope that they never stop.
(The following is the full text written as a eulogy for my dad’s memorial service on Monday, May 11, 2015 at Asbury United Methodist Church, Durham, NC. For his service, I edited it down and rearranged it for time and to avoid repeating ground wonderfully covered by my brothers, Lin and Page, who spoke before me. This contains what I wanted to say.)
When I think of my dad I think of joy. Joy in the living and doing. Joy in his friendships made and those in the making. Joy in his long love affair with his Martha. Joy in his family and work, the balance between the two, the raising of kids and watching them grow up to have kids of their own. Joy in winning the bid and building the job. Joy in the game of golf, a ball well struck, a fairway hit and a putt holed. Joy in the beginning of the morning and the ending of the day. Joy in worldly travel and arriving back home.
Joy in me, and joy in you.
I have been honoring my dad’s living all of my life. Now it’s time to honor his whole life, because, sadly for us, his life is done.
And boy did he live a good life. Raised in hard times he found the simplest of ways to build a good life.
He started by finding another life very early on with whom to enjoin his. He was 13 and she was 12. Since he and Martha both have lived a good long time, they have shared their lives together longer than most live.
Blessed with an easy style with people, a clear mind, a vision for today and tomorrow, and the wonderful capacity to let the trials of yesterday wash away with a good night’s sleep, Dad was always ready for the new plan for today.
He covered a lot of ground. Eight-four countries. Every state in the U.S. including Alaska before it was a state.
He’s been living on borrowed time since February 19th, 1945 when he first saw Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima at dawn from the deck of his troop carrier before hitting the beach.
He made it off of Iwo alive. It was the worst of many battles that gave him plenty to fear, but he came back home and put himself into his life with a passion knowing that the worst was behind him.
Homer was the epiphany of a self-made man. Just ask Mom…because she made him, her self. He wasn’t an extremely ambitious man for one who achieved so much in his time. He didn’t crave money, glory or the spotlight but he was often in it. It seemed that if something was getting done in Durham, Dad was smack dab in the middle of the doing.
For all of his great qualities and inherent capabilities, it was “Sha,” his pet name for the love of his life, who inspired him to see his own potential.
It was her, his new bride, for whom he fought his way through World War II.
It was Sha who begged him to use the GI Bill he earned through his service and attend N.C. State College instead of returning to his pre-war days as a plumber.
Sha, and their new baby girl, Marti, gave him the incentive and kept him focused on getting his degree.
Oh, he did do it all, make no mistake even if Mom lit the fire underneath him on occasion. Dad brought modern engineering practices to Nello L. Teer Company, accelerating a very good and growing company into a great company. From right here in Durham, Teer built out the US Highway system, dams in Oklahoma and Venezuela, an air base in Israel and roads in Africa.
He dined with heads of states, governors, celebrities, Saudi royalty, West Virginia farmers, Pennsylvania coal miners and African tribesmen. And he was comfortable in each setting.
He trusted his wife, close friends and God to guide him, his creative and spontaneous smarts to generate choices, his ability to decide and move on knowing that most wrong decisions could be course corrected if you’re observant enough to catch the error, and big enough to admit and alter the pathway to success.
When I nursed him over these last few months, as my brothers, sisters and Mom all did, sharing in the effort to help him heal from the infection, I woke up each morning thinking about him. And I’d lie in bed and feel those slow rolling silent tears, tears of sadness, hope and worry, slide down my face and drop to the pillow as I thought about his fight to get better.
Damn, I’ve never met a man with so much courage, courage to fight and survive in the worst of wars, courage to do what he thought was right, for others, and in the best and most difficult of times. Courage to give us all strength as he lost his.
At his weakest moment Homer had more courage than most men on their strongest day.
He knew the difference between God’s Plan and the plans of men – of everyday life. And he believed that a plan made things happen…good things. Progress.
And when folks needed stuff done, Homer was their man.
He didn’t do the work himself, nor did he ever claim it so, but man could he organize and cut through the clutter, focus and harness the power of willing, and sometimes not so willing, people.
He did it for Teer for 38 years starting in 1949.
He did it for the Exchange Club of Durham since 1954,
For the Child Abuse Prevention Center of Durham,
For Asbury Church, its pre-school and annual Christmas Tree Fundraiser,
For Willowhaven and Croasdaile Country Clubs,
And, for Croasdaile Village, his final home.
That strategy helped him focus his way through this life, to live up to his commitments to each of us and the community of Durham. And he relied on it to carry him through his battle for his health when he leaned on others because he could not plan the day by himself. He’d greet each us with, “Top of the morning. Good to see you. It’s a good day. I slept great. How are you? What’s the plan, son? I think it’s time that we made something happen.”
As you can tell, I don’t know how to put a bow on this. I guess that the best way is to end in thanks.
Thanks to the people of Asbury United Methodist Church who gave Dad a spiritual community.
Thanks to NC State College from which he gained an education upon which to build his life.
Thanks to Nello L. Teer Company and family for giving Homer his chance to start and finish his career and passion for building and to provide for his large family of five children.
Thanks to the Exchange Club that gave Dad and so many others the connection and energy to do so much good for Durham,
And the tremendous people living and working at Croasdaile Village who gave him a new home, new friends, and cared so deeply for him during his weakest time.
The amazing doctors, nurses and staff at Duke University Hospital who saved his life for a few more precious months.
The City of Durham for a lifelong home.
And, thank you, to each of you here today, and those who couldn’t come due to circumstance, for your love and appreciation of a man the likes of which don’t appear that often. Homer loved each and every one of you.
You made his day. His life. Every day.
A few weeks ago Mom asked Dad during a late afternoon at the hospital, “If you could wish for something, what would you wish for?” Dad answered, “I don’t deal in wishing.” “What would you change,” Mom asked. “I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one thing.”
“Do you miss me?” she whispered. “Honey, I beat this bed to death at night looking for you.”
That about sums it up on this amazing man who I had the honor and privilege to call Dad and you called husband, granddaddy, father, friend, uncle, boss, partner, or neighbor.
Rest in Peace Homer Lindell Riley. You enjoyed a Great Ride, drove most of the way and took us all along for the ride of our lives with you.
And as Homer often summed it up, the rest is history.