What my grandfather's funeral taught me about success
A reflection from 2014 that still felt relevant today
Last week my family and I told our family patriarch goodbye. He had battled mesothelioma for nearly four years and survived 3.5 years beyond anyone's expectations.
My grandfather (Grandaddy) taught me a lot over the years.
He taught me how to fish.
He taught me how to love other people unconditionally.
He taught me how to be an excellent husband to my wife.
He taught me that choosing to speak fewer words in life can have a more significant impact.
There's a lot he taught me. Even after his death, his lessons continued — even at his funeral.
All of us have different definitions of success. For some, it means a high title. Maybe fame. Maybe a high salary and a summer home.
Until this week, I really didn't know how I would define success in my own life. Then I went back to Kentucky for Grandaddy's funeral.
I knew he had helped a few people from time to time and had been very involved in his church, so I figured the turnout wouldn't be shabby. However, I wasn't prepared for the turnout we received.
I glanced at the funeral home registration book and saw at least 400 names signed into his visitation — and those are just the folks who remembered to sign in. The room stayed packed the whole time, to the point where it became uncomfortably warm due to the body heat. Every time I left the room to grab a snack from the cafe area of the funeral home, I came back to see the same number of people in there, except with a different set of faces.
This was the case for six straight hours.
The funeral the next day was the same. It wasn't a weekend funeral — it took place in the middle of a weekday.
A work day didn't stop a massive crowd of people from packing into the church to pay respects to a man whose last name I carry.
In the family limo heading out to the cemetery, the driver asked my dad, "Who was this man? Was he a politician? A big-time businessman? I've never seen a weekday crowd like this for someone this old."
Grandaddy was neither of these, but from his funeral turnout, you could easily see that he had nothing short of a successful life.
How Grandaddy Became Successful
Hearing stories about Grandaddy from dozens of people over a few days and watching him personally as I grew up, I found a few different keys to his success:
Love what you do and be excellent at it
Grandaddy was both an electrical engineer at GE and a master electrician. His old co-workers at GE used to call him "the brain" because he put a lot of intentional thought into solving problems at work. Even after he retired, he continued to help wire houses and fix appliances for friends and neighbors because he loved what he did — and loved helping people.
Know what to prioritize in life
My grandfather loved to work — but he loved his family more. He would always put time with his family first. Grandaddy was a simple man who didn't need to spend money on many toys or things for himself. He invested his money into people by taking trips with family, building a log cabin to create new memories out on a lake, or helping people in need. Grandaddy was content with what he had and where he was in life — a clutch attitude to have for success.
Put Others Before Yourself
I rarely saw him do anything for himself. Even when he helped people, he did it confidentially and with no strings attached. Our family didn't realize the people he had helped or impacted until the funeral. Being a servant to others was a huge priority, and he reaped the benefits of selflessness in the last part of his life.
You Can't Do It Alone
Despite how he and my grandmother helped people in their lives, they also leaned heavily on others. In the final months, they always got calls and visits checking his well-being. It's easy to fall into the trap of being overly self-sufficient or believing the lie of being "self-made." Nobody has ever really accomplished much in life without help along the way. In the last few months, I saw Grandaddy lean on his community and know that the family would be much better off not flying solo during his final health decline. I know we significantly benefitted from support during his funeral due to his precedent.
So what does success look like to me? Tangibly, I don't know yet. I've been fortunate to have several examples of successful people in my life.
I know that if I (or anyone) follow Grandaddy's basic blueprint, we'll probably be on the right track.
A version of this article was published on Brain Wads | January 24, 2014
Your words are a gift for me today!
There will never be another man like Uncle Jimmy.