July 17, 2013

Mark Millican: Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

By Mark Millican

— Yes, the title was sung by the late George Jones, but another quote came to mind after three men I knew and respected recently passed from this life to the next. It’s often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”

I can’t recall the first time I met Gene Crawford, but it was probably at an Ellijay Lions Club function or a Habitat for Humanity home dedication. Gene was proud of his work with the Habitat ministry, and could say he was good friends with President Jimmy Carter, although he never tooted his horn about it.

But I believe he got his greatest thrill working alongside those who could not otherwise afford a house, seeing the smiles and dreams on their faces as they were learning — with Gene as instructor and mentor — what goes into building a home.

For years I had the pleasure of working with Gene’s gracious wife, Alene, on the Gilmer Learning Center board of directors. Little known fact: I never knew Gene served in World War II until I read his obituary. He just never mentioned it.

James Leonard knew he would never leave the hospital when he asked me if I wanted to know how the lower part of his face became disfigured by a terrible burn.

“I’m kinda embarrassed to tell it,” he said. James had seen some older men smoking cigarettes when he was 3 years old, so he rolled up a newspaper and lit a match to it.

As so often happens — adults, remember this — “Do as I say, not as I do” didn’t work.

I spoke at James’ funeral in Rocky Face and asked the attendees to try and imagine what it was like growing up with that severe burn right where other children — who we know can sometimes be cruel — saw it every day. It no doubt helped forge his character, for he was a big fellow who could have easily avenged those taunts. Instead, he was a gentle giant who was never heard to speak ill of anyone.

The song “Roll On” by Alabama closed out the service since James drove a tractor-trailer all his life, only coming off the road and retiring three years ago at age 83. I’ve never witnessed anything like it — people were singing and crying at the same time. Little known fact: James and his wife, Jane, who knows the Bible like the back of her hand, were married for 64 years.

Walt McDonald was also a big man, but likewise walked in humility. He was a planner and implementer of good works in the Cartecay community where he retired, and always had an eye out for those in need. Walt and his wife Maggie drove nearly two hours to our wedding when they didn’t have to, and I regret Teresa didn’t have the chance to get to know him better.

They named the barbecue pit after him where he goes to church since he became the go-to guy in eastern Gilmer County for BBQ chicken fundraisers that promoted good works. Little known fact: Walt crossed the Pacific Ocean 23 times in the four years he was in the U.S. Navy.

All three men had hearts of compassion for those who had less, and deep faith. I don’t mention the denominations where they attended church because that doesn’t matter. You see, I have this notion we don’t check into heaven through a gate that has our denomination or church’s name on it. At least, I can’t find that anywhere.

Who will fill these men’s shoes? I’m counting on some grandsons, to name a few.

How about you?

Mark Millican is a former Daily Citizen staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter, @ExtraByMark.