Walter Baldwin Jr. was born October 20, 1938; much of his life between then and the late 1960’s is still yet a mystery to me for reasons that will become apparent as one continues to read, but suffice it to say I’ll skip ahead a bit. You see, my maternal grandfather, Walter Dingle, died when my mother was a young child, leaving behind a wife and five children. Some time after that my grandmother met Walter Baldwin Jr. and they married. That point in time is when the greatest man that I’ve ever personally known came into our lives.
“Clarence”… “Walt”… “Baldwin”; all names that close friends called my grandfather, but all were off-limits to children; to us, he was affectionately known as “Grumpy”, which his demeanor and frequent mood earned him worthily. Because my grandparents helped a lot with raising me (and several other grandchildren, nieces, nephews and the like), I got a pretty healthy dose of Grumpy’s instruction. Not so much help with schoolwork per se, but he was EXEMPLARY at the subjects of “manhood”, “fatherhood” and “husbandry”, all subjects I was lacking in a consistent example of due to my parents never having been married.
I watched him for 30-odd years get up every weekday morning to go to work at the VA Hospital in my home-town, where he was a dental lab technician (or a ‘lab-man’ as he called it, another way of saying that he made dentures); I’d then see him return home in the evening to “feed up”, which meant he’d change out of a lab-coat and into a flannel shirt and overalls, walk across the street to the other piece of land he owned, and feed the hogs he raised. He’d then cross back over to head out to a small modular shed he’d put up in the back-yard near the garden, where he had a full lab set-up to make dentures for friends and family at a discounted price, and to do side-work for private practice dentists via mailed-in cases. Sometime late into the night he’d return to the house, maybe watch the news, fall asleep in his recliner, and eventually make his way to bed to start the process all over again.
Grumpy rarely missed work; I honestly can’t remember any regular vacations. He might take a day off here and there if he needed to take care of something that prevented him from going into the lab, but for the most part he was up at the same time every morning, dressed in his white lab-clothes, hopping into his truck to make his way to the hospital. Free time on the weekends was spent at the local Waffle House, where he was known to the waitresses and fellow regulars by name; he’d sit at the same table, sipping slowly at a cup of coffee, shooting the shit with old-heads about the weather, the news, the local happenings… or if he wanted an evening of comradery, he may head downtown to Doo-Doo’s, where the old men played chess & checkers while sipping brown liquor and reminiscing about times past. My grandfather was quite the skilled player, at least at checkers; I was well into my teenage years before I actually beat him. Sunday mornings saw him up early to get dressed in the full regalia of a fine suit for church service (and he kept a LARGE collection of suits); though not a deeply religious man per se, Grumpy did enjoy getting dressed and fellowshipping with his friends and family, followed by dinner at the K&W Cafeteria, where he would loosen his tie and wax poetic about “the old days”, extolling the musical stylings of Ray Charles, James Brown, and Otis Redding. He was stubborn, but he was wise; he was was irritable, but he was compassionate. He was old-fashioned, but he was quit-witted. He was everything I expected “the man of the house” to be, and as I’ve aged myself, I’ve drawn many times on what he taught me.
By the age of seven, I had become accustomed to reading my grandfather’s mail for him. In my young mind I was helping him not to rely so much on his glasses, as he was getting up in age. I’d also help him with the calculations of what to charge for his lab services, some simple addition, with occasional multiplication. I’d become so accustomed to it in fact that it didn’t completely dawn on me until later:
My grandfather could not read.
You see, my grandmother was a teacher’s assistant when I was young (imagine how little trouble you can get in when your kindergarten teacher and your grandmother eat lunch together regularly); she had me reading around age three or four the way she tells it, but my grandfather didn’t have that luxury. From what I can tell, he dropped out of school at a very young age to help his family out around their farm. Somehow, between childhood and the day he left this earth (May 31st, 2015), he managed to learn to make dentures in a professional laboratory environment, get married, help raise five children, purchase land and a home, pay off all of his debts, and make a huge, lasting impact on the lives of FOUR GENERATIONS of my family, all without being able to do complex mathematics or write much more than his own signature.
Now, by no means am I discounting the value of a quality education; I do sometimes wonder what kind of legacy my grandfather would have left had his life panned out differently. Could he have become a dentist instead of simply working for them? Would he have discovered a love for writing, perhaps penned a couple of novels? Could he have had some hidden talent for song-writing and composition that went untapped because he didn’t have access to the proper instruction? Alas, the world will never know… but what I DO know is this: Walter Baldwin Jr. was living (and now lasting) proof that ‘GREATNESS’ isn’t something you can learn from a book; GREATNESS is something you learn from living.
Author’s Note: I’ve been in deep thought about my Grandfather for some time, and trying to figure out how to effectively capture the man he was. The anniversary of his passing was at the end of this past May, and it’s literally taken me this long to put the words together so, please excuse the delay.