(My apologies to those of you who may have seen an earlier draft of this post a few days ago. I accidentally hit "publish" when I was still in process, and I'm sure what I had at that point totally confused anyone who subscribes via a blog reader.)
On Friday morning I drove to Taylorstown, VA with my dad, mom, and sister Lena. Taylorstown is a tiny hamlet that lies somewhere between Leesburg and Lucketts, and it's the home of Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church, where Uncle Don loved and served for... somewhere between 40 and 60 years, I guess it has to be. Don's church family did a wonderful job of hosting the day's events. They showed up in force to honor Don at his memorial service, and they pulled out all the stops with a truly Southern, small-church-style, delicious potluck lunch for all of the mourners. (Don would have called this "the big feed." We had fried chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, baked beans, pasta salads, creamed vegetables, gelatin salads, rolls, a whole table laden with cakes and pies, huge vats of sweet tea, and more... with not one leafy green in sight. Quote from my dad as he was filling his plate: "This is MY people! I want to taste everything!")
In this post I have attempted to capture some of the meaningful moments from this day of celebrating Uncle Don's life and mourning his death. I have tried to remember the exact words that people used as they honored Don, but I am sure that some of my "quotes" (in Italics), are really more like paraphrases. I was so grateful to be able to hear from so many people who knew and loved Don Fry. He truly was, to borrow a phrase that he might have used, "somethin' else."
* * *
The Nalle clan was in pretty rough shape that morning, and our primary contribution to the service was the sound of sniffling. However, I was so grateful that my dad pulled it together enough to share a bit of what Don meant to our family. I don't remember many of his thoughts, but I know I lost it when he said:
The affection that flowed between Nancy and my girls and Don would be hard to overstate.
Without men like him, who fought for the independence of my country, I would not be here today.
Uncle Don had a great sense of humor and never hesitated to express himself in the plainest of words. I was so grateful that his cousin's wife, N, told this funny story, even while her husband C sat silently weeping for his life-long friend and kin.
Don was at the gas station one morning when a man who was lost stopped by to ask for directions. Wherever he was trying to go must have been pretty far away, because I guess Don couldn't tell him. The man looked at Don and said, "Seems to me like you don't know very much." "Maybe so," said Don, "but at least I ain't lost."
One of the best tributes at the service was written by K, a man who was much like a son to Don. K's wife delivered his tribute in a trembling voice that clearly explained why K didn't attempt to speak on his own behalf. Here are some bits and pieces that I remember.
He smelled like fish in the summer and foxes in the winter, and I thought this was the greatest thing in the world... I started trapping and fishing with him... every time I see a fox now, I'll think, "You're one of the lucky ones." ...Don saw things in wildlife that most people will never have a chance to see... My father died when I was still pretty young. No words were spoken, but Don stepped in as a father figure... When we had [my son], guess who was the first one at the hospital? Don. And when we had [my daughter], guess who was there first again?... He was the greatest man I ever knew.
Don served as the superintendent of Mt. Pleasant's Sunday School for the last 40 years of his life, and he taught a class for even longer--no one seemed to know exactly how long. It was so sweet to hear women who are now in their 50's recounting fond memories of their school days in Don's class. They even told how their hungry, teenage tummies started what became one of Don's famous traditions--arriving early for class each week so that he could prepare pancakes for his students in the church kitchen.
After the graveside portion of the service, which included the painfully moving military honors (folding of the flag and playing of Taps), we returned to Don's church for a lunch reception. When we first reentered the building we passed the sanctuary, where they were playing a slideshow of Don's life. They showed it at the viewing on the previous night, and now they had it on continuous play so that people could drop in and enjoy it whenever. I sat across the pew from one of Don's fellow church members, who shared this anecdote about how Don continued to serve his church faithfully, even as he began to suffer from the effects of cancer and cancer treatments. (This was about as close to complaining as Don ever got.)
He would still be one of the first in the church on Sunday mornings. I would come in, and he would be making his pancakes [for his Sunday School students], and I'd say, "How are you, Uncle Don?" And he'd say "Not worth a nickel! But I'm here."
Possibly the highlight of the whole morning, for me, was when one of Don's Sunday School students shared a brief but very eloquent tribute. I'd guess that this young man was about 17 years old, and I believe he said that he had been in Don's class for eight years. In just a few sentences, he told how Don's love for the Bible had impacted his life, and he closed with these words:
His teaching is what makes me able to bear his loss well.
* * *
My dear mother-in-law sent me an email wishing us her kind condolences. "He certainly," she wrote, "must have been a giant of a man."
I know that Don would scoff if he heard those words spoken of himself. I can hear him now: "Shoot! I ain't much! Just a simple old country man." And of course, that's exactly what he was. But Don proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that even the simplest life, well-lived, can cast a giant shadow.
Don Fry won't be forgotten soon by any of us who knew and loved him.