He was born in the small town of Walnut Hill, Illinois, the second of three brothers. The youngest died in infancy and the oldest, Gene, is still living as of this writing. Dad served in the US Navy in the Pacific during WW II. Afterward, he spent the rest of his adult life working as a machinist for Illinois Central Railroad until he retired at the age of 62. He told me once that his first raise was when he went from being an apprentice to being a journeyman. His pay was increased from 24¢ to 28¢ an hour!
If you had known my dad, then no words of mine would be necessary. He never met a stranger. We could go anywhere and he’d run into someone he knew: “We were in the Navy together, . . . worked for the railroad together, . . . went to grade school together, . . . etc.” He was a freak of nature. And if, by some chance, he didn’t know anyone, he’d simply go up to the first person he saw and start talking. And when he was done he knew someone else. I’ve never been able to do that myself and I’ve always been envious that he could.
He was a big influence on me and he was responsible for the father and the man I am today. I could share a hundred stories but I’ll stick with two that I told at his graveside the day we buried him. They illustrate the kind of man he was better than anything else.
One year when I was young, I got some toy soldiers and toy army tanks for Christmas. I started asking dad about the tanks, what kind of cannons they had and so forth. Dad answered, “Well, this one has a 90mm cannon but this one over here only has an 80mm
Then one day, when I was in my twenties, I was back in my home town of Centralia, Illinois, visiting my parents. I seem to recall that I needed a part for my car. For whatever reason, I needed to cash a check. But my bank account was in St. Louis, Missouri. I went to the bank where my parents had their account and explained my situation to the teller. She told me to speak with Mr. Rogers, the vice president of the bank. Mr. Rogers had a son, Phil, who was my age. We’d gone to high school together. I knew Phil but I’d never met Mr. Rogers. I explained my situation to him and he asked me if my parents had an account at the bank. I said “Sure.” Then he asked me, “What’s your father’s name?” I told him, “Junior Phelps.” And he simply said, “Go cash your check.” He didn’t ask the amount of the check. My father’s name meant my check was good. The fact that I could claim to be kin to him meant I was honest. That’s the kind of man he was and that’s the kind of man I hope to be. If I can be half the man he was, that will be enough for me.
Dad is gone but he lives on in so many ways. People who came to pay their respects told me I favor him and it’s true that we were both tall and dark haired, although I inherited mom’s blue eyes instead of his brown ones. I can see dad in our daughter too: She’s tall and strong and independent, just like dad. And she sneezes when the sun gets in her eyes, just like dad did and just like I do. But most important, he lives on in the values he taught me, through word and action, and just by living. I miss him but I know he’s in a better place and I’ll see him again some day.