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The Cracker Barrel: Grandpa's gift

What I remember most about Gramps were the three principles on which he consciously based his life

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Through no fault of his own, my maternal grandfather was not a formally educated man.

Born in Germany in 1886, he emigrated to Chicago as a preschooler, the first born of what would become six brothers and sisters.

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When his father died unexpectedly at age 44, Gramps had no choice but to quit school and assume his position as head of the family. He was 12 years old.

Faced with the need to make money, Gramps apprenticed himself as a clothing cutter for Hart Schaffner Marx, and stayed with the firm for the rest of his working days, cutting his way through trainloads of fabric with a hand shears.

He lived to the age of 90, and even as an old man his grip was formidable.

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Denied the chance to partake of a regular education, he made good use of the public library and attended public lectures whenever he could.

I recall him talking fondly of the thrill he felt listening to Clarence Darrow, the lawyer famous for his defense of John Scopes, a teacher charged with the heinous act of teaching the theory of evolution.

But what I remember most about Gramps were the three principles on which he consciously based his life. I don’t know where the ideas came from, or how he came to adopt them, but I can attest that he followed them carefully, and that they served him well.

Central to his thinking was the idea of moderation.

“Follow the middle way,” he’d say. “Avoid the extremes.”

I can remember bridling at this when, in my youth, it seemed a recipe for blandness. But the passing of years proved Gramps right. He walked his talk, and the results were inspiring.

He took, for example, a great delight in eating. But he was always careful to limit his intake, and followed up supper with a nightly constitutional walk.

He enjoyed beer and wine, but never to excess. He was always nicely dressed, but insisted on his clothes being comfortable.

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For him, quality mattered more than price. The trick was to get the best possible value for your money.

The one thing he refused to compromise on was napkins, insisting on cloth instead of paper.

Next in his triumvirate of values was the habit of cooperation. “If we work together we can get it done.”

He saw little point in competition, other than in direct head-to-head contests such as ballgames. Even there he pointed out that winning teams were teams that worked together, and that sharing victory with others made it all the sweeter.

He was fond of Lincoln’s quote: “United we stand, divided we fall.” And he had little time for braggarts.

The third leg of the stool was the idea of diversion. “A change of pace.”

Gramps was a hard worker, but he realized early on that work was only one part of life. He managed to build a getaway cottage out in the country in his late 30s, and spent weekends there as often as possible.

He took great delight in growing tomatoes and swimming and listening to the radio, and spent part of each weekend lounging in his beloved hammock.

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He planted a hedge along the border of his property and enjoyed keeping it trimmed with his hedge clipper.

In later years he made it a point to keep up on current events and was always ready to discuss them with anyone who happened by.

The big thing was to live a balanced life, and to do that, you needed diversion from the everyday routine.

Did he arrive at these insights by himself? I don’t know. But I do know he made it a point to live by them, and he lived a very satisfying life.

He may not have had the benefit of extensive formal instruction, but he managed to raise his own life to the level of an art, and left, as gifts, the guideposts he so cherished.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.

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Craig Nagel, Columnist

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