“We Were Dirt Poor, then the Depression Hit”: Remembering Grandpa Bird June 29,1915-January 25, 2015
Grandpa was unusually quiet as he sat behind the wheel of his mammoth sized motor home, driving through the blazing heat of an Oklahoma sun kissed afternoon. It was the summer after my freshman year in high school and I was on the vacation of a lifetime with my Grandpa and Grandma Bird. We had already spent a week in Canada fishing for Northern Pike and Walleye. We adventured across the northern states of our country and attended a family reunion in California. We were now heading back toward the midwest, but today Grandpa was not his jovial self. We were driving through the southwest United States. This was Grandpa’s country. “What are you thinking about Grandpa?” I asked.
Grandma Bird's Street.
Our last family goodbye.
Our family kisses a lot.
Grandpa found love twice with his beautiful wife Aggie.
His eyes narrowed as he remembered painful times. “We were dirt poor” he began, “and then the depression hit” His story unfolded, slowly at first, but then continued in waves. I turned out to be a Grapes of Wrath story except with a happy ending. He told about the devastation of the Great Depression on his family. He obviously loved his parents but it pained him to describe how he and his brother were left to fend for themselves because his parents could not afford to feed their entire family. It was determined that he and his brother Kenneth had the best chance of surviving America’s economic holocaust.
He told about knocking on farmer’s doors and asking for work. He could barely talk about the time one particular farmer asked he and his brother Kenneth if they were hungry. “No” my grandfather lied. They hadn’t eaten in three days. The farmer saw through the lie and fed them a huge meal at his family table. My grandfather never forgot this act of kindness and paid it forward thousands of times. It was during these days that Grandpa learned his first survival skill-work hard.
At some point he learned that he could not only work not only with his back. but with his brain. Grandpa learned the art of negotiation by becoming a horse trader. He learned to buy low and sell high. Horse trading was not the most ethical way to earn a living, but Bob Bird was doing what any depression kid separated from his family would try to do-he was just trying to get by.
Grandpa’s destiny, however, was not to be a shyster. Everything changed when he heard about a store front church that started in his town. Pretty girls were touted to be attendance and Grandpa arrived at the tent with suspect motives. Grandpa and his brother Kenneth both got more than they bargained for. Their lives were changed under humble little church. Kenneth went on to become a preacher and Grandpa got radically saved. He was so hungry for more of God that when he left that building. A couple weeks later he was walking down a long country road and spotted a massive shade tree in the distance. He told God that he wanted to have an encounter with the Holy Spirit by the time he reached that tree. Grandpa arrived at the tree crying and shaking, and filled with God’s Presence. This experience dramatically altered the course of his life. One of his keys to surviving the Great Depression was to make God his highest priority.
Did I mention that he found more than Jesus in that church? He also met the prettiest girl you ever did see named Ina Gripe who became his beautiful, godly bride. One of grandpa’s survival keys was to marry a great woman. Grandma and Grandpa Bird were a dynamic duo.
Being farmers, they heard the dirt in Illinois was like black gold so they moved their growing family to the fields around the town that would define the rest of his life-Princeton, IL. Grandpa was one of the charter members of a church he helped get off the ground. Apparently, the pastor found it funny to call the Bird family to the front of the church to sing “I’ll Fly Away.”
Grandpa was a good farmer, but wondered how he might use those negotiating skills he had learned trading horses to improve his lot in life. He believed he could sell and was he ever right. He didn’t have the education requirements to become a realtor so he studied for his Graduation Equivalency Diploma and graduated from Ottawa Township High School with a GED. Little did he know that he would have grandchildren including myself who would graduate from that same high school a generation later.
Grandpa sold so successfully that he opened his own real estate office which did more business by far that any other office in Princeton. Grandpa was the most positive person I ever knew. His positive outlook was one of the survival skills he learned when his back was against the wall during the dark days of “the depression.” He swore by the Dale Carnegie course and paid all of his children to take the course.
Not only did grandpa sell, he also had learned how to build. He purchased a tract of land, divided it into lots and started building and selling houses. The legal term was called a subdivision, but the locals referred to it as Bird’s Folly. Nobody thought it would work, but soon his subdivision, Bird Haven, was the where everyone in town wanted to move. He named the streets after his wife and children and lived in the flagship home of that beautiful neighborhood. He built his first subdivision after age fifty and made most of his money during this stage of his career. More subdivision would follow, and then apartment buildings.
Life was not without its heartaches. One of my earliest memories was the family grieving over the loss of Lora, grandpa’s oldest child who died in the prime of her life on a tennis court. I also stood with him at the grave of his son Richard who fought a valiant fight against heart disease, being one of the early heart transplants in America. His new heart, however, gave way and I watched grandpa grieve the grief no parent ever wants to endure. I learned from grandpa, during this, however, to live again after staring death in the face.
Did I ever tell you about my horse that died trying?
As hard as he worked, he played just as hard. He loved to catch fish. On one occasion, I was fishing with him and I kept telling grandpa I was getting “bites” on my hook. He told me to “put em in the boat.” This was another key to grandpa’s success. He wasn’t willing to settle for “bites”. He knew how to close the deal.
Grandpa’s hobbies alternated between hunting and fishing. He loved to coon hunt, snag salmon in Lake Michigan, fish for white bass in Wisconsin, and catch steelhead in the northwest. He was competitive in everything he did. Grandpa believed in the value of having fun. This was a huge key to surviving the storms of life.
Grandpa was a giver. He gave generously to his church, his family, or anybody he knew that was in need. When my dad was dangerously ill with kidney disease and my family was going through our own “depression,” grandpa insured that both our church and our family made it through that difficult chapter in our lives. Generosity was a secret he learned from that farmer years before who fed him when he needed it most.
When grandma died suddenly, she was only in her sixties. Grandma’s passing was devastating to grandpa and to the rest of our family. My lasting memory of that day was riding to the cemetery with the four cousins who are exactly one month a part. As we got in the car, the radio came on playing “Aint No Sunshine When She’s Gone”. She was such an amazing person in her own right that this could have depressed the rest of grandpa’s life. The Bird family was shocked, confused, and a little sad when grandpa fell in love within the year of grandma’s death. He was married again while all of us were still grieving grandma’s loss. I spoke with grandpa about his love for this new woman named Aggie. I asked him if people were still “romantic” at his age. What I really wanted to know was whether he would be intimate with this woman. He told me about a horse of his he found out in the barn who had died trying. I sang at my own grandfather’s wedding. One of grandpa’s secrets was that he never stopped being romantic. He was a passionate lover. What a great way to survive the depression.
Grandpa’s second wife Aggie was also incredibly special. She allowed grandpa to cry about grandma and grandpa let her cry about the loss of her husband. They were another amazing couple. They bought another house in Texas and wintered there while returning to Princeton in the Spring so grandpa could plant his garden.
Grandpa made a lot of money, but never allowed it to change who he was. I remember him driving a fancy Lincoln Continental and hauling cow manure in the trunk. He drive those Lincoln’s out into the fields to coon hunt. He was as comfortable in overalls as he was his business suit.
As grandpa continued to drive down that Oklahoma highway, a smile returned to his face as he told me stories of houses he had sold and fish he had caught, and coons he had killed on his night hunts. Soon he was laughing so hard that he could barely breathe as he was prone to do. He not only survived the depression, he beat it, and buried it.
Ninety nine years seems a long enough life, that we shouldn’t grieve his loss. I’m writing through tears, however, because it wasn’t enough. That’s why God had to make a place called heaven, because this life is incomplete like movie that is cut short before its over.
I miss you grandpa. I’m going through a little recession of my own. I came to Knoxville to pastor a small church and its growing, but the finances are tight. I’ve been thinking about how to overcome this challenge and I immediately thought of you. I got my real estate license just before you died and I’m ready to sell. Like you, God is the number one priority in my life. I’m married to a great woman. I’m totally optimistic about the future. I’m working hard. You taught me how to close a deal and not to quit. I love to have fun like you taught me and I’m still a hopeless romantic. You taught me to be generous and I’m helping as many people as I can along the way. I love you and can’t wait to see you in the land that’s “more than enough!”