His birthday was August 15th, the same day as our dog, Colby. However, he usually visited us in the colder months of the year, and we always knew when he was coming; because Mom got out extra pillows, turned off the heat register, and opened both windows in my room. The closed door was the final giveaway. It was freezing in there – just the way he liked it. It was before our youngest brother Ken was old enough to remember, but Doug and I got excited, because that meant Uncle Vernon was in town. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps I need to build a little history first.
Uncle Vernon was Dad’s oldest brother – ten years older than my father. Although he had been raised in the Chicago area, he had an interesting opportunity during his teen years. Due to the illness of a cousin, Vernon was offered the chance to work for a summer in Beaumont, Mississippi, outside of Hattiesburg, helping operate a family plywood mill. As fate would have it, Vernon’s cousin died, and Vernon was offered the position to stay in Mississippi and learn how to run the place. He accepted, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Eventually, Uncle Vernon bought Perry County Plywood Corporation. It was one of a string of seven mills the extended family owned in the deep South, from Valdosta, GA to West Helena, AR. Dad’s job, when he got out of college, was to coordinate production for all the mills, and that is how Dad learned the wood business.
Well, in 1966, the elder members of the family were getting ready to retire and they decided to disband the organization that represented and coordinated production for all the family mills. Dad suddenly found himself out of work – he was 43. Things were difficult. I was graduating from grammar school and got typing lessons as a present so I could help Dad at the office each evening after dinner. Vernon decided, out of the goodness of his heart, to help us. He guaranteed Dad $1000 per month to sell plywood from the mill into the Chicago area. He also continued to provide Dad with a leased car each year; which he had been doing for some time already.
And I remember that every Feb. 18th, the day the lease was up, Dad would come home in a new Chevy Impala – one year light blue, the next, dark green, and another year, beige. Without the car and the financial help, we would have been in deep trouble. In fact, it wasn’t so easy even with the help. Dad rented a little two room office at 107th and S. Western Avenue in Chicago, and that is where we worked each night. Dad really struggled to meet our needs, and sometimes it was really tight at home.
Periodically Uncle Vernon would come to town to visit clients and talk with Dad. He was a bigger than life figure to me. He had a southern drawl, and he shared so many mannerisms that my Dad had. They both smoked Pall Mall cigarettes, and early each morning Vernon was in town, they would sit downstairs in the living room and drink black coffee, in their robes. It was neat to see Dad so comfortable with his older brother, doing things that came so naturally after a lifetime of memories together. And Doug and I would go into my room, where Vernon stayed, and look at the stack of $100 bills he always carried when he was on the road. And the fistful of silver dollars he always had with him. I had never seen so much money in my life.
I have a sneaking suspicion that much of that was given to Dad and Mom by the time Vernon headed back to Mississippi. His children, my cousins, were older and the mill was doing rather well. I’m sure he would have done it anyway, but Vernon was very generous with us. And he was fun to be around – oddly, in some ways, like having two dads. Although I do remember that I was an observer, never a participant, whenever they got together. To see my Dad laugh with his brother in the midst of such hard times still brings a smile to my face.
Eventually, when Dad was sick, and later died, I continued to work with Uncle Vernon. In fact, I was fortunate to sell almost all the production of the mill by the time I was in my early twenties. At one point, I actually thought about buying the mill, but Dad discouraged me and so we let it pass. I would visit Beaumont and Vernon would regale me with stories of when he and Dad were much younger. In fact, the week Dad died, I sold my 100th truckload of plywood from the mill. Our son Andrew still has the Onkyo stereo receiver I got as a bonus for that achievement – way back in 1978.
Although I could go on almost forever telling you great stories about the kindness of Uncle Vernon, let’s just say that he helped us when we really needed it – bad. He was a tremendous encourager and the driving force behind Dad’s ultimate success. Because Dad had someone who believed in him – and that is important for each of us. Ultimately, I was glad that as my career progressed, I could help return the favor by continuing to sell for the mill.
Eventually, as all things do, it came to an end. My major customer was sold, the mill struggled in the face of increased competition, eventually closed, and Uncle Vernon finally died. But it was a great run – with great memories.
Which brings us to the verse tonight, from Is. 41:6, “each helps the other and says to his brother, “Be strong!” That just fits Uncle Vernon and Dad so well. Because at different times in their respective careers, each depended on his brother for encouragement, counsel and support. My encouragement tonight is to affirm that there are people in your life who are there to provide these same things to you – because from time to time, we all need help from an outside source – someone who loves us, usually unconditionally. And my prayer is that you will remember, in a spirit of humility, that God puts people in your path to guide you and help you to accomplish His will for your life. Have a great day…