I can say without a doubt that my grandfather reigns large as the greatest man I have ever personally known. I recently described myself as being in awe of him. No other person has ever loomed so large in my life.
Before I’m accused of idolatry, let me explain further.
I can still recall some summer evenings hanging out in his front yard spitting watermelon seeds across the street. Where his house was there were woods across the street, and me and my brothers and cousins would make a game of seeing who was able to spit the seeds the farthest. As kids we were directed outside, or given a pie pan, to keep watermelon juice off the carpet in the front room (which had furniture covered with plastic). My brothers, cousins and I (seven of us were boys) would spend Sunday afternoons, summer nights after birthday celebrations, and other occasions listening to Grandpoppy spin yarns about his upbringing. We were cautioned to be on our best behavior, because we didn’t want him to give us one of those “Gus Coppedge whippings”. He would tell stories with such enthusiasm that he could hardly finish them because he was laughing so hard. I relished summertime as a youngster because I knew there would be trips to Sweetwater Creek or some other fishing spot and we’d all be able to fish, picnic and just hang out. He had an old-fashioned ice cream machine (electric, not the crank) and we’d spend hours keeping an eye on it to make sure there was enough ice cream salt and ice to have our sweet creamy treat be ready for dessert.
I remember one time when my cousin Brian and I were working with him on some project (he was a carpenter and would often have many projects going on at friend’s houses or even at our church) and he looked at me and said, “That hammer is gasping for air.” I had a confused look on my face and he showed me how to grip the hammer by the handle instead of “choking” it as I was doing. He had a way of using humor to teach, and many of those lessons have guided me through life.
One of the most endearing things about him was his laugh. It was a sort of wheezing, gasping for air thing he did. Whenever we heard it, even if we had no idea what he was talking about, we would just bust out in laughter. He had such a gregarious, larger than life quality that made even strangers feel welcomed.
He was also physically a man of large stature. I can recall when I was much younger running up to jump in his arms. There was an immense sense of security having him reach down to hug me. Even as I grew up and became taller, I still looked up to him. Physically, emotionally and spiritually.
When I was in sixth grade I had to write a report about NASA as a precursor for a trip to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This was a few months after the Challenger disaster and as I researched NASA and space travel I was inspired. I decided at that point that I wanted to be an astronaut. I told Grandpoppy about the paper and mentioned our upcoming trip, almost as an afterthought. The next Sunday at church he proceeded to tell everyone who would listen about his grandson, the future astronaut. That type of faith in and support of me instilled a sense of security that told me I could do anything I dared to dream. That’s a lasting lesson that sustains me to this very day.
Grandpoppy was an elder in our church. He served with the United Methodist Men and his baritone was always available on the Sunday when the Sanctuary choir would sing. When the UMC held their north Georgia conference each summer, my cousin and I would spend the week with Grandmommy while he was away. This was a chance for me to get the sugary cereals that my mom wouldn’t buy at home.
When he passed away several years ago, my mom and aunt asked me and two of my cousins to honor him by eulogizing him. I thought and prayed about and decided the best way to do this would be by taking the thing I remember most about him, his joy, and going to the bible to see what God had to say about it. I Just did a cursory search of the word joy which yielded several hundred passages of scripture. I wondered if I had gotten in over my head. As I spoke, I just did what I felt would honor him, tying in what I was speaking about naturally with the spiritual.
Later that day and throughout the weekend, several people encouraged me to “accept my calling.” I gave them all the same look I gave Grandpoppy when he talked to me about choking the hammer. The more I heard it, the more I began to wonder. “Minister?? Who me?!!” As we were sitting in church that Sunday morning I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit just as clearly as I did when I first accepted Christ as my Savior, “Yes, you.”
My grandfather was what the United Methodist Church called a “lay minister.” He and several of his colleagues were many times responsible for overseeing services at churches if the pastor was away on vacation, ill, or otherwise occupied. He told my mother, my aunt and uncle that he wished he would have become a preacher.
I have come to realize that sometimes God gives us dreams that will ultimately be fulfilled by our children, grandchildren or even great-grandchildren. As I look back over my life, I can see the hand of God establishing me in what he would bring me into and how Grandpoppy played such an integral part.
Today I honor the life he lived and the lasting memories and lessons that I have and can share because of who he was. If I can have half the impact on my children and grandchildren someday, that he has had on me, then I will count myself blessed and my life to be truly successful.
To my dad, Steve, Stevie, all my uncles and cousins, I’m wishing you a Happy Father’s Day! Don’t forget there are young men looking up to you also.
Leonard M. Coppedge listed as trustee on the front of my childhood church.
A nod to my favorite baseball player from me and Grandpoppy’s favorite team.