From time to time, people ask me, with a bit of a disbelieving look on their face, “Tell me again why you chose to move to Kansas?” I can explain something about how people really care about their neighbors out here, how connections through time to a place are strong, how the people are hard-working, achieve great things, and would rather not talk about their achievements too much. But none of this really conveys it.
This week, as I got word that my great uncle Willis Goerzen passed away, it occured to me that the reason I live in Kansas is simple: people like Willis.
Willis was a man that, through and through, simply cared. For everyone. He had hugs ready anytime. When I used to see him in church every Sunday, I’d usually hear his loud voice saying, “Well John!” Then a hug, then, “How are you doing?” When I was going through a tough time in life, hugs from Willis and Thelma were deeply meaningful. I could see how deeply he cared in his moist eyes, the way he sought me out to offer words of comfort, reassurance, compassion, and strength.
Willis didn’t just defy the stereotypes on men having to hide their emotions; he also did so by being just gut-honest. Americans often ask, in sort of a greeting, “How are you?” and usually get an answer like “fine”. If I asked Willis “How are you?”, I might hear “great!” or “it’s hard” or “pretty terrible.” In a place where old-fashioned stoicism is still so common, this was so refreshing. Willis and I could have deep, heart-to-heart conversations or friendly ones.
Willis also loved to work. He worked on a farm, in construction, and then for many years doing plumbing and heating work. When he retired, he just kept on doing it. Not for the money, but because he wanted to. I remember calling him up one time about 10 years ago, asking if he was interested in helping me with a heating project. His response: “I’ll hitch up the horses and be right there!” (Of course, he had no horses anymore.) When I had a project to renovate what had been my grandpa’s farmhouse (that was Willis’s brother), he did all the plumbing work. He told me, “John, it’s great to be retired. I can still do what I love to do, but since I’m so cheap, I don’t have to be fast. My old knees can move at their own speed.” He did everything so precisely, built it so sturdy, that I used to joke that if a tornado struck the house, the house would be a pile of rubble but the ductwork would still be fine.
One of his biggest frustrations about ill health was being unable to work, and in fact he had a project going before cancer started to get the best of him. He was quite distraught that, for the first time in his life, he didn’t properly finish a job.
Willis installed a three-zone system (using automated dampers to send heat or cool from a single furnace/AC into only the parts of the house where it was needed) for me. He had never done that before. The night Willis and his friend Bob came over to finish the setup was one to remember. The two guys, both in their 70s, were figuring it all out, and their excitement was catching. By the time the evening was over, I certainly was more excited about thermostats than I ever had been in my life.
I heard a story about him once – he was removing some sort of noxious substance from someone’s house. I forget what it was — whatever it was, it had pretty bad long-term health effects. His comment: “Look, I’m old. It’s not going to be this that does me in.” And he was right.
In his last few years, Willis started up a project that only Willis would dream up. He invited people to bring him all their old and broken down appliances and metal junk – air conditioners, dehumidifiers, you name it. He carefully took them apart, stripped them down, and took the metals into a metal salvage yard. He then donated all the money he got to a charity that helped the poor, and it was nearly $5000.
Willis had a sense of humor about him that he somehow deployed at those perfect moments when you least expected it. Back in 2006, before I had moved into the house that had been grandpa’s, there was a fire there. I lost two barns (one was the big old red one with lots of character) and a chicken house. When I got out there to see what had happened, Willis was already there. It was quite the disappointment for me. Willis asked me if grandpa’s old manure spreader was still in the chicken house. (Cattle manure is sometimes used as a fertilizer.) This old manure spreader was horse-drawn. I told him it was, and so it had burned up. So Willis put his arm around me, and said, “John, do you know what we always used to call a manure spreader?” “Nope.” “Shit-slinger!” That was so surprising I couldn’t help but break out laughing. Willis was the only person that got me to laugh that day.
In his last few years, Willis battled several health ailments. When he was in a nursing home for a while due to complications from knee surgery, I’d drop by to visit. And lately as he was declining, I tried to drop in at his house to visit with Willis and Thelma as much as possible. Willis was always so appreciative of those visits. He always tried to get in a hug if he could, even if Thelma and I had to hold on to him when he stood up. He would say sometimes, “John, you are so good to come here and visit with me.” And he’d add, “I love you.” As did I.
Sometimes when Willis was felling down about not being able to work more, or not finish a project, I told him how he was an inspiration to me, and to many others. And I reminded him that I visited with him because I wanted do, and being able to do that meant as much to me as it did to him. I’m not sure if he ever could quite believe how deeply true that was, because his humble nature was a part of who he was.
My last visit earlier this week was mostly with Thelma. Willis was not able to be very alert, but I held his hand and made sure to tell him that I love and care for him that time. I’m not sure if he was able to hear, but I am sure that he didn’t need to. Willis left behind a community of hundreds of people that love him and had their lives touched by his kind and inspirational presence.