Thursday, April 05, 2012

April 4th

This article was prompted by Bill Holmes' excellent remembrance of his experiences on the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Bill's article can be found over at The View Point.  Dr. King was and is a hero of mine.  He was a fierce believer in justice for everyone, and led a non-violent movement that changed this country forever by calling on the nation to cast away old prejudices and "judge people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin".  So on that April 4th, a long, long time ago, a national hero to many was lost.

If you'll forgive the personal nature of this article I wanted to tell you about another hero of mine, perhaps my biggest hero, who also passed away on April 4th.     April 4th, 2004 was the day my Father died after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.  My Dad died the way he lived, with a quiet dignity and a selflessness that exemplified his life.  A few days before he died, while he was fairly lucid and could still talk to us in a coherent manner, Dad woke up from a nap and saw my brother Bob and I sitting beside his bed.  He smiled and after struggling to sit up motioned for my brother and I to sit beside him on the bed.  Weak and in pain, he raised his arms up around both of us and pulled us close together.  He couldn't talk, but he patted us both on the shoulder as if to say "It's going to be o.k.".    "It's going to be o.k." That was a phrase he used time and again throughout my life when some ill or mishap had befallen me.  He was always the guy that I could turn to no matter what the issue was and would provide some comfort if I was hurt,or wisdom to help me solve a problem. 

Sam Cobble Sherrard (known by everyone as "S.C") was born on July 30, 1924 in Rusk, Texas.  Rusk is a small town in east Texas about 130 miles south east of Dallas.  My Dad was the 3rd of four children born to Sam Calvin and Rosa Lee Sherrard.  My grandfather was a sharecropper.   A sharecropper for those who haven't heard that term is a tenant farmer, or one that rents a parcel of land from a landowner, farms it and shares the proceeds of the sale of the crops that the farmer produces.   My grandfather was, like many people during that time a very poor laborer with little formal education.  He stopped going to school after completing the 3rd grade in order to work with his family on their farm.  As such, my grandfather didn't have a high opinion of education and going to school was essentially foreign to him. 

A significant event occured when my Dad was nine years old and he was working in the fields with his brothers and his mom picking cotton.  At that time (1930's) people didn't use Combines or other machinery to pick cotton, they did it by hand, as had been the practice for hundreds of years.  You picked cotton along a row of plants until you filled up a sack, threw the sack on the truck, then started another bag.  As they went down the rows, a truck slowly followed beside them on a land berm bordering the field and the road.  My Dad had finished a bag and had taken it over to the truck.  Standing beside the truck, the berm collapsed and the truck fell over with the wooden panel on the bed of the truck striking my Dad and pinning him underneath.  The accident had broken his hip, his leg and crushed part of his spine.

Dad's recovery was long and painful.  Bedridden for the majority of a year, his doctor starting bringing him books to read during his convalescence.  The doctor treating him brought my Dad histories, biographies, dime-novels from the "old-west", and many, many other books that ignited a passion for reading that lasted his entire life.   After my Dad healed up, he wasn't physically able to stay in the fields working so my grandfather relented to my grandmother's entreaties to let my Dad continue to go to school.  That single event is pretty much responsible for my Dad completing high school.  He is the only one of his brothers who did.  The others left school at various points in their lives and became ranchers, mechanics, carpenters, etc. but my Dad stayed and graduated in 1943.

Six months after graduating, my Dad was on a troop transport ship heading to the Pacific.  He had been drafted into the Army and like millions of men before him headed off to World War II.   My Dad was a rifleman in an infantry squad and eventually wound up as part of the occupation force in Japan after their surrender. 

After returning home, Dad decided not to go to college.  It wasn't a matter of money, he had the GI bill that would have paid for his education and oh, how he would have loved college.  Part of the early mythology that I heard from his uncles was that he came back and found his mom and dad in fairly dire financial straits and went to work to help support them, so he gave up going to college. While it was true that his parents needed help, I was to find out much later in my life after a conversation with him that he didn't go to college because he was afraid.  Now,  when he told me this, I was dumbfounded. I thought no way my Dad was afraid to go to college.  Turns out, my Dad had trouble writing, and was also afraid of speaking in public.  This terrified him to the point that he felt he'd be left behind as the people he had met in the Army who had gone to college were eloquent, both in speaking publicly and in their writing.  So, he decided to go to work instead.  After mustering out of the army in 1947, he went to work in a grocery store with the Safeway food chain.  He found himself quickly being promoted to store manager and decided this was the business he would make his career.

Fast forward to 1956, and my Dad married my Mom, Lena Barnes.  She was living in Waco at the time as my Dad was.  They married and bought a small house in Waco.  My Mom's father had died in 1948 and she had been working and taking care of her little sister and her mother who had been struck by arthritis so bad in her 30's that she was confined to a wheel chair for the rest of her life.   Dad and Mom worked in Waco for another few years and then in 1958 moved to Dallas as my Dad had been transferred to a store off of I-30 and Samuell Boulevard.   They bought a house in 1959 in Mesquite, Texas and in 1959, yours truly arrived.  4 years later, in October of 1963 my brother Robert was born and the family settled into the home that my Mom still lives in today.

Life in the 1960's and early 1970's was very hard.  Grocery store managers don't make much money. There was no health insurance, and my Mom's mother was living with us and not doing well.  My Dad's back was a constant problem for him and he would wind up having 4 back surgeries from the late 1960s through the 1980's.  My Dad and Mom managed to keep my brother, me and my grandmother well fed, clothed and we (my brother and I) were fairly clueless about their financial situation.  We did what boys did.  We played ball, went to school, went to church, got into trouble, the usual stuff.  The one fundamental theme however that was consistently harped upon in our house was the importance of education.  My Dad was always reading and demanded that my brother and I do the same.  We'd have impromptu book reports, history quizzes, and political discussions at the dinner table on Sundays.  I can hardly remember a time growing up where my Dad and I were not discussing some book he had just read, or talking about some historical event that had occurred.  There was little discussion of my brother and I not going to college.  It was an absolute given that both of us would continue our educations.   The day I brought my diploma home after graduating, he took it from my hands and went straight over to his brothers' houses to show them the document as I was the first in our family to graduate from college. 

Also during this time (1960s and 1970s), my parents were opening their home to foster children.  This got started when I was about 2 years old.  My Dad went to work one morning very early (about 4:30) to meet the grocery truck for the week's deliveries.  He found a young teenager asleep on the loading dock.  After waking him up, taking him inside and giving him some coffee (Dad's favorite drink), he found out the kid was a runaway, and had some how hitch-hiked all the way down from Michigan.  The kid, named Jerry Tucker was about 16 at the time.  My Dad brought the kid home where he stayed with us for a couple of years before enlisting in the military.  This started a pattern where we saw several kids come and stay with us for the summer.  We had probably 20 kids of various ages that were residences of the Buckner Children's Home, an orphanage in East Dallas spend time with us over the years.   My parents had signed up to be "host-parents" for kids during the summer.  This was "normal" at our house, there were people staying with us all the time and as my brother and I were later to discover, the people that were staying with us were usually broke.  Many of the folks "visiting" were people who at one time or another worked for my Dad.  If they were broke, he'd see they get a little money, or food, or if they didn't have a place to live, they visited with us for a while until they got on their feet.   I never saw my Dad turn away someone who needed help.  Sometimes it was just getting the person something to eat, sometimes it was taking someone to the doctor.  He would always tell me, "If you have the capacity to help, then help".    

My Dad and I became very good friends after I had become an adult, got married and had kids of my own.  I would often call him up after a bad day at work or after having a problem with one my kids and he would listen to me patiently while I ranted and then tell me "It's going to be o.k." 

Because of this man's quiet courage, his belief in hard work, his belief that "your word is your bond", and his example of service to others, my brother and I were given a head start on life that many aren't fortunate enough to have received.  He is indeed my hero and I strive every day to be like him.  I fall short often, but it is a goal worth pursuing.

"It's going to be o.k.".... I miss hearing that phrase from him.  I miss him.


  1. I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Sherrard. He was indeed a gentle man.

    Touching article Dennis.

    1. Robert Sherrard7:06 PM

      I miss him to. So many phrases from Dad that made us who we are. I wish my boys could have gotten to know him.

  2. Anonymous8:00 PM

    Dad, that was a wonderful account of Papa. Like every person who knew him I cherish the time I had with him and miss him tremendously as well. It seems like the most touching individuals in our lives are never around long enough even if you spend a lifetime with them. I know in the short amount of time i spent with him he impacted my life in such a way that he enters my thoughts daily. However, though he has passed on he still with us in you and my uncle. His sense of morality benevolence and all around outlook on life have now been passed down and cemented into you. the charecteristics which you so cherish and now enstilled in you and the moral compass that you relied on so much to guide you through trouble and tribulations you have now become to me and my sisters. S.C. Sherrard is still alive in all of us especially you dad, and like he guided you, you now guide us through the difficult times in life. We are truly blessed to have role modles such as him, my uncle and you. By the way I'm glad i caused you so much grieve growing up that you had to ask your dad for advice.

    Love and admiration always,

    Petty Officer Sherrard USN