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“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” — Edmund Burke
I knew a man, one of many pleasant anachronisms in my life that I did nothing to deserve. His friends called him “Bill.” We, his family, called him ” Papa.” He was born exactly 88 years ago, but I only first met him 59 years later. He was my mother’s father, the leader of an 11-member clan, and eventually a grandfather of 18. Things haven’t been the same since we lost him two years ago; such a man is not easily replaced. I might not go so far as to call him “great” – there will not likely be any institutions named after him, no statues either (thank goodness!) – but a good man is hard to find, and William Joseph Taylor was an especially good man.
Calling him an undertaker is fitting. Though he didn’t spend a lot of time preparing bodies for services, but he reopened the business his grandfather, John Irving Taylor, and Oscar Modeen founded in 1909. Papa’s undertaking was not limited to the funeral business. He and his wife of 66 years settled in Tequesta, FL, after leaving West Hartford, CT, in 1968. There, at 36 years of age, he worked tirelessly for his new community – then still aptly considered “The Village of Tequesta.” Involvement with the Jupiter Medical Center, Jupiter Pavilion (a hospice center) the Palm Beach County United Way, the Jupiter Tequesta Athletic Association, St. Jude Catholic Church, and the Florida Association for Retarded Persons were among his extra-curricular activities. He opened the first movie theatre in the area (it was, unsuccessful in part because his eldest decided to give candy to her friends). One time I asked him if he had ever seen a movie called The Last Picture Show. He gave me a knowing grin, and replied with a simple, “Yeah.” He knew I thought he was a lion. I really do still.
He served as a Councilman in Tequesta and a term as a member of the Florida House of Representatives. In 1981, after an unsuccessful re-election campaign, Papa continued his public service privately by founding T & M Ranch, a community for the developmentally disabled adults in the North Palm Beach area. (T & M was always the achievement that gave him the most pride.)
I don’t think it’s unfair for me to say that he and I had a special relationship. Unlike most grandchildren, I didn’t give much chase. As I approached adulthood, I sought him out at every opportunity. I squeezed him for what he had to offer, and fortunately he had a lot up his sleeve. Divorces were becoming commonplace, even in our tight-knit family, so an expert in the business of family caught my attention. I suppose like most strong relationships, this was due to shared anxieties at least as much as it was from shared interests: he liked golf, I preferred sports that allowed me to hit things hard; I’m not sure he knew many of the bands, or filmmakers, or writers I had come to admire. I was never a reader as a boy, and I’m not sure he ever had much time for books. Even so, there were many things we both loved. A large family tends to have this effect.
One evening, maybe eight years ago, I did what I tended to in those days, I ruined a family dinner by disagreeing vehemently about something I believe matters. (I can’t even recall what it was today, but I doubt I’ve changed my mind.) Afterward, he asked me to join him in his office, and then he handed me one of those books that can be purchased at Brooks Brothers, this one containing famous quotations. He said that he has had it for years, and has found a lot of these words very useful in his own life. Without breaking eye contact, he recited the words of Burke.
He liked it when people stood up; he found in his years that many never do. It was not uncommon for him to do so and find himself standing alone, sometimes in altercations that couldn’t help but get ugly. I remember he liked the story about how his best friend, a doctor, and he met while on the Board of Jupiter Medical Center. I can’t recall what Doctor Grogan said, but Papa who already had quite a bit of experience in these matters, interjected with, “That’s illegal…. and unethical.” Not really something anybody likes to hear, usually being told one is wrong is enough to set them off, but the former understood his error and the two remained partners until Doc’s last day.
Much of what made him the man he became was born of tragedy. Papa’s father took his own life when he was just eight years old. They moved around a lot after this, and the stories I have of this time in his life are few. I do know he was made chaperone of his younger sister when they traveled cross-country. I believe he was 10 the first time and I suspect he had to do things like this more than once. They stayed with their relatives in rougher neighborhoods than the lace-curtain one he had been cradled in. After his mother remarried a Coast Guard officer, they continued to move about, but at least there was some stability. They were relocated to Coral Gables, FL, in the late ’40s, and there he met my grandmother. He knew he liked a FitzGibbon girl, but he had to date three of them in order to pick. That was always such a peculiar story to me when I was growing up. I’ve seen the pictures, and, to be sure, and they were all lovely, but it wasn’t until I learned more about my great-grandfather – another community man who worked his way up from very little and contributed what he could out of a sense of duty as much as a charitableness. They called him “Papa,” and only recently did I hear that my Papa chose his grandpa name when he heard my eldest cousin was on the way. I think he always knew what he wanted to be.
When he died he was, as they say in biz, “surrounded by loved ones.” This was no exaggeration. The only of his grandchildren who couldn’t be by side are a Merchant Marine, a Navy man, and a spectacular classical pianist caught right in the middle of his finals week. That they knew to honor their commitments would have made him proud (he wasn’t really conscious by the time any of us got there). After his soul departed, my family was approached by a plethora of younger men, mostly in or around my parents’ generation. Each told us some variation of, “Your father/grandfather was kind of like a second father to me.” As for his actual descendants, we had our tears at the hospice center he helped start, but the week was generally a joyous occasion. The laughter stood out, and that he got us all together again was his grand finale. I have little doubt that he was pleased by that.
Though retired, he isn’t one to stop checking in.
[I just wanted to add a couple more pictures that my wonderful aunt sent me last night.]