(In memory of George Eugene Woodward, 1928 – 2016)
“But above all, in order to be, never try to seem.” ― Albert Camus
I suspect all good lives are good, in part, because they are authentically lived.
I first met George Woodward, the man who would become my father-in-law, in 1985. I had heard a bit about “Big George” as he was affectionately known, from his daughter, Ellen. But somehow, nothing had really prepared me for the impact this man was to have on my life.
Her certainly could have been intimidating. Standing just shy of 6 foot 4 (“shy” only being added with the settling of later years) and around 230 pounds, he was definitely a man of a man. Physically imposing though he was, the essence of his personal impact upon me that day 31 years ago can be summarized with words such as amicable, warm and gracious. I simply felt welcome in his presence, and at home around him from the very first time we met. And I think his personal authenticity had a lot to do with that.
As Ellen and family wrote in George’s obituary, “George will be remembered for his dedicated service to God, his family, his community and his country. He never failed to fight for what he believed in, or to apologize when he was wrong.” I certainly came to see and deeply believe this to be true in my 31 years of knowing him. George was a man who acted justly.
He was unapologetically George. True, he was quick to apologize when he realized he had made a mistake, or if he had exerted his opinion a bit too strongly. But he never apologized for being himself, and he never shied away from it, either. What you saw was what you got. And that never changed, no matter the season or situation.
I remember a time when we were traveling together as a family, and there had been a misunderstanding about a place and time of meeting. While George verbally expressed his frustration to the group, he later sought out each family member and offered an apology. He meant it, and that was obvious. One comes away from an experience like that not really caring who was right or wrong. It really didn’t matter. What mattered was, who was human and knew it.
Over many years of visiting in George and Mary’s (his wife) home, a departure ritual took shape, and I am sure if filmed, these occasions would have been almost indistinguishable. Nearly tearing up, he would tell us how much our visits were appreciated, and sincerely thanked us for taking the time to come and visit with him and Mary. Again, authenticity shown through, along with pure gratitude and humility for the gift of relationships.
George’s love for his family was palpable and so warm. It was never questioned, a bedrock truth for his wife, children and other family members. Equally obvious was his love of God and country. George was not one who went around talking about how much he loved Jesus. But his witness was in his walk. I am reminded of a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” George preached it daily.
The man was a defender of the truth as he saw it. He did not shrink back from this. He protected those whom he loved. He guided those who were less steady. He shepherded children and adults with wise counsel. He took care of the old people. He built for the future. He could be counted on. He gave back more than he got. He was forgiving. George was a man who loved mercy.
When my father died in 2007, George didn’t tell me he was going to try and become a father figure to me. He just did it, authentically, lovingly, innately. He just lived it.
George’s life was an anchor for many in his circle of influence. The only way this could have been true is that George, himself, was anchored securely “in the haven of rest.” And the authentic life he lived until the end was rooted in the one true and only authentic life of a loving God and father of us all, God with us, who had walked our journey. God with George.
As health and balance declined, George remained strong in himself and in the strength of his God as he continued to provide, welcome and lead. At the end, this man’s man had the humility to accept the reality of his frailty, and the grace to let concerned others help him. He even let his adopted son help to feed him supper when we visited him in the hospital a few weeks prior to his death. That was another of his gifts which I will always cherish. George was a man who walked humbly with his God.
The prophet Micah leaves us these words: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Somewhere, sometime, in the wild wonder of the East Tennessee mountains of his childhood home, between Mother’s hearty cooking and Father’s sturdy building, between the ploughed rows and steep pastures of his youth, George had listened, and George had perceived what was required of him. And he spent the rest of his days authentically living out the truth of who he was, serving as a guide for all who knew him.
I thank God for the authentic life of a great man, George Eugene Woodward.