Column: Three deaths, three remarkable men

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 13, 2007

By Sharon Randall

Scripps Howard News Service

My mother used to say that death comes in three’s. Actually, she said a lot of things that made me roll my eyes and snicker. But I suspect she’s the one laughing now.

I thought of that recently when, within days, the world — those of us they left behind — mourned the passing of three remarkable men, each loved and admired for different reasons: James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul;” Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States, and my stepfather, a textile mill worker who married my mother when I was 4 years old.

Never until today could I have imagined using those three names in one sentence. You’d be hard pressed to find three men with less in common. No matter how we live, it seems, we’re all the same in death.

That’s another one of those eye-rolling things my mother used to say. Apparently, she’s still saying them through me.

When the phone rang the morning after New Year’s Day, I knew the news was bad. Good news never calls that early.

It was hardly unexpected. My stepfather had been ill for years. Lung cancer, kidney failure, and loneliness … you name it. Some said it was a wonder he lasted as long as he did.

It was no wonder to me. I knew how strong he was.

He was 24 when he met my mother. She was 28, divorced, the mother of two little girls and a blind baby boy.

I told him flat out at the start he would never be my daddy.

“Fair enough,” he said. But that never stopped him from treating me as his daughter.

For some reason, he decided to call me “Granny.” He said I was like an old woman, bossy and nosy. “Granny.” I hated it.

When I was 6 a hurricane blew into town and we were sent home from school early to take cover. I tried to hurry, but the wind kept lifting me off my feet. I thought I was a goner. Then I saw my stepfather coming like John Wayne to my rescue and I knew I was safe.

When I was 8 I got lost in the woods in the snow. Not only did he find me, he carried me home on his back, thawing my icy feet in his big hands.

When I was 9 he tried to teach me to swim by tossing me in Green River. For spite, I sank to the bottom and refused to surface. He had to jump in fully clothed, with his cigarettes in his pocket, to fish me out.

When I was 16, he caught me sneaking in late from a date (10 minutes past an 11 p.m. curfew) and he never told my mother.

When I brought my children from California to visit, he gave them nicknames and bought them fireworks and showed them off as his grandchildren.

Twelve years ago, when my mother died, I called from the hospital to tell him the news and, for the first time in my life, I heard him bawl like a branded calf. I wanted her to hear him.

There are other memories I could tell you and some that I would not. He worked too hard, drank too much and never learned to read. And every day, God bless him, for 42 years, my mother gave him the devil.

He was not the “Godfather of Soul” or the President of our country. But he tried to do right by my mother and her children. He was never my daddy, but I am proud to be his daughter.

Two days before he died, when I called to wish him happy New Year, he repeated what he’s often told me lately.

“I love you, Granny,” he said. “Tell the kids I love them, too. If I don’t see you again in this world, look for me in Heaven.”

It won’t be hard to find him. He’s a big man like John Wayne. And my mother will be giving him the devil.

* * *

Sharon Randall can be contacted at P.O. Box 777394, Henderson NV 89077 or at