At about five this morning, the day after Christmas, one of the best men I’ve ever known slipped away. He was my high school drafting teacher, a principled man who loved his students more than any teacher I’ve ever seen. He had a good Christmas, surrounded by his grandkids and great-grandkids, his lovely wife Evelyn, and his son Chris, who shared him patiently with all his students. And then this morning he quietly left.
Several years ago his wife invited me to emcee his 80th birthday party. Dave Tanner, an outstanding entertainer out of Dallas performed, several students spoke, and I did my thing, and told a few stories of Mister Gregory. I never felt right calling him Fred, although I tried it a time or two.
I had a Teacher Appreciation Day at my church honoring teachers of all kinds. I invited Mr. Gregory to be my guest speaker. He was a prince. He was humble to a fault, and I think he was surprised that so many of his former students considered him their best teacher ever.
One high school competition trip required us to travel about 60 miles to the event. On our return trip Mr. Gregory stopped to let us eat a hamburger in some small town. When we left and were safely away, one of the boys in the back seat pulled out a salt shaker he had taken from the table of the little diner. Mr. Gregory eased his Rambler station wagon over on the shoulder, looked back in the mirror, and we all tensed, sensing his disapproval and disappointment. Without saying a word, he made a u-turn, and we drove all the way back to the little town in silence.
When he pulled back in the parking lot, he looked over the seat and told the boy to get out and take the shaker back in and give it to the manager. He watched to make sure he did. He never condemned him. Never said one unkind word. When we were back on the road, he started making jokes like nothing had ever happened. He made sure to include the thief in the casual banter.
He knew we would be a little late now, with parents waiting and wondering where we were. (We didn’t have cell phones in those days). Just before we arrived, he slowed down and told all of us that it was wrong to take what didn’t belong to us. But he didn’t want to hear another word about it. And no one needed to tell why we were late. He kept the boy’s privacy, but he made sure we knew the high value he placed on honesty.
He helped me prepare for my first job interviews at engineering companies, and he was as proud as any father would be when I landed my first part-time job drawing floor plans for a consulting firm. He coached me on how to get raises, and how to continue to improve my skills and my job performance.
He was so much more than a teacher. He was a life coach, a mentor, a friend.
Last week I was writing a booklet to give to my grandkids as a Christmas gift, “Grandpa’s stories of life, laughter, and love.” Scanning through old stories I had written, I found a newspaper article I had published about the incident above. I had an impulse to phone Mr. Gregory just to say Merry Christmas, but I was running late, and laid aside his number, meaning to do it another day. I wish I had listened to the impulse.
Rest well, Mr. Gregory.