“That’s something to be proud of; that’s a life you can hang your hat on.” -Montgomery Gentry
My Grandpa Wayne would be 90 years old this week. He died this past August, just two months shy of nine decades. I can’t let this week pass by without reflecting on that nine-decades long, amazing life. He was, as he liked to say about others, “quite a guy.”
My earliest memories of Grandpa Wayne revolve around my grandparents’ farm in northeastern North Dakota west of Grand Forks, where my grandpa lived in his boyhood and which provided my grandparents’ livelihood later in their lives. Mostly, I remember him working. But I also remember him pouring himself a root beer, fizzing over ice, in his blue plastic cup before settling into his easy chair after a long day working on the farm. I remember him lying on his side on the shaggy green carpet, playing a game of solitaire during a few minutes of rest. I remember driving with him to town in his old green “town car,” which he would park in front of the gas station to buy my brothers and I a couple candy bars. He worked hard, like to tease us, and let us drive his golf cart, which was undoubtedly my first-ever experience driving.
But his life started long before my early memories of him. He was born in October 1931, the first child of his parents Clara and Syver, at his grandmother’s house in town. (I often wonder, did Clara experience the same joy and trepidation at my grandpa’s birth that I did when my first son was born?) He was raised on a farm as a boy during the Great Depression and World War II. His father Syver died in a terrible blizzard in 1941, leaving behind his wife and five children with a sixth on the way. His mother Clara remarried a couple of years later, resulting in a blended family with a total of 9 kids.
After high school, Grandpa Wayne enlisted in the Army as a paratrooper. He narrowly missed being sent to Korea because he took a typing class in high school, and the supply room at Fort Bragg in North Carolina needed someone who could type. Home on furlough in 1951, he ran into my grandma, Marilyn Hendrickson, at a dance. He had brought another girl to the dance (my grandpa said she was pretty; my grandma said she wasn’t) but ended up giving my grandma a ride home that evening instead. The rest was history. Their first summer of marriage was spent on a military base in Utah; the next six months were spent apart as he continued living on the base and she went back to her teaching job at a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie.
After the Army, Grandpa Wayne worked for the Michigan elevator, drove a delivery truck for Sweetheart Bread, and worked as a farm hand. He finally got the chance to farm for himself when he and my grandma first rented, then purchased, his stepfather’s farm where he had lived as a boy. My grandparents had three children, my mom the first, and spent the next several decades farming. The years of their last decade farming start to overlap with my early memories mentioned above. In 1996, they retired and moved to Bismarck to be close to us.
Even in retirement, Grandpa Wayne was never one to sit around. He set up a woodshop in his garage, where he made furniture and wood boxes. Then he started coming up to our farm in McKenzie County to help my dad during planting and harvest. Lucky us, because we got to work alongside our grandpa for almost 20 summers. After he got macular degeneration and couldn’t drive himself, we would give him rides back and forth from Bismarck. He always told the best stories on those car rides about growing up, serving in the Army, and farming. But as soon as we got to the farm he’d be off, tooling around on four wheelers and farm equipment and his little S10 pickup.
We always said he was better at operating equipment with only a little eyesight than we all were with full eyesight.
Grandpa Wayne passed away early in the morning on August 30, 2021. He was simply the best, coolest guy around. I loved his stories, his sense of humor, his work ethic, and his steady presence in our lives. In recent years, he loved when I would stop by with my boys. He would say, “That Kasen, he’s fast” or “That Finn, he looks like he’ll be a football player.” He would always slip me a couple $20 bills and say I needed diaper money. He finally got to meet Grady in person this past April, after almost a year of nothing but window visits. That is the last photo below.
It hurts to think of life without Grandpa Wayne, and I imagine it will for a while. That’s the price you pay for loving and admiring someone so much. But his life was something for him, and the rest of us, to be proud of. I’m proud to tell his stories to my boys as they grow, and to make sure they know that nothing comes for free without a little hard work (except diaper money now and then, if you’re lucky).
Happy 90th birthday, Grandpa Wayne. Thank you for everything.