From the archives



Top ten things my Dad taught me

November 2010

I have in my right hand, direct from my home office in Corn Borer, Indiana, today's category: top ten things my Dad taught me. Actually, there are probably thousands: how to ride a bike, how to shoot a gun, how to parallel park, how to tie a Windsor knot, how to use a table saw without losing any appendages . . . the list goes on and on. But here are, what I consider, the top ten:

10. Sand with the grain

Cut against the grain, but then sand with it to smooth things out. Good advice for woodworking and working with people.

9. It's better to laugh than cry

Since my sophomore year in high school, I've been writing humor: a weekly column for seven years in a teen magazine, a column for fifteen years in three Indiana newspapers, and a column each issue for a pastors' magazine. I couldn't have developed my dry sense of English humor without the wonderful examples from my Dad. His quiet, spontaneous wit continues to crack up the family even as dementia muddles his mind and cancer batters his body. It is better to laugh than cry!

8. You can fix anything with Vise-Grips, baling wire and duct tape

My dad was a jury-rigging genius. (joor'-ē-rĭg v. to creatively solve a problem using unconventional means or methods. Not to be confused with rigging a jury.) The body of our 1956 Pontiac was held together with pop rivets, coffee cans and Bondo. The leaking hoses on the car were sealed with duct tape. And the exhaust system was held up with baling wire. But most of all, he built my brother and me a great go-cart from items he found at the dump and the scrap bin at Kelloggs. Dad was the "MacGyver" of home repairs!

7. Encourage creativity

Our garage was a mad scientist's laboratory with every tool needed to create aforementioned go-carts, as well as marionettes, magical illusions, robots, and props for home-staged plays. And Christmas and birthday presents included a Royal manual typewriter, a guitar, and a unicycle. Creativity can be dangerous—like the time I attempted to make rocket fuel by dumping everything flammable I could find in the garage into my tin-can missile—but Mom and Dad thought it was worth the occasional trips to the emergency room to instill creativity into their sons.

6. Strive for excellence in everything you do

Dad was a master craftsman, whether it was keeping the '56 Pontiac running, building a solid-oak desk that I'm writing on today, or keeping the garden weedless. Anything worth doing was not only worth doing well, but doing with excellence.

5. Never, ever say "I'm bored"

If you dared utter "I'm bored," you found a hoe, a rake or a snow shovel in your idle hands. And idle hands were the devil's workshop, so we were taught a strong work effect. It served me well in school, work and life.

4. There are no problem people, just people with problems

I'm not sure if that was original with my Dad, but he certainly applied it. He had a big heart for "people with problems" and befriended the friendless. Even the kid in high school who thought he was an alien—not non-American, but non-earthly—and invited him over to the house much to my utter humiliation. But Dad's philosophy has kept me in good stead personally and professionally.

3. To plow a straight line—and life—focus on a fixed, far-distant point

Dad taught us to line up the upright exhaust pipe on the Allis-Chalmers Model B tractor with a distant tree or some other stationary point to plow a straight line in our Texas-sized garden. That's good advice for life as well. Lock on to your dreams, goals and intended destination; then don't take your eyes off of them for a second.

2. Start the day with Bible reading

When I would come downstairs to get ready for school, my Dad—before heading off to work at Kellogg's—would be sitting at the kitchen table reading his Bible . He never once said, "James Norman, you need to read your Bible every day." He just provided a consistent example of the importance of starting every day with Bible reading—and so that's what you'll find me doing early every morning.

1. Put God first

I don't remember seeing The Wizard of Oz until I was in high school, because the classic film always aired on Sunday nights. And the Watkins family was always in church Sunday nights . . . and for Sunday school and morning worship and monthly carry-in dinners and youth meetings, and. . . . But more than simply church attendance, Dad put God first in daily life, in faithful financial giving, serving as lay leader, teaching Sunday school, being youth group sponsor, and serving others in hundreds of ways. Those priceless lessons have been passed down to my children and now to my grandchildren.

So, thanks, Dad, for the top ten . . . and ten thousand . . . things you taught me!

Note: Donald James Watkins has "months" to live with cancer, so I thought I better say thanks while I have the time. I am indeed grateful for the lessons learned.

Note 2: I was too late! Mom tried reading Dad my top ten list, but with his dementia, he couldn't grasp it. Tell your loved ones thanks now!

Note 3: Dad went to meet his Lord Monday, November 29, at 7:20 am. I hope he was looking in at his funeral when I read this tribute to him.

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