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The Man I Knew

He was born on this date in 1928, about 11 months before the big crash. Most of his formative, pre-adolescent years were within that life-changing economic period, and much of his later life reflected it. His adolescent years were under the shadow of World War II. Until his last years of high school, the only president he and his classmates knew was Franklin Roosevelt.

Ralph was the fourth child of Blaine and Omega, the first to live beyond infancy. He later was joined in the family by a sister, but they were many years apart in age.

Ralph attended a nearby two-room school for eight years before attending his high school years at a larger school about 2 1/2 miles away. He struggled with reading and only did tolerably well in school. Even when he was in high school, he had to have his mother read his assignments to him. He was an auditory learner. And he could envision things that he wanted to build and then do it without written instructions or a diagram. He was a tactile learner.

No one ever accused him of being a scholar, but he was well liked and had character. He was the president of his graduating class. A girl who was a straight-A student was vice president, and she later became his wife. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Despite his academic struggles, Ralph aspired to go to college and did, attending Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. His declared major was pre-med. But he didn’t last long enough even to get his first grades. He seldom talked about his college days, except to say that the French and chemistry were hard. The possible reasons for his dropping out are numerous: academic difficulties, being needed to help run the farm, homesickness (he had never been away from home), and love (he was married shortly after he returned from LMU).

Ralph Henry learned to work, and work hard, at an early age. Being the only son on a farm during the Depression made sure of that. He hoed fields. He plowed fields with Morgan horses and occasionally mules. He learned to fix practically everything. He built things from wood, bricks, and stone. He did plumbing and wiring. He gardened. He designed and built numerous labor- and time-saving contraptions. He early learned to “make do” with what he had; what he didn’t have or couldn’t build he did without. He learned to improvise in numerous ways. He collected bent nails, rusty nuts and bolts, and bits and pieces of wood because he “might need them some day.”

Ralph took all the things he was learning and put them to practice building his own house. He felled timber from his property and cut boards to make the framing. He built cabinets. He installed floors and linoleum and tiles. He built a chimney of brick. He ran the plumbing and the wiring. He essentially did everything in constructing his house, except to dig the well. He hired his brother-in-law to do that and paid him $10 a month until the debt was paid in full. That was the only debt he incurred. In later years, he never borrowed money to buy any of the cars or trucks he owned. He never had a mortgage payment.

Yet, frugal as he was, he was consumer wise. He knew cars, and he was particular about what he bought. He began with Chevrolets. (The only trucks he owned were Chevys.) He aspired to someday own a Cadillac, still a GM car, but he only arrived at an Olds 88. He knew men’s fashions, often finding Hart, Schafner, & Marx suits for a song. (He undoubtedly was the best-dressed brick mason around on Sundays or at weddings or funerals!)

Work was his life. Only one photo (the one here) exists showing him at play as a child. When his father retired, the farming operation ceased, and Ralph took a job as a carpenter. At that time, he and his employers, the Cox brothers, did nearly everything involved in home construction, from laying out footers and building foundations to masonry and finished carpentry work. Ralph decided he liked the masonry aspects best, so he went out on his own as a masonry contractor. He quickly gained and maintained a reputation for not only hard work and honesty but also high-quality work. He retired when he reached 65 but was able to enjoy only a short period of retirement before passing at the age of 67 years, 3 months.

In the midst of all his learning and working, Ralph married and reared a family. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter. He was active in church and ensured that his family was there, too. He made his sons tow the line, and he taught them honesty. As soon as they were big enough to get into trouble, he required them to go to work with him, and he taught them to work. On the few occasions he left them home, it was to do work in the garden or to pick blackberries or do whatever else their mother needed them to do.

Ralph was a man of great principle. He might not have been able to read and explain the arguments of great theologians; discuss deep, theoretical concepts or ideas; or articulate his thoughts well in either speaking or writing, but he knew what he believed and why. He knew how to discern right from wrong. And he knew when to take a stand when it counted, even if that meant standing alone or being ostracized. He was a quiet, soft-spoken man who never tried to push his views on anyone, but people knew where he stood, and he held to his convictions firmly and consistently. And he loved his wife.

Most people called him Ralph. Some older family members referred to him as Ralph Henry. His wife called him Honey. But to me, Ralph Henry Peterson was simply Daddy. He would have been 90 years old today. He’s celebrating in Heaven.

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