“Dad’s Lessons,” Ensign, Aug. 1997, 51
As I look back, I can clearly see how the hand of the Lord guided us along a path to the righteous desire of our hearts. That desire—to find my father’s kindred dead—came to me so powerfully after my marriage in 1978 that it prompted a search lasting 15 years.
We had been able to search our mother’s family line, but Dad was not one to talk about his family or provide much detail about his past. He had been left orphaned when his parents died in a train accident near Pyramid Lake, Nevada. His father’s partner took him in and raised him in southern Utah. Dad eventually joined the military, survived World War II, and met and married Mom.
Central California, where we grew up, was not far from Nevada. I often wondered why we had never gone to the grave sites of our grandparents. But Dad, who was not a member of the Church, did not share the family’s interest in family history. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he replied whenever we brought up the subject.
Determined to find a record of my grandparents’ deaths, I called the railroad for details about the train accident. The man in charge of records asked me to repeat the accident location.
“Pyramid Lake,” I said.
After a few moments of searching railroad maps, he replied, “We have no railroad that runs by Pyramid Lake.”
I asked Dad if he was sure about the location. He refused to answer me, so I made several long-distance phone calls and tracked down the couple in southern Utah who Dad said had reared him. I was excited that I would finally find some answers to my questions. Again, however, I was disappointed.
They said Dad’s name sounded familiar but that he had never lived with them. They suggested I call their daughter in a nearby town. She told me that Dad, indeed, had lived in their southern Utah town when he was young—but with another family.
I was confused. If Dad’s parents weren’t killed in a train accident, then how did they die? Or could they still be alive?
It seemed so unlike Dad to withhold anything from his family. To him, our family was sacred. He had always been there when we needed him. Despite not being a member of the Church, he took us on fathers-and-sons’ outings, attended Church meetings when we had speaking assignments, participated with us in welfare projects, held family home evening, prayed and read scriptures with us, and supported us morally and financially on our missions. Dad couldn’t even talk about his wife or his five children without getting emotional.
Mom married outside the Church but was determined to raise her children in the gospel. Her determination had a big influence on Dad and his spiritual growth. Though he progressed at his own pace, Dad quit smoking and drinking long before he was baptized.
Dad was tough but never harsh, and he worked hard to support his family. Once, when applying for a job with a furniture company, Dad learned the position had already been filled. “I’ll work free for a week,” he told the company manager. “If I don’t make a better worker than the one you’ve hired, I’ll walk away.” He proved himself. The company kept Dad on. He worked there for 46 years, eventually rising to the position of district manager.
Dad was a devoted father and husband. He taught us to be honest, to be true to our word, and to give a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.
Once while sledding with the Scouts, I found a wallet with $16 in it. I knew Dad would not let me spend money unless I could prove I had earned it, so I told him I had mowed lawns with a friend. He knew otherwise, though, because he had heard the Scouts talking.
“You know, I’m really proud of you,” he said to me. “It is so great that you went out and earned that money. It shows real initiative on your part. I’m so impressed that I’d like to go and thank those people for letting you mow their yards. Let’s go.”
My guilty conscience forced me to admit my dishonesty. Dad said the person who would be most disappointed was Mom. That was the first time I knelt and asked Heavenly Father to forgive me. Through a lesson taught by my father, I learned about forgiveness and repentance.
After fruitlessly trying to find the wallet’s owner, Dad divided the weed-filled backyard of our new home into 16 sections. “After you have weeded each section, you can have this money,” he said.
As I reflected upon the lessons Dad had taught me, I found it inconceivable that he would have kept anything from us about his family. But if so, why?
Dad made us all happy when, in 1979, he was baptized into the Church. As he learned about the importance of temple work, we were confident he would finally begin to understand our determination to find out more about our grandparents and to trace their family history.
We knew that once he joined the Church, Dad would be thoroughly committed. His love for the gospel and his Heavenly Father soon became evident through service and devotion. It was wonderful to see our parents progress and to realize that eventually we could be sealed in the temple.
I was worried, though, about Dad’s health. He was having serious heart problems, and I felt he might not live long. If he were to die before our questions were answered, we might never discover our roots. Thankfully, Dad was eventually worn down by our inquiries and softened by the Spirit.
In May 1989, Dad finally told the family part of his story. Troubled by life at home, he had left when he was 16. He had changed his name and started a new life. Dad provided few other details except the names of his parents and brothers and sisters. He had no idea where, or if, any family members were living. Although I was pleased by this new information, I couldn’t help but wonder what he was leaving out.
Dad still had not warmed to the idea of reawakening his past. But armed with the names he had given us, we began anyway. I had a strong feeling that if any members of Dad’s family were still alive, they might be in California. In 1993 I received a prompting during a discussion about family history that we should take advantage of information and technology made available by the Church. While my wife and I were in Salt Lake City for a mission reunion that spring, we visited the Family History Library.
We searched California census files and records of births, marriages, and deaths. With help from friends, we did a full day’s worth of searching in two hours. But we turned up nothing. As we were leaving, a family history librarian suggested we search a phone directory database at Brigham Young University that listed 90 million names.
We had run out of time, so I gave the names of Dad’s brothers to a student from our ward who was attending BYU. A few days after we returned home from Salt Lake City, he sent us a computer printout with matching names, including phone numbers and addresses, of several people throughout the United States. I immediately picked up the phone and began dialing, starting with a call to the closest address—a town about 70 miles north of us.
“Is there a Leland there,” I asked the woman who answered.
“Yes,” she replied. “Just a moment.”
When a man with a rough, hoarse voice answered, I told him my name, said I was looking for my dad’s relatives, and asked if he had a brother named Bill. He was silent for a moment, then answered, “Yes.”
He gave the same reply as I mentioned the names of three more brothers and a sister. When he confirmed the names of his parents, I said, “Leland, I have been looking for you for 15 years. You’re my uncle. I am Bill’s son!”
“Bill’s alive? Are you kidding me?” he asked.
“This is no joke,” I said. “He’s alive and well.”
“We all thought he had been killed in the war,” Leland said. “I haven’t seen him since 1940.”
I laughed at the irony that after years of searching, we discovered that Dad had a brother living within a 90-minute drive. I was so excited that we arranged a meeting the following evening at Leland’s home.
“By the way,” he said before hanging up. “I don’t go by Leland anymore. Call me Uncle Buck.”
My brother and sister joined me the next day for the drive. As we approached Uncle Buck’s neighborhood, my sister offered a prayer in which she asked Heavenly Father that his Spirit might attend our meeting. It did.
Uncle Buck was standing on his porch waiting for us. He reminded us of Dad. He was a large man with massive, hardened hands and, like Dad, a tender heart. Holding back tears as he looked at us, he said, “I can see a real family resemblance.”
As we visited, Uncle Buck’s wife, Mary, brought out family photographs dating back four generations. For the first time, we saw our father’s family history laid out before us: uncles, aunts, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents.
Uncle Buck told us story after story about our relatives—who they were and what they were like. He also shared memories of growing up with Dad and their sisters and brothers. Their lives had been difficult and full of hard work. And there had been a dark side to the family history—a side that Dad didn’t want to remember and had kept hidden from us.
Dad’s nonmember family had come from Oklahoma. In the 1920s his father worked as a cattle rancher, owning approximately 3,500 head of cattle. During the height of the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s, he had to sell his herd at a tremendous loss. Most of the cattle died from heat exhaustion en route to their buyer in Kansas City. When the transaction was completed, the family had made barely enough money to cover the costs of shipping the cattle. They had lost everything.
Grandpa never recovered from that loss—either financially or emotionally. He became a bootlegger, and life for the family was filled with alcoholism and abuse. Uncle Buck shared horrible stories of how Grandpa beat his sons and his wife. As the boys grew older, their father grew even more violent and his temper more fierce. Home for the family was a miserable place. Grandma eventually left Grandpa, and in 1942 he was institutionalized.
“I don’t blame your father for running away,” Uncle Buck told us. “We all ran away.”
Despite leaving home, Dad’s six brothers had trouble escaping their past. Alcohol abuse and family problems stemming from that abuse were perpetuated in some of their own families. Five had already died of alcohol-related diseases. Uncle Buck and Dad were the only ones still living.
After a few short hours with Uncle Buck, I felt I finally understood my father—why he was so emotional about his family and why he was so protective of his past. He had missed out on a family life while growing up. He had never had a father with whom he could sit, talk, and play games as he did when we were children. No matter how busy Dad was, he always made time for us. Because he lacked a close family, Mom’s family became his. I never saw him so emotional as when Mom’s father passed away. I was 12 then; 25 years later I understood. Without question, Dad’s family was the most important thing in his life.
Dad’s brothers had kept in contact with each other through the years, but they had lost track of Dad after he joined the military. Not knowing he had changed his name, his brothers had no way of locating him.
When we announced the news to Mom and Dad that we had found Uncle Buck, they were incredulous. The pain Dad had buried for so long made him somewhat apprehensive at first about seeing his brother again. But after several months of trying to get the two brothers and their families together, we finally succeeded in scheduling a reunion.
On 28 August 1993, Dad and Uncle Buck saw each other for the first time in 53 years. It was an emotional reunion. They shared a big bear hug and stayed at each other’s side the whole day. Their reminiscing opened a flood of memories and tears. Aunts, uncles, and cousins—unknown to each other just hours before—sat in a big circle listening to the brothers recount their past.
As pieces of Dad’s life fell into place, I learned just how far he had come in order to be the kind of father he was. The contrast between his early life and his life as a Latter-day Saint could not have been more stark. But rather than feel sorry for himself, he had determined to leave the influence of the past behind and forge a new life. Because Dad had known only misery as a child, he greatly valued his family as an adult. Rather than perpetuate a cycle of abuse and alcoholism, he treasured the opportunity to be a father and to give his children the love and affection he had never known.
Dad had experienced struggles I had been unaware of. When he began to manifest a pattern of social drinking early in his marriage, my mother gave him a choice: drinking or family. It was a tenuous time in their marriage. But Dad made a commitment to the family, and with Mom’s help he kept it. By avoiding alcohol, he also avoided the physical abuse that plagued his family while he was young.
As Dad matured in the gospel, the Spirit became a greater influence in his life. The gospel’s influence, perspective, and direction played a big part in what Dad eventually became. “Life is too short to remain angry and upset about what we can’t change,” he used to say as he counseled me on my duties as a husband and father.
Today we know who we are and where we come from. Because we have discovered Dad’s roots, our family tree has blossomed and we have gained a sense of belonging.
We found Uncle Buck 10 days before the San Diego Temple was dedicated in April 1993. The day before our family reunion four months later, we went to the temple to perform baptisms and initiatory and endowment work for several generations of our newly discovered deceased relatives. Earlier, younger family members participated in proxy baptisms for those relatives. Fittingly, when Dad passed away on 11 June 1995 he was overseeing stake family history work as a high councilor. We felt a deep sense of loss at his death but an eternal gratitude for his life.
Thanks to the Spirit’s influence and guidance, our children will pass on the story of a young boy who left home in search of a better life. Our father had changed the course of his life and the lives of his children and grandchildren. In his own quiet way he taught us many rich lessons—lessons that will echo throughout our family’s future generations.