Search This Blog

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Man of "Immovable Character" - Don Kilgo

These last few weeks have been a son of a bitch to get through.  I lost someone very important to me and I’m still trying to deal with it.  While being around family and grieving together has helped, the fact is that writing is the most effective outlet for me, so here goes...  

Don Kilgo came into my life when I was about three years old.  My mother had filed to divorce my father and sued for custody of me.  The thing was, Stuart, Florida was a very small town and everyone was in each other’s business to some degree.  My mother’s actions were instantly discussed through a lot of the town and since my grandfather worked in the Martin County Sheriff’s Department, she felt a lot of pressure to keep her image squeaky clean.  She knew she had to go in front of a judge who likely knew my grandfather and if there was anything to build a case against her keeping me, then it would be held up in evidence.  Her own mother didn’t approve of the divorce and basically just stopped talking to her completely while this all played out.

However, my mother is a strong woman.  Have no doubt about that.  Had Don Kilgo not entered our lives, she would have pulled through with custody of me just as she eventually did.  It might have been harder and would certainly have been messier, but she would have done it.  The important thing for both of us though, is that right when it counted, Don came calling.

Don was raised in Augusta, Georgia.  His parents were people of their time, which is to say that I didn’t really like either of them much and don’t have a lot to say about them.  Funny thing was, Don didn’t like them much either.  They were obsessed with status, money and class.  They wanted him to dress nice, attend the best schools, marry into an important family and socialize with those who could take him to the next level.   Don wanted to hang out at truck stops, drink beer with his friends on the weekend, chase girls and see just how fast his car could go on a two lane street on a Saturday night.  He’d been a great athlete in high school, playing football, running track and earning himself a basketball scholarship to a nearby college.

That scholarship lasted less than a year as he found he was just not ready for school yet.  He bounced around to a few more colleges until he finally enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.  This was at the height of Vietnam, but Don wasn’t deployed to the jungle.  Instead, he rode out the war stateside and when he achieved his honorable discharge, he finally got his degree.  He somehow ended up in Stuart and worked in and around the same industry that my own father did.  That’s how he first came in contact with my mother and I don’t know whether it was love at first sight or if they just recognized a kindred spirit when they first met, but I do know that when the shit hit the fan and my mother was looking over her shoulder constantly wondering if someone was going to come take me away from her, Don Kilgo showed up at the door.

At first, he just offered to help with things he knew she couldn’t do easily.  He’d change the oil in her car or mow her lawn.  My great aunt, Maude, lived with us at that time and was helping take care of me.  She took a liking to him instantly and would fix dinner for him on occasion.  My mother, Don and Maude soon all discovered they had a shared love of card games and he came over pretty regularly for marathon games of Canasta, Hearts and later Bridge.  

Reading this, I’ve glossed over something that he told me years later.  He didn't just come around because he saw a woman who needed help.  He told me that he thought my mother was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever set eyes on and unlike all the girls he'd chased before, during and after the Marine Corps, he'd decided on playing the long game with this one.  He had designs on spending the rest of his life with her and after some famous prodding from a four-year-old me (who asked him point blank why he didn’t just marry her already), he did. 

From the moment he married my mother, he became “Dad”.  He never once, in my memory, ever called me his stepson.  I was just his son.  When my brother and sister were born, none of us were treated any differently from the other two.  This was despite his parents not being nearly as inviting and welcoming of our new family.  They were not at all excited about having a divorcee with a young child as a daughter-in-law.  In short though, Don didn’t give a shit what they thought.  

He as much as told them that very thing.

Just as importantly, Don never once said anything negative about my real father in front of me.  He always supported him being in my life and felt it was important that I knew who and where I came from.  He always talked about my father with respect and that made it so that instead of having a "broken" family, I just had two regular families.  One I lived with most of the time and the other I saw less frequently but which was still an important part of my life.  

Don spent the next 45 years married to my mother, who he called his "best friend".  Through all of those years, they played hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of card games.  They rarely spent a night apart.  They raised three kids and gave us a living, breathing model of how a successful marriage is achieved.  It wasn’t about social status, money or putting on the proper “look”.  It was about respect, love, teamwork and most importantly laughter.  We laughed as a family more than any other family I know. Their example is why I waited until I met my own best friend before marrying her.

When Don died, all three of us kids were together within 48 hours, this despite the fact that we literally live all over the world.  We sat in a room in my mother’s house, jet-lagged and devastated, and laughed our way through some of our favorite memories of him.  We cried too.  I’m crying now just thinking about it, but that laughter was the important part.  Don would not have wanted us to sit around crying.  He’d have wanted us to give him as close to a “going away party” as we could manage. 

No one dressed up for his memorial service.  He’d have hated that.  In the late 1990’s, he offered my sister $10,000 free and clear if she promised to elope instead of ever holding a formal wedding.  He just didn’t want to wear the tuxedo again after my brother’s wedding and then mine.  That’s why, at his service, the dress code consisted of jeans and Georgia Bulldog gear.   After the service, I sat and talked with friends, cousins and family members.  No one had a single bad thing to say about him, but if you knew him, that was to be expected.  He ended his life surrounded by nothing but friends.  Not an enemy in sight.

The amazing thing about Don Kilgo, and the thing I want to make sure to get across here, is something that my brother, Patrick, captured perfectly in his eulogy.  Dad’s greatest trait was a “quiet and kind consistency”.  He truly felt that everyone should be given the same benefit of the doubt.  It wasn’t about what a person said or what they looked like.  Don based his impression of the people he encountered on the merits of their actions and throughout his life, that's how he conducted himself.  It didn't matter if you were black, white, gay, straight or whatever, you were just another human being in his eyes and that's how he treated people, consistently.

That’s why, growing up in the Deep South, I was taught at an early age not to suffer racism kindly, not to stand by quietly when a friend was singled out by others for his race or religion.  He taught me to stick up for those who were being held down.  He taught me to love my roots and the small town way of life, but never embrace the mistakes of the region’s past.  He taught me the importance of lifting others up around you, so they in turn could do the same.  

Ultimately, we differed politically but we always agreed on those points.  We just disagreed on the way to go about achieving them.  I’m a liberal.  He was a conservative, but we continued to come together and while he would gladly argue his side of things with me, he never shut me or my view out entirely.  Ours was one of those few family relationships where we could be complete opposites politically and love the hell out of talking to each other still.

In closing, I want to say one thing.  Some may think that I’ve written this because I missed the chance to tell him how I felt while he was alive.  That’s not true.  Twenty five years ago, I wrote him a letter and in it, I thanked him for all of the same things I’ve mentioned here.  Don wasn’t much of a collector, so imagine my surprise when I found he still had it.  It was in his file cabinet, in a folder with my name on it.  It’s the most important thing I could possibly have found over these last three weeks because I know for sure he understood how much his influence meant on my life.   

There are so many stories I could tell.  So many instances where his life touched mine or another’s in a way that was unforgettable.  In his eulogy, Patrick went back to a conversation with Dad’s best friend, John, during a round of golf.  John had pulled Pat aside and told him how much he admired Dad and particularly how he admired his “immovable character”.  That’s the thing that sums up Don Kilgo more than anything.  He was one of a kind, in the best way possible and I miss the hell out of him every day.  I know that I’ve spent my life trying to live according to the example he set and will continue to do so.

I also know I’ll never meet a man like him again.

No comments: