Today would have been my maternal grandfather Col. Leonard Fuller’s 100th birthday. We were fortunate to have him until he was 96; the last three of those years, Rachel and I were his caregivers. His service to his nation (in the U.S. Army for a quarter-century) and his community (McAlester, OK, where he ran Model Cities) are an inspiration to me. This is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral in 2007:
When a 96-year old man dies, it is not typically the occasion to shake your fist at the heavens and ask why. And yet, for many of us, this week has been very difficult. How, after 96 years, could we not be prepared? I think it is because our world has lost someone that will not easily be replaced.
Leonard Hayes Fuller was the most generous, loving, gentlemanly, caring, honest, dedicated, principled, civic-minded man any of us have ever known. The Lord rarely makes them like Grandad.
Now, before I go on, I know each of us called Leonard Fuller many names – Leonard, Mr. Fuller, Col. Fuller, Uncle Chief, Chief, Len, Dad. For me, it was Grandad, and that’s what I’ll call him today.
Grandad represented a touchstone for this family, and has done so for many decades. I think a part of each of us began to believe he might in fact outlive us, and there was some comfort in that. It’s hard to accept that we must go on without him.
Grandad also represented the last contemporary link to a great generation in our family, tied together by the Robinsons of Crowder. The Fullers, the Murdaughs, the Holts – we all come together through the Robinsons. And finally, the last member of that generation in our families’ history is gone. But the stories of Rachel Robinson ringing the necks of chickens live on.
For our family, Grandad also represented an amazing generation in this nation, and in this McAlester community. He helped us win the largest war ever known to man, fought in Korea, and helped rebuild two defeated nations. When he retired, rather than spend his afternoons on the golf course, he helped to build this city, and when he had moved on from that, he served this state. If he had not outlived his public life by 30 years, this hall would not have been large enough to hold those he touched. And yet there are many who still do remember all that he did for this community, and I have enjoyed hearing from them this week.
Now in all this mourning for ourselves, there is one person today we probably don’t have to feel sorry for. Grandad lived an incredible life. Ninety-six years is a staggering length of time. In 1911, Oklahoma was four-years-old. William Howard Taft was president. That year, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company burnt down. The population of the United States was 93 million. Eleven days after Grandad was born, Ronald Reagan was born. In 1911, World War I had not been fought. The Titanic had not sunk. Adolf Hitler was only 22 years old. John F. Kennedy would not be born for six more years.
Into this world a child was born in Arkansas City, Kansas to Thomas Fuller and Goley Hamrick Fuller on January 26, 1911. Thomas was registered Osage, and in fact an original allottee, a designation Grandad missed by only five years. Grandad had one brother, Keith. Grandad was very much Indian, and though I think time melted away some of those physical characteristics, it’s important to remember that for much of his life, he was known first as an American Indian.
And so, he grew up in and around the Osage Nation. He attended an Osage school for a couple years around the age of 9, at which time his parents had divorced. His father remarried when he was 12 and until late in his junior year, Grandad lived in Ark City. He graduated from high school in 1928 from Pawhuska High, where he was a three-sport athlete.
In the summer of 1928, he wandered west, then back to Ark City. He went to work for AT&T, building telephone lines up and down the Midwest.
This is when our story takes a fateful turn. He comes to Crowder. While in the midst of building a river crossing over the Canadian, he becomes acquainted with local soda jerks Johnny and Jimmy Robinson. They suggest that he go on a date with their sister, Mary. He does, but then pretty soon he’s off to Eufaula. Mary calls him up and says “You ready to get married?” And so they do, on January 22, 1929 in Atoka, 78 years ago this year. She was 24, and he was four days shy of his 18th birthday.
In 1930, their son, Leonard was born. In 1932, Grandad was laid off by AT&T, and Jack Murdaugh got him a job in Okmulgee driving a truck for an oil pipeline outfit. Then he went to work for Shell in Ark City, and he joined the National Guard in 1933. He worked various full time jobs until finally in 1940, he went full time military. During this time, he’s all over the country – Fort Sill, Baltimore, Salina, Pearl Harbor, Presidio and Seattle. Finally, in 1942, he’s shipped to Alaska, where he is stationed for two years. In 1944, he drives day and night from Seattle to witness the birth of his daughter Mary Ann, in Winfield, Kansas.
In 1945, the war was over, the Fullers were at Ft. Sill, and Grandad was a major. At this point, he’s shipped off to postwar Japan. His family joins him in 1947. In 1948, he returns to Ft. Sill, and then in 1950, he’s off to Korea, where he stays for two years. From there, he goes to Corsicana, Seattle, and McAlester. In 1956, he goes to Germany, then back to Ft. Sill. He is made a Colonel, an accomplishment all the more impressive in that at this time, his highest level of formal education was high school. In 1960, he retires after 27 years in the Guard or on active duty. He settles in McAlester.
For the first couple years of his “retirement,” he writes some sports for the McAlester newspaper, and for a time, he worked at First National Bank. In 1962, he goes to Eastern and gets his Associates in Social Science. In 1964, he goes to work for the City of McAlester in a program that trains youth to work. Then he becomes the first director of the Model Cities program in McAlester. I think of this time as one of the greatest legacies of his public life. And I brought today some scrapbooks he kept from those years that I hope you got a chance to take a look at in the lobby. During this time, he also served as Acting City Manager. He also was active with the Salvation Army, served as President of the Alcoholism Council, and helped found The Oaks. He also served as Junior and Senior Warden of All Saints Episcopal Church, putting together their first Constitution.
After he moved on from Model Cities, he helped the local Vo-Tech get Federal money. Finally, in 1976, he retired for good. At least from paid labor. He still had time to serve as President of the State Mental Health Association.
The 1980s brought a transition to fulltime caretaker, father and grandfather. The 1990s brought the loss of his wife of 63 years, and his daughter, my mom. I know that was hard, because there was nothing he seemed to love more than the women in his life. He cared for Mary, J.J. as I called her, in a way that no one could match. I suppose this is why it wasn’t too long before he remarried, and it’s not uncommon for children and grandchildren to resent such marriages, but I think he needed that. He needed someone to take care of, and his relationship with Louise carried him through an important period in his last years. And then she passed, too, in 2004, at the very same time that Rachel and I were moving from Washington to Oklahoma City. We moved him home to be near us, and we feel so blessed to have had that time with him these past three years. And we had a lot of fun times.
There were several words I used at the beginning of this eulogy to describe Grandad. One I will repeat now – loving. He loved everyone in this room so much. And he let us know it. Leonard and Seley, Hayes and Rosanne, Rachel – he loved the wives of his grandsons. I think it was easy because we chose so well, but I always thought there was a special place in his heart for Rosanne and Rachel. Eric and Annie, Charles and Charles. He changed your first diaper, Chase. And my dad, Stroud. He was your ex-father-in-law, but he loved you like a son.
I hope we loved him back as much as he loved us. But I don’t know if that’s possible. There were 96 years, but there just wasn’t enough time.
And now, the only tribute I have left is to live the rest of my life living up to the standard of decency that he set. May we all prove worthy. Thank you.