Sunday, January 4, 2015

A CHANGED HEART: Newton Ulysses Crawford, Jr. aka Dad aka Gaffer

“You can love someone so much...
But you can never love people as much
as you can miss them.” ~John Green
          Newton Ulysses Crawford, Jr. was born on March 1, 1948 in Port Hueneme, California. An only child and navy brat, Newton was an international traveler, growing up in exotic locations around the world such as Malta, Japan, Florida, Virginia, and Rhode Island. He was a creative, talented, and intelligent man who could play anything on the piano after hearing it just once.
In the early 70s, he met and married Barbara Ann Cunningham. Always wanting a big family, they soon had four kids, and they moved from place to place in search of work and a place to belong. For a time, they settled in Kansas City where they attended Baptist Temple. 
A round of layoffs at TWA airline in the 70s warranted a move back to Newton’s roots in Cabool, Missouri where he moved his growing family to a white house on a hill of the family farm next to his parent’s white house, both houses built by former generations of Crawfords. For over 150 years, Crawfords have owned, lived, and worked that land.
After a series of jobs as a laborer and a brush with death due to a misdiagnosed case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, he returned to college and pursued a degree in history at University of Missouri in Rolla. He earned a Master’s degree at Missouri State University and even completed all classes towards a doctorate at University of Missouri in Columbia. With ‘all but dissertation’ credentials, he was able to teach history at various colleges in the vicinity of his home, including Central Texas College, East Central College, Missouri State University in West Plains, and Columbia College. During his 20 plus years of teaching college students, he won Teacher of the Year Award five times.
He also took up running and walking. Tracking his miles daily, he often went a thousand miles a year. After years of running, he realized that he had run enough miles to circumnavigate the equator, and he threw a party to celebrate running Around the World.

Newton had the large family that he always wanted with ten children and twenty grandchildren. He often passed out sweet treats to his grandkids; he recently gave them each a silver dollar from his childhood collection.
With a smile, he recently announced, “I know I have arrived because I have three things: a country club membership, a Cadillac, and a lava lamp.” He was also proud of owning a bulldog that he named Winston after Churchhill, the leader of Great Britain during World War II.
I remember made-up stories of little girls in the woods with bears, dogpiles on daddy, quizzes on literature and art at the dinner table every evening at six o’clock sharp, lists of vocabulary words, detective or road movies, discussions on history and philosophy, fishing at the river or pond, hot summer days of bailing hay on the farm, readings of Eliot’s poetry—“the Rum Tug Tugger is a Curious Cat”— an eclectic array of songs floating through the house, daily pushups, the family singing “Do You Hear What I Hear” as Dad played the piano, and games of Bridge, Pitch, and Cribbage.
Art, music, literature. Literature, music, art. Words, words, words. Every day, all day, he soaked up words as he read at least three books a week—something religious, historical, and light (usually a mystery or detective story). Near his spot at the end of the hand carved, wooden table, Newton always kept an unabridged copy of Webster’s dictionary, and he was a genius with words, holding the title of having the largest working vocabulary. He also had an almost photographic memory.
Newton was both brilliant and eccentric. His traditional garb as a professor was a sports coat over a buttoned down dress shirt, pants, and cowboy boots. When home, he routinely wore shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops with socks. Newton had an extensive collection of hats, including a fedora, Derby, The Panama, baseball cap, cowboy hat, and tweed or leather driving cap.
Newton lived a life of curiosity and inquiry, always studying, learning, exploring, and researching. His example taught his children to live with open minds and inquisitive spirits.
Near the end of his life, he showed his family the blessing of miracles through a changed heart that revealed a sensitive and sweet spirit, the power of forgiveness, the importance of healing relationships, and the significance of an intimate relationship with God.
As Peter Gabriel sings in “Biko,” “You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out a fire. Once the flame begins to catch, the wind will blow it higher.” Newton Ulysses Crawford, Jr. has inspired two generations who will always love him and remember him and who will hand down the lessons and love to future generations.
A beloved father and grandfather, an honored professor, a blessed husband, he leaves a legacy of family, of love of literature, art, music, inquiry, and of justice and kindness towards fellow humans.

Letters written by Dad:
January 2001
Dear Children,
I simply must describe the view outside my window. Last night the ice storm brought peril and discomfort, but today’s visual delight actually overcompensates for any storm-related discomfiture…and fills me with a sense of ineffable wonder. Outside…like a barely-recalled print by Currier and Ives…a remarkably transcendent vision. The gray and overcast sky provides a stark contrast to the glistening and translucent wintry landscape. No cows; they are off seeking more basic pleasure in the river bottom…just birds foraging, near the feeder…jays, cardinals, and a pileated woodpecker…skipping about and eating their fill, full of natural gaiety…perhaps not knowing that God provides for the fowls of the air. But what transforms the vignette from an idyllic pastoral scene to an aesthetic marvel is the ice…the crystalline perfection of a bejeweled lattice hanging in front of my window…refracting the faint crepuscular light, and refining it into a landscape that would have defied Michelangelo. Tree branches, heavy laden with a thick coating of ice, bent unnaturally into different shapes, as if they were praying…the Chinese Elm outside my window lowering her branches for me…so I might see the vision of resplendent loveliness, the ground covered with a white carpet that on close inspection proves to be granular sleet…but from my perspective looks like an even field of snow rising in the distance and terminated by a line of trees, which provide a barren backdrop…but in the foreground, the trees around the house look like nature’s necklace, like diamond-coated skeletons frozen in mid-frame while they waltz. Just now, as twilight approaches, a single ray of sunlight penetrates the clouds and illuminates the scene, permeating it with a roseate glow…enlightening the primal wonder of nature, and sending a tendril of joy to my soul. As that last shaft of light descends from heaven, the ice explodes in dizzying resplendence, a cascade of colors beyond the spectrum. Words usually serve me well, but they are inadequate to describe this unutterably lovely tableau…absolutely beyond description and incomprehensibly beautiful…Truly Awesome…But I am reminded that there is one thing that rivals the staggering beauty of nature…only one thing…And that is the solitary human heart…pulsing out its rhythmic tattoo…beating steadily…for the ones it loves.

March 1, 2001
Dear Children
I think all of us tend to look back on our lives on our birthdays, and solitary reflection is good for the soul…summoning tendrils of sadness and regret…but bringing also joy and the quiet contentment that comes with remembrance of things past. On this day I feel doubly blessed to have lived and loved, and I wanted to share an epiphany that intruded forcibly…bringing the greatest birthday gift ineffable sense of wondrous awe. Hovering always at the periphery of conscious thought is the blessed awareness of the people I love, my fellow traveler through this vale of tears. But this morning, in pensive solitude…I felt you all as a powerful presence…as a celestial choir singing the Happy Birthday song…I truly felt you all as if physically present…our hearts thrumming a delicate refrain of indescribable loveliness. And I thought that there is great beauty in this imperfect world…the indescribably sublime wonders of nature…the unutterable beauty of song…Willie Nelson singing “Always on my Mind”…the baroque counterpoint of Bach…The Winged Victory of Samothrace standing in Majestic grace after 23 centuries…fragments of thought from other fellow travelers we have never met, snatches of incredible poetic utterance…”And the women come and go, Talking of Michelangelo”… fictional characters we feel we know, like Yossarion and stately, plump Buck Mulligan. But shining above all of this with effulgent brightness is the blessed assurance that Love is the one thing that makes life worthwhile. I think there is a certain amount of wisdom that comes naturally as we age and mature, and I think walking for a year in the shadow of darkness has helped me see a great light…like Saul on the road to Damascus…I see how we are transported by love to any earthly paradise beyond description…that love for intimates, affection for friends, and good will towards everybody…redeems our tenuous lives and makes our transient pilgrimage significant. For above all else, I am assured that our love is a pearl of great price, a solitary Rose blooming in a wasteland. I love you, Honey.


  1. You deftly describe Newton's uncommonly gifted intellect that allowed him to explore in depth numerous facets of life. That you have recounted this with such stylistic flair leads me to conclude that you learned well at his table.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I am grateful for what I learned from him. It's still hard to really believe that he is gone, but I see him in all of my siblings in various ways every day.