The loss and celebration of a family patriarch

Clarence Monke

Nothing good can come from a 6:45 a.m. phone call from you mother.

When I answered, it was clear she was upset. Instantly, I knew something in my world was about to change. Then she said it. … “Honey, Grandpa died.”

I was silent for a few seconds as I listened to her quietly cry on the other end of the line.
“Grandpa died?” was the only response I could muster, almost in a childlike voice. What she said didn’t seem real. It was early enough in the morning, I wondered if I was dreaming.

I wasn’t. Reality quickly began to sink in. One of the men who I considered a hero in my life was gone.

I never had the chance to say a proper goodbye. Heck, I’d said barely more than “See ya!” to him the last time we were together at Thanksgiving. To me, it wasn’t a worry. Grandpa was going to be that guy who outlived everyone even though he was 93 and visibly slowing down after living a much younger lifestyle than many of his peers, most of whom had already passed on.

Over the next few days, memories began to flood back to me as stories were told.
Grandpa was the man who helped teach me to drive in his World War II-era Willy’s Jeep and 1968 Ford Ranger. He made me fall in love with the Phoenix Suns, which for basketball fans is kind of like passing down fandom for the Boston Red Sox (before all those World Series wins).

His final gift to me was his old Minolta film camera as he knew I had grown fond of photography, a trait and talent we shared — especially when it came to documenting landscapes and farm scenes.

Most importantly, perhaps, was the love for history he had instilled in me. Particularly the World War II era.

Grandpa was among the millions of men who earned the right to be mentioned among the Greatest Generation.

He was born and grew up on our family’s farm during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. World War II was nearing as he reached early adulthood. He was 21 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and was drafted and enlisted in the U.S. Army the following December. As a member of the Third Armored Division, he fought in five major battles across Europe — including the Battle of the Bulge.

I truly enjoyed listening to his stories about World War II, some of which I’ll remember for the rest of my life — particularly the one about how his own unwillingness to visit a medic probably kept him from being awarded a Purple Heart after a bullet grazed his ear in a battle.

“Somebody was watching out for me,” he told me in April. “I had a lot of close calls.” Had he not escaped those close calls, I — like many descendants of those brave men — would not be here.

If there were three things my Grandpa loved in this world, it was his wife, his family and his farm.

My grandparents’ story was something straight out of a World War II movie. It’s almost cliche.

While they knew of each other in youth, they didn’t really get to know each other until shortly before Grandpa left for the war. Grandma remembers it as the night before Grandpa shipped out.

Her brother, Ralph Lutz, was a friend of my Grandpa’s. The night before they were to board the train, the boys staged one last night of revelry in Mott.

My Grandma was one of the people there to say goodbye. They hit it off and wrote letters to each other during the war. After he returned, they began dating and were married in 1946, almost a year to the day after Grandpa was honorably discharged.

Throughout their lives, Grandpa doted on Grandma — almost to a fault. When they were younger, he did everything to make sure she was taken care of and enjoyed as many luxuries and experiences as they could afford. As each of their healths began to deteriorate, Grandpa did all he could to take care of Grandma.

As others their age were settling into retirement homes, Grandpa clung to his independence. It was the cause of some stress within our family, especially when Grandpa insisted on holding her hand nearly everywhere they walked — fearing my Grandma was susceptible to falling.

It took an outside eye for me to understand why he did this.

“He loved her so much,” my fiancee, Sarah, said when reminiscing about Grandpa the day he died. She was right. Grandpa’s love for Grandma was unconditional, even if he had a funny way of showing it.

As I grew up, I began to realize his love and attachment to the farm. He understood that it was the most important piece of our family. He inherited the farm from his father and expanded it, spending decades adding land and infrastructure as he brought my dad and brother into the business.

In 2008, Grandpa was interviewed for a Press series on historical droughts in southwest North Dakota. During the interview, our reporter asked him several questions about farming.

One of his responses was as simple as it could get.

“I was born on this farm and I’ve been here all these years because I liked it,” he said. “I really liked farming.”

Later in life, when he couldn’t do much around the farm, he made sure that he at least mowed the lawn. He’d spend hours on a riding lawnmower, making sure the yard was kept neat. You didn’t dare leave anything laying around for fear that Grandpa would harp on you for making a mess.

In the end, he died exactly the way he would have wanted — peacefully on the farm while helping my Grandma prepare for the day.

Today, we’ll honor Grandpa during a prayer service and tomorrow we will say goodbye to him at his funeral.

We will remember the man Clarence Monke was, the business he helped my family build, the things he taught us and the love he shared.

Most of all, we’ll miss him.

Author: Dustin Monke

Former newspaper editor. Now I market the best baked goods and donuts in America. But every once in a while, I write a cool story too.

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