It was one of the great privileges of my life to be able to speak at my father’s funeral. As tomorrow will mark one year since the day that Dad left this earth and moved on to his next adventure, I believe it is fitting to publish the eulogy in this space. Here it is – this time, without tears – but with every bit of the same emotion as when I spoke the words.
EULOGY FOR JENNINGS L. WAGONER, JR.
January 30, 2013
It’s only been in the past few years that I have really recognized how much of my life I have subconsciously patterned after my Dad’s. As those who know me well will attest, I don’t always have a gift for recognizing the obvious.
Dad went to Wake Forest, and Wake Forest remained near and dear to him. Despite having grown up in the shadow of Mr. Jefferson’s University, I also went to Wake Forest. There was no pressure involved – it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Like Dad, I was active in fraternity life while in college. I didn’t pledge the same one – but I wasn’t trying to be different. I sought out the house where I felt the best fit. It was no coincidence that my Sigma Chi of the early 1980’s happened to be the house that best mirrored Dad’s Kappa Sigs of the late 1950’s.
Dad was a thinker, and a reader, and a writer. He taught me how to write by way of liberal application of red ink to any rough draft that I would show him. The corrections were sometimes difficult to take – but they always helped. In like manner, my kids and many of my work colleagues know that if they ask for me to edit a draft – I will edit the draft.
Dad was a worker. As a professor, his was not a 9-to-5 job. He didn’t clock out when he came home. I am sure that he spent many more hours working at home in his study than he did in the classroom or in his office in Ruffner Hall. While our career paths went in different directions – Dad was in education and I have been in law and business – our habits are much the same. He taught me that work is not the most important thing – but it is an important thing – and it can’t be done well in the space of an 8 hour day.
Dad was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, and Scout leader. I was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Eagle Scout, and am a Scout leader.
Dad loved high adventure – while he enjoyed all sorts of outdoor activities, he was drawn to those that involve personal challenge and a gut check – things that get the blood pumping and adrenaline racing. And, he particularly enjoyed making these experiences available to others.
He shared with me the challenge of climbing up a rock face, and the thrill of rappelling back down. I well remember how excited I was when my wife Jennifer finally let her determination – and my coaxing – overcome her fear, and took that first backward step off the top of the cliff at Raven’s Roost.
Together with some adventurous Sunday School classmates, some of whom are here today – Dad took on the world-class rapids of the Gauley River in West Virginia. A year or so later, he invited me to join that group on a Gauley raft. In the years since, I have organized many Gauley trips of my own.
I could go on with the parallels. I want to be clear that I was never trying to be Dad – I could never come close – but I was, sometimes consciously and more often subconsciously – trying to be like him. Sometimes I succeeded, and sometimes I didn’t.
When I pass, I cannot imagine having that event producing anything close to the same outpouring of love and admiration that you and so many others have expressed. So many people have said wonderful things about the impact that Dad had on their lives. Dad’s literal shoes were a size 9 ½, but his figurative shoes were immense. Much too big to try to fill.
It has only been in the past few years that I have realized that he didn’t see it that way. My failures – and I’ve had some doozies – were not disappointments or embarrassments for Dad. He hurt with me. I was always humbled by him, but he never humbled me.
And he reveled in my successes.
As with most parents, Dad gave me many material things over the years. But, his encouragement, his pride, his affirmation, and his love were the most precious gifts that he could offer – and he showered me with them. Those are gifts that I can never repay – I can only hope that I can pay them forward with my own kids.
As with so many other things that I’ve done in following Dad’s lead, that just seems like the right thing to do.