Revisiting Grandpa’s Eulogy (With Annotation)

Author’s Note: I have written many things over the years, but I am proudest of this short eulogy, prepared and delivered for my grandfather Russell Hillman’s funeral in 2013. I think about him a lot, and I thought the new website would give me a chance to revisit this piece and reflect on it several years later. I also realized it was a perfect opportunity to shamelessly rip off the late David Foster Wallace, which I have always wanted to do but for which I also profusely apologize in advance.

For those of us who were closest to Grandma and Grandpa for the last few years, we know it was common for Grandpa to settle into his recliner, crank up the gas fireplace to the “harden ceramics” setting, and turn on the television as loud as it would go to the Encore Westerns station.  While he enjoyed many westerns, I think his favorite was “Gunsmoke,”[(1)] in which Marshal Matt Dillon brought law and order to the frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas.[(2)]

Thinking about what I could say in the short time I have, I thought about Gunsmoke.  When James Arness, the actor who played Marshal Dillon, died two years ago, the Washington Post obituary declared the character to be “the embodiment of quiet moral authority.” [(3)] Another television critic wrote that Marshal Dillon was “the all time, all star, pure square shouldered straight shooter, yet he never hogs the screen . . . half the time you hardly know he’s in town, but he casts a long shadow.” 

Those words could have just as easily described my Grandpa.  If it is true that there is strong shadow only where there is much light, his shadow was exceedingly long indeed. [(4)] The evidence of his devotion to his friends is beyond question.  Among the items we discovered shortly after his death was a bank account, opened in his name, for keeping funds on behalf of the Payson High School Class of 1947 alumni. [(5)] He regularly attended reunions and events with his teammates from BYU, including the 1951 NIT [Basketball] Championship team. [(6)] After moving to California in the early 1960s to teach school in Beverly Hills,[(7)] he and others began the Rockin’ R Ranch in southern Utah, a summer ranch for teenagers. [(8)] Many of the people who worked and played there stayed in touch with my grandfather for many years.  A few years ago, the Rockin’ R Ranch—which still operates—had a reunion and many people returned to celebrate their time together decades ago.  I know many of his friends from that time are here today.

These events were symbolic of the type of relationships that he established with many of us—strong and long-lasting.  Whether because of his work in the Beverly Hills school district, his service to the City of Payson,[(9)] the time he spent at Gladstan Golf Course (where, in a different world, he would lecture me for throwing my club after a bad shot),[(10)] at Lions’ Club, or in his work for Congressman Cannon,[(11)] this man left his mark on so many of us—a mark as gentle, but as firm, as the man whom we gather to honor today. 

The same is true for his family.  The story of Grandpa’s life is not complete without talking about his longest lasting, most meaningful relationship—his love for his life-long sweetheart, our Grandma, Loraine.[(12)]  They met in first grade, and their relationship brought out all of the best parts of Grandpa’s personality—intense loyalty, selfless devotion and, at many times,[(13)] great fun.  And Grandma, with her radiance and good spirit, was more than a match for him.  Individually, they were great; together, they were dynamite.  To quote Edgar Allen Poe, “they loved with a love that was more than love,” and so it will be forever. [(14)] He had no less love for his children, Lorie and RL, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren.

On a personal note, my grandfather has been—in large ways and small—a defining influence in my life.  Last Thursday morning, when I learned of his serious condition, I called the managing partner of my law firm[(15)] to explain that I needed some time off to go to Utah.  I didn’t make it very far into the conversation when my wife Katie had to take over.  As she explained why I needed to go, she finally said “this wasn’t just any grandpa.” 

And I suppose that is as good a summary as I can offer today.  Because we loved him and relied on him so deeply, I think we forgot that, like all of us, mortality could touch him too.  Marshal Dillon reportedly took a bullet upwards of 30 times on Gunsmoke, or 1½ times for every year that the show aired on CBS.  Unfortunately, that kind of indestructability is possible only on television.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, even the valiant must taste death once.[(16)]

I conclude these remarks by revisiting Gunsmoke one last time. In one episode, Marshal Dillon is walking among the tombstones on Boot Hill, and the television viewer can hear his internal monologue.[(17)] He says: “You walk around up here long enough, you start thinking there must be more dead men than there are living. Same thing a man asked me about once: “Why aren’t there more marshals than there are bad men? There would sure be a lot less lawbreakin’. It’s a fool idea of course, but it got me to wondering why there are any marshals at all, it being the kind of job it is. I never could find an answer to that one.”

I don’t know the answer to Marshal Dillon’s question, but I suspect that some men become marshals because they are born to the job. And I submit that our grief today is rooted, in large part, from the knowledge that our world has lost a good lawman at a time when they need them more than ever.[(18)]

[1] For decades, Gunsmoke held the record for longest, continuously-running, hour-long primetime television show with 20 seasons and 635 shows airing from 1955-1975. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit finally passed Gunsmoke when it began its 21st season last September. Meanwhile, The Simpsons are on episode 684 and counting. Still, Gunsmoke had a pretty good run, particularly when you figure it ran from the middle of the Eisenhower era all the way through the Beatles, the Civil Rights Era, the Hippies, and Watergate. Its last episode aired during the Ford presidency. In 1955, when Gunsmoke premiered, the top television shows in America were I Love Lucy and The $64,000 Question. In 1975, America’s number one show was All in the Family. Gunsmoke left the airwaves averaging a 20.5 Nielsen viewership rating, good for 28th among all network shows. In 2019, the number one show was Sunday Night Football, which managed a 10.9 rating. The comparably ranked show of 2019, the 28th-ranked The Conners, had a 5.8 rating.

[2] Dodge City is a real city, approximately 27,000 in population. It was storied in the Old West–both Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp served as marshals there. Today, the vast majority of its jobs are supplied by two meatpacking plants. As a result, hundreds of COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in Dodge City over the past several weeks.

[3] Amazing the research one can access just on the 2014 version of an iPhone. I had watched enough of the show and knew enough about it to have an inkling of what I would find, but this was a fortuitous anchor thesis for the entire piece.

[4] Looking back, I can see where I went back to the quotebook one too many times. For the record, I would strike this reference and try for something more original.

[5] Payson, Utah–ancestral home of generations of my mother’s side of the family. Nestled in the southern, more rural part of Utah County, I lived there about three years while I was in law school. The population has doubled from ten to twenty thousand since 1990, but still the City’s claim to fame–other than its Little League fields being named after my great-grandfather (Grandpa’s dad)–is that the movie Footloose was filmed there in the early 1980s.

[6] The National Invitational Tournament is still played today, though it is now second in importance to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. But in 1951 it was considered the preeminent college basketball tournament, with the NCAA a distant second. During the two years prior to BYU’s 1951 victory, college basketball was wracked by a major point-shaving scandal implicating some of the era’s top teams, including Kentucky and City College of New York. Arrests were made in February 1951, just weeks before the 1951 tournament tipped off. I regret to inform that we found no evidence of BYU point-shaving in Grandpa’s papers, which would have made for one hell of a good story. If it had ever existed, we would have found it–trust me.

[7] He taught at Beverly Vista Middle School, and knew various celebrities who sent their children to school there. My favorite were the Buddy Hackett stories. Apparently, Buddy was quite a gun fan. Mom went to high school with Carrie Fisher, where they were best friends. (Narrator: They were not best friends.)

[8] The family wasn’t involved with the Rockin’ R by the time I was born, but I spent time every summer in southern Utah, about an hour or so from Bryce Canyon National Park. This is where I wrote about the skunk. We played a lot of card games, and everybody thought I was a computer geek because we would take our Atari 800 and play it in the old basement house. There were maybe two television stations you could get on a good day, but at night the Dodgers were within range.

[9] In 1990, shortly after he retired, Grandpa was elected to the Payson City Council. Two years later, he ran unopposed for Mayor. He was largely responsible for attracting Micron to Utah County–Payson’s water table wasn’t sufficient, but they found a suitable site in Lehi. How did that work out? In 1996, he was named Utah’s Elected Official of the Year and feted at a formal dinner by then-Governor Mike Leavitt. Three months later, he lost his re-election bid. Something about a condemned grandstand at the old Payson racetrack. Ironically, the Little League fields named after my great-grandfather sit exactly where the condemned grandstand used to be. By the way, my great-grandfather was a Yankee fan and I can’t defend it.

[10] Most of the time on the 12th hole, a short Par 4 with a canyon running up the entire right side of the hole. That canyon ate a lot of golf balls and goodwill, probably explaining a lot about me.

[11] Christopher B. Cannon served in the Third District from 1996-2008. Perhaps most well known as one of the 13 House impeachment “managers,” I was an intern in his Washington office during the impeachment proceedings. One day, a local television reporter came in the office with a cameraman while I was answering the phones, and wanted to film me answering angry phonecalls from you, the American public. The red light went on and the phones completely died for the first time in weeks. They must have sat there for ten minutes. Finally, the phone rang and I picked it up. “Hi, this is the reporter. Just talk to me so we can get this shot and we’ll get out of here.” The next day Grandma called and said “I saw you on the news last night!” They were always irrationally proud of me.

[12] Grandpa took care of Grandma for several years as her Alzheimer’s Disease progressively worsened. I think of them when I hear the song Little Talks by Of Monsters and Men. She lived for another eight months and passed away in Summer 2014.

[13] Another posthumous edit. I would remove “at many times.” It’s an unnecessary qualifier and intrudes on the sentence flow.

[14] This quote stays. Also, in the LDS religion, we believe that temple-sealed marriages are not “until death do you part,” but last into eternity. I knew I was not giving a traditional LDS eulogy about the immortality of mankind and the gift of eternal life, but I needed to say something about it.

[15] Now the National Security Advisor to President, uh, [cough, cough], Trump, of all things.

[16] This quote is a close call but Shakespeare, you know? Indulge me.

[17] Can you imagine a primetime television show today employing an internal monologue? Are we sure progress is inexorable?

[18] I wrote this seven years ago. It may qualify as the understatement of the century. But he lived to the age of 85, so he had a good, full life. He spent only a few days in true distress–he was not diagnosed with the cancer that took his life until several days after he died. It was a rare type of mesothelioma, itself a rare cancer often caused by asbestos exposure. The circumstances of those few days we spent at the hospital with him, I may revisit sometime in the future. Suffice it to say for now that they are days I would not trade.

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