MY BELOVED FATHER
by William Roger Austin
On Jul 27, 1886, Howard Benjamin Austin was born to Benjamin Franklin Austin and Julia Amanda (Biggs) Austin. He was one of 7 children raised on a family farm near Blue Mound, IL. In addition to Howard, they included Walter, Harry, Nellie, May, Bessie, and a sister, Winnie, who died in infancy. Howard's father, B. F. Austin, although a farmer, was also a Justice of the Peace for 30 years, the equivalent of a modern-day judgeship. It was said of Howard's father that he had lived a consistent Christian life and that he was a man of sterling integrity and solid worth. Also, he was personally acquainted with Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. The fact that he was a man of influence and high moral character served to provide Howard with an outstanding role model as he grew up. It is not surprising, therefore, that Howard went on to possess those same characteristics in adult life.
After sharing in the many duties of farm life as he grew into manhood, he eventually became the teacher of rural children in a one-room school house. Then, in his 3lst year, Uncle Sam "requested his presence" at Fort Dix, NJ to undergo training for a tour of duty in France during the First World War. Ultimately, on a troop ship headed for France and while lying on deck one night asleep, he had a vivid dream of his mother, seeing her face up close and in detail. But that was the extent of his unusual dream. Arriving in France later, he was handed a telegram saying that his mother had become ill and died. When he compared the time of her death with the night of the dream, they corresponded almost perfectly.
Howard recounted the following events which occurred sometime after arriving in the French war zone: He had been assigned to deliver a message to a distant detachment. On horseback and without benefit of charted roads in the midst of the Argonne Forest, as nighttime made it difficult to continue, he tied his mount to a tree stump and settled into the dubious protection of a shell hole to await the dawn. As sleep began to overtake him, he placed his steel doughboy helmet over his face. During the night, it began to rain. As he lie there, fast asleep, he began to recognize the pitter-pat sound of rain drops on the metal roof that covered the back porch. In relating this story, he explained that back on the farm after a hard days work, it was so pleasant to lay down on a cot on the back porch. Whenever it rained while he relaxed there, the sound of rain drops on the tin roof would lull him right to sleep. There, somewhere in France, terribly far from home and entirely alone except for his horse, he was dreaming that he was home again. In time, he awoke to face the reality of that pitch dark night, his wet and muddy clothes, and the instant despondency he felt because he was not, in all the world, where he wanted to be. Home and family had always been at the top of his scale of importance, his certain security, and the one place where love abounded. Howard suddenly knew the depths of loneliness as he had never experienced it before.
Through his developing years, he learned to care for and appreciate farm animals, particularly horses. One such animal was a horse named Bob which he had a special affection for. Most likely the horses he used during the war were treated to the same kindness and consideration he would have given to any one of them at home on the farm. One of his delights while traveling through the countryside was to spot a mare and her colt, romping through a field, kicking up their hoofs, and obviously enjoying life at that moment. To Dad, that was a beautiful sight and he never failed to comment about it.
Another event that must have helped shape my Dad's affection for horses was the time his horse kept him from plunging into the fast-moving waters of a rain-swollen creek. He was returning home one dark and stormy night driving a horse-drawn buggy in an unusually heavy downpour. He said the night was so completely devoid of light that he had to rely on the horse knowing the way. He was confident it could manage that because it had traveled the same country road countless times before. Abruptly the horse slowed to a stop. Howard didn't "see" anything that should have prompted this, so he snapped the reigns and issued a sharp "giddyup", but the horse didn't move. Finally, thinking the horse might have injured a hoof, Howard climbed down to investigate. As he began to walk forward, he realized they had been ready to cross over a bridge that was no longer there, apparently having been washed away earlier by a torrent of water racing through the creek. Dad was so grateful that his horse had not obeyed the command to proceed but rather showed the good sense to stop before they were both thrown into the rushing waters.
After meeting and courting a comely young lady who worked at a bank where Howard was also employed, on July 23rd, 1921, he married Violet May Arthur in Taylorville, IL. Shortly alter moving to Pawnee, IL, they began to raise a family. Betty Ruth was the first arrival (May 24, 1922), then Howard Robert (March 30, 1925), then William Roger (April 30, 1928), and bringing up the rear was Arthur Dean, born in Springfield, IL (July 9, 1929). If ever there was the pride of and love for one's children, it happened in that family household. All the children came to know love by being loved. It was exemplified day in and day out by a mother and father who knew full well their God-given roles in that family circle.
Dad learned to fish and loved doing it as a boy. Not that he ever became a modern high-tech sort of fisherman, but rather that he loved to sit on the banks of Mosquito Creek which ran through the family farm property, armed only with pleasant thoughts, a cane pole and line, a cork "bobber" and hook, and a can of worms. He was fond of taking his sons, Bob, Roger, and Dean to share with them the delights of such activity whenever they visited the farm.
Howard was sentimental about the days of his boyhood. Probably he secretly wished he might occasionally return to that somewhat carefree period in his life. A large tree growing beside the creek had a very distinctive limb that grew outward over the creek. It pitched downward toward the water for a few feet before finally rising upward, thus producing a gracefully curved inverted arch before reaching outward again. When Howard pointed to that branch and proclaimed to his sons that he had loved to swim over it during "flood season", the limb was probably about 15 feet above the ground. Considering the surrounding terrain, that would have been a tremendous flood by anybody's estimation, but to a young son looking up at that huge tree, it was definitely awe-inspiring. Years later, upon recalling the story about that, I realized for the first time that the tree was obviously not the giant it had become when I first saw it, thereby shrinking the immensity of the flood and the feat of my Dad as a brave young swimmer. Even if he was not the Olympian-class swimmer envisioned by his boys, he had plenty of other awesome traits that made us love him and regard him in the highest way possible.
Certainly he was my hero and my champion. The first time I recall Dad gripping a Jonathan apple and breaking it in half, such strength was beyond my comprehension. Every dad should be the hero and champion of their sons and daughters. He was certainly mine in so many ways. Dad was a cigar and pipe smoker. He could entertain us by blowing smoke rings that would dazzle any youngster. He could amuse us by the stories he told. Dad could tell a story better than anyone I have ever heard. Part of his story-telling success arose from his uncanny ability to tell it in the voice of imagined characters, with accents, inflections, and expressions that were sure to propel the listener right into the midst of the tale. He was so very expert in doing that and his timing was perfection itself. It seemed he knew a million yarns to tell that fit almost any situation. He avoided passing on the vulgar stories that some men love to snicker at and are quick to tell, but he had quite a repertoire of respectable and genuinely funny stories.
Dad's love of the family of his roots and his boyhood home never diminished through the years. Along with his sisters and brothers, they came together at least once a year at the old home of their childhood. Dad's sister May Muirhead and her husband George still lived on, maintained, and farmed the family property. The siblings would converge on the home on a Saturday, enjoy each other's company until the following mid-morning, and then collect all the other family members to fill out the day. Their intent was to never let falter the brother/sister closeness they had developed as children years before. It was a means to honor and revere their heritage. They continued that practice as long as any of them lived and were able to meet. Dad always prepared a poem for these special occasions.
Perhaps as exhibited early by his schoolmaster occupation and later as a bank employee, Dad was always fond of numbers and their orderly, meaningful expression. Simply stated, he loved bookkeeping and figures. He took pride and satisfaction in helping others with the complexities of numbers and record-keeping many of them barely understood. His farm-life upbringing prepared him well to work with and for farmers, both throughout the year and at tax time. He could intelligently discuss hog prices, crop yields, and farm supports along with the best of them. It wasn't a matter of keeping up, but rather of staying interested. For years, he traveled out to the various farms of his clients to keep books for their farming operations. Dad was invariably loved and regarded to be a friend by all who knew him. Thus, nearly always he was expected to have lunch with his farm-family clientele after they cleared the paperwork from the kitchen table. In addition to seeing his customers through the tax season, he also worked hard and very long hours at the Sangamon County Farm Bureau in Springfield, completing tax returns for other members of the farming community. He was always thoroughly exhausted after completing such a grueling, non-stop effort. He was like a one-man H & R Block before there ever was an H & R Block.
Dad, never faltering, loved God, family and country. The foundations of his youth taught him to stand firm, unyielding in everything he believed in his heart. It was stated previously that he was a fine role model for his kids, hopeful they might discover the higher and more honorable paths in life by his example. He was impeccably honest and he exercised open and honorable conduct toward his wife and children. He was fiercely proud of each member of his family. Whenever something occurred to promote or advance any one of them, in school, in marriage or career, he was unfailingly supportive and beamed with pride as he would say, "That's my girl" or, "That's my boy". As he received word of a special event, such as the birth of a grandchild, that often spurred him into composing a poem which told the story in verse.
Dad's ability to write poetry was well recognized, in large part because of the speed with which he could accomplish it. For many years he was called upon to demonstrate his talents with a male quartet named the Pawnee Four. These singers were invited to various gatherings of people, such as at conventions or banquets where after-dinner speakers were the norm. Dad, while listening intently to the speeches, would sit on the sidelines composing poetic lyrics, more often than not with amusing content or by poking good-natured fun at the speaker or his organization. Immediately following the speaker, the quartet would take their places at the dais. As the lead singer, Dad would hold his just completed lyrics out in front of the group while they sang and harmonized the words together. This "stunt" was often considered to be just that - a stunt, assuming words had been prepared long beforehand, but of course that was not the case. Wherever they went, people received them with much acclaim and admiration. Dad, the quartet, and his amazing "instant" poetry were popular for many years running.
When Governor Horner proclaimed Dad as the first Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1936, that could have resulted in non-stop bragging and worn as a prideful badge, but that was not Dad's way. He was never boastful about his own accomplishments or accolades, only those of his beloved kids. Carl Sandburg later received the Illinois Poet Laureate distinction following Howard's death.
Dad was never a late sleeper, a habit ingrained during his years as a farmer. He always seemed to have too many things to do to waste time in bed needlessly. He was definitely a "morning person". One of the rituals he performed each morning during "cleanup" time was to wash his face vigorously with his hands, using soap and water. Then he rinsed by splashing it with cool water. That practice probably originated from farm-life years when his water source in the upstairs bedroom at the family home was poured from a pitcher into a bowl. That morning habit didn't vary appreciably in later years after gaining the convenience of indoor plumbing. Even in Dad's later years, his facial skin quality was exceptionally good. That may also have been enhanced by wearing a hat all his life, including a straw one in the summer months. He could be seen with his hat pushed back to cool his forehead, but he was rarely outdoors without a covering. Whenever away from home, he was usually at church or on business. As a result he wore a long-sleeve dress shirt and necktie. By the late summer months, his hands and any exposed skin above his collar that the sun or wind could reach had become very tanned
Dad was an avid reader of fiction, both western and detective stories. His way of relaxing at the end of the day was to settle into his comfortable chair with one of his books. For a time, he was a regular customer at Feltham's drug store at Laurel and West Grand (now MacArthur Blvd.) across from Butler grade school because they had a lending library well stocked with the kind of books he enjoyed. He didn't feel compelled to see the latest movie or to have a beer at the neighborhood bar. In fact, he saw few movies and only on extremely rare occasions would he drink anything stronger than water.
Dad was certainly a "man of conscience". As such, he was comfortable with his affiliation as a Democrat, believing in the honorable and just tenets that political party heralded in those days. It is unlikely, however, that he would have continued to support modern-day Democrat philosophy, considering their ever stronger posture embracing most aspects of liberalism.
Howard was a smart and natty dresser. He understood the importance of personal appearance although he did not subscribe to the oft heard phrase, "Clothes make the man". He knew better than that, but he did recognize that good appearance avoids unnecessary distractions that an otherwise poor image can evoke. Shined shoes, trimmed hair, a crisply tied necktie, and often a handkerchief in the breast pocket of his suit jacket could be expected most any time he was at church or out on business. Dad even wore his fedora at a slight jaunty angle which implied a measure of self confidence as he went out to meet the world. Dad was never cocky or arrogant. He didn't have an arrogant bone in his body. He didn't always have the means to buy the clothing he might have preferred but he did very well with what he had. Never was he seen without a crease in his trousers or not clean-shaven. Dad wore his clothes in good taste and matched colors well. His preferences tended to run in gray, tan and brown colors.
Dad taught Sunday School at West Side Christian Church in Springfield when it was located at the corner of State and Edwards streets. He also led the congregation there in singing hymns on Sunday morning. (He may also have soloed on occasion.) Dad willingly gave of his musical talent in the church as well as through the Pawnee Four quartet. Very often during a family outing in the car, Dad would start the kids singing together and then shift over into a harmonizing voice. He seemed to delight in that so much. A typical song would have been Old MacDonald Had A Farm or perhaps Silent Night without it needing to be in the Christmas season.
Speaking of Christmas, if there was any one season or holiday that was extra special to Dad, it was Christmas. The magic of Christmas Eve with his family gathered at the tree, "the shrine", bred a time of sweet tenderness and love toward every one. As Dad looked around the room from face to face of his dear little family, "Mother, Betty, and the boys", just by his gaze you could tell he was saying, "I love you one and all." This family Christmas-time experience certainly did not exclude the Christ Child and His magnificent story. Dad would normally read some Scripture relating to the events of Christ's birth, he would pray for us, naming each as he went, and many times he had a new poem to share, always in some way connected with the family and the boundless, unfettered love we knew in common. When the children were still relatively small, and anxious to tie into the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning, it seemed almost a ritual with Dad to take a little longer than usual to get dressed. Of course we had to wait it out until all were assembled around the tree. Dad never admitted to prolonging that on purpose. If he did it intentionally, it was surely because he recognized that anticipation is often the best part of a special, happy event. Later on as the children grew older, the family Christmas and unwrapping gifts began to be held on Christmas Eve.
Dad performed numerous types of work in his adult life. Prior to his marriage he was farmer, teacher, soldier, and bank employee. Later, he was the Deputy County Clerk in the Springfield Court House for a while, he sold life insurance for the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, he worked as a guard at the Lincoln Ordinance Depot for a time during WWII, and he created the Austin Bookkeeping Service which he worked at until his death April 1, 1962. Dad frequently made business appointments to meet with clients concerning their taxes, insurance, records keeping, etc. He was consistently punctual and diligent in honoring such appointments and considered it a matter of responsible and considerate behavior to show up on time. When the person he was meeting failed in that regard, it was an irritant to him to waste time waiting for someone who may ultimately turn out to be a "no-show". Thus, Dad held strong convictions about the ethical treatment of those he interacted with. Plainly, he believed in being sensitive and considerate of your fellow man. It would trip a sore point with him when he came across someone who was unethical, insensitive, or inconsiderate. And Dad detested a malicious gossip. He was quite capable of putting them in their place if he saw what they were up to. But Dad himself was not contrary, not suspicious, critical of others, or a scrapper. He just felt that people should be above board, honest with one another, and embrace the same values on which his own integrity was based.
Dad was proud of his uncompromising character and Christian lifestyle. He would hold his head erect and look you square in the eye without making excuses or apologies for it. He had nothing to hide as evidenced by his forthright countenance. Again, there was nothing about his demeanor that smacked of an arrogant posture or attitude - absolutely nothing at all. Dad loved to laugh, he loved to hear as well as tell a good story, he was known by so many, many people, and virtually all of them considered Howard Austin to be their friend. That's the sort of man he was - friendly, amiable, accommodating - and always with a good word to say to everyone he met. But also it should be said that he was no wimp or nicey-nice sort of man. He could put a culprit in his place quickly and surely. In that respect, Dad had a "how dare you" attitude toward people that were overly inconsiderate, willing to take advantage of him or his family, and those who would pry into personal things for malicious intent. Dad didn't make a habit of cultivating friendships with all the "right" people. On the contrary, he would go out of his way to talk with someone who was obviously on the lower rungs of the social ladder. And he remembered names of people he hadn't seen for a long while, maybe 30 years. Upon hearing Dad call them by name, those people were made to feel important and worthwhile that he had not forgotten after so long a time. But Dad didn't hold onto names to impress anyone. They were his friends and in fact were sufficiently important to remember because they were his friends. These are some of the qualities that endeared him to the people whose lives he touched.
Dad felt that family identity was very important and always promoted the Austin name among his children. He was proud of his lineage and had substantial reasons to be. Dad wanted his children to take just as much pride in the Austin name as he did. Also, it might be assumed that he wanted his children to respect the family name in order that they be cautioned to not corrupt or disgrace it. He once commented that his blood line had connections to Steven F. Austin, founder of Austin, TX. He felt the tie was indisputable, but it has not been confirmed. He also stated that it was his understanding that Jane Austen, English author and poetess was an ancestor. The variance in spelling was dismissed by saying that Austin used to be spelled that way. An ancestral connection to Jane Austen has not been confirmed either. That Dad was intrigued by genealogical significance most likely means he would have been highly interested in modern computer search capabilities had he lived to see this technology. There was little doubt that he associated his Austin heritage with honorable and distinguished ancestry. And it is commonly acknowledged that he did much to enhance, continue, and contribute to that image.
Above all else in life, Dad enjoyed the too infrequent visits with his children. After a lengthy absence, an out-of-towner could expect a major bear hug from Dad immediately upon walking through the front door at the family home on Bonnie Court in Springfield. Because of love that was always assured on such a visit it was invariably an exciting experience. Dad seemed to relish the time spent in catching up and was always so wise when asked what he thought about something.
Not only did he love his family, but Dad exhibited special fondness for his automobiles through the years. He pretty much thought of them as his friends and hated to part with them when their usefulness had expired. Sometimes he would brag on the way they performed, perhaps yielding better than usual gas mileage, the unexpected ease with which they climbed a hill, or just the way their rattles quieted down on a rainy day. He took pleasure from his drives out on the open road. Unfortunately, he had spent so many hours driving that in his later years he was fairly well going on automatic and was probably the cause of more than a few alarmed motorists. But God must have watched over him because he didn't have any accidents, except for one while driving with his young wife, long before his auto-pilot days. He related the story of driving at night out in the country when an intoxicated driver hit them and turned their car over. Dad said the car had Mother trapped somehow and that he desperately hoped someone would come along to help lift it away from her. Then, under only the light of the moon, he began to see a trickle of blood start running down her forehead from a gash in her scalp. That sight instantly charged him with adrenaline and the urgency of the situation. He said he didn't know where the strength came from but he lifted the car off her by himself. Maybe God was watching then too and sent a very strong angel to help. Mother's cut healed and Dad never had another car accident.
Much, much more could be written to reveal the person of one Howard Benjamin Austin. Although these words describe the man in part, suffice it to say that he was a man of high integrity, uncommon devotion to his "little family", and he unquestionably made this world a better place for having passed through it. He was and still is deeply loved by all who knew and survive him to this day. He believed, without reservation, that through faith in Jesus Christ, we will be saved and live in Heaven for all eternity. In fact, he wrote a poem to that effect in "Til the Kids Come Home" which reflects his abiding love for his family and concludes with the following lines:
Then just inside of Heaven's gate,
'Neath that Eternal Dome;
We'll watch and wait with yearning hearts,
'Til our kids come home.
Through faith in Christ and as a promise from our Dad, we expect Dad and Mother to be waiting just inside Heaven's gate when each of us make our final return Home. What a glorious reunion that will be!
Remembered in love,
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