By Eve W. Engle

The dogs rule in our house. They are fed first, allowed in our bed, have their own bed in the guest room and sneak up onto the sofas when we aren't looking. Maxie, short for Maximus, is a Golden Retriever/Great Pyrenes mix, Sammy is a Black Lab/Border Collie mix. His full name is Samuel L. Jackson after one of my favorite actors. Both were abused and rescued from their former owners. They get cookies every morning.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Indiana Farm Boy at 100 - Beating the Odds

My dad would have been 100 years old next year. That's a sobering thought. To hit that milestone with a grandparent doesn't seem that odd. But to realize your parent would be that old, well, it's just weird.

He was born in Peoria County Illinois, but he claimed Indiana as home since he spent most of his life there. I always thought of him as an Indiana farm boy who never really grew up. People never really realized his age until the end of his life. He always looked younger. And he never lost his silly little boy sense of humor. He loved to sing goofy songs, LOUDLY. He giggled. He danced jigs. He ran barefoot in the snow in delight when Alabama had a rare snow event. And he could bang on a piano with his elbows at parties and somehow everyone would be delighted.

My dad lived a long, and very productive life. When he died at age 85 in 2002 he had already beaten the odds of dying prematurely at least three times. When he was just five years old he was hit by an automobile and suffered a traumatic head injury. For weeks he lay in a coma with a fractured skull. Given that this was in 1920 it's a wonder he didn't end up with debilitating brain damage, or that he even lived through it. His parents didn't know his skull was fractured. Or if they did, they never mentioned it to him. When he was in his late seventies he had an X-ray taken to check his carotid arteries and the doctor who was treating him asked him what had happened. My dad had no idea, after 70 some odd years, that he would see the damage from that accident depicted on that film.

When he was in his 30s he was the owner of Frank Engle Studios in Newburgh Indiana. As a ceramicist he was used to working with glazes and knew the risk of contracting lead poisoning. Given that he was the son of a tenant farmer/sharecropper many of the homes he and his family had lived in probably had been painted with lead paint. The dinnerware they had used probably had it in the glaze since American made china still had traces of lead until sometime in the 1970s*. So, when he got sick with lead poisoning it was probably a combination of the glazes he was using in his business, and a lifetime of exposure. He might never have ended up in Alabama if it hadn't been for the lead. In an attempt to regain his strength he arrived at the University of Alabama to teach ceramics in the newly formed Art Department in 1949, and never left.

In 1996 my parents owned a little piece of paradise on the banks of the Bon Secour River just off Mobile Bay. "River Bend" was full of wisteria, azaleas, and water oaks, with a view of the shrimp boats docked across the water, and visiting dolphins would sometimes cruise by in front of the boathouse. One night before they planned to leave to head back to Windy Hill in Tuscaloosa County, my dad had a massive heart attack. He had moved a refrigerator the day before in order to tile behind it. And had blocked the door of their bedroom. The EMTs had to climb through a window to get to the bedroom in order to treat him. Consequently he had a quadruple bypass, and six months later he was recovered enough to dance a jig with me at Christmas.

Now, before you get too depressed and wonder why I would start off a celebration of his centennial birthday with such a sad sounding topic let me explain. My dad wasn't a sad person. He wasn't some poor guy which bad luck, or chronically poor health. He was a remarkable guy who loved life. His glass was always half full, not half empty. He found humor in most things, including his heart surgery. As the anesthesia wore off he kept seeing things. As one female doctor came in to check on him he declared, "I know you can't see her, but there is a naked woman sitting on the end of the bed!" And then he grinned.

I believe the car accident was the reason he was so creative. His little brain must have compensated for its injury by shifting gears and working harder in its right hemisphere. I believe the lead poisoning lead him to the career change that allowed him to grow as an artist and an intellectual. And I believe that the heart attack forced him to stop driving himself to work constantly, and take the time to focus on being creative again.

He beat the odds. He fought hard to live his life as long and as fully as possible. I believe he would have found it amusing to celebrate 100 years of life, and maybe, just a little annoying. He never really liked to bother with egocentric behavior. He had too many ideas floating around in that right hemisphere that needed to be explored.

*Want more information about lead in your coffee mug?
Frank Engle eating an ice cream cone in his ceramics classroom in the Art Department at The University of Alabama, late 1970s.

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