Grampas I Have Known: Grampa McCune

Early in the morning, my eyes fall on this little legend on the back of my Old Spice deodorant:  “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t exist.”[1]  Here on the back of a deodorant stick, we see an insight known to every physician collecting a patient’s family medical history:  We are not self-originating, self-defining, self-creating, isolated, autonomous individuals.  We are part of a family, part of a clan, part of a great stream of men and women who have shaped us.

This shouts out at us from the story of the call of Abram, where God extravagantly promises, “Through you, all peoples on earth will be blessed.”  Two thousand years later, a rabbi named Saul refers to a world-changing rabbi named Jesus as “Abraham’s seed.”  Jesus is who he is because of his tie to Abraham.  Abraham is who he is because of his tie to Jesus.

As I prepare to be a grampa, I find myself thinking more and more of this flowing, influencing stream, and of grampas I have known.

My father’s father, Frederick Stewart McCune, graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, whose own publication calls the school “the oldest technological university in the English-speaking world.”  (After reading that description, I felt a bit proud that I myself once stood in an RPI dorm room.)  I used to have a photograph of Grampa McCune’s graduation.  He was holding one end of the 1909 banner, and I remember thinking that I looked a bit like him in that photo.


Grampa McCune and I

He was a civil engineer who in 1937-38 helped build U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works steel plant in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania.  The builders moved more earth than in any project besides the Panama Canal.[2]  In addition, he worked as an engineer for a pumping station that is still operating, and two companies manufacturing coke (coal-based fuel) and steel.

For 15 years, he was undefeated in borough politics.  But when he could not get citizen support for legal action against a corrupt scheme he uncovered, he resigned.

He was 42 when my father was born.  After three daughters, he was glad to have his first son.  The last line of the entry in his diary for that day reads, “Rolled lawn.  Baby born.”

He held two patents.  One was related to the steel industry:  a “method and apparatus for separating metallic articles.”  The other was a toy waterwheel for the train set with landscape that first Grampa and then my dad after him used to set up every Christmas.  It was a very cute little town, complete with hills, trees, houses, signs, bridges, tunnels, trains and, of course, the real working waterwheel.  My dad wrote to me about it:  “What a wonderful dad to do all this for his son.”

Back in the 50’s, before anyone was talking about fitness habits for the common man, Grampa McCune walked for miles around the borough for pleasure, almost every day.  And bear in mind this is Pittsburgh, up hill and down dale all the way.

Of course many of my memories linked to Grampa McCune are memories of his house, with its grim, loud grandfather clock, magical basement and attic.  The basement was a bit intimidating to a small visiting boy, perhaps because it was dark and perhaps because its crannies and furnishings seemed to come from another world:  a coal chute, a drain right in the middle of the floor, a deep, square laundry sink with the obligatory bar of golden, gasoline-smelling Fels-Naptha soap, and—somewhat mysteriously—a toilet that, with no wall, stall or door, rather dominated the landscape and suggested that the household must have exercised a certain etiquette before descending the stairs.  The semi-finished attic, with its exposed joists and steeply slanting ceiling, was an unfamiliar feature that took on a holy significance when I learned that my Great-Grampa Oglevee had spent his last years sleeping up there, praying aloud every night.[3]

One of the many ways the Lord enriched my growing up was by arranging for me to live in the same house with my dad’s parents.  In 1968, Grampa had a stroke, and he and Grandma came to live with us in Virginia Beach.  So for twelve years I was able to do things like walk beside him when he walked his slow and steady laps around the yard with the aid of a three-footed cane.  We hung out.  I talked with him about all kinds of things, including the Bible, and his life and mine.  I listened to his stories, some historical and some fanciful.  Part of the picture was adjusting to his needs and differences, helping him get around, and experiencing at a young age the reality that a major physical weakness is not the end.

In a country where many kids scarcely know their grandparents, God allowed me to have a relationship with my grandfather, a man who—as I anticipate (any day now) beginning my grandfathering journey—stands in my mind as an inspiration.


[1] It happens not to be true for me, since Grampa McCune married in 1912, 26 years before the appearance of Old Spice for men.
[3] The parts of the house that I associate with Great-grampa Ogelvee’s name are the top and the bottom, since he slept and prayed in the attic and, down in the basement, made aromatic ketchup and a healing goo that he called “chap-stuff.”