My father-in-law, George Stephans, died on August 18, after 84 years of living life to the fullest. It was my honor and privilege to write and deliver a eulogy at his funeral on August 24, and I am including the text below essentially as it was presented. If you didn’t know George, you may not understand every reference, but I hope that you will at least get a sense of what a wonderful man he was, and what an extraordinary life he led.
George Stephans, 5/5/31 – 8/18/15
Some public speaking experts advise that it’s best to begin a talk like this with a funny story or joke to break the ice… what could be more appropriate this morning? And I thought to really underscore who we are honoring today, throughout my presentation I’ll just periodically stop and repeat the same joke that I told at the beginning. Know anybody else who did that?
Last year we were all riding together to Indiana for Herb and Lorelei’s 50th anniversary party. We weren’t on the road long when George started telling a joke we’d all heard many times before. When he was done, we laughed, but Juanita said, “George, you’ve told that before!” He said, “Why didn’t anybody stop me?” And Mike said, “Dad, we couldn’t…you get such a kick out of telling it!”
And that, I think, is the essence of George Stephans. Yes, someone who laughed the hardest at his own jokes, but who told them over and over because if something brought him joy, he just had to share it.
Whether it was taking family or friends to a great restaurant he found, or recommending a funny movie, or even sharing information with my Dad about the latest and greatest hearing aids they could get through the VA – if George thought someone would be interested, would benefit, or would get joy from something, he had to share it.
And of course, I think the biggest benefactors of his joy-sharing program were his grandchildren and great grandchildren. I can guarantee with absolute certainty that on your fifth birthday, when you got your first bike, you may have been excited to receive it, but not nearly as excited as your Grandpa was to give it to you. And the same goes for your first driving lesson from him… at age 12.
We have two grandsons that I like to call the Crown Prince and the Duke – an heir and a spare, just like in England. Well, when I came into the family, I got to see George in the beautiful first years of grandparenthood — Wes was just a few years old and Christie was a baby. And you know what – Wes WAS the Crown Prince. In fact, I feel pretty confident saying that it was George Stephans who inspired the phrase, “What happens at Grandpa’s, stays at Grandpa’s.”
Now, that’s not to say that he ever had any favorites. As each new grandchild – and later, each new great grandchild – came along, each was met and ultimately treated with exactly the same love, excitement and joy.
One of the biggest and most memorable examples I can give is when your grandparents decided the best way to celebrate their 40th anniversary was to take the entire family to Disney World. They’d been there many times and I don’t think any of the grandchildren had ever been there. So for their anniversary they gave us that gift. We ended up making two trips; Patti’s family first and then Mike’s.
Actually, as I think about it, there was another trip to Disney. Becky had been too young to go, and Robby wasn’t even born, so several years later, they planned a third trip so that their youngest two grandchildren wouldn’t miss out.
Becky and Robby, you may not know this, but in most families when a younger kid has missed something like a vacation, they usually find out about it years later when someone is reminiscing at Thanksgiving or something, and when you say, “hey, when did you go to Disney World with grandma and grandpa,” the response would be, “oh, you weren’t born.” Not so with your grandparents. They wanted to make sure no one missed out on the joy. As I said, no favorites.
So anyway, we had a full week on the grounds at Disney, and George hit the ground running every day to make sure nobody missed a thing. In fact, we have multiple pictures walking through Disney and way up ahead is a guy in a straw hat… that was George. “We’re in Disney World… don’t want to miss anything… c’mon.” Thank God he stopped to read restaurant menus or we would have lost him and never caught up! He was just so excited to share the fun and joy of everything with us.
And then many years later, in full retirement, George and Juanita were able to go to Florida for six weeks every winter, and they made sure they rented a big enough place so that all the family could join them if they wished. Not “just in case they show up,” but to be able to encourage them to do so. I’m so sorry we never made the trip, but most of the rest of the family did at one time or another, and George got to give them another vacation of a lifetime, including taking them to the flea market where you could get a watch for five dollars! And, of course, to every good restaurant in town.
I confess that if I ever could take a six week tropical vacation in the dead of winter, I would leave no forwarding address. But George wanted to share the joy.
Now I will say that there was one thing about George that wasn’t a constant in all the years I knew him. In those early years, when something bad happened to him or to a loved one, he would get mad at God.
Diagnosed with diabetes and had to give up flying… George was mad at God.
Mike lost his job… George was mad at God.
He still was a man of faith and belief, but that didn’t stop George from getting mad at God.
But then, something changed. I think it was after his heart attack. All of sudden when these bad things happened – and they did keep happening, especially in these later years – he went from being mad at God to trusting God.
When he had to give up golf, or had to start using a cane, or was told he couldn’t drive, George trusted God.
When he didn’t have the energy for vacations to Florida, he took his cane and went to his great grandson’s football games instead, and he was happy, because George trusted God.
And I think that’s why, last Tuesday, George was finally ready to go home — because he trusted God. I don’t think it was because he was tired, or didn’t want to fight his illness anymore. I think it was because he trusted God that Juanita would be OK, and that the wonderful family they created together would not break apart in grief but would draw more closely together and help each other get through it. It was George’s final act of trust in God.
Before I finish, I want to add just one more thing. It’s been very hard for me today to say “George” and not add, “and Juanita.” They were a team. Actually, I think they still are. They would have been married 64 years next month, and knew each other four years before that – almost 70 years. They spent more than 80 percent of their lives together… to me they are the very definition of “the two shall become one.”
Today, George is getting all the credit, and that’s fair – it’s his day. But I know he would be the first to stand up and say that he would not have been the man he was without Juanita. And I bet she would say the same thing about him in return. I couldn’t let today pass without also recognizing the woman next to, not behind, the man. Well, unless you’re in Disney World; then everybody is behind him.
So, in conclusion, I’d like to ask all of you to do one thing today. After all the solemn ceremonies have concluded, and you’re sitting at lunch, I want you to think of a story or joke that George told, and tell it to everybody at your table. They’ve probably heard it already, but I can’t think of a better way to honor George than to continue spreading laughter and joy with each other.