Dad was born in 1915, the second son of young couple in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, William DeGroff, a descendant of French Canadians (I’ve been told), died soon after. His mother remarried to Robert Wethington, had another son, was widowed once again, then married for a third time to Lilburn Richards. She had two more sons with Lilburn.
I mention all this because my dad’s childhood was very much affected by the life and times of his mother and her family. When still just a young boy, his mother’s childless sister took Bob in and raised him as her own. She was married to Clarence Drumm. I’ll probably never know the real facts regarding whether he was sent to the Drumms or they took him. The latter seems to be the prevailing story, but Clarence and his wife Myrtle were mom and dad for Bob. He officially changed his name as a young adult.
He didn’t break ties with his birth mother. We have a couple photos of her with all five of her boys taken some time in the early 1930s judging by his apparent age. While I was growing up, we kept in touch with his two oldest brothers who lived in Cincinnati. We’d meet “half way” between Columbus and Cincinnati, usually at a state park, for a family reunion nearly every year. My uncles Billy and James I barely know. But when dad, Billy, and James were all together once, I realized their mother had very strong genes. All five of the boys had a resemblance despite having three different fathers. Very strong. Spittin’ image strong.
Dad moved around a lot spending time in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and eventually in Columbus. He said he attended 15 schools before he finished high school. He attended Columbus Central High School, I think for his entire high school years. It’s now the Center of Science and Industry building right in downtown. There, he was attracted to a small Italian girl named Mamie. He’d sit behind her in an auditorium and toss peanuts at her. She’d become the love of his life.
Dad was an athlete. In high school, he was the football team’s quarterback. This was the era of minimal pads and leather helmets. It was a tough game then, and he loved it. Dad considered football a thinking man’s game, full of strategy. He’d tell me about the cleats they wore, with long mud cleats for rainy days. Things that we’d worry about causing injuries today.
In the football off-season, dad wrestled and ran track. He always insisted wrestling was the ultimate fighting form again emphasizing the thinking aspect. In his wrestling career which included wrestling many years later in the Army, he was never pinned. Never. He was immensely proud of that. He’d been beaten, but never by a pin.
My favorite story concerning his athletic career, though, has to be the state meet he attended while in high school. One of his favorite events was hurdles. He claims no one beat him off the line, and “no one” includes a quick young man he raced against who would go on to Olympic fame – Jesse Owens. Dad says he beat Jesse off the line, but as he crossed the last hurdle, Owens was crossing the finish line. I love this story.
Dad and mom would remain together through the difficult years of the depression. They put off marriage because of it. Dad worked for a time in New Jersey for White Castle, when they still made hamburgers by hand. He worked for Roosevelt’s WPA building streets. He later landed a job at Timken Roller Bearing Co and soon after, Bob and Mamie were married. They would spend over 71 years together.
Having children proved troublesome, and meanwhile, a new world war raged. Dad was older than the kids being drafted, but as the war continued, older and older young men were called to service. Dad was drafted into the army, and after training for Signal Corps, was sent to the Pacific theater. There, he traveled through India, Burma, and China. He spent time on the Burma Road, climbed mountains of the Himalayas, but generally, and thankfully, avoided action.
He disliked the military, but he loved to travel, to see other places and cultures. Dad was not quiet about the war and would talk at length about it, recounting story after story. He’d talk about the ship journeys to and from Asia, about having to backtrack around the Philippines on the way home due to a typhoon. Dad talked about making his way into a camp where some officer blasted him about not saluting properly. Dad told the fellow, you go spend three months in the jungle and we’ll see how you salute. Dad was a quiet man, but he had attitude and you could provoke a reaction.
After the war, dad and mom were finally able to have kids – two of us. But it wasn’t easy and there were miscarriages along the way. During this time, dad decided he needed more than a high school education. He attended a technical school where a teacher told him, you should go to Ohio State. You’d do well there. He, and I’m sure mom, made this decision – he’d attend OSU at night while keeping his full-time day job to support the family. It was tough, but dad was always strong and motivated. A year after I was born, he graduated. With other possible jobs looming, he was given a promotion at Timken. Less pay, but better potential. It’s a lesson he’d give me so often – make your life choices with your eye on the future.
Dad’s love of the outdoors, of traveling, continued. Carefully managing their finances, thanks in no small part to mom, we began taking vacations. First to nearby places, then to some of our wonderful National Parks. In 1968, we did our biggest yet – two full weeks! My sister, approaching high school graduation and college, would no longer join us on these trips. Like so many other families in the 60s, we rented a camper, attached it to the car, and drove from Ohio to Colorado. I had my little Kodak Instamatic that I’ve discussed here before, and I did my best to document the trip.
We’d later visit the Grand Canyon, making our way to California on the fledgling interstates, where they existed. Dad loved the mountains and the scenery. In his retirement, he organized trips for the senior group they belonged to. Dad and mom would travel to Hawaii (mom’s first time in a plane). They’d visit World’s Fairs.
Like many folks in Columbus, dad was a Buckeye fan long before he attended OSU. There are stories about him hopping the fence to see a game, for instance. Mom and dad would buy season tickets for as far back as I can remember. I went to many games with dad as a kid, watching Woody Hayes and his team. We’d usually sit in B deck which is covered by C deck and out of the rain – mom preferred that! But there are posts, so you might miss a few plays. Yet, when the rain started, it seemed like a good plan.
I attended the last three home games against Michigan for which they had season tickets. It was fun to go, especially when we’d win! But dad was becoming forgetful. He’d forget where he parked at the airport when he came for me. He’d forget the story he told me 15 minutes earlier and tell it again. Hearing loss would add to the mix and make it increasingly difficult to converse in any meaningful way.
His mind, while having problems with memory, remained sharp in other ways. He’d go to the neurologist who’d ask him to count backwards from 100 by 7s. She’d tell mom she never saw anyone do it so quickly. He always enjoyed math, enjoyed learning math tricks. He loved puns and wordplay, something my sister and I share. He felt an education was more important than practically anything else. Somehow, it was fitting that his brain would hold on to those things.
Someone told me dementia is sometimes called the long goodbye. It is. Dad sort of faded away. Lost touch and pulled inward making me wonder just what is really going on inside. Then, he’d hear something and make a funny comment or say something that just seemed so appropriate, and I’d think, yes, he’s still in there somewhere.
For Christmas 2006, my sister Grace suggested we get the family together and go some place warm. Her daughter, Claire, lives in Florida so Florida became our destination. We rented a house and had all our immediate family there. It was something very special. Both my parents were mobile, mom could cook, dad could see the ocean, walk on the beach, sit next to his niece on the sand.
Dad left us to be with Mamie on June 21. He was done here. He gave his children the gift of life, a passion for learning, and a proud heritage. I would be happy to do half as much.