Last month we had to temporarily remove part of a chain-link fence in our backyard so a tree removal service could come in. As I was undoing the wire ties, I realized how expertly that fence had been put together. It wasn't done by a professional, but by my father-in-law, Junior L. Crews, who died September 8. For him, it was a labor of love.
He wasn't supposed to be named Junior, but James Lee Crews, Junior, when he was born July 11, 1922, on a farm just outside Ravanna, in north central Missouri, just south of the Iowa line. His parents never completed his birth certificate—he was Baby Boy Crews, according to legal records. When it came time to get a proper birth certificate in order to receive Social Security, he had been going by Junior for so long that he made it his legal name.
He didn't have an easy boyhood growing up on a hardscrabble farm in the 1920s and '30s, and a father with a drinking problem didn't help. When he was a teenager, he had worked all summer to buy an air rifle. His father took Junior's prize possession and hocked it to buy whiskey. And one of his regular chores on the farm was to kill and pluck the chickens. He rarely ate chicken for the rest of his life. When Kathleen and I visited and cooked chicken, we tried to disguise it as much as possible. He'd eat a little bit to please us, but he never really liked it.
Like most young men of his generation, he was eager to join up and fight after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He tried more than once, but a farm accident had left him with no feeling in parts of his right hand, including his trigger finger. The Army wouldn't take him. But the war had affected him. His father had moved his family to Davenport, Iowa, to work in the factories. And for Junior, the move to the city meant he could complete high school. For someone with nerve damage in his right hand, he had quite a bit of artistic talent,from the drawings I've seen. He was older than many in his graduating class because he had to skip a lot of school to work on the farm.
It was at Davenport High School that he met the love of his life, a big-city girl from Milwaukee whose family had also come to Davenport for war work. Marilyn Margaret Moon, a lovely brown-eyed brunette, also had a parent with a drinking problem. Both wanted the stability of church and family. After attending several churches in Davenport, they settled on the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). One fellow parishioner was so impressed with this bright young man from Missouri that he offered to send him to Drake University, a Disciples school, to study for the ministry. But more practical things intervened, especially after Junior and Marilyn were married in the church on October 8, 1944. He got a job with the City of Davenport and worked for the municipality until he retired at the age of 62. But he stayed with his church, and became a deacon.
Junior and Marilyn's first child, Constance Carol Crews (Jackson) was born August 4, 1946. Six and a half years later, Kathleen June Crews (Wylder) came into the world on December 30, 1952. Junior and Marilyn loved the outdoors, and took their girls on extended camping trips to many of the National Parks and Monuments, including Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Wind Cave, Mount Rushmore, the Great Smokies, and Mammoth Cave.
Junior set his own pace. One legendary story happened on the trip to Mammoth Cave, when, fascinated by all the cave formations, he lagged so far behind the tour group that the lights were being turned off just behind him.
Junior wasn't perfect. He had a temper, as well as a streak of stubbornness. That stubborn streak may have kept him alive for many years longer than anyone expected him to live. Decades of working in Davenport's sewer system had given him a case of emphysema. But he lived to be ninety, and was physically strong into his eighties.
I didn't get to know Junior until 1972, when he was fifty, and I was courting his daughter Kathleen. He seemed a bit scary at first—he was protective of his little girl--but when it was clear my intentions were honorable he helped Kathleen and me immensely. During the summer of 1973, before Kathleen and I were married, he took her to estate sales and secondhand shops to get furniture and tools for us. We still have the table he found, along with some tools that will last for generations longer. And when he learned I loved trains, he found two Milwaukee Road railroad lanterns and a switch lock from the Davenport, Rock Island and Northwestern (the DRI Line) for me. I worried a bit about the switch lock, but so far as I know, there weren't any derailments on the line.
After he retired, he remained active. He and Marilyn spent many summers at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where they kept a trailer and Junior fished on the Mississippi. We enjoyed the bass and Northern Pike he caught in abundance. When our children were born he made child-size furniture, as well as doll beds for the girls. And when we moved to Indiana he came up and put up that fence in our backyard.
He was deeply in love with Marilyn right up to the end. In early August, when both of them were in the Good Samaritan Rehabilitation Center, they were able to eat together in the dining room. It was wonderful to see them together, for even in poor health they treasured each other's company.
When I posted a brief notice of Junior's passing on Facebook, a friend of ours wrote, “I enjoyed meeting him and will always remember Kathleen calling him an 'old coot' with fondness in her voice.”
He loved and supported his wife and family, and was generous to all. I was privileged to be his son-in-law.