by Greg Hoots
Recently, a good friend of mine whom I’ve never met sent me a book from their home on the East Coast. It was a brief eighty-two pages in length and left me with a thousand questions, wishing for more. The book, Life Lessons from My Father—Things Dad Used to Say, was authored by John Fouts Gardenhire, a retired professor of English at Laney Community College. Gardenhire wrote about his father’s wisdom, empathy, and kindness in a way that demonstrates his boundless love and respect for his dad, Shirley Richard Gardenhire.
John Gardenhire’s father, Shirley, had been born on his father’s farm in Wabaunsee County in 1891, the grandson of freed slaves from Tennessee. Shirley Richard Gardenhire excelled in the rural schools of Wabaunsee County, before enrolling at Alma High School where he was an outstanding athlete and an honor student. Shirley Gardenhire graduated with honors, excelling in the study of Latin. Upon graduation from Alma High School in 1911, Gardenhire enrolled at Kansas State College at Manhattan on a Latin scholarship, graduating in 1915.
Shirley Gardenhire discovered upon graduation from college in 1915 that there were no jobs for a Black man with a college degree in Alma, Kansas. He went to Topeka, seeking employment, and discovered the same doors were closed to African-American men in Topeka. He found that Black men, if they were very lucky, worked for the railroad, and he was hired as a truck mechanic at the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Shops in Topeka. For the next forty years, Shirley Gardenhire worked for the Santa Fe, while he and his wife Carrie, raised their three children in East Topeka’s “Mudtown.”
John Fouts Gardenhire relates how his father often had short phrases of wisdom to which he occasionally referred in sharing a short story with his children. The words of advice are resounding, yet sensitive; thoughtful, yet direct.
Each chapter is a short story, patterned after Shirley Gardenhire’s formula for writing “the five-paragraph essay.” Chapter one is titled, “It Does Not Hurt You To Be Nice To People.” Chapter 13 is titled, “Being ‘Colored’ Means That You Have To Work Harder, So Do It.” Chapter 15 is titled, “Never Step On an Ant That Isn’t Bothering You.” Chapter 30 advises, “Always Clean Up Your Own Messes.”
In the addendum to the volume, John Gardenhire adds twenty-three more “sayings” that his father penned, instructing his children in life. In that group, Gardenhire advises, “Lead or Follow, It’s Your Choice.” The final two pieces of advice on the list note, “There is a difference between chicken salad and chicken shit,” followed by “Know the Difference.”
Gardenhire’s book contains words of wisdom for life that everyone today would be better for having read it. While John Gardenhire is a wonderfully adept writer, the book speaks volumes about his father, Shirley Richard Gardenhire, a true renaissance man.
Gardenhire’s book is a gem and a must-read for everyone.
Life Lessons from My Father is available at Amazon.com, if you don’t have a friend who sends you a copy.