BOOK REVIEW: “Life Lessons from My Father” Provides Guideposts for Life

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.

Two views of Shirley Richard Gardenhire provide bookends for the sage advice by which he lived.

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, if you don’t have a friend who sends you a copy.


1 reply »

  1. Greg, this is George Bowers, Arizona. I think you’ll remember me for helping as I helped fill in some perspective on Jake Copeland and verified that A.L. Peoples, who was a juror on the odd murder trial of the Snokomo man who killed his neighbor in the 30’s was my grandfather.

    I have been wondering if you’d be interested in researching and creating a post about my Great Great Grandfather Bowman (sometimes spelled “Boman”) Younker. He settled 8 miles north of Eskridge on what is now Coyote Road. About a 1/2 mile east of K-4. He settled there in 1868-69 after bringing his wife and family from Iowa.

    The interesting part of his story is that he enlisted in the 3rd Indiana Mounted Volunteers (Cavalry) in 1861 and served until 1864. (His enlistment was for 3 years) Shortly after the 3rd Indiana Mounted Volunteers formed they were absorbed into the Union Army. Eventually, they became a part of General John Buford’s 1st Div. Cavalry Corps. And as such, they became the first troops to engage the Confederate soldiers of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1863. Bowman’s troopers were in Company D. They were a part of Buford’s plan to picket soldiers every 3-4 feet apart on the ground to engage the forward troops of General Heth as they entered Gettysburg on the Chambersburg Road on July 1st. Every fourth Cavalryman held four horses while the other three became foot soldiers in the battle. They fought a delaying action while Union infantrymen were making their way to Gettysburg on “Quick Time” marching. Eventually, the Cavalry withdrew to the heights of Cemetery Ridge so that the Union could hold the high ground.

    Of interest is that the Cavalry had been recently issued repeating carbines, While most soldiers had single shot muskets or rifles.

    After discharging, Bowman moved to Iowa, married and then after a couple of children were born, moved his family to the Keene area.

    Frank Frost wrote his obituary when he died and published it in the Eskridge Star-Independent.

    Of further note, Bowman was wounded at Gettysburg, but served in much more action before he terminated service as a Sergeant.

    He was a member of the Cary Post American Legion in Eskridge and his Civil War service eventually paid him a small pension

    Please contact me at 480-239-5055.

    George Bowers



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