My Grandfather was, throughout my life, carved from rock. Like a Homeric hero, he just seemed to be cut of a sterner stuff than other men; he worked long hours and never complained, had little time to spare for his own interests, and ceaselessly provided for his family. A few years ago, he had a quintuple-bypass. Five days later, he was mowing the front lawn of the house when I came to visit him. In horror I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he said, "The lawn doesn't mow itself. Someone has to do it." Whenever there was something that "someone has to do" – my grandfather never failed to to take it upon himself to be that someone.
The very highest compliment he has every paid anyone was to call them "Capable".
His father was an engineer and a math-teacher, as well as a choir master. His father's father was a pattern-maker and built propellors for destroyers and battleships for America in World War One in the Camden yards. All of these men were Spartan, austere, and in every way uncomplaining. Such is the stock from which I am descended; larger-than-life in their deeds, yet humble in their needs. Though my family were rail barons (Jay Gould is up there in the tree somewhere) and real Barons in Scotland, you have never met a more unpretentious lot than my grandfather's clan. They paid tribute to the cult of meritocracy; let every man be judged by his work, and not by his lineage.
My grandfather holds over 400 patents. He worked on the Manhatten Project, he helped develop sonar, he built parts fo the lunar lander. and he designed and built the first generation of GPS satellites.. Have you ever used a GPS? Thank my grandfather. He's unlike any man I've ever met - he did all these things, accomplished all these mighty works, and never once bragged or boasted of anything he'd done. His work stands as its own testament. Half the things he'd done I'd never have found out if I hadn't asked.
And last night, he passed away.. This heroic man, this mighty and invinceable Achilles, who shook his spear, and a quarter million enemies of the country he loves died, was rendered human, frail: a man. The past couple of years have seen a steady erosion of the limitless health and energy that sustained him through so many years of care and work. The passing of my grandmother, from whom he had never been separated for more than three days in their fifty five years of marriage was hard for him. The repeated pneumonia, the battle with cancer, and periods of congestive heart failure took their toll. Once when I came to visit he said, "I just don't have any experience with being sick."
Of course, the truth is he's been sick many times – he had a heart attack and surgery to remedy it – but what he doesn't have experience with is not getting better almost overnight. 86 years of amazing health and energy, and it finally took the combination of cancer, pneumonia, and heart surgery to bring him low. Even then from his hospital bed he insisted that he be brought work, that he might feel capable again.
In his words, he was "overcome with disability." This man, this hero, this titan. Disabled. I have never heard him speak a word of complaint about his own condition until this past year. He must be suffering awfully indeed - he endured a heart-attack and subsequent surgery, shingles, and other illnesses both great and small, without complaint. And after all that, he finally felt "disabled". The opposite of capable, that greatest of virtues in his personal philosophy, bereft of the very thing which had sustained him through decades of labor. For him to say he was "disabled" would be like a lesser man - any other man - saying, "I'm dying."
When he first took ill I was still here on the East Coast, and I would frequently come visit. One night we watched "Lawrence of Arabia" and then Grandpa and I talked about the historical T.E. Lawrence, my other personal hero.
The first one was sitting chatting with me about the other.
We talked about history a lot – besides being an avid chess player who corresponded with chess masters around the world and the country, my grandfather was a voracious reader. He read history, mostly – always curious about not just the grand sweep of history, but also the role that individuals played in it, and their stories. I don't know if he ever saw himself as a part of that great sweep of history – but surely he was a perfect symbol for Man of the 20th Century –born in 1913 and standing astride the old world, and literally having a hand in one of the most singular and defining moments in human history, the birth of the Atomic Age. Immortal though he seemed, mighty Achilles is struck down, and dragged before the walls of Troy, humbled.
My grandfather is one of the great guiding lights of my life; a living testimony to what it means to be a man, an epic hero utterly without pride or arrogance, an uncomplaining fountain of compassion and care for those he loves. One by one the lights sputter and go out though, and there is only darkness in their absence. There will never be men like my grandfather again. We are diminished; mere shadows on the cave wall, against his depth and solidity.
He dedicated his whole life to service – to his family, to his church, and to his country. His service was remarkable, and we are all in his debt. He took great comfort in the communities that he labored on behalf of – he served nation, church and family because he loved them deeply, and proved day after day, year after year, what it means to love something, honor it, and sustain it with one's own labors.
I have such paltry gifts with which to honor him, but I will do what I can. I write this, and hope you are touched. I hope you will be moved, and weep that he has passed. The whole world should - his name should be carved in public places, and statues raised in his honor. School children should learn his name and his deeds, and remember him. I would give him this, if I could, but I can't, so it's words, only words I have to give.
Philip Gould Van Osten died on May 30th, 2005 – his accomplishments and his memory will persist forever.