Jack L. Christian
I’VE HAD A LUCKY LIFE
My life may not seem to have been so lucky when I tell you that my parents divorced when I was a baby and left me with my maternal grandparents in Hart, Michigan, to raise. But Grandma and Grandpa provided a safe and loving home for me in this nurturing, small town, and my childhood was a happy one. I was lucky that Grandpa Jack Butler and Grandma Millie Butler were the first two people to have a major influence on my life.
Grandpa grew up in the hills of West Virginia. All I know of his early life is that he had had only four years of country school. At some point, he learned how to shoe horses. He became a robust man and went from town to town as an itinerant blacksmith, caring for horses that would be racing at area fairgrounds. His trade took him all the way to Hart, Michigan, where he got to know Millie Holtz Archer, a widow with two young children. They married, raised her daughter and son, and added five children of their own to the family.
Once he had married, Grandpa had to find ways to support his household without leaving Hart. With little formal education, but with an entrepreneurial spirit, he made his living by his wits. One way was to buy goods and then resell them. He taught me to “Bargain when
you buy, and bargain when you sell.” There was the time that a truck full of produce broke down in front of our house, which was on the main street that went through town. Recognizing an opportunity, Grandpa bought both the goods and the truck – after the necessary negotiation, of course. I helped peddle the produce around town, going door-to-door with my wagon, and Grandpa fixed the truck and drove it for several years. Some of the money was mine to keep, and the rest was Grandpa’s.
In winter, Grandpa bought furs from trappers – mostly muskrat, raccoon, mink, and beaver. The furs were kept in the basement, waiting for traders to buy them later in the season. Grandpa also served as a pawn broker. Occasionally, on the sly, I would look in the box of assorted stuﬀ people had left in his keeping. There was the array of rings and watches that you might expect, but I also remember seeing a set of false teeth!
With no reliable income, Grandpa was always concerned about money. He kept all that he had in a small, snapped purse in his pocket throughout the day. If Grandma needed money for groceries or other household items and Grandpa was not at home, I would be sent to where Grandpa was visiting or playing cards to get what was required. At night, he put the purse under his pillow.
Grandpa was fully aware of the deficiency of his formal schooling. He had some law books (somebody had pawned those, too) that I would see him studying at times. He read the area’s daily newspaper, The Muskegon Chronicle. I remember his frequent question of me near the end of the day: “Jackie, have you done your lessons?” His commitment to education became ingrained in me. It was a very proud moment when he saw me receive my magna cum laude diploma in history from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
That was one of his rare excursions out of Hart. A further joy was when I came home to Hart to show him my master’s diploma in political science from the University of Wisconsin a few years later.
Of course, another indelible lesson from Grandpa was that you might have to do many diﬀerent things to earn the money you needed. So during my years at home in Hart, I not only peddled things from door- to-door, but also distributed handbills for the town’s movie theater announcing coming attractions, did odd jobs for the barber, scraped pans for the baker, and worked at a filling station. During college, I went home on weekends to work at that same filling station, waited on tables in a restaurant in Kalamazoo during the week, and worked as a switchboard operator at the University and later as a Resident Assistant in my dorm.
Grandpa lived in that same house the rest of his days. I still fondly think of it as home.
Grandma was born in the Milwaukee area and was of German heritage. She first married in her mid-teens and had two children, but then tragedy struck: Her husband was killed in an accident in the sawmill at which he worked. She then went to live in Hart, next door to her in-laws. She met and married Grandpa, who also liked Hart well enough to make it his home. But family tragedy was not done with Grandma. Years later, their 12-year-old son was killed in an accident while he was riding along with the driver of a bakery truck on his Saturday route. I was quite young at that time, but I remember that this accident left a deep, lasting wound on the whole family.
Despite the sadness she had experienced, I remember Grandma as a compassionate, frugal yet generous, resourceful woman. For example, during the depression years, townspeople knew that she was one person who could be counted on to make lunches for people who came to the back door. Occasionally, money was so tight that she would ask me to take a quarter out of my piggy bank and go to the store for a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread. But like many kids who grew up during the depression years, I never thought of our family as poor.
Grandpa and Grandma had many warm relationships in the Hart community. The Schramms lived across the street, and Frank
Schramm owned the bakery in the downtown area. It was likely this connection that led to my after-school job of scraping pans at the bakery and to my lifelong appreciation of a well-frosted cinnamon roll. I remember a couple of times when there was a bake sale at school and Grandma didn’t have the energy to make something herself, she called the bakery and said, “Frank, take a couple loaves of bread out of the oven and don’t slice ‘em. I’m sending Jackie down to pick ‘em up for the bake sale.” Then she would wrap them in a clean kitchen towel and send me back to school. I remember people being eager to buy a loaf of “Millie Butler’s bread,” possibly with a wink.
My bedroom was upstairs in an uninsulated attic that was heated only by a vent from the main floor. It was pretty cold during the winter, so Grandma always filled a hot water bottle and put it under the covers before I went to bed. Throughout my life, it has been important for me to feel warm enough.
Although I was the last in line of many children she would raise, she tended faithfully to my needs. I remember some home remedies: lard mixed with turpentine that was rubbed on my chest for colds (my classmates kept their distance) and a hot water bottle or heating pad for ear aches. I am sure she must have nursed me through the usual range of childhood diseases – every kid in school got them – but I wasn’t sure I had had chickenpox until I got shingles recently in 2022!
Typically in the evening after dinner, Grandpa would read the newspaper, Grandma would rest on the sofa after doing the dishes, and I would do homework. I felt loved and happy in this family.
My introduction to Jeﬀ was when a baby in a blue blanket was brought into the fathers’ waiting room at Madison General Hospital. His mouth was wide open – as big as a saucer – to greet me. My adventure in parenting had begun.
Once at home, when I held Jeﬀ as he was drinking from his bottle, we would look into each others’ big, brown eyes. For me, that was the start of the bonding process. Jan saw how close we were becoming. One Saturday when she had left toddler Jeﬀ in my care and later returned from shopping, she found me asleep on the sofa, with Jeﬀ playing contentedly right next to me. Let’s just say that she was not pleased that I had fallen asleep – but she later told me she realized what trust and comfort Jeﬀ and I shared, and she forgave me.
What life lessons did Jeﬀ provide for me over the years? As I look back over the decades, I find that Jeﬀ helped me accept people more diverse than my own circle of close friends. Especially through his involvement in sports and the arts, he developed friendships with people of diﬀerent skin colors, identities and orientations. Those friendships and understandings enriched my life along with his.
I also reflect on the fact that Jeﬀ’s decision not to pursue a career in business, which had been his university major, made it necessary for him to find other ways to earn a living in his post-college years. How interesting that just as Grandpa had done generations earlier, Jeﬀ needed to hustle to find a variety of jobs to support himself. His aspiration was to work in theater and film, but a pathway was not immediately evident. After an internship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, he relocated to Chicago, where opportunities were more in keeping with his goals. Once again, he had to take whatever work he could find, and he somehow made it work. And as he gradually gained more experience in theater and film, he acquired skills and success.
Then I remember the Saturday morning when he phoned us and said, “Mom and Dad, are you sitting down? I need to tell you something. I think I have what you would call ‘a real job.’ I’m going to teach in the Cinema Department at an arts college here in Chicago.” In retrospect, I see that although I had transitioned directly from college to working for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services – a situation that brought me the job and financial security that my childhood family had lacked – Jeﬀ experienced a more financially secure childhood and therefore felt comfortable about sacrificing stability while he pursued his career goals. He’s built a career as a freelance writer, director and actor in theater, film,
television, and commercials – creating and working on projects that make use of his diverse skill set. Grandpa would be so proud of him, and so am I.
My final story to share about Jeﬀ’s influences on me took place one winter morning as Jan and I, both retired, were at our desks in our home oﬃce. Our phone rang, the display indicating a call from Jeﬀ. He was calling from Colorado, where he had gone to ski with a good friend. Why would he be calling us in the middle of the morning? Oh, no – not a skiing accident? Anxiously, we answered and heard his cheerful voice say, “Hi, Mom and Dad. I’m at the top of a mountain at Vail, and it’s awesome – and I just wanted to thank you for getting me started skiing at Tyrol Basin way back when I was little.” His words warmed my heart – it’s the kind of moment every parent yearns for. But even more widely, it taught me that the words thank you are very welcome to a person’s ears, and it’s never too late to say them.
Then of course, there’s my wonderful wife of 60 years, Jan. It’s hard to put into words how much she’s impacted my life and everything she means to me, but I’ll do my best and will start at the beginning…
It was the fall of 1960 and our mutual friends Jackie and Jim had arranged a blind date for us: a picnic for the four us at Ferry Bluﬀ,
about an hour outside Madison. I picked her up at 9am and my first impression was that she was very pretty: blonde hair, blue eyes (though she did wear some peculiar Cat Woman-type glasses). We had a really nice time and she was fun to be around, but wow, was she ever smart. Not in a pushy way, but there wasn’t a topic she couldn’t weigh in on. I guess as the day went on I became concerned that maybe she was smarter than I was. Before the picnic was over, I knew darn well that she was.
When we got back to Madison, Jackie invited us up to a nice dinner
– and the conversation kept going. And even that wasn’t enough: After dinner Jan and I decided to head down to the Union for a cup of coﬀee. What’s remarkable is that even after an 11-hour first date, we still had things to talk about. I think that maybe I was a little afraid to ask her out again, like I had to wait for something a little more high- brow – like a play or an opera. I mean she was absolutely delightful, but I had never met any girl who was so smart. And you have to understand, this was at a time when society didn’t necessarily think women should be so smart. Eventually I became comfortable with her intelligence, and grew very comfortable with her too. I met her parents, who were so welcoming, and they made me feel comfortable as well. When Jan had to move to Milwaukee for an internship, I got an apartment on the East Side of town so that I could be closer to her. All that time traveling back and forth paid oﬀ in 1962, when we got married.
But it’s not just that she’s smart – I also want to credit her professional interests and her “stick-to-itiveness.” Especially when it came to working on writing the nutrition text book, which was really diﬃcult. I was always struck by how she could get up at 4am to work on the book, then go down to campus to teach, then work on it again when we got back home. I think I would have been inclined to say “the heck with it,” but not her. And she made it work at home too – even if it meant having to eat some questionable dinners prepared by a teenage chef Jeﬀ.
And I was impressed by the personal things too, like her unselfishness. She’d put so much eﬀort into a dinner or a party, making sure that everyone was comfortable and having a good time (although Jeﬀ and I had better fall in line when she was getting ready for it). Then there’s all of the work she’s done with the church. And over the years I’ve seen her write so many cards – tons of cards – expressing her congratulations or finding ways to encourage people. She’s always so very attentive to the people around her, especially those who may have benefited from a little extra support – and I could really see how much her caring meant to them.
And that brings me to how much she’s cared for me. She’s always been there for me, in good times and bad, but the love and comfort she’s given me in my time of need is nothing short of incredible. You
can see just how diﬃcult things are with her own health, yet she’s so precise and determined to make sure that I’m getting everything I need to be comfortable.
I hope that in a short time I was able to get across just how incredible she is. I’ve never known anyone like her and she’s important to my life in ways words just can’t describe. It’s been wonderful and I couldn’t be happier.
Note: Jack named this piece and relayed his stories to his wife and son. Influences of Grandpa, Grandma, and Jeﬀ were composed by Jan from conversations with Jack in his last weeks of life. Influences of Jan were composed by Jeﬀ from recordings and conversations in Jack’s final few days of life. We feel his tremendous influences as well and love him dearly.
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