The Odyssey of Homer

Dad’s Great Ride

(The following is the full text written as a eulogy for my dad’s memorial service on Monday, May 11, 2015 at Asbury United Methodist Church, Durham, NC. For his service, I edited it down and rearranged it for time and to avoid repeating ground wonderfully covered by my brothers, Lin and Page, who spoke before me. This contains what I wanted to say.)

When I think of my dad I think of joy. Joy in the living and doing. Joy in his friendships made and those in the making. Joy in his long love affair with his Martha. Joy in his family and work, the balance between the two, the raising of kids and watching them grow up to have kids of their own. Joy in winning the bid and building the job. Joy in the game of golf, a ball well struck, a fairway hit and a putt holed. Joy in the beginning of the morning and the ending of the day. Joy in worldly travel and arriving back home. 

Joy in me, and joy in you.

Picture 3
Homer’s photo as it appeared in the Durham Herald Sun article for Veterans Day

I have been honoring my dad’s living all of my life. Now it’s time to honor his whole life, because, sadly for us, his life is done.

And boy did he live a good life. Raised in hard times he found the simplest of ways to build a good life.

He started by finding another life very early on with whom to enjoin his. He was 13 and she was 12. Since he and Martha both have lived a good long time, they have shared their lives together longer than most live.

Blessed with an easy style with people, a clear mind, a vision for today and tomorrow, and the wonderful capacity to let the trials of yesterday wash away with a good night’s sleep, Dad was always ready for the new plan for today.

Homer on the Teer Plane
Homer on Teer Company plane

He covered a lot of ground. Eight-four countries. Every state in the U.S. including Alaska before it was a state.

He’s been living on borrowed time since February 19th, 1945 when he first saw Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima at dawn from the deck of his troop carrier before hitting the beach.

He made it off of Iwo alive. It was the worst of many battles that gave him plenty to fear, but he came back home and put himself into his life with a passion knowing that the worst was behind him.

Homer was the epiphany of a self-made man. Just ask Mom…because she made him, her self. He wasn’t an extremely ambitious man for one who achieved so much in his time. He didn’t crave money, glory or the spotlight but he was often in it. It seemed that if something was getting done in Durham, Dad was smack dab in the middle of the doing.

For all of his great qualities and inherent capabilities, it was “Sha,” his pet name for the love of his life, who inspired him to see his own potential.

It was her, his new bride, for whom he fought his way through World War II.

It was Sha who begged him to use the GI Bill he earned through his service and attend N.C. State College instead of returning to his pre-war days as a plumber.

Sha, and their new baby girl, Marti, gave him the incentive and kept him focused on getting his degree.

Oh, he did do it all, make no mistake even if Mom lit the fire underneath him on occasion. Dad brought modern engineering practices to Nello L. Teer Company, accelerating a very good and growing company into a great company. From right here in Durham, Teer built out the US Highway system, dams in Oklahoma and Venezuela, an air base in Israel and roads in Africa.

He dined with heads of states, governors, celebrities, Saudi royalty, West Virginia farmers, Pennsylvania coal miners and African tribesmen. And he was comfortable in each setting.

He trusted his wife, close friends and God to guide him, his creative and spontaneous smarts to generate choices, his ability to decide and move on knowing that most wrong decisions could be course corrected if you’re observant enough to catch the error, and big enough to admit and alter the pathway to success.

When I nursed him over these last few months, as my brothers, sisters and Mom all did, sharing in the effort to help him heal from the infection, I woke up each morning thinking about him. And I’d lie in bed and feel those slow rolling silent tears, tears of sadness, hope and worry, slide down my face and drop to the pillow as I thought about his fight to get better.

Damn, I’ve never met a man with so much courage, courage to fight and survive in the worst of wars, courage to do what he thought was right, for others, and in the best and most difficult of times. Courage to give us all strength as he lost his.

At his weakest moment Homer had more courage than most men on their strongest day.

He knew the difference between God’s Plan and the plans of men – of everyday life. And he believed that a plan made things happen…good things. Progress.

And when folks needed stuff done, Homer was their man.

He didn’t do the work himself, nor did he ever claim it so, but man could he organize and cut through the clutter, focus and harness the power of willing, and sometimes not so willing, people.

He did it for Teer for 38 years starting in 1949.

He did it for the Exchange Club of Durham since 1954,

For the Child Abuse Prevention Center of Durham,

For Asbury Church, its pre-school and annual Christmas Tree Fundraiser,

For Willowhaven and Croasdaile Country Clubs,

And, for Croasdaile Village, his final home.

That strategy helped him focus his way through this life, to live up to his commitments to each of us and the community of Durham. And he relied on it to carry him through his battle for his health when he leaned on others because he could not plan the day by himself. He’d greet each us with, “Top of the morning. Good to see you. It’s a good day. I slept great. How are you? What’s the plan, son? I think it’s time that we made something happen.”

As you can tell, I don’t know how to put a bow on this. I guess that the best way is to end in thanks.

Thanks to the people of Asbury United Methodist Church who gave Dad a spiritual community.

Thanks to NC State College from which he gained an education upon which to build his life.

Thanks to Nello L. Teer Company and family for giving Homer his chance to start and finish his career and passion for building and to provide for his large family of five children.

Thanks to the Exchange Club that gave Dad and so many others the connection and energy to do so much good for Durham,

And the tremendous people living and working at Croasdaile Village who gave him a new home, new friends, and cared so deeply for him during his weakest time.

The amazing doctors, nurses and staff at Duke University Hospital who saved his life for a few more precious months.

The City of Durham for a lifelong home.

And, thank you, to each of you here today, and those who couldn’t come due to circumstance, for your love and appreciation of a man the likes of which don’t appear that often. Homer loved each and every one of you.

You made his day. His life. Every day.

A few weeks ago Mom asked Dad during a late afternoon at the hospital, “If you could wish for something, what would you wish for?” Dad answered, “I don’t deal in wishing.” “What would you change,” Mom asked. “I wouldn’t change a thing. Not one thing.”

“Do you miss me?” she whispered. “Honey, I beat this bed to death at night looking for you.”

That about sums it up on this amazing man who I had the honor and privilege to call Dad and you called husband, granddaddy, father, friend, uncle, boss, partner, or neighbor.

Rest in Peace Homer Lindell Riley. You enjoyed a Great Ride, drove most of the way and took us all along for the ride of our lives with you.

And as Homer often summed it up, the rest is history.

Homer, kissing his bride of 70 years, June 2013
Homer, kissing his bride of 70 years, June 2013, at their celebration thrown by their kids and grandkids.

Remembering Hutch

 

Dad's Best Marine Buddy
Dad’s Best Marine Buddy, Hutch Hutchins

 

I am so fortunate never to have lost a friend or relative to war. Today, though, as we remember the many who have fallen, I must honor the memory of Lewis Hutchins. “Hutch” was Dad’s best friend in the Marine Corps in which they served during WWII. If you study the headstone above you’ll see that Hutch died on February 19, 1945, just shy of his 23rd birthday.

I first posted this story in 2010. Now, four years later, this piece of history rings as true a bell of American fortitude and courage as anything with which I’ve been personally associated. I’m reposting the full story, now 69 years after the invasion on that little island, 650 important miles away from Tokyo. Even if you have read it before, read it again. Not because I wrote it, but because of the debt we owe today to those men and women who saved our country for us and reading and imagining this real account in honor of those who served, lived and died. They are dwindling in number. My dad lives on to carry on the flag. It will be raised today at 16 Aldersgate Court, in Durham, NC. Of that I am sure. And of that I am surely proud. Thank you Mom and Dad.  

     Steve, Memorial Day, May 26, 2014


FIRST PUBLISHED February 20, 2010

65 Years Ago He Was Staring at Iwo

I was upstairs last night in between a late Friday night dinner and a movie that Julie and I were about to start up. I hadn’t checked my personal email all day and did a quick scan on my iPhone. I saw the message from “Homer Riley” with an scanned attachment. 

Now, Mom and Dad live in a retirement community in Durham, NC. The whole place has been under quarantine for weeks after an outbreak of a virus hit 85 or so of the residents, including Mom and Dad. So an email from them grabbed my attention even more than usual. 

The email subject line read, in all lower case, “iwo jima”. I opened it, thinking the old marine and Iwo veteran had passed on someone else’s pass-along about that historic battle. So I opened it. Written in all caps were these words:

Corporal Homer Riley, USMC
Corporal Homer Riley, USMC

IT WAS 65 YEARS AGO, FEBRUARY 19, 1945. I WAS STANDING ON THE STARBOARD SIDE OF AN LST WHEN I FIRST OBSERVED THE SILHOUETTE OF THAT PACIFIC ISLAND KNOWN AS IWO JIMA. WE HAD COMPLETED SIXTY-FOUR DAYS SAILING THE PACIFIC SINCE DEPARTING PEARL HARBOR AND WERE ANXIOUS TO COMPLETE OUR MISSION … 

THE SCHEDULE INCLUDED CHOW DOWN AT 0300, AMPHID TRACTORS IN THE WATER AT 0600 AND FINAL RENDEZVOUS AT 0700. THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS’ FIGHTING FOURTH DIVISION WAS PREPARED TO MAKE PERMANENT FOOT PRINTS IN THE BLACK SAND OF AN AREA KNOWN AS BLUE BEACH AT 0800. THE AMPHIDS CHUGGED ALONG WITH HER PASSENGERS WHO WERE SEASONED MARINES MOST OF WHOM HAD EXPERIENCED ACTION AT ROI NAMUR, SAIPAN AND TINIAN. THIS FOUR SQUARE MILE, HEAVILY FORTIFIED ISLAND WAS OUR NEXT STEP ON THE ROAD TO TOKYO.

WE FELT FAIRLY SECURE KNOWING THAT THE AIR FORCE AND THE PACIFIC FLEET HAD BEEN BOMBARDING THE ISLAND FOR FORTY-FIVE DAYS. BASED ON THIS FACT, OUR MISSION WAS SCHEDULED TO BE COMPLETED IN SEVEN DAYS. AS WE APPROACHED THE ISLAND, ONLY A MODEST AMOUNT OF ENEMY FIRE WAS ENCOUNTERED, BUT WHEN WE TOUCHED THE BEACH ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE. 

THERE WE FOUND AN ENEMY FORTIFIED IN CONCRETE ENCASEMENTS PREPARED TO FIGHT UNTIL THE LAST MAN DIED. 

TWENY-SIX DAYS LATER THE ISLAND WAS DECLARED SECURE AND THE ENEMY HAD BEEN DEFEATED. HISTORY TELLS THE REST.

No attribution. No explanation. Just a scanned document from Dad.

I had little sense of Homer’s narrative writing style since he rarely writes more than a few paragraphs at a time, but I felt in my bones that he had written this. 

I stood in the bedroom, stuck in place, reading it over again. I was struck with the immensity of meaning lying in wait inside of each short sentence. The opening put me standing on the side of that ship in his place. I felt the incredible sense of mission and duty which he stated in such a matter of fact manner. Its poignant but clipped ending summed up the force, courage, fear, death, survival, and victory, almost as if to say, “That’s all there is to say about that.” 

Almost as if on queue, my phone rang. It was Dad. I told him that I had, at that moment, just finished reading his email. 

“Well,” he said, “Today is the 65th Anniversary of Iwo. No one has mentioned it anywhere; not on the TV, not in the papers or radio, so I just decided that I would write about it.

“There are more details that I could put in there but I decided to leave them out. It might be too much for most to read.” And then he went on to tell me more.

“One thing I remember was what the captain said that morning before the assault. ‘Men, we’re serving you steak and eggs for breakfast today. You might wonder why steak and eggs. Well, for many of you it will be your last breakfast. We want it to be a good one.’ 

“How’s that for optimism?,” Dad chuckled. 

“Dad, I can’t tell you how glad we are that it wasn’t your last breakfast,” I countered. 

“Well, I just wanted to make sure that you got it because I was getting a kickback on your email address. I tried your .mac account, then your gmail, then Julie’s.”

“I didn’t know you could scan stuff,” I said. 

“Never have, but I wasn’t sure how to get the document into the email, so I printed it and scanned it. It seemed to work.”

That’s my dad in a nutshell. When he needs to, he figures stuff out because he’s just built that way.

I told him how much I loved him and appreciated what he and his fellow soldiers did to save the world. He said, “Well, I just thought someone should write something and maybe it was my turn.” That’s a marine for you. They don’t wait around for others to act. They “do”.

We hung up. I couldn’t move. For years Dad would not raise the subject of the war. He talked only about the Corp, the unity of mission, the boot camp hard lessons learned that he’s lived by for the rest of his life. But not about the war, not until he’d been retired for a while and was given more to reflection and storytelling. That’s when I heard about his friend, Hutch, who died on Iwo, shot in a foxhole a 100 yards away from him. 

And now, he’s writing about things. And I thank God and Country for him every moment, and for the 65 years of sunrises he’s witnessed since then. Maybe it’s that appreciation of living that gets him up so early every morning. Or maybe he’s just built that way. Whatever. History tells the rest of the story. 

Then, the night that I posted this story, the phone rang. It was our Atlanta friend, Vicki Lockhart. She’d just finished reading it. She knew who Hutch was!

The Coincidence of Living and Dying

It was one word  in the very last part of the Saturday, February 20, 2010 posting about the 65th anniversary of Iwo Jima that sparked a connection that raised Dad’s remembrance of the day to a new level of “small world inside of the biggest of wars”.

That’s when I heard about Dad’s friend, Hutch, who died on Iwo, shot in his foxhole 100 yards away from him. 

I sent out the email link to my posting at 5:59 p.m. on a self-imposed deadline to get it out that day, one day after Dad reminded me of the anniversary. Julie and I were rushing to leave for a charity event in town, but I kept working the effort it takes to publish to the website in between showering and shaving. 

I verified that it was up and all square even while Julie waited with a slight amount of impatience, sent the link to my blog list of semi-subscribers/conscripted list of friends and colleagues, and off we went. 

Two hours later Julie saw that she had received a voice mail from our friend, Vicki Lockhart. Julie listened to it as we walked to the car on our way to the second event of the night, Val Ashton’s surprise birthday party. 

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “You’re not going to believe this but Vicki read your blog and says that Hutch was Dave’s uncle! We’ve got to call them.” We jumped into the car and I quickly checked my email before we pulled out. There were two from Vicki. 

7:58 p.m. Hutch is David’s Uncle (his Mom’s brother)!  His last name was Hutchins.  All the marines called him Hutch.  He died at Iwo.  His brother (another Hutchins) was on the ship as well.  He survived.  The family is from Hillsborough, NC – they had 10 children.  Betty Sue Hutchins is David’s Mom. 

7:59 p.m. David’s Dad was on USS Fayette.  They have been trying to find out what ship Hutch was on.  See if your Dad knows.

I can’t begin to describe how excited the prospect of this connection made us all. If it turned out to be true, it would make Dad’s remembrance even more special. We called the Lockharts. Vicki’s husband, Dave, got on the phone and retold the small fragment of information that has become the family lore of Hutch’s death in combat. 

Hutch and his brother were both Marines and in the attack on Iwo. All the family knew about how Hutch died was that “he got it” on Iwo. Dave couldn’t wait to call his mother to tell her. He said that we needed to get her and Dad together. 

After I got home I checked a newspaper article from Veterans Day 2008 in which Dad told of the loss of his buddy, Lewis Hutchinson, not “Hutchins”. And the article said that Hutchinson was from Durham, not  Hillsborough. Too close not to be the same young man, but still, I wasn’t completely convinced. Not yet.

With some mild feeling of disappointment I sent an email to Vicki copying the information from the article with the seeds of doubt.

Sunday morning I found more emails from Vicki. She had been working it already. 

7:44 a.m. His first name WAS Lewis – the other brother was Herbie.  At first I was writing Hutchinson as Betty Sue’s last name – then David reminded me it was Hutchins so that is an easy mistake to make.

A call to Dad erased any doubt. First, I told him that I had shared his memory in my blog and that it taken quite an interesting turn. I asked him if Hutch’s name was “Hutchinson” or “Hutchins”. Dad said that the newspaper got the name confused. His buddy was Lewis “Hutch” Hutchins. That’s when I told him about the direct link to Hutch’s family and our friends, the Lockharts. He remembered that Hutch had a little brother serving as well who was in the battle but Dad couldn’t recall his name. I asked if “Herbie” rang a bell. “Yep! That’s it all right. Herbie Hutchins.” 

“Well,” he said. “My little story has unraveled something hasn’t it.” 

“Yep, it sure has,” I replied. “Dave wants you and his mother, Hutch’s sister, Betty Sue Hutchins, to get together.”

“We’ll have to do that,” he replied. 

“I’ll let you know what develops next,” I said. “Meanwhile, check your email and read the blog.”

We hung up and I started to write this update to, as we call it at Channel 2, a developing story. 

Then, the phone rang and it was Vicki.

“You are not going to believe what I just found out!” she said. 

Shink, Joe, Hervey, Hutch & Homer

“Remember that Dave’s mother, Betty Sue, is one of ten children in the Hutchins family,” said Vicki. “She and Hutch have a sister who lives here in Atlanta and I just got off the most amazing phone call with her. Her given name is Ophelia, but everyone has always called her ‘Shink’.

“I phoned her this morning and before I could  begin to tell her about your father’s story and Hutch, she told me that she was watching Clint Eastwood’s film, ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, on AMC. She always watched anything that was about Iwo Jima because of her two brothers, Hutch and Hervey, even something from the Japanese point of view. 

“She said that watching that movie made her remember her brother, Hutch, and, are you ready for this? His best buddy in the service, Homer Riley!

“I about flipped when she said that,” Vicki exclaimed, so totally caught up in how this whole story continued wrapping around our families. “I was writing down everything Shink said on scraps of paper, napkins, anything I could find, just to keep up with her conversation. I’ll type it up shortly and send it to you, but I just had to call,” Vicki said like a full pot of coffee.

And now I was the one scribbling down everything Vicki was telling me. I was also fighting back the tears that welled up the instant she said that Shink was thinking of my father. It was like a cosmic connection between people going on without any of them knowing…until now. All that I could muster was a sobby, “You’re kidding me.”

“And,” Vicki continued, “Shink said that hearing about this old friendship so many years later was just a treasure. She repeated it, ‘Just a treasure’ as if she was saying it to herself deep in thought. She often wondered how Homer and Martha were doing. 

“Steve, Shink is just so sweet, so calm, so Southern, with so much to share,” Vicki reflected. “I just loved listening to her talk. Your dad must call her. She remembers your mom and worked with her at Duke Hospital in Durham during the war.”

From what Vicki said, Shink clearly remembered that Dad had returned to his hometown of Durham after the war to his wife and childhood sweetheart, Martha. They had married before he shipped out.

Then Vicki told her all about the story that Dad had written to recognize Iwo on its 65th anniversary and how the brief mention of Homer’s friend “Hutch” who “got it” on Iwo caught her attention, how she and Dave knew Julie and me, of our friendship over the last decade, and that I was Homer’s son. Vicki read the information from the 2008 Durham newspaper article detailing Dad’s life to Shink. 

“That’s so nice,” she told Vicki, “So nice to know that he was able to go on and live such a wonderful life, and to know that he’s still alive and well.”

She said that she had always worried that Homer would not have forgiven her for an act of a teenager. The reason boiled down to a change of heart.

“After my brothers had left for the Marines, I started dating a young man named Joe Cassidy,” Shink explained to Vicki. “Joe was from New England. He was a medic in the Marines and our paths crossed at Duke Hospital. He was very interesting. I liked him but I was too young to really know my feelings. All of those boys wanted a sweetheart or someone back home who would care. We dated until Joe shipped out to serve in the Pacific. 

“One day in the Philippines, during R&R, Joe was showing some service buddies the photograph that I had given him to carry and remember me by. Someone said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with a picture of my sister!’ Joe, who was all of five foot seven inches tall, looked up and met my brother Hutch for the first time. Hutch, a strikingly handsome fellow, 6’ 2” tall, towered over Joe and I don’t think Joe was quite sure what would happen next.

“‘Well, your sister is my girlfriend,’ Joe said. Hutch flashed that smiled that we all loved so dearly and said, ‘Well now, if you’re my sister’s boyfriend, you’re now one of my best buddies.’

“From then on, Hutch included Joe in his circle of friends and that’s how my Joe met Homer Riley,” Shink continued, reaching back into the story she had thought about so many times over the years, remembering just how small a world at war could be. “Those boys watched out for each and did everything together.”

“And that’s why Homer comes to mind when I think of Iwo. He and my brother were such good friends.”

So why would Homer harbor a grudge against Ophelia? 

“We were just kids,” she told Vicki. “Teenagers. And while Joe was overseas I broke up with him. I sent him a “Dear John” letter. I don’t think Homer appreciated the fact that I would treat his buddy that way. I still have a little charm bracelet tucked away in my jewelry box that Joe sent to me from Iwo Jima. I see it each time that I open up that box.

Lewis “Hutch” Hutchins was 19 when he signed up.  He was 6’ 2”, kind of thin and very handsome. He was known as an exceptional young man. The family expected great things of him because he was so highly regarded.  

Shink remembers him as seeming to never make a mistake. He was always caring and thoughtful. Hutch performed a lot of military service before he went into combat. He was chosen to represent the Marines in recruiting and at funerals.  

The family remembers with pride that he was one of the men raising the American flag on Saipan. He was 23 when he died on that first day on Iwo Jima.

Hervey, Hutch’s younger brother, signed up for the Marines when he was only 17. At first his father refused to sign the papers since Hervey was underage. Eventually he relented to his son’s insistence that he was going to serve with Lewis. 

So Hutch, Homer, Hervey and Joe became tight friends as they served in some of the roughest battles in the Pacific together, until Iwo took their strapping brother and brother in arms from them. 

“As the story goes, Hervey was wounded that first day on Iwo,” Shink recounted. “Recovering on a hospital ship just off of the island, the word got back to him that ‘Hutch got it.’ Hervey immediately left his ship against protocol and went back to the island to find his brother.  While he was wandering amid all of the chaos of battle looking for his brother he ran into Joe Cassidy. Joe convinced him to let the medics take care of things and that he needed to get back to the hospital ship.  Hervey’s original ship was headed back to the States with the wounded but he missed that one. He later boarded another hospital ship that stayed in the Pacific until it eventually sailed home to California. 

The Marines offered to give him a medical discharge and he refused it.  The family is not sure of any wounds but believe it was shellshock/trauma.  Hervey stayed in the Marines and was in the reserves when he died.”

This was the only account of what happened to Hutch that the family ever knew. It was all by which they were given to remember their son and brother; a lifetime boiled down to three words that have lasted 65 years. “Hutch got it.” 

It was years later, but the men reunited briefly after the war when Hutch’s remains came home to North Carolina. 

“It meant a lot to my family,” Shink remembered to Vicki, “that Homer and Martha, Joe Cassidy, and another friend in the service, Billy Dickerson, all attended the memorial service at Pleasant Green.” It meant enough for her to carry that memory for 60 some years.

I called my dad again later that Sunday afternoon and told him about Vicki’s conversation with Shink. He remembered meeting her at the funeral. He thought it sweet that she remembered him and Mom. After a quiet moment on the phone he broke the pause, “Hey, I’ve got a funny story about Hutch. We were on liberty in Honolulu, and a bunch of us went out to have lunch. The little girl at the soda shop said they had really good apple pie.

“So I ordered the apple pie a la Mode. All of the other guys said they wanted the same. Hutch was the last to order and he said, ‘I would like that apple pie too but would you add some vanilla ice cream on top of mine?’” 

I thought, what a bunch of cut ups, out for a burger in a diner in Hawaii. All just being the young men that they were. All thinking about something as American as apple pie, and laughing at a silly joke a la Mode. None knowing what was to come, but each one knowing that hell lay 45 days away from Honolulu on a seemingly insignificant island call Iwo Jima.

As Vicki suggested, Homer and Martha put in a call to Shink. Dad called me afterwards to say that he’d completed the circle. “She was very sweet,” said Dad. “We enjoyed a pleasant conversation remembering old times. 

“Hey, I just might write something else,” he said and chuckled. “That first one worked out pretty well.”