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To the Giant Who Inspired Me

by Nate Gagon

April 28, 2017

I can’t recall when I’d last cried before Grandpa Calvin’s funeral two days ago.

And cried like that? On and off for almost two hours, the tears springing from a place so deep that at times my whole body shook? Throughout my 34 years, I could count the times I’ve cried like that on one hand.

What was it about the occasion that brought out such emotion in me?

I don’t think it had much to do with sadness. The pain of losing my hero had been a long, slow burn, as Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s disease had been progressively getting worse for several years before he died. There wasn’t the element of sudden tragedy or not getting to say goodbye that bring tears of wrenching pain and sadness at some funerals. Yes, it made me feel sad to see Grandpa’s body lying lifeless in a casket, but in that regard, I felt more happiness than sadness knowing that he was no longer suffering from his mortal disease.

And that happiness may have played a part in my tears. As beautiful music was performed in his honor, and priceless words were spoken about him at his funeral, I imagined Grandpa Calvin there in spirit, listening and smiling in his humble way and feeling the love so many have for him.

But more than that, and more than anything else, I think my tears were about gratitude.

As I’ve looked back at my life and those rare precious times when I’ve cried like I did at Grandpa Calvin’s funeral, I’ve realized that every time I’ve been overcome by emotion like that it was caused by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Every time, it was because of a gift that I had been given. And every time, it was a gift that had nothing to do with money, career success, or the things of our temporal world.

Grandpa Calvin had given me a gift. He had given it so subtly, so humbly, so consistently, and in such regular doses over so many years, that its full impact didn’t hit me until his funeral.

He had given me powerful, pure, and unconditional love from the day I was born. He made me feel special. He showed me how a true man lives. He taught me what really matters. Through him I learned and felt and saw the true definition of wealth – of everlasting treasure forever sealed and protected from moth, rust, thieves and the effects of time.

Grandpa Calvin lived for 83 years. Like me, he had seven siblings. He had eight children and at the time of his passing had 67 grandchildren and 38 great-grandchildren. He often said he was the richest man on earth because of his family. And those weren’t pretty words to print on a poster and hang on a wall. It was how he truly felt and it showed in everything he did. I’ve seen that belief and legacy passed on through my mother and many others in their family.

As we stood at the grave site a little while after the funeral, I leaned down and whispered in the ear of my nine-year-old son: “I want you to always remember this day, and remember why you got your name, and try to live and love people the way Grandpa Calvin did.”

My son’s name is Calvin, of course.

Even as I whispered these words to my son, and even as he answered “Okay, I will,” in reply, I knew I was asking something truly great of him – something I feel certain I will never accomplish myself.

But Grandpa Calvin inspires me to do better, and to reach, and to try, and to get up when I fall, and to be the best that I, Nate Gagon, can be in my own way.

Much of the music in my musical, A Father’s Day, was inspired by my grandfather – some of it directly and some indirectly. Certainly, he was the very embodiment of the show’s overarching message that love is the most powerful resource we have in the world and that nothing creates love in the world like families.

The final song in A Father’s Day, “I’d Choose This Again,” was written for my grandparents’ 50th anniversary party and was a tribute to each of them individually and to what they were and created together (one of Grandpa Calvin’s greatest achievements, by the way, was marrying Patricia Bitter – in every way his equal and, no doubt he would say, his superior).

The song that plays after the show during the bows, called “The Richest Man in the Universe,” was inspired by Grandpa Calvin, with lyrics that begin:

  • If you’re talkin’ ’bout my car it’s not a Rolls or a Benz
  • If you’re talkin’ ’bout my clothes I don’t follow the trends
  • If you’re talkin’ ’bout money I don’t have a wealthy amount
  • But if you’re talkin’ ’bout happiness and love and all that stuff that really counts
  • Well then I’m the richest man in the universe
  • Well then I’m the richest man in the universe
  • Got everything I want got everything I need
  • Laughter and hugs from my family
  • Well then I’m the richest man in the universe

I am grateful for Grandpa Calvin. I think that if the world understood greatness, his passing would have made headlines across the world. He was a giant of a man, unique even among good men. I believe in the lessons he taught and in the love he shared with all who knew him. I am humbled by the thought that as a member of his family I have a responsibility to carry on his legacy by showing that his lessons and love live on in me and making sure they continue on through my children and their children for generations to come.

One person can indeed make a difference in the world.

“Who does Grandpa love?” he would always ask.

But, Grandpa, there was never a need to ask. We always knew.

And with this, Grandpa Calvin, I dedicate my musical, A Father’s Day, to your memory and your legacy. My sincere hope is that it inspires the same kinds of things that you did – laughter, gratitude, love, a belief in the value of family, and a desire to be a little bit better.

I will do my best to make it a show you would be proud of.

In the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Harry Bailey offers a toast at the end to George, with the words: “To my big brother, George, the richest man in town.”

Similarly, I say goodbye for now to a giant of a man named Calvin Birch, who truly touched my life for good, with a toast in spirit: To my amazing Grandpa Calvin, the richest man in the universe.

Thank you for your priceless gift.

I love you. And I will never forget you.


My Family with Grandpa and Grandma 23 days before Grandpa Calvin passed away

83-yr-old Grandpa Calvin with 9-yr-old Calvin

Grandpa Calvin and Grandma Patricia

Just about the entire crew (a few grandkids were gone on missions)

Grandpa Calvin still having fun for as long as he could

Grandpa Calvin’s obituary