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Living by example

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By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

 

Esther was born a child of the Great Depression in the most rural of rural South Dakota.  She went to school in a horse-drawn wagon, learning to speak English when the native German language of the area went out of favor prior to World War II.  She grew up in a family of 10 children.  They weren’t rich but there was no one much better off to tell them they were poor.  

Bruce was born two years later.  In the grip of the Depression, his father did what he had to do.  At one point that meant moving his family to a town few have ever heard of to work at what would become the Black Hills Ordnance Depot in Igloo, South Dakota.  Early on, civilian housing wasn’t the best in Igloo but the rent was cheap at about $12 per month, and the community had amenities that were somewhat rare among small towns in South Dakota, things such as electric stoves and water heaters.  Before the war ended, Bruce returned to his hometown of Claremont on the other side of the state.

EstherBruceWedding
Photo courtesy of Pamela Traphagen
Bruce and Esther on their wedding day in 1954. I am blessed to be, at least in part, living my Dad’s somedays.
He was a football star.  Well, at least his team was.  The Claremont Honkers six-man football team set a national record winning 61 consecutive games.  Claremont is not even on a highway — the school never had more than 50 students.  The building is long gone but the record stands in South Dakota.

Bruce and Esther met while attending Northern State College in nearby Aberdeen.  He would sit behind her at basketball games.  He invited her to the Claremont High School prom.  In places such as Claremont, the entire town would attend the prom and Bruce was an alumni.  His father, George, one of the smartest men I have ever known, was the school janitor.  Being a special event, Esther wanted to dress up.  Bruce convinced her that, despite her misgivings, she could certainly wear her hoop skirt on the train for the 20-mile ride from Aberdeen.  It turned out that wasn’t his best idea.  Today, the trauma she felt trying to smash into a train seat is a happy memory at which she laughs and smiles.

Like many young men from small towns, Bruce heard the call to serve his country.  He joined the United States Navy and discovered that Chicago was a very long way in every sense from Claremont.  Within a few weeks, he developed a shoulder injury.  The Navy doctors told him that he could either have surgery that may leave him physically impaired or he could accept a medical discharge.  He chose the latter, returned to Northern State College, and never again had problems with his shoulder.  

Esther and Bruce married shortly after he returned to Claremont.  The family quickly grew to three children but they had dreams that went beyond the close confines of the small town.  With a fourth child on the way, Bruce quit his job teaching at his alma mater, and together, he and Esther packed up their lives to move west, leaving behind their parents, siblings and a $1,500 home mortgage.

The fourth child was born in Washington on Thanksgiving Day.  Esther’s doctor had to be called in from duck hunting to do the delivery and Bruce cooked Thanksgiving dinner for the other three children.  After that, it wasn’t long before Bruce and Esther decided to return home to South Dakota.  

Bruce went to work earning his master’s degree at South Dakota State University and the young family struggled financially while they looked towards better days. They were poor but the children, at least, didn’t know anyone better off to tell them that.  No one thought it odd that the new baby slept in a dresser drawer instead of a crib.

Bruce earned his graduate degree and his career rose rapidly.  He went from teaching to becoming a school principal to taking a promising position at a college.  He and Esther still had dreams.  Maybe someday they would go to New Guinea to help people.  Maybe someday Bruce would walk away from the increasing stress of his increasingly important jobs to start a small business, or even to write for the local newspaper. Someday.

Someday ended for Bruce in May 1978.  He was 43 years old.  

Children generally don’t notice a love story between their parents, but the love between Bruce and Esther must have been extraordinary.  Esther never found a man to replace him.  Today she has her children, grandchildren, memories and a few of what singer Jimmy Buffett described as “false echoes” on the radar of her mind — but only a few.

Over the course of their years, Esther and Bruce touched hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. He at the college and she as a teacher for special needs children. Their oldest son followed their footsteps to become a teacher. Their youngest daughter followed their inspiration and became a social worker, helping people who have difficulty helping themselves. Their oldest daughter recently retired from a career in business.  She is a talented artist — something Bruce encouraged her to be.  She is now taking him up on that encouragement with both color and words. Bruce and Esther’s fourth child, the one born during an adventure out west, has been blessed to have inherited the spirit of their adventure and is living the life of Bruce’s dreams with a love of sailing — and with finding contentment in simply writing these words for the local newspaper.  I am blessed to be living Bruce’s “someday.”

The Claremont school is gone, only the floor of the gymnasium remains in the town that is not even on a highway.  Passenger trains no longer run between Aberdeen and Claremont, or in any town in South Dakota. The Navy did not forget Bruce.  At his funeral, they presented Esther with a U.S. Flag in recognition of his service, despite that it lasted only a few weeks.

So much has changed in such a short time.  At the time of his death at 43, my Dad seemed so much older and wiser than I am now at 47.  My faith in God tells me that there was a reason my Dad left at such a young age. With all due respect to Mr. Shakespeare, I don’t believe we are merely players on the world’s stage.  But I do know that we are only here for a short time.  The lesson from my father is that my time should not be spent with my face twisted in anger and my voice hoarse from shouting.  Nothing is gained by living in the negative.  Another Englishman, Charles Dickens once wrote that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Despite what others may say, I know these are not the worst of times.

My Dad passed away when I was 15-years-old.  Even as an addlebrained, rebellious adolescent, I never doubted that he knew everything. He was the smartest man I have ever known. He was also gentle, funny and compassionate, like his father. Years ago bracelets bearing the acronym WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) were in fashion.  I often think that question to myself in life decisions.  But I also wonder WWBD.  What Would Bruce Do?   

I forget sometimes but what Bruce would do is the right thing — not as a player on the stage but as a good and caring person.  The world has changed but the ideals of human decency have not. Bruce and Esther’s dreams did not come true in the ways in which they envisioned.  Seeing my family, knowing the lives they have touched, I know their dreams came true bigger than they could ever have imagined. Perhaps more importantly, they made dreams come true for others — for their children and for thousands of other people.  When somedays end, you can’t do much better than that.

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