My grandfather, Richard Wallace Klau, died tonight. My Dad’s been with Grandma and Grandpa for the last week, and I got the news a few hours ago that he’d finally lost his battle with the infection that the doctors couldn’t get a handle on. He was 79 years old, and was approaching his 60th wedding anniversary this summer.
I grew up in a small family – it’s just my brother and me, Mom and Dad both have just one younger brother (Mom’s older brother was killed when she was young), and I have 3 cousins. I was fortunate to grow up with both sets of grandparents, though we lost my Mom’s parents within a few months of each other in 1991 and 1992 while I was studying abroad.
So it’s been a long time since I’ve lost a close member of the family. I feel the urge to tell you about this man who just left, this man who raised two wildly successful sons, watched as four grandchildren grew up, and got to meet all five of his great-grandchildren. You probably never met him, but I hope to help you understand what a great man he was.
I’m aided in this, interestingly enough, by my Grandpa himself. For my birthday a couple years ago, he and Grandma filled out memory books that Robin sent them. I will not share its entirety with you, but there are several passages that stand out. It is a wonderful gift – both from my wife and from my Grandfather – that I’m able to flip these pages tonight. They’re helping tremendously as I reflect on the 35 years I knew this man and contemplate his death.
Grandpa grew up in Milwaukee. As a kid, Greenfield Park was a favorite hangout, and he played baseball in the summer and skated in the winter at Washington Park. He skipped the sixth grade (which, he admits, may have been in part influenced by the fact that my Great-Grandfather was on the Milwaukee School Board.) At 13, his first date was with Audrey Schmidt – at a dance at Cudworth Post (the American Legion Hall in Milwaukee). Performers at this dance? None other than Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra. Talk about a good first date! (Grandpa’s brush with fame didn’t stop there, by the way. During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard, and was stationed in Brooklyn, NY. His watch commander? Alan Hale, Jr. Yes, that Alan Hale.)
Grandpa and Grandma had their first date in September of 1946 and married in July of 1947. From his journal to me:
When we were going together, I worked part-time at the Boulevard Inn, a very nice restaurant about a block from where Grandma lived. On the nights I worked until 9pm, if any “mistakes” were made in the kitchen (someone ordered lobster and then changed their minds), I would bring the “mistakes” to Grandma’s Dad. Boy was I popular. Normally he’d be in bed by 9 but on the nights I worked and was coming over, he’d stay up to 10 or later. What a guy.
One thing I’ve always loved about Grandpa is that he took risks at a time when it was almost unheard of. Married 5 years, and with their entire extended family living within a few miles of each other in Milwaukee, he moved the family to California to make it on their own. They spent two years trying to make it work in California, and when it didn’t, moved back to Milwaukee. Just a few months later, Grandpa took the exam for a Government Printing Office position in DC. He got the job, and Grandma, Dad and Uncle Chris followed him out once school was up in June. They remained in Maryland for 30 years.
My first memories of visiting Grandpa are in his house in Edgewater, Maryland. Vivid for me (I was 9 or 10) was the finished basement (he had a bar! In his house!), the saloon-like doors going into their kitchen (as a parent, I have newfound admiration for the Herculean patience they must have had to put up with my brother and I endlessly pushing the doors open and shut, open and shut), and his laser disc player. Yep, I come by my gadget lust honestly: my Grandfather, hardly a man who would consider himself wealthy in the early 80s, had a laser disc player. Kelly’s Heroes has to be one of the first “grown-up” movies I ever got to see, and it was at his house. I like to think that in addition to the affection for gadgets, I inherited Grandpa’s fascination with film.
Grandpa and Grandma moved to a house on the Chesapeake Bay in ’83. I had a number of great visits to that house – how could you not love a Grandfather with a boat?! – but the highlight had to be the summer of ’86 when I spent almost a full month alone with Grandma and Grandpa. I ate more crabs, watched more movies, and slept later than I thought possible. Seriously: look at that picture: tell me those two guys aren’t deliriously happy.
After the GPO, Grandpa worked for a long time as a civilian in the printing office of the US Air Force. I always loved the plaques that hung on his “Ego Wall” (his words!) – the drawing of the SR-71 flying over the Pentagon was a favorite – and his retirement ceremony was, in the words of one of the Colonels who attended, one of the nicest ceremonies ever given for a civilian. He took pride in his work, and it showed.
In June of 1992, Grandpa had “had enough of the cold weather so we packed up and moved to Florida. Except for missing the family, that was a good decision.” The next sentence in the journal cracks me up every time I read it. You have to understand: when he did this, his handwriting was a little shaky. So he and Grandma collaborated – he spoke the answers and Grandma wrote down what he said. “Grandma was a good sport and supported me in all my decisions.” What do you want to bet there was some interesting body language accompanying that transcription?!
Of being a parent, Grandpa had some great memories to share of my Dad. Proving that I come by my own big-picture focus honestly, Grandpa relays this great anecdote:
I took Ricky [that’s my Dad] fishing one day while Grandma was at work. Never dawned on me to take a lunch, so when I bought bait I also picked up some candy bars. That’s all we had to eat all day. Grandma was not happy when she heard that. [Don’t you love that Grandma was writing this all down?]
The weekend we got married, Grandpa repeatedly pulled Robin aside. “Promise me you’ll name your first child Richard,” he would implore. This happened at least a half dozen times: at the rehearsal dinner, at the wedding reception, at the brunch the day after the wedding. It was critically important to him that we name our son Richard. When we were lucky enough to get pregnant with Ricky, Robin insisted on getting an ultrasound to find out whether we were having a boy or girl. I thought it was because Robin really wanted to know… but it was (so she claims) so we could let Grandpa know that we were going to live up to our promise. Ricky was born in 2000, bringing a 5th Richard Klau into the world. And for 7 years, 4 of the 5 generations were with us. That’s pretty damned cool, and it was clear that becoming a Great-Grandfather meant a lot to him.
As my own family has grown, it’s become increasingly difficult to get down to Florida to see Grandma and Grandpa. Yet we had some great visits: in 2001, with Ricky nearly a year old, we got to spend a couple days at their house in Lakeport Square. In 2003, with Ricky now nearing 3 and Robby almost a year, we went to Disney World and Grandma and Grandpa came down for a weekend. They babysat Robby while we took Ricky on his first Disney visit. In 2005, my Mom & Dad, my brother and his family, and we all went to Disney, and spent an afternoon at Grandma and Grandpa’s. And last year, Grandma and Grandpa headed north to see my cousin Lauren graduate from college (where they also got to meet their fifth great-grandchild, my daughter Becca). We last spoke a couple weeks ago, as I shared the stories of his great-grandsons’ birthday parties. Ricky’s Star Wars birthday party excited him to no end.
I will remember Grandpa for the immense pride he took in his successful sons. I will always envy him for the love he shared with Grandma. They were married just a couple months shy of 60 years. That’s amazing. I will always strive to live up to the example he set of always working to provide for his family, even when it wasn’t easy.
Grandma and Grandpa’s song was I’ll See You in My Dreams, a popular song in the 20s and 30s. Grandpa told me that every night before going to bed, he would say “I’ll see you in my dreams” to Grandma, and I have to imagine that not hearing it tonight is absolutely brutal for Grandma. But the remainder of the chorus seems appropriate:
I’ll see you in my dreams, Hold you in my dreams;, Someone took you out of my arms, Still I feel the thrill of your charms!
Good night, Grandpa. We miss you already, but we will always feel the thrill of your charms. We love you. We will see you in our dreams.