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From the time he could walk, Billy Grant was working in the fields. By the age of eight, Billy recalls working his own team of horses. By age 12 he was running three teams — horses and two span of mules. What he learned on the farm, and passed on to this three daughters, was respect for an honest day’s work and the person who produced it. In Billy Grant’s world a handshake was a contract, a dollar hard won, personal integrity a matter of honor.
Long after the stock market crash of 1929 life in America remained tenuous. Most Americans of that era were in financial distress, millions were unemployed. Rural America, where most people lived and worked, was similarly afflicted — but with a twist. For unlike city dwellers, who often had to resort to soup kitchens for food, those living on America’s farms knew where their next meal was coming from: their own work, initiative and commitment to the land.
Listen To Billy Grant’s Inspiring Story
Spoken By Robert Butche
By the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as President in January of 1933, millions of Americans found themselves relegated to standing in lines for handouts at soup kitchens. According to Washington’s New Dealers, by the summer of 1935 America was on the move again. Few Americans understood, then as now, that the nation’s banks had egregiously bet depositor monies on the stock market, leaving the nation in desperate need of money after the crash. What people did understand was that money was scarce, jobs gone, and survival uncertain.
1930s America suffered largely in silence, its values intact from one generation to the next, but its outlook turned defensive. What’s different between that era and today is to some degree complicated by advances in communication and economic sophistication. 1930s America was a time when people felt themselves builders of their nation, not consumers of it, as is too often the case today.
There are Americans from that era still living. One of them, Billy Grant, was an invited guest at Newsroom Magazine’s 2012 Gathering Of Eagles event honoring C. Gordon Shaffer’s WW II contribution to his nation, and subsequent imprisonment in a German Prisoner Of War camp.
Those who lived in the America before 1980 will find Mr. Grant a very familiar character. Those who have only heard stories about some ethereal or magical America will find his story central to understanding the culture and values that helped to make America powerful, successful, principled and trustworthy.
Billy Grant’s story begins in the fall of 1935, 272 miles west of the Washington Mall, in rural West Virginia.
The Appalachian hill country that spanned the lands west of the Appalachian mountains from Wheeling to Portsmouth, Ohio and eastern Kentucky was economically poor. Shortly after the turn of the century, on rural route one south and west of Winfield, West Virginia, along route 34, perhaps two miles south of the Kanawha, Mervin Allen Grant and his new wife Vonda Irene Washington shared ownership in a large hillside farm ( little or no level ground ) with other family members. Life on the farm was always hard, then came the depression and hardships new to the generation raised in the expansion of the 1920s.
Thanks for giving me your example to follow . . .
Thanks for giving me such warm memories to look back on . . .
and thanks for giving me so much care and love.
November 21, 2012
The summer of 1935 was miserably hot, but with tobacco paying as much as $1 a pound, there was anticipation for a substantial cash income that fall. In November, once the nights turned cold, usually just before Thanksgiving, the Grant family shared in the slaughter of four hogs and a head of beef. Altogether, eight hams hung in the smokehouse that fall for slow hickory smoking that would preserve the meat through the following summer. Those who would share in the bounty included Mervin Grant’s parents, William and Josephine Grant, and Vonda Grant’s parents Oscar and Iva Washington who operated their family farm, known as Washington Hill farm, little more than a mile to the north.
Before World War II most farms, prosperous or not, had no electric power, no running water and no refrigeration. On the Grant farm, where cows provided plentiful milk, each day’s milk production was collected in large milk buckets that had to be lugged outside, tied with well-rope and lowered as much as 20 feet below ground into the household water well. It wasn’t perfect, especially in the heat of summer, but daily milkings provided butter, cream and fresh milk year-round.
Hillside farms throughout Appalachia were suitable to grazing stock — especially cows and sheep. For everyone, the work day began at sunup and ended at sundown — seven days a week. Mervin Grant was more than a farmer for he served as tax preparer for other farmers. He even worked in politics all his life, himself running for Putnam county commissioner with the help of his eldest son Billy.
I think of you often, and always with love.
I think about how hard you work and how much you do for the family.
I remember things you’ve taught me and times you’ve encouraged me, and I see how your wisdom and caring have helped shape my life.
I look back on favorite memories that remind me how much we’ve always meant to each other, and always will . . .
There are many times when I think of you, Dad, and feel proud and thankful and very lucky you’re my father.
You are so very important in my dedication and desire to succeed in all that I do in my life.
November 21, 2012
The Grant farm also raised corn, oats, wheat and tobacco. Unlike the grains, tobacco required a federal planting allotment. It was also a labor intensive crop that required bed burning, planting, replanting atop the hill, hand topping, and suckering during the growing season. Once cut each leaf was taken down to the barn where it was carefully hung for drying. According to Grant, once dry, tobacco leaves could only be handled on cool foggy mornings when they could be carefully taken down and loaded onto a truck for transport to the tobacco market in Huntington.
In good years the Grant farm’s tobacco crop could produce as much as $5000 ( $80,860 2012 dollars ) making it worth the time, effort and manual labor required to grow and harvest the crop. Just after Thanksgiving that fall, on November 21st, Vonda Irene Washington Grant delivered her first child at home. He was named Billy Grant in honor of his paternal grandfather, William.
From the time he could walk, Billy Grant was working in the fields. By the age of eight, he recalls, he was working his own team of horses. By sixteen he was running three teams — horses and two span of mules. What he learned on the farm, and passed on to this three daughters, was respect for an honest day’s work and the person who produced it. In Billy Grant’s world a handshake was a contract, a dollar hard won, doing the job right a personal commitment, integrity a matter of honor.
By 1952 Billy Grant had seven more siblings, Ima, Shirley, Jimmy, Carolyn, Diane, Debby and Patty. Being the eldest carried responsibility. Billy had to produce. And constantly learn new skills. By the time he was 20, Grant had added carpentry and construction skills to his tool-chest. As a teenager, Grant even made a deal with the Rural Route One mail carrier to deliver mail to patrons near Sugarcreek along what is now known as Harmon Branch Road.
In the world Billy Grant grew up in it was not necessary to lock one’s doors, or to be skeptical of other people’s intentions. Like others of his generation Billy did business on a handshake, gave full value in his dealings with others, and behaved as a responsible, trustworthy adult.
When Billy was 20, in 1955, his father offered to buy him a new 1955 Chevrolet. “I didn’t agree to it,” Billy remembers today. The car was a nice gift for nearly two decades of hard work, but Billy had other ideas. What his father gave him that he most treasured was self-respect, clear thinking and self confidence. And a large measure of independence.
I want you to know that, in my heart, you’re always with me. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about you, care about you, and wish good things for you.
Not a day goes by when I don’t remember how lucky I am to have a loving father like you.
November 21, 2012
Billy declined his father’s gift, choosing instead to drive his dad’s pickup truck to Huntington to buy himself a 1949 Ford. Grant was then, and remains today, a Ford man.
At age 20 he moved up to a 1953 Ford — perfect for a single man setting out to discover the world beyond West Virginia. Soon thereafter, Billy Grant set out to pursue his own dream. He decided to leave West Virginia in 1956 to find opportunity and a new life.
Billy set out along route 35 in search of adventure and opportunity crossing the Ohio River at Gallipolis. When he arrived in Columbus he decided he had gone far enough. Knowing no one, and absent a plan beyond finding his own way in life, Billy Grant sought work in August of 1956. He found work, on the 15th, when he was hired in at Saint Joseph’s cemetery six miles south of Columbus.
What earned Billy his job were his skills, principally small engine maintenance. What kept him employed were his work ethic and life enriching values inculcated at his father’s side from the time he began to walk.
Eight years passed before Grant moved up from laborer to foreman. Life was looking up. He was secure and independent. His life, whatever he was to make of it, was for him to define — and earn. In 1972 he married Mary Jane Rettemnier, mother of his youngest daughters Annette and Tammy.
Little more than eight years after arriving in Columbus, a management opportunity surfaced at a developing cemetery on Columbus’ east side, Forest Lawn, across the street from where Mount Carmel East hospital stands today. Billy, a manager in the making, was ready for the challenge.
Billy did all the hiring, and, thanks to making good choices, only one firing. He worked along side his crews, year in and year out. He asked no one to do something he was not willing to do. Grant served as superintendent at Forest Lawn for 38 years before taking retirement in March, 2002. In his work life, as his family life, Billy was immensely successful.
One doesn’t often hear the words responsible or adult today — at least not together. But Billy Grant surely did at his father’s side. Throughout his life, driven by his own compass and will to succeed, Billy Grant made himself a responsible adult. As did millions of other Americans for whom being honest and accountable defined them as surely as it did their nation.
So next time someone wonders where all the great Americans have gone, tell them they’re still around us every day. Some are young, many are not — but whatever their age or heritage each of them are part of what enables America the Beautiful to radiate its love of freedom from sea to shining sea.
And tell them about others, men like Grant’s long time friend Lloyd Hinkle, equally a man of character and honor born of hard work and independence.
And Billy Grant — a living example of American life — someone who made himself successful at the Business of Life, someone who stands for and lives by American values.
An honorable man who still consummates agreement with a handshake, and lives a life of trust, sharing, personal responsibility, and accountability in all that he says and does.