We gather today to honor the life of my father, Norman Gulley. He was born in 1933 in Benton, Illinois to Glenn and Mary Lois Gulley, and passed away 86 years later. My earliest memory of Dad occurred when I was four or five and he walked into a telephone pole at Ellis Park, cut open his forehead, and came home covered with blood. I thought he was a goner then, but he was just getting started. It’s a miracle he lived as long as he did. He smoked like a chimney for almost 70 years. Was in a coma at St. Francis Hospital, hooked up to machines for nine days. We were all there. I told my siblings Dad wouldn’t want to live that way, and suggested we pull the plugs. We voted. Everyone except me voted to give him one more day. The next day we’re gathered around his bed. Dad wakes up, looks at all of us and smiles. Glenn says, “Phil wanted to kill you, but we wouldn’t let him.” They made them tough in Benton, Illinois.
When Dad was still little, the family moved to Vincennes, where Dad was raised Baptist with his two sisters, Doris and Glenda. Dad had little interest in religion, except for a brief time back in the 1970’s, when Joe Stump was the pastor of the Danville Christian Church, and Dad joined, and even attended two or three services before he got mad about something and left, but remained on the books. Church membership is kind of like having a criminal record, it follows you the rest of your life, whether you want it to or not.
Dad was a living, breathing contradiction. Few people could befriend others so quickly, so easily, so thoroughly. We kids used to bet how long it would take Dad to start talking to a complete stranger when we were standing in line at Gray’s Cafeteria. But then he could dislike people for the slightest of reasons, usually involving politics or sports. He worshipped at the altar of Ronald Reagan and Notre Dame football, and had little patience for those who didn’t share his fondness for those institutions.
As I said, he was a man of contradictions. On the one hand, Dad was a soft touch. When we were kids and wanted money, we always asked Dad, not Mom. Later, when I moved back to Danville, it wasn’t unusual for Dad to phone me, if he knew of someone who needed a new refrigerator or a mortgage payment made, and ask me to go halves on something for someone.
I remember one day, Dad and I were sitting on the front porch at Broadway Street and saw Danville Dennis walking down Mill Street carrying a floor lamp. He’d tried to sell it to Jerry Willis, who’d told him he didn’t need a floor lamp, but that Norm Gulley did and would give him $20 for it. So here came Dennis and Dad gave him $20, then told me, after Dennis had left, to hide the lamp where Dennis would never find it, that he didn’t want to have to buy it again. I put it up in the barn at 550 Broadway, and for all I know it’s probably still there.
But that same kind man who’d buy a lamp he didn’t need could strike fear in our hearts when he would give us what we called “the mad face.” One of us would be talking about Dad being upset and another would ask, “Did he make his mad face?”
Just last month when I told him he couldn’t return to his apartment and had to go into the nursing home, he made his mad face at me. I reminded him that I was 58 years-old and wasn’t frightened by his mad face anymore. I was lying, of course. His mad face never failed to strike fear in my heart.
Dad thought being a Gulley was the highest honor life could bestow on a person. We were raised on a steady diet of Gulley greatness, stories of distant cousins who had singlehandedly saved America at critical moments in our nation’s history. The fact that most of our Gulley ancestors were beer-drinking Baptist coal miners from southern Illinois never lessened his enthusiasm for the family brand. Truth be told, the best thing that ever happened to our father wasn’t his heritage, it was our mother. She never took his pretensions too seriously, while remaining his biggest cheerleader. While Dad was the family figurehead, Mom was the engine, the driving force. Dad got the plaques and the accolades, Mom got the blisters, the proverbial good woman behind the good man. The real truth is that behind every good man is a woman rolling her eyes, and there was maybe a little of that, too.
Dad was at his best on vacation. We’d stop at Johnston’s IGA on our way out of town, where he’d stock up on Kent cigarettes and Wrigley’s Double Mint gum, as if they weren’t sold wherever it was we were headed. Our vacations always involved fishing, usually in Wisconsin or Canada, except the summer we went to Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri and ended up having to take his Baptist mother, which pretty well ruined it for everyone. His mother disapproved of fun and nearly fainted dead away when we went to a carnival and my sister smiled at the carnie running the Ferris Wheel. The next day we headed home and Dad’s mom, her mouth twitching in disapproval, read aloud from the book of Leviticus from Missouri to Vincennes, all 340 miles. At least that’s how I remember it.
Dad was a good man, but not a perfect one. Like all of us, he had his broken places. The thing is, most of us are able to hide our imperfections and consequently feel morally superior to those persons whose flaws are more visible. Dad wasn’t very adept at keeping his brokenness hidden from view. Nevertheless, those who knew Dad best were well acquainted with his faults, but still loved him. How wonderful it is when we can be loved in spite of our imperfections.
He was intensely proud of us, his five children. And even more proud of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes he had difficulty conveying that, but I think that was a generational issue, not a heart issue. Men of his generation didn’t say “I love you,” or “I’m proud of you” like fathers do today.
I think Dad just assumed we knew he was proud of us, so seldom felt the need to say it aloud. After Dad died I got an email from a man in Danville who said, “I never saw your Dad that he didn’t brag on one of you kids.”
The pride ran both directions. We were proud of Dad. When we were kids, everyone in town knew Dad and most liked him. I got in the habit of introducing myself as “Phil Gulley, Norm Gulley’s son,” something I still do. We were proud that when he was the town board president he fought tooth and nail to get the town employees health care benefits and higher pay. It bothered him that someone could work for the town their entire career and have so little to show for it. We were proud that he brought the symphony to the park. We were proud that he treated the poor people in our town with the same dignity he treated the rich people, and took their concerns just as seriously. Our father was not a perfect man, but he was a good man.
So on this day we consider our legacy. We are the flawed children of a flawed man. He did the best he could, and urged us to do the best we could. While it is true none of us were as heroic as our distant cousins who’d singlehandedly saved America at critical moments in our nation’s history, our dad loved us just the same, which we knew then, and know now. He was horrible with money, so left us no wealth, no fortune. He left us only the example of his imperfect life, in whose gravel we often spied a shining flake of gold.