A Tribute to My Father-in-Law

Walking is a great help when you’re in the midst of a hard situation, especially when it involves the death of a loved one. I walked close to 25 miles this past weekend in Nashville.

My beloved father-in-law Russell Oldfield Jr. passed away this March at the age of 91. Russ was a chemist by profession and he was well versed in biology and the need for physical activity. Right up until his last years, he walked with his dog Paris several times a day on the local track below his house. Paris was not always on her best behavior so you would often hear deep throated shouts of “Paris come!” as Russ and Paris made their rounds.

Though my in-laws lived in Nashville, Russ and Jean (my mother-law) had a camp up in Northern Wisconsin where my father-in-law had grown up. In the years following the sale of his company, Russ spent many weeks of retirement at the camp. When we lived in Minneapolis, we would go over to visit Russ and Jean whenever they were up north. Once we moved to Bristol and had our own children, Carolyn and I would make the 24 hour journey to Wisconsin each summer. I spent a good deal of time with Russ. I would help him, or try to help him, work on trails, cut firewood, split firewood and clean weeds from dock areas. Russ was a very active person and a skilled handy man and I appreciated the opportunity to accompany him as he undertook these chores.

Russ was a big bird hunter and in his 60’s and 70’s, he thought nothing of walking 12 miles through beaver swamps to get to the grouse. I remember arriving at the cabin one evening and settling in with our family and Jean. Russ strode in with his setter just as it was getting dark and Jean asked him where his hunting companion from Nashville was. Russ indicated that his friend (I can’t remember his name) was still in the car. Minutes later the cabin door opened and Russ’s companion gingerly stumbled in, barely able to walk. Apparently, the two of them had spent the entire day making their way through heavy woodland brush. The man was exhausted. Russ looked as though he was ready to continue on.

We just had Russ’s memorial service in Nashville this past Saturday. COVID times required us to have a small group. My wife, Carolyn, worked hard on a beautiful and moving story about the summer where, in her adolescence, she spent time with her dad growing tomatoes on a piece of property in the country outside of Nashville. I wanted to say a few words when she finished talking, but I just started crying. Then I managed to tell a brief story about the friendship that Russ had with the man who ran the local trash and recycling center in Wisconsin.

Billy was the man’s name and Billy had an intellectual disability. His main job in the community was to oversee the center and he took this job very seriously making sure that trash and recycling items were separated and properly bagged. Russ, a man who was very successful in business and at about everything he did, enjoyed talking with Billy. Russ treated Billy as an equal and they shared stories about how their days went and they talked about community news. There was never any condescending on Russ’s part. He just enjoyed going to see Billy.

In my experience, this is not a common occurrence, where a man who thrived and was well respected in the business world, took the opportunity to share conversation with someone who had never come close to that world. Russ reminded me of my dad, another successful businessman, who always took the time to converse with people regardless of their social status or their income level or ability. In the end, this was something I most appreciated about Russ, the fact that he never got up on a high horse, that he thoroughly enjoyed talking and sharing stories with all manner of people. As we walked out of the memorial service I told my niece that not many people considered to be “successful” would enjoy conversations with a man with a differing ability at the town trash center. Russ embodied a high ideal for me. He loved life, he loved physical activity and the outdoors, he loved to work hard, he loved stories and he loved his family. Yet for all of these laudable traits, his ability to treat someone with a differing ability as an individual, as someone worthy of respect, was what made Russ the man he was in my eyes.

So why do I write this blog about Russ? How does it relate to what we are doing at River’s Way? It’s important to get back to everyday ordinary time and walking allows us to do that. What mattered most to me about my relationship with Russ was the ordinary time that we spent together where there was no attempt at being anything more than appreciative and hard-working people who shared a sense of humor. There are many big challenges that we face on this earth, challenges over which we have little or no control. But we do have control about how we spend our time in the everyday moments. Even though he was an extremely talented man, Russ embodied this simple approach to life and it extended to his relationships with people including Billy. I am convinced that when we walk, when we interact with people with differing abilities, when we do our daily household tasks, when we admire the flowers, birds and trees, it’s then that we are at our best. That is what I loved about being with Russ. That is what I love about walking. And that is what will enable us to come closer to creating a better world.

Written by Tom Hanlon - Executive Director