by President Barton D. Darrell ’84
This story first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Kentucky Wesleyan Magazine.
To view the full magazine, click here.
My maternal grandfather, Dr. C. E. Peeples, was a United Methodist minister and the president of Lon Morris College, a United Methodist institution in Jacksonville, Texas, for over 35 years. He was a Southern Methodist University graduate and was named its “Outstanding Alumnus” in 1993. I was born in Jacksonville while he was president. As a little kid, I used to hang out with him on campus. I clearly remember going to his office when I was about five years old to visit with him and his assistant, Belle. She was a wonderful, high- energy woman who always treated me like I was someone special, just like my grandfather did.
One of my most prized possessions is a picture of me in my grandfather’s lap as he read to me. The picture is in my office and always will be. I was about four years old. I was asked to write this short piece to share what I learned from my grandfather. While there is no way I can share everything, and there is no way I can actually do the things at his level that I learned from him, I will do my best.
The example he set for everyone was the importance of optimism, and that trait may be what I most try to emulate. I have yet to meet a more positive and optimistic person than my grandfather. He had an infectious smile and shared it with everyone. He never saw any obstacle as insurmountable, and he saw opportunity for greatness in virtually every situation. It was difficult to be around him and not feel the same way. I do not recall him being in a bad mood. Certainly he was from time-to-time, but he never let others see it. He did not believe a negative person could lead. My grandfather was always upbeat and wanted others to be the same way. He believed no organization could be great if it wasn’t made up of people with positive attitudes who showed it in all they did.
He treated everyone on campus and in his life as important, interesting, worthy and of equal value. That didn’t stand out to me until I was older and realized that not everyone treated others that way. As a five-year-old, I couldn’t have told you who was the chair of the college’s board of trustees, or who was the student worker in the library. He treated them equally, making no distinction based on their roles at the college, social status, gender, comparative wealth, race, or any other human characteristic or condition. He was always so interested in knowing every person he met and wanted to make sure they knew he was interested and felt they were special.
My grandfather was competitive. He played college football and sang in the college choir. I remember him singing in church, and I am certain that his college choir was NOT the equivalent of the Wesleyan Singers. He was a terrible singer but sang with passion and commitment. I inherited his inability to sing, but I did not follow his example of singing loudly without regard to talent. I actually think this is the one thing he could have learned from me. But he was competitive in everything he did. He probably set the example for me that is now the third component of The Wesleyan Way. He competed, but did so with the highest level of integrity.
He never took advantage of anyone, but he certainly did not mind winning and succeeding in head-to-head competition. But he did it right.
He could work a room as well as anyone I have ever seen. He would know something about every person he met, and he would know it quickly; where they were from, who their family members were, where they went to church, what they had studied in college, etc. The conversation was about them, not because he wanted to manipulate the conversation, but because he loved people and was interested in every person he met.
My grandfather was loyal. He was loyal to his church. He was loyal to his schools. He was loyal to my grandmother. He was loyal to his friends. He was loyal to his children. He was loyal to his grandchildren – including this one. I doubt he ever lost a friend. We all have those few persons in our lives we can call at 2 o’clock in the morning. I would bet he was on that short list for almost every friend he had.
My grandfather’s foundation was his faith. He did not demand or expect everyone to believe in God in the exact way he did. He was tolerant. He met people where they were and accepted people as they were. He never wavered from his belief that we are all created for purposes far beyond ourselves and that every day is an opportunity to grow closer to God and an opportunity to become more effective in helping others improve their own lives.
He never went to work without wearing a suit. I never saw him at his office without his jacket. His idea of casual was taking off his suit coat while sitting in a chair at home reading the newspaper. In my 25-plus years in the practice of law, I never came to work during the week without a suit and tie, and I haven’t here at Wesleyan. Right or wrong, up-to-date or not, that is the way I was taught to present myself, and that won’t ever change. People have poked fun at me over the years about always being in a suit, even at sporting events during the week, and that is fine with me. I do it in tribute to my grandfather and because it is what I was raised on. He told me once that he never wanted anyone at the college to interpret from his dress that he was not totally focused on the serious things others had on their minds.
He was a terrific public speaker. When he got behind the podium or pulpit, he took over the room. I was always amazed at how he could speak to a large crowd and seem to be speaking to each person individually. He was able to accomplish that because he was authentic. He taught me the importance of being who you are and not trying to be like someone else. I have used that lesson when I talk with high school students who visit Wesleyan. I usually tell them what my grandfather taught me: “If you try to be like someone else, you will be disappointed because that ‘someone else’ is already taken. If that is your goal, you have guaranteed that your ceiling is ‘average.’ But if you try to be the best you can be, you have a chance for greatness.”
In 1993, I was fortunate to spend the last week of my grandfather’s life with him in a Jacksonville hospital. He was not conscious, but upon reflection, that didn’t really matter. I have always believed he knew I was there. I sat there every day that week with my grandmother, waiting while he prepared to pass. He died with such dignity and strength. He died demonstrating qualities with which we should all truly live. I suppose that was the last lesson he taught me.
This is only a small sample of what my grandfather did his best to teach me. I hope some of it took. I will not try to be him, as he would disapprove of that goal. But I will always try to move forward with an optimistic and positive approach in all I do, while doing my best to learn from everyone I meet … and always wearing a suit and tie.