Life Lessons From Grandpa

This week, we lost our beloved Grandpa at the age of 93. He lived an extraordinary life. He was married to Grandma for 68 years and had 7 kids, 28 grandchildren, and 25 great grandchildren. The newspaper tributes have highlighted his storied career as a lawyer, judge, city councilman, U.S. Congressman, and newspaper executive. There are many stories about his community service and genuine love for people. This is my story about Bill Keating, The World’s Greatest Grandpa.

Wake Up Early and Take on the Day. Shortly after I graduated from UCLA, I decided to move back home to Cincinnati and my Grandparents invited me to live with them. The first morning home, I woke up at 7 a.m. (note: 4 a.m. California time). I came out of my room and Grandpa started laughing from his office across the hall. “Oh thank goodness you’re alive. We were about to call Rohde Funeral Home. We thought you were dead!” He went on to tell me that he had yet to sleep in a single day of his retirement. I took note and started waking up between 4-5 a.m. Cincinnati time. Every morning as I’d walk down the steps, I’d hear Grandpa call from the kitchen, “I hear the pitter-patter of little feet!” No matter what time I woke up, he always beat me. And always kicked off my day with a good laugh.

Give Everyone a Voice. When I was younger, my Dad and I would walk over to my Grandparents’ house every weekend. We’d sit at the kitchen table with newspapers spread out and talk through the week’s biggest stories and their impact on the community. I was only 5 or 6 when this tradition started and it continued all the way through high school. Even though I was so young, Grandpa would always pause in the conversation to be sure I understood all sides of the story so I could form an opinion of my own. It was important to him to make sure everyone – including a grade school girl – had their voice heard. It was these experiences that ignited my passion for community involvement, interest in public policy, led to my degree in political science, and inspired my goal to one day enter into a life of public service.

It’s the Little Things in Life. When I moved away to college, I wanted to continue my weekly connection with my Grandparents. I called them every Sunday at 11 a.m. We always started the conversation with the latest news and I’d always try to transition into questions about the glamorous side of their life – playing golf with presidents, dining with dignitaries, and traveling the globe. The stories always went something like this “oh yeah, we did that, but did we ever tell you about the time we moved to our new house on Alpine? We had all seven kids packed in the car with boxes and we get to the new house and realize we forgot Opie (the dog)! We went back and there he was sitting on the front porch with his tongue out so happy to see us!” Grandpa lived quite a life. But he taught me that those once-in-a-lifetime experiences were just that – one time, unique, and few and far between. The most important parts of life are those little moments with the people you love, the ones that teach you lessons, make you laugh, and fill your heart. The little things are the big things that make life so full.

Make Decisions Fair, Firm, and Final. Whenever I had to make a big decision in my life, I’d call my Dad. Not because he’d tell me what to do, but because he wouldn’t. My Dad would help me walk through all scenarios, see all sides of the problem, and analyze the information to make an informed decision. Whenever I’d get stuck in the process, my Dad would say, “call your Grandpa.” He knew Grandpa wouldn’t give me the answer, but he’d help me synthesize and decide – because my Dad learned this from his Dad. It’s what Grandpa was known for when he was a judge, a statesman, and an executive. Be fair in your assessment – listen to all sides of the issue. Be firm in your decision – make the call and be clear where you stand. Make it final – if you do your due diligence, you can make a final decision, move on, and not waste time. 

Faith in the Common Man. Grandpa used to say, “the garbage collector has just as important a job as the mayor. If garbage is overflowing into the streets, the city can’t operate to its full potential.” He believed every single individual was invaluable to a community. And he took a genuine interest in every person he met. Whenever you went somewhere with Grandpa, you found yourself learning the life story of people you’d meet. Grandpa built relationships with janitors, servers, clerks, interns, executives, and everyone in between. He knew their families, interests, and life goals. He knew all of his kids’ and grandkids’ friends. I recently asked Grandpa what he wanted his legacy to be. He replied, “I hope people say I had faith in the common man.”

Have a Sense of Humor. One of the first days of living with my Grandparents, I ran into Grandpa in the hallway. He was barefoot, shirtless, wearing his swim trunks, and packing his swim bag. I quickly hurried past him down the hall, not wanting him to feel uncomfortable in his own home. 
“Hi Liz,” Grandpa said. 
“Hi, Grandpa,” I replied, still hurrying down the hall.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Good,” I replied, walking faster.
“Hey Liz!” Grandpa said louder.
I turned around to find my 82-year-old Grandpa standing there, grinning ear-to-ear, arms flexed. “Did I startle you with my physique?” Grandpa had the best sense of humor.

The Most Important Decision in Life is Who You Choose to Spend it With. There’s no doubt the reason for Grandpa’s successful career was due to the love and support of Grandma. They met in high school and reconnected years later for a date to Graeter’s for ice cream and never looked back. She was the backbone of the family, the glue that held everyone together, and the saint who raised seven kids while Grandpa spent a lot of time on the road. And she was the center of Grandpa’s world. He hated being away from her. Sometimes Grandma would jokingly hide in another room just to see what would happen. Minutes later, Grandpa would be wandering the house frantically calling, “Nance? Nance?” It was pure love. And it was important to Grandma and Grandpa that I found that love, too. So they became my match-makers. They were very fond of Jonathan Bennie and made it their mission set us up. Grandma and Grandpa began to invite Jonathan to our family parties and other run-ins. My Grandparents were successful – Jonathan and I have been together 11 years, nearly 5 years married, and hope to make it to 68 like Grandma and Grandpa. We named our daughter after Grandpa’s mom. And it filled my heart watching my little girl and Grandpa forge a unique bond this past year. 

Always Eat Dessert First. Grandpa spent most of his life at awards banquets and business dinners. You know, the kind with the pre-set desserts on the table. He was famous for finishing his dessert before the salad was ever served. In their later years, my Grandparents went out to dinner with family or friends nearly every night. Sometimes, after getting in the car to leave, Grandpa would run back in the house “to grab something.” It was a quick bite of mini ice cream bar. He had to get his dessert first. When Jonathan and I got married, we chose to start the reception meal with “Grandpa’s Favorite Salad.” In lieu of an actual salad, guests got an ice cream sundae before dinner was served. And, of course, Grandpa got a super-sized sundae.

You’re Only as Old as You Think You Are. I lived with my Grandparents in my mid-20s, but readily embraced the lifestyle and habits of an octogenarian. I got up early, ate dinner early, and went to bed early. But then the weekends came around. I’d come home from an evening out and head to bed. Then, I’d be awoken by the garage opening and the alarm going off. My Grandparents routinely stayed out later than I did. Their social calendar was full and they always went to interesting places throughout the city. Jonathan and I loved going on double-dates with them. The dates that Grandpa planned were always interesting. There was a bar opening up in town that Grandpa read about in the paper. He wanted to go to the grand opening. We agreed. When we arrived, I was concerned when I saw the line of young people, but the bouncer let us in. Immediately, we lost Grandpa. Jonathan, Grandma, and I wandered around the dark, noisy bar, looking for Grandpa, assuming he struck up a conversation with someone. Then we found him. He was riding the mechanical bull. He was 83 at the time.

Family is Everything. My favorite childhood memories are of family parties at my Grandparents’ house. With 28 grandkids filled with cookies and pop, things could get pretty wild. If it was warm outside, you could guarantee Grandpa would gather some grandkids under the deck, hand us the hose, and quietly encourage us to soak all our parents above. My cousins and I loved dividing into teams and throwing anything we could find down the laundry chutes – golf balls, shoes, dumbbells. It never took long until Grandpa was running through the house helping us find more “treasures” to toss down those chutes. He loved to pack his car with grandkids to take us on canoe trips, to museums, and to the latest attractions around town. He was the Grandpa who would ride the rides, go down the water slides, and always let us get an extra scoop of ice cream. He would jump at the opportunity to drive carpool, do airport pickups, and sit at the kids’ table on Christmas. Grandpa taught us that family is built-in friendships. My cousins and I have a tight-knit bond that will last a lifetime because our Grandparents made family the center of everything. 

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