Earl Swope: Born March 21, 1954 - Died January 17, 2001
I have been asked to write this eulogy for my brother Earl for several reasons. The first reason is that I like to talk. The second reason is that I like to write and often see things in a different light than other people, members of the family included, and appreciate things the way that a writer or poet appreciates them, without judgment, expectation or apology. The third reason that I’ve been asked to write Earl’s eulogy is that I’m Earl’s youngest brother, the baby of our family, and a special status is granted to the baby of all families, it seems. I am fortunate and honored to write this eulogy.
No man’s life can be condensed to a thousand words, a dozen pages, a book. Earl’s life cannot be summarized here to satisfy those who survive and remember him. So we must choose how we will speak of him today, this hour, and how we will remember and speak of him the rest of our lives. Though Earl no longer shares this earth with us, his death grants each of us unique opportunities. For some of us, it is a time to let go of bitterness and make peace with his spirit and ourselves. For others, it is a time to consider what Earl taught us by his example and apply what we can of that example. For yet others, Earl’s death is a time to remember our mortality, understand the short time we have here on this earth, and choose to make the most of each day, the most of our lives.
Earl is one of the richest men I’ve known. His fortune is that which other men seek their entire lives. Looking out over the people who have gathered here today -- family, friends, acquaintances -- we bear witness to Earl’s fortune. To outsiders, it would not appear to be much of a fortune. There are only a few dozen people here. But we’re not counting heads. We’re taking stock of what each of us meant to Earl, and what Earl meant to each of us, publicly and privately. The sum of these considerations is the sum of Earl’s simple fortune. It is likely far more than he ever realized he had, or we ever realized we had. Earl’s fortune rests in the simplicity by which he lived, shared his life, and loved his family.
Earl was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on March 21, 1954, into a working class family, to Neil and Helen Swope. He had one brother and one sister at that time, Sheryl and Nick, with Carol and Stan to follow in the next couple of years, and Andy and Mike eleven years later. Earl prized a red fire engine pedal car, which he rode until the hard rubber tires wore down to the rims, and even then Earl continued to ride it. Earl liked to play cowboys and Indians; he was always a cowboy. He also loved to swim at Krug pool with Nick. He loved animals. Earl attended Lindbergh Elementary and transferred to Hall Elementary when the family moved to S. 24th. He attended Bliss Junior High and Central High School.
At 17, Earl went to work at his father’s truck stop, Star Texaco Truck Stop, in Elwood, Kansas. At the truck stop, Earl fueled diesel trucks, patched and repaired truck tires, and worked as a general attendant. At the time, Earl had just started driving, a red 1950 Chevy pickup. Besides working at the truck stop, Earl hauled trash to the dump with this truck, and did other odd and end jobs, such as trimming trees and cutting grass.
This truck also began Earl’s life-long odyssey with duct tape. The fenders on the truck rattled, and Earl used tarp straps, baling wire and duct tape to keep them from rattling. Duct tape became Earl’s tool of choice for many repairs. It’s a fair bet that, when any of us have had occasion to use duct tape, we have always thought of, and will continue to think of, Earl. I know that when I used duct tape just the other day to cover a tear in a plastic runner, I thought of Earl. And you know, duct tape did the trick.
In 1973, when Earl was 19, he met Linda, his future wife, at the truck stop. Linda was employed as a cashier. According to Earl’s brother Stan, Earl and Linda were married within a month of meeting, on December 10th, 1973, in Troy, Kansas. They lived in St. Joseph about a year, then moved to Springfield, Missouri, where they lived for about a year and a half. Missy was born on April 25, 1976, while they lived in Springfield. Earl and his family moved back to St. Joseph, where Eric was born on July 24th, 1977. Stan lived with Earl for a short time, and it was at Earl’s home where Stan met Shelly, Linda’s niece.
Shortly after Stan and Shelly were married, Earl and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, to find work. Earl’s sister Carol lived in Chicago with her husband and family, and had told Earl the job market there was good. While in Chicago, Earl worked security, a career he was to remember and recall fondly the rest of his life. Despite his fear of dogs, developed when Earl was bitten as a child, Earl began to work with dogs at assorted assignments. Earl’s love and respect for animals helped Earl with these assignments. He always talked about the dogs that he worked with and fed them whatever he happened to be having for dinner. If he bought a hamburger for himself, he bought one for his canine partner. Too young to remember this time for myself, I imagine this time for Earl was like the movie “Top Dog.” Earl liked working with dogs for several reasons. They were obedient, reliable, and trustworthy, and warned him of danger which he could not see. Earl’s assignments included policing large freighters, banks, schools, hotels, and concerts. Earl took his assignments seriously, and took pride in his work.
Earl and his family moved back from Chicago after a year and a half to be nearer family and friends, and lived for 12 years on Second Street. It is this home and time that I remember best. During this time, my brother Andy and I learned how to ride a motorcycle, Earl’s little yellow 80cc 2-stroke Yamaha, which could only be started by riding it down the hill and popping the clutch because the kick starter had stripped out. Sometimes it took several tries until it started. It was good exercise to start this motorcycle.
It was also while Earl lived on Second Street that I learned how to drive a stick shift. Earl had acquired a rail buggy with a Volkswagen engine, a 3-speed. Those familiar with Earl’s house on Second Street will understand how difficult it was to learn to drive a stick shift in the area, as there are steep hills all around. Yet Earl taught me. One day, after a day or two of hard rain, Earl and I took the rail buggy over past Amazonia Road, toward the river, where they had just begun construction of the new highway. We managed to get the buggy stuck in a ditch. We couldn’t work the buggy loose. It sank deeper and deeper into the mud as I tried to get us free. We had buried it up to its frame.
Earl told me to switch seats with him. We switched seats. He started the buggy, let the clutch out, and put the pedal to the floor. The engine roared and the buggy bounced, and the rear wheels threw twin fountains more than a dozen feet into the air, covering us and the buggy with great gobs of dark mud, like something you might see on TV or at a tractor pull. Still, the buggy did not come free. So we gave up, shut down the buggy, and walked back to Earl’s house, a distance of about 8 blocks. When we got there, Linda wouldn’t let us in the house. We had to strip off all our muddy clothes on the front porch before she would let us inside.
After 12 years on Second Street, Earl and his family moved to Amazonia Road, where they have lived for the last 9 years. Earl worked odd jobs as he always had, which had begun with that red 1950 Chevy pickup at the truck stop. Earl also worked at a nursing home, where he injured his back, rupturing disks, an injury which plagued him the rest of his life, despite three surgeries. He also threw several News-Press motor routes, helped his brother Nick for Nick’s Home Repair, and helped his father, Neil, and brother Andy feed cattle, mow, put up fences and more on their farm near the Missouri-Iowa line.
Earl always loved the outdoors, and enjoyed hunting and fishing. On the farm up north, Earl particularly enjoyed hunting deer because of the plentiful game, beautiful rolling hills, peace and quiet. Every year, Earl always got his limit. Earl also liked to fish, and he went fishing nearly every day with Buddy Talley, his best friend. Earl fished anywhere he thought he might catch something, but his two favorite fishing holes were Lake Contrary and Browning Lake. Last year, Earl caught a bighead carp in Lake Contrary to win the state record. The fish weighed 56 lbs 8 oz, and was caught October 15th by snagging, using a specialty treble hook Earl had borrowed from Buddy. Earl proudly displayed this award from the Missouri Conservation Department and the hook used to catch the prize-winning fish. This award and hook still sit on his desk.
Earl was the biggest kid in our family, always ready to go sledding, camping, four-wheeling, whatever. No matter the trials Earl faced, he was always ready to laugh or play a practical joke on one of his brothers or his son, Eric. He was remarkably pliable this way. It was only over the past few months that Earl did not laugh so easily or so frequently.
Earl was a simple, self-made family man. He gave of his time and labor to help others and rarely asked for or expected much in return. He enjoyed simple things. A simple home. A simple lifestyle. A simple family. He loved nothing more than his wife, Linda, and his children, Melissa and Eric, or his grandchildren, Mikel, Jessie and Anton. Earl understood the value of family, the strength of family ties, and the significance of personal history. He appreciated things with a history. Old glass bottles. Old coins. He looked for buried treasure wherever he could. In old wells, cisterns and outhouses that had been filled in, covered up and forgotten. In this way, Earl wrote his own history, a history we will not soon forget.Today, we should remember how our lives can be enriched by such a simple thing as one man’s life. Today we should count our blessings, Earl among them, and be thankful for the opportunity to have known Earl and shared our lives with his. It is my personal hope today that, as we grieve for Earl and tell him goodbye in our own individual ways, we remember the good man that Earl was, the good things that he did, the good things that have come because we have known him. Not because that’s what Earl would want for himself. But because that’s what we want for him and those he has left behind.
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