The first concrete memory I have of Joseph Fraser Vincent, Sr. was on the day after the night I brought his daughter home from a date an hour and a half after her curfew. In my “defense,” both he and his wife, Fran, were out of town until Sunday night — this was on Friday. Who comes home from an out-of-town trip three days early, anyway? Beside that, Mary assured me that if we had called and asked permission to stay for the second movie of the double feature, her parents would have been fine with it. I mean, it wasn’t our fault they wouldn’t invent cell phones for another 20 years. It seemed like a perfectly legitimate rationalization to me.
I slowed to a rolling stop and dropped Mary off at the curb behind her house. The next day is when I first remember being introduced to the giant of a man whose physical stature was rather slight. He told me how he had trusted me with his daughter and that I had disappointed him. He told me that he expected more of me than that. As he talked to me, I shrank ever more deeply into the shag carpet at my feet. He never raised his voice above a calm, conversational tone that day or any day over the next 38 years that I knew him.
He didn’t have to.
Almost 8 years later, I was back in his living room again, asking for that same girl’s hand in marriage. He had sent her upstairs to her bedroom while he and Fran asked me lots of questions about my plans and how I meant to care for their daughter. I don’t remember many of the specifics but I do remember how the conversation came to a close. He looked at his wife and asked, “What do you think about all this?” She responded positively.
He turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Well, I suppose we’ll have to call Mary down here to break the tie.” The pause between that comment and when he started laughing was a little too long for my taste; but I guess I deserved it.
Several months later, I thought I had one-upped him by making this proud Army man, and member of West Point’s Long Gray Line, walk his daughter down the very long center aisle of the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis to give her away. I should have known better.
At practice the night before, when the Chaplain asked the proverbial, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man” line, he had responded exactly as expected: “Her mother and I do.”
During the actual ceremony however, he changed things up. As he gave me his daughter’s hands, he looked me in the eye once again. “With pride,” he said, “her mother and I do.”
It was a simple addition to the script; but those eyes. That voice. There was power and trust in them both. The kind of power you can’t escape. The kind of trust you would never dream of betraying.
This was a man who served as a U.S. Army artillery officer, a Vietnam veteran, a math professor at West Point, a War College graduate, and commander of men. But, if you knew any of those facts about him, you probably didn’t learn them from him. This was a man who, at 72 years of age, ran the 6-mile second leg of the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon with me and two of his sons … at an 8:40 minute/mile pace. This was a man who, at age 74, completed the 12-mile March Back from Beast Barracks to West Point with the new plebes in the Class of 2010 — one of whom was his oldest grandson. During that march, my father-in-law couldn’t sit down to rest because he was having stability issues in this knees and was afraid that if he sat down, he wouldn’t be able to get back up. It wasn’t until years later that we learned his balance problems that day were the first sign that ALS had begun its relentless, eight-year attack on his nervous system.
Yesterday it took him from us.
When you are in the presence of a great man, you just know it. He doesn’t try to tell you. He doesn’t have to prove it. His life simply exudes it, and you respond accordingly. My own sons marveled at how, when Grandad Joe would begin to tell a story (and he told a lot of wonderful stories), everyone in the room would stop talking and focus on his measured, soothing voice — not because he demanded it, but because their inner sense of respect required it.
He was a leader. He was a patriarch in every good sense of the word. He was a gentleman. He was a godly man in the way God meant men to be godly — in humble subservience to Him but without all the faux spirituality or cheesy Christian-speak we like to use.
There was no prideful preening disguised as humility. No pretension. There was none of that. Just a down-to-earth, genuine man of God who didn’t need to talk because his actions did his talking for him. This was a man who lived his life with a quiet strength and love that empowered everyone around him in ways no human author could ever explain.
I’ve read words like that about other people. All of us have. And I suppose they could sound cliche. But any sense of reducing the way Joseph F. Vincent, Sr. lived his life to a cliche were obliterated for anyone who was witness to the way he died.
He had made all his decisions months, if not years, before; back when he could do so unemotionally and without leaving them to torture us. He had written out instructions and left us with a computer file to open and read upon his departure.
He was alert and his eyes were clear and bright by the time all his children made it to his bedside. He couldn’t talk but he could still squeeze your hand. We used a grid of letters to help him spell out questions and wishes. It had to be a tedious and aggravating process for him to do that but, as he had demonstrated over the previous 82 years of his life, there was never a hint of impatience in his expression. Just slow, resolute determination to get his points across. It went on for hours. He wanted to know why the plastic tube was in his mouth. When we told him he had stopped breathing and that he had been intubated in hopes that all of his kids could make it there to say good-bye, he spelled, “Good decision.”
And then he matter-of-factly laid out his desire to have us “sing and tell jokes.”
We sang hymns. We prayed prayers. We recited Scripture — two passages in particular: the 23rd Psalm and a verse that seemed to come from out of nowhere into my wife’s head: “Now we see through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
We told jokes. Bad ones. But somehow, with facial muscles that had no strength and that tube stuck in his mouth, he still managed to laugh. The biggest laugh of the day came from a joke that he told us. It took him 20 minutes to spell it out.
Then we each took turns saying good-bye. There were 13 of us in his room. Those who could not physically make it to his bedside gave him their love and thoughts through a cell phone held to his ear. He smiled at times and took it all in. He was peaceful and steady. Much more steady than us. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of anyone else who was willing, and able, to officiate his own funeral.
Finally, he had two more messages to spell out. The first was, “I love all …” and then this:
Some may suggest it is mere coincidence that all my sons just happened to be home on this particular weekend for the first time in almost 3 years. Maybe so. But, then one would also have to believe that the computer file we opened today — the one that contained the following written by him years ago and that we had never seen before — was also just a product of coincidence:
I am not ready to leave this world… BUT, if I have no choice … I AM READY. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
I have no fear, in fact, I look upon this departure as My Greatest Adventure. I see it as a transition from one life (on earth) to everlasting life. I will look forward to seeing all of my family…in due time.
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. Accept the comfort and turn MOURNING into MORNING. It’s a new day. . Arise, shine … Let your light shine that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
If anyone feels a Joe/Dad glitch…it is real…it is me saying “I love you.”
No, I don’t think any of it is a coincidence. I think the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being, gives special gifts to his favorite servants. I think He gives power, and strength, and wisdom to those who can use it best. I think He makes giants out of men of small stature — men who, even if they are ravaged by the evils of this world, come through looking bigger still.
This article first appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
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Seeking A Good Death, John Stonestreet