By Ryan Hilligoss, May 2012
My father in law Dennis Renner passed away May 23, 2012. Below are comments I delivered as a eulogy at his memorial service.
Over the 15 years I knew Dennis, I did a lot of listening to his hunting stories, plans on planting his garden, his latest airplane project he was working on and countless other topics. And over that time, I listened a lot and spoke very little in our conversations, always deferring to the power of his personality and his gift for gab. So, now it is my turn to talk for a time, with the permission of Pat and the family.
After 72 years, what can be said about him that you don’t know or haven’t already heard? I know this, Dennis was a good and decent man who did the best he could with what he was given to live a good life and to provide for his wife and 4 kids and to help his grandchildren as much as he possible. I know this, that the measure of a person can be counted in many ways, but the most important is how they treat others as they go through life. And Dennis Renner treated me like a son and for that I will forever be grateful.
But sometimes, the best way to know someone is to find out about all the small things that make up a person’s life. He loved to watch his kids and grandchildren play sports. He loved to hunt and fish. He always carried a pocket knife in his front pocket and a handkerchief in his back pocket. He read National Geographic and Civil War magazines. He loved to watch old Western movies and countless reruns of Gunsmoke. He was always up for Friday night fish fry or Sunday morning breakfast buffet at the local VFW. Don’t ask me why he did this, but when he ate with a fork, he turned the fork sideways as it entered his mouth. He usually sat on the edge of a chair or couch with his arms crossed over his chest and his hands under his armpits. He loved to sit for hours at a time and work on his remote-controlled model airplanes. When one of his kids fell down and skinned their knee and cried, he would say, “Oh, you’ll be OK, it’s far from your heart.” He collected coins and stamps. He loved to work in his garden planting vegetables. He would go into the post office and shoot the bull with the postal clerk for 15 minutes on the simplest of topics. He made most of the people he encountered on everyday errands feel like they were important and special, because to him they were important. If he did or said something that you didn’t like, he would say in a matter of fact voice, “Well, nuts to you then.” Or else he would put his hand up to his nose and wiggle his fingers.
Speaking of which, I have been speaking for only a few minutes now, and if he were here with us, he would have told me to put a sock it in by now.
Each time someone passes from my life, I like to hold onto a few memories that help me remember them by. So here are a few about him.
The first time I met Dennis was 15 years ago and it was an inauspicious start. Kim and I met while attending Eastern Illinois University and Kim took me to her parents’ home on Anderson Boulevard in Geneva, yes the big house with the neon blue siding, to visit and meet her parents during a weekend trip. When we arrived, Dennis had already gone to bed since he got up so early for his job at the post office so I visited with Pat for a while and then got ready for bed. After brushing my teeth, I exited the bathroom and there before me stood a grizzled bear of a man standing rather impatiently in his pajamas. And when I say the word pajamas, I use the term loosely as his “pajamas” consisted of an undershirt and underwear. I was rather embarrassed and a little put off to say the least, but being true to his character, he couldn’t possibly have cared less that he was standing in his underwear while meeting his daughter’s boyfriend for the first time. So, in one sense, he and I started out at the bottom, and over the years, we worked our way down from there.
Once he retired from the post office, he got onto a remote control airplane kick. He was very meticulous about his obsessions and this was no different. He ordered a subscription to a model airplane magazine. He got catalogs from many suppliers. He did research at the hobby store for hours at a time. And then very carefully, he ordered just the right plane, painstakingly assembled it in the basement and found a local club at which he could fly his new prized possession. On the very first time he flew the plane, he took the controls, got the plane down the runway and up into the air for a successful flight that lasted roughly 30-60 seconds because as the plane went up he turned to controls to swing it back around for a quick landing, the plane went right into the path of the sun and he became blinded by the sunlight, he lost control and the plane crashed to the ground. Despite the fact that he built several more planes over time, he returned home that day with his tail between his legs and never flew another plane again.
This last one was something straight out of a Three Stooges movie short or a Looney Tunes cartoon. While he was visiting us one day at our home, I told him about a hornet’s nest I had found earlier that day in our backyard along the fence. He of course went straight to the backyard and stuck his proverbial big nose into the hornet’s nest. He looked it over for a few minutes and the decided it was best to knock it down and mash it with his size 12 foot. Now, Dennis being Dennis. he didn’t always think things through and this was a perfect example. After he knocked it down, hornets started to buzz around him and he lit out for safety in a heartbeat. As many of you know, Dennis was a big man and didn’t move very fast, but at that particular moment, I have never seen anyone move as fast as he did. One minute he was standing there by the fence and the next moment he was rushing back to the house in 3 or 4 huge bounding leaps with his belly bouncing up and down with each step. Once he was back to safety and now gasping for breath, being the reflective guy that he was, he said to me, “Maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.”
Despite the facts that he travelled all over the world while serving in the Navy and lived for many years in Geneva, Dennis was a country boy at heart, from start to finish. He often told me stories from when he was a kid of hunting and fishing with his brother and how much he enjoyed just being out in the open, in the fresh air. He hunted and fished his whole life including turkey hunting just last fall in Wisconsin. Much like Captain Ahab from Moby Dick in search of the great white whale, on every hunting trip, he was always on the trail of that ever elusive great turkey that he could bring home and show his family and friends with pride. So, knowing that the outdoors was where his heart lay, and with the fact that Dennis looked a lot like Walt Whitman, I would like to read this excerpt from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:
I depart as air…
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want to see me again, look for me under your bootsoles
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall bring good health to you nevertheless
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another
I stop some where, waiting for you.
As we go through life, we collect a wide assortment of human souls around us, whether they be by blood or friendship, and once they are gone from us, they can never be replaced, no matter how much we try. Dennis was many things in life to many people including a son, brother, husband, father, grand-father, uncle and father in law just to name a few, but what I will miss most is my friend.
So, in summary, I’ll miss his friendship, the force of his nature, his foolishness, his stories, his face, his hands, his humor, his laughter, his love of life, and that ever-present twinkle in his eye. His love and the spirit of his memory will carry on because as long as we’re here and you’re here, then he’s here, at least through the stories, memories and the shared experiences that he loved to do during his time here. So instead of saying goodbye to my friend, I will just say, I’ll see you further on up the road. (Last paragraph contains parts of Bruce Springsteen’s eulogy to his dear friend and E Street Band member, Clarence Clemons)