August 01, 2020

A Eulogy

Note: Below is is the Eulogy I gave at my grandfather's memorial service. I wanted to share it here 1) to pay tribute to a great man, 2) as a way of one more time expressing thanks to God for him, 3) I want you to read the whole thing, because the last 25% or so is vitally important for all of us.


Eulogy for Joe Blackburn


Before I begin, I want to thank you on behalf of the family for being here. Joe Blackburn had a unique ability to leave an impression on people. One of the things he impressed on me at an early age, both in words and actions, was this: the way you spend your time both shapes and communicates your values. Or as he might put it, if you care about something you make time for it. So the fact that you planned and followed through on being here today speaks volumes.  


Some figures in life loom so large that it’s almost impossible to understand who you are apart from their presence. “How did Pak shape my life?” was a hard question for me to grapple with. Perhaps a better one to ask, “is there anything in my life that isn’t marked by his fingerprints?” 


I have a hard time thinking in full memories. Instead, here are some snapshots, with captions describing how they influence my thinking to this day. It’s 1997, we walk into the sheriff's office, and there sits Pak with his feet on the desk: a man should be calm, in control. 1999 (or any year), he comes home from work and has “a snort and a soak '', and is in his sweats and ready for bed by 7: when you’ve worked hard, there’s nothing wrong with beating the sun to bed. Nov 1, 2002, I’m 12, and I’ve put a great sneak on a couple of deer; 1,000 yards through an open field. I stand up with 20 feet of one and shoot over its back. Twice. When I get back to where he is sitting, Pak says, “how’d you miss?” Some questions in life don’t have good answers. Last fall, sitting on the couch, he worried aloud what would happen if he died in Mexico-what would Grammy do? Make sure your loved ones are taken care of. Thousands of hours spent with some young boys in the formative years of our lives. Invest in the next generation. I don’t know who I am apart from these lessons, and countless others. I don’t know who I’d be without Pak.


Jose, Dad, Pops, Officer with the Big Gun, Grandpa, Sheriff Joe, Daddy Dearest, Pak, Joe- was born July 15th, 1931 to Charles & Laura Blackburn in Kansas City, Missouri. They moved to the sandhills of western Nebraska when he was 6 weeks old; in retrospect, he said it was surprising that they brought him too. I don’t think it is all that surprising, given that at 6 weeks old they had no idea he would burn down the neighbors fence, or grind beaver castor in the blender, become a skunk trapper with the attendant smells, or any of the other trouble he later caused.


As those comments imply, growing up in Nebraska, Joe developed a love for the outdoors. He often told stories of growing up. He was particularly proud of the rainbow that hangs in the office, which he caught while playing hooky; his mother was upset with him for skipping school, but his dad had it mounted. He also liked to talk about his first trapline-a six trap dandy which he ran from his bicycle. His parents got him started hunting early, and by the time he graduated high school he had killed several nice mule deer and antelope. 


The other trait that developed early in Joe was his commitment to service. He and a buddy “fudged” their ages and joined the Nebraska National Guard at age 15. 


And these two commitments, service and the outdoors, came together in 1949, when Joe entered the University of Montana at Missoula and participated in the ROTC program. He said he wanted a school with a good fish and wildlife curriculum-and good elk hunting. He joined the rodeo team, but after his first rodeo woke up in the hospital. That convinced him rodeo was too dangerous, so he went down to the USFS office and applied to be a smokejumper. Because we all know it’s safer to jump from an airplane onto a fire than it is to climb on top of a horse. He put himself through college by smokejumping during the summers, and graduated in 1953 with a degree in Wildlife Technology and a commission in the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant, Infantry. 


He reported to Fort Benning, GA for active duty and there attended jump school and jumpmaster school. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, NC. He was sent on a recruiting assignment to Florida, and while there he met his wife to be- Sharon Dunn. Later in life, Joe went back into the active Army Reserve. He also went back through special forces school and earned his Green Beret. He eventually became commanding officer of detachment 324, 12th special forces (airborne). He retired at the rank of Major. My dad always tells of first walking into Pak’s office and seeing that beret hanging on the lamp and realizing, this guy could kill me.


Joe and Sharon were married in Clearwater in 1954. Upon his (first) discharge from active duty, Joe and Sharon moved to Montana and bought a ranch on the Blackfoot River. Marriage tip, bringing a girl from Florida to a place with -50 winters and no running water might not be the most considerate. The following spring, Joe was offered a position as Conservation Officer with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, so they sold the ranch and moved to Shoshone, ID. While there they had their first daughter, Becky. After transferring to Challis the couple had two more daughters: Mona and Roxanne. Roxanne died at 18 months old, which was a grief Joe carried with him the rest of his life. He said “that’s the sort of thing you just don’t get over.” 


Joe eventually resigned as the CO at Challis, and bought an outfitting and guide business. After three years of saddle sores and cold feet, and one appearance in Field & Stream magazine, he sold the business and went back to work with Fish and Game, taking the position in Calder. Joe and Sharon lived there until he was promoted to regional supervisor in Boise. After a few months in Boise he asked for a demotion back to the field, and received a transfer from Boise to St. Maries. Why ask for a demotion? He said real game wardens don’t sit at a desk all day.


In 1975, Joe married Peggy Scott of Plummer. They made their home right here. In 1986, Joe retired from Fish and Game, though he never actually entered retirement. He served as marine deputy for Benewah County, enforcement agent for Idaho Outfitter and Guides Licensing Board (getting paid to hunt and fish? Who could ask for a better gig?), timber security for Quality Services, and co-founder (maybe initiating genius?) of the St. Joe Bait Company. In 1996 he ran for the office of Benewah County Sheriff. He won that election and served one four year term. To my knowledge, he remains the only Republican candidate to receive an endorsement from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. His commitment to fairness and service for the whole county had people asking him to run again for the final 20 years of his life. 


Joe’s lifelong passions of hunting and fishing stayed with him, and semi-retirement gave him more time to enjoy those pursuits. He loved fishing Lake Roosevelt for kokanee and rainbows, and the turning of Summer to Fall meant weeks spent in “the Bull Pasture”, where he and Peggy had elk camp for over 30 years. The highlight of his Winter was spending a couple months in Mazatlan, soaking up the sun and fishing. Joe was a certified scuba diver, certified parachute rigger, a hunter education instructor, and boat safety instructor. He also was an avid reader, and an accomplished runner, completing 13 marathons and 12 triathlons.


We’ll remember Pak’s feet propped up on the table, his advice (both helpful, cut toward your buddy, not your leg and….questionable, hey Levi, go throw that buffalo pie), his sense of humor, all the stories, and for never getting into trouble, because he didn’t have a middle name. Joe Blackburn of Plummer, Idaho died at home on December 17th, 2019. He was 88 years old.


He was preceded in death by his parents; his daughter Roxanne; and his grandson Tucker. Surviving him are his wife Peggy; sisters Sue Hartman, and Sandi Blackburn; daughters Becky Rice, and Mona Moore; step-children Randy Scott, Pat Scott, Clint Scott, and Tracy Dole. Also surviving him are 29 grandchildren and several litters of great-grandchildren.


What a life. A life worth gathering to celebrate, to reminisce upon, and to share memories of. But before I turn the mic over to the Special Forces guys, I want to speak directly to each of you. The sobering reality of a day like this is that while we are celebrating Joe’s life, what brings us together is his death. The actual occasion of our gathering is the end of a remarkable life.


This is an uncomfortable reality for many of us to face. We don’t like to think about death. But loved ones, pondering your own death is one of the great opportunities these moments afford us. In the Old Testament, there is a book of wisdom called Ecclesiastes. And in chapter 7 of that book we find these words, 


A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for such is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. 


The main thrust of the thought here is simple: parties are great. We all love to celebrate births, weddings, graduations, birthdays, and anniversaries. But as fun and enjoyable as those moments are, they are fleeting. And so the good they do us is short-lived. But these moments when we are confronted with the reality of mortality: they can be of enduring benefit. 


The first thing we need to consider is in the beginning of verse one, a good name is better than precious ointment. In the Hebrew society in which Ecclesiates was written, they practiced burial. But they didn’t have refrigeration, nor did they use any embalming methods. Which left you with an odor problem. The way they addressed that was by wrapping bodies with pounds upon pounds of spices, aloes, and perfumes. But what the writer makes clear to us is this: when you’re dead, you know what would really stink? Having lived a rotten life. Perfume can’t cover that stench. But a good name, that leaves an aroma which no perfume can match. So, how are you living? When you’re gone, will people actually miss you? Will they have something true to say, or will they have to make up memories to make you sound better in retrospect?


The second, and more important, thing to ponder is this. When you’re dead, you’re not finished. This truth nags at us. We all intuitively know that whatever is in the urn or the casket is not all there is to that person. So when it’s your turn to take a ride to the funeral home, where will the rest of you be? What happens to your soul? Not having an answer to that question leaves us with a looming sense of dread that we either acknowledge and wrestle with, or attempt to drown out or ignore.


Scripture tells us where the knawing comes from. You were created by God to know God. But we all have ignored him, rejected him, and failed to live in keeping with his perfect law. This is what Scripture calls sin, and it separates us from the God by and for whom we were made. In fact, we’re told it earns us his just condemnation. And if we continue in that rejection and ignoring of God, death is something we should fear. But we don’t have to.


God sent his Son into the world. God the Son took on human flesh as Jesus of Nazareth and lived a perfect human life, the sort life we were each meant to live. But he didn’t just live. He was crucified, murdered, without legitimate cause. And when he died, he not only bore the weight of scorn and shame from those around, but he bore the penalty of God’s wrath-not wrath meant for him, but wrath that is deserved by you and me. He paid it all. He died for your sin so that you could be forgiven. He then rose three days later, and he now promises life to all who trust in him for their life: Everyone who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. You can know Christ, and in knowing him, know what comes after this. You don’t have to fear death. 


Pray: Father God, help us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Thank you for Pak, thank you for the imprint he left in my life and the lives of those gathered. We ask that you use this day in each of our lives to help in our process of grief, and give us joy in the memories. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.


As we continue on, I want to invite the Special Forces men forward.


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About Me

Follower of Jesus. Husband of one. Father of four. Pastor at Remsen Bible Fellowship (remsenbible.com).