Two extraordinary people, Dean Duncan and Martha Johnson, died this year. He was a mentor. She was my mother-in-law. Few have had as much impact on my life as these two, and since Thanksgiving is coming up I thought I would offer a few words to express how grateful I am to have had the privilege of knowing them.

 

One word sums up each of them: selfless. They were generous with their time and money, and they encouraged countless people.

I first met Mr. Duncan at class registration in August 1971. I was signing up for my first journalism course at what was then State College of Arkansas — now the University of Central Arkansas — in Conway. He shook my hand and encouraged me to write for the college newspaper, The Echo. After the first day in his basic reporting class, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. He, more than anyone, taught me to write.

Months later, discussing what degree I should pursue, he suggested I go into the teaching program; if I ever decided newspaper work was not for me, I would have teaching as a Plan B. Many years later, after a quarter century of working for newspapers, I received an offer to teach on the college level. I jumped at the opportunity, and to this day strive to be the kind of teacher Mr. Duncan was to generations of young journalists.

I saw his generosity take many forms, but in my case one of his most generous acts occurred when I was in my 30s. I was going through a rough patch and had little money. He offered to let me stay in his spare bedroom, rent free, as long as I wanted. I gladly accepted. During the month or so I stayed at his apartment, we spent many evenings talking about history, movies, books … you name it. I had known he was smart, but I realized then that he was a walking encyclopedia. I’ve never known anyone who could speak so authoritatively about movie stars or Custer’s Last Stand.

Last summer, when he was in hospice care, his body slowly failing from congestive heart failure, I told him I appreciated all the things he had done for me. He cleared his throat and said in his self-effacing way, “Oh, I didn’t do anything. You did it all yourself.” He died Aug. 29; he was 90.

My mother-in-law, Martha Kathryn Himmel Johnson of Conway, died April 2 at age 87. Her birthday is Nov. 22, so I expect this Thanksgiving will be bittersweet. This holiday was always special at the Johnson house. Once the food was ready and set out, there was a joyful ritual to attend to before everyone started digging in. We would go to the front room, gather around Martha at the piano, and sing “Bless This House.” In case someone did not know the song by heart, she printed copies of the lyrics. Here are the first four and last four lines of the version we sang:

Bless this house, O Lord we pray,
Make it safe by night and day
Bless these walls so firm and stout,
Keeping want and trouble out
Bless us all that we may be,
Fit O Lord to dwell with thee
Bless us all that one day we may dwell,
O Lord! With Thee!

This was as close as I’ve ever come to living out a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting.

A voracious reader, Martha introduced me to a number of books, including Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Every book she gave me was satisfying; it was as if she knew my tastes to a T.

One year on my birthday, I opened a package only to find a fairly plain-looking three-ring binder. Opening the binder, though, I found a huge surprise. I had been writing a nature column for nearly 10 years, and, unbeknownst to yours truly, Martha had devotedly clipped, dated and saved every column. Now each was preserved in its own plastic sleeve. She added something special at the beginning and end of the collection: photos of my family and me and a few scenic places. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received.
That was my mother-in-law — she made every relative and friend feel unique in some creative way.

Dean Duncan and Martha Johnson quietly made the world better, making everyone who knew them better. They live on through the many lives they touched.


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