On Feb. 10, just two weeks ago, we lost my grandfather Jim Walters quite unexpectedly. You can read a little bit more about him in his obituary here.
At his memorial service a few days later, I found myself delivering a eulogy for him, alongside his brother, Bill, and family friend Ralph, as well as my best friend of one thousand years, Kim, who read a poem on behalf of my mom.
(An aside: I feel like we need a better word for this than "eulogy," because that sounds so cold, and if I can speak for my fellow speakers, what we were trying to do was capture the warmth and the life and the love and the humor of Jim. Of course, now that I look at the etymology of the word, I see it's rooted in something along the lines of "high praise." OK, that I can get. But I digress.)
It's not like I had ever planned to deliver a eulogy for anyone, ever, but after Jim's sudden passing, I felt all these stories welling up, and I knew I'd have to write it all down even if I didn't say it. But then I decided I wanted to say it. As I tried to put it all together, though, I was lost at how to start it. That was when I heard that his former students were sharing stories on Facebook, and I was pointed toward an alumni page there to read more. Then things came together.
Here is, approximately, my memorial for my Grandpa Jim (or GPJ, as he signed his emails to me):
Thanks to family friend Pam Burris, we learned yesterday that there was a thread on Facebook on the South Houston High School alumni page where some of his students were sharing their memories of their chemistry teacher Mr. Walters. As his family, it’s not always easy to get a sense of what Jim was like as a teacher, so here are a couple of the posts:
- When they were making a big deal about LSD in the news my senior year, he informed us that it was so simple to make, that even a high school chemistry teacher could make a batch and then informed us that we were NOT going to learn how.
- Mr Walters had 1/2 of a finger missing on one hand…. the 1st day of chemistry, he told us to be very careful with acids in the lab. The entire time he had poured what he told us was sulfuric acid into a beaker and began stirring the acid with a "complete' finger but after a minute or two jumped back and held up the hand with 1/2 digit !!!! the entire class gasped and some turned pale…. He was a character but a teacher that cared about “his kids.”
Now I want to talk a little bit about what it was like to be the granddaughter of a chemistry teacher.
The first computer I ever saw was in Jimmy’s study. I didn’t know then what the term “early adopter” meant, but the sight of that Apple IIe when I was in elementary school is surely proof that he was one. Luckily for me, he was generous with his gadgets and showed me how the computer worked -- and let me play games on it, long before other kids my age got to play Oregon Trail in the computer lab at school. And just for the record, he’s the only one I know of in our family who had an iPhone 5.
I’ll never forget the day he brought me a microscope -- whether it was a garage-sale find or something he’d had stashed away, I don’t know. He showed me how, even though they didn’t look that different, up close sugar crystals had their jagged edges and salt crystals were perfect cubes, functions of their chemical structures. It was a revelation that there was so much going on in the world than meets the eye.
I remember Jim helping me with a science fair project and determinedly trying to teach me to use a slide rule. That last one didn’t quite work out, nor did I become a scientist, but he fostered a sense of curiosity in me that I was always be grateful for.
I said at first that I wanted to talk about being the granddaughter of a chemistry teacher, but Jim was so much more -- a triathlete, for one thing, an entrepreneur, a fixer, a thinker, a solver, a joker.
And he had a way of seeing the big picture that I think eludes a lot of us. Let me offer one last anecdote. About 15 years ago, when I was just starting out in my professional newspaper career, he gave me a book he’d read called “Being Digital.” This was in the late-90s, but it took a hard look at technology and what is far-reaching effects might eventually be. We talked on and off over the years about that -- how the digital world was causing a sea change in print journalism. He saw this looming on the horizon 15 years ago, but only now are newspaper people starting to wrestle with what happens next.
Sometimes I think that it can be hard to see your family members for who they truly are because they are so close. But with the clarity that loss brings, as Maya Angelou so sagely noted, I feel like I can see the big picture that is my grandfather -- all the different ways he had an effect on the world.
He was so steadfast and so stalwart that we’d started to think that he would always be with us, and that he was invincible. We are stunned to learn that the latter is not true, but relieved that the former most definitely is. We’ll always be his granddaughters, his students, and you his friends, his daughter, his son, his brother, his beloved wife, and all his family.
I read a story the other day about scientists discovering that they could actually see the process of memories being made in the brain, some extremely groundbreaking stuff here. I am heartbroken that I won’t be able to talk to Jim about that, but I’m thankful for the chance to have made so many memories with him.
Since then, I've read a few more anecdotes from his students.
- I can tell you that we had a chemistry lab class that was for Chemistry II in the morning before school started. I remember a couple of things about the lab. We made Nitrogen Triiodide which is a contact explosive. Weird stuff, smoked the hinges off one of the cabinets where we accidentally spilled some. Poured some in the hallway and when it dried, it would pop under peoples shoes when they walked on it. COOL!
- He was a very good Chemistry teacher and very patient. He had to be with me!! I blew up the lab one morning very early and he was so nice to me ... I was a mess. If we were voting for teacher of the year when we were in school, I would have voted for him.
- I think I made quite an impression on Mr. Walters. If he ever told a story about someone in his Biology class fainting and getting a concussion hitting the lab stool after trying to type blood. It was me. Picture poor Mr. Walters carrying me to the clinic. It was years before I ever found out my blood type. He was a wonderful teacher.
- He was a great teacher. Thanks to him and my lab partner David Carpenter I actually passed Chemistry. It was a subject I didn't like but Mr Walters made it interesting. Sorry to hear of his passing
- Mr. Walters was the first teacher who told me I was smart and should consider a science profession. I floated on a cloud for weeks. Unfortunately, I chose a different profession but I still remember his kindness.
As I mentioned in my speech, it is not always easy to get a sense of what a family member is like as a teacher, especially from a student's perspective. The classroom is its own little insular world, and getting a peek inside, especially from a generation or two away, is about as likely as turning into a literal fly on a wall.
So I've been especially thankful for these stories about Jim because they give us more insight into a role he lived so long and so well but that we were not witness to. I read these, and I can picture him at the front of the classroom and see how the personality I knew as his granddaughter came through to others as his students.
I've been inspired by this experience to think about the teachers who have made a difference in my life. Now it's time to reach out to them.
I hope you will think about reaching out to some of your teachers, too. If you do, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. I'll report back on my conversations as well.
And if you feel like sharing this on social media, why not tag it #mrwaltersproject.
I can't help but feel like GPJ would get a kick out of being a hashtag.