While interviewing for an FFA District Office my junior year of high school, I was asked to name my hero and explain why I chose that particular person. Without hesitation, I explained that my grandfather, Joe Kremer, was my hero. He is my hero for 3 reasons:
1) He had experienced and overcome much adversity in his life.
2) He served his community and state with integrity and stood up for what he believed to be true and right.
3) He was one of the wisest men that I knew, though he had only a high school education.
Very few of us have the privilege for meeting our heroes, let alone the chance to call him “Grandpa;” to see him in the public eye and also to share in the intimacy of dinner-time prayers and laughter around the table.
What elevated my grandpa from just a “cool Grandpa” who served in the gold-domed capitol to hero status was a story about when his leg became caught in the post-hole digger. If you know Joe Kremer, then you know that he’s a story-teller. This story has been told around our family table many times, with my aunts and uncle adding in color commentary.
Grandpa had been digging post-holes and my aunt Barb, who was about 7 at the time, went to help him. The post-hole digger got stuck and Grandpa went to check it out & fix it. His leg ended up getting caught in the digger. Barb saved his life that day by shutting off the tractor and running for help. While in surgery, the doctors worked tirelessly to save his leg – and lost count when they had put in more than 2000 stitches. Doctors told my grandma, “IF he lives, he will most likely never walk. IF he does walk, it will always be with a limp.”
My favorite part of the story, though, is this: Grandpa was suffering from intense pain and doctors weren’t sure if he’d make it. Grandpa said, “That Sunday, the people of St. Anthanasius Church prayed for me at 10:30 – and at 10:30 that morning, my pain eased and my prognosis turned around.” Not only did he recover, but he walked again – and without a limp, for many years. That story taught me two things: 1) God answers the prayers of His people; 2) He had big plans for my grandpa – and ‘God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to His purpose.’ That Joe Kremer – he defied the odds.
The motto for the state of Iowa is “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” This past week, I heard it said that every true Iowan has a fire in their belly for personal liberty and protecting our rights. In that case, my grandpa was indeed a true Iowan. He was a statesman; he didn’t run for any office, whether in the county or to represent District 27 in the Legislature – for personal gain or fame. He sought to ensure that the rights and liberties that God has granted intended for our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness were maintained. He believed that a man’s integrity, character and record were enough to be elected by the people. He had no interest in smearing an opponent; the truth can speak for itself.
Growing up, I had immense pride in the fact that my grandpa was a state legislator. I loved going to the capitol; loved seeing him be sworn in – and then bragging about it to anyone who’d listen. Through the years, he was always my “go-to” interview for anything leadership or character related. As an adult, I’ve realized that Grandpa’s service in office instilled in me the belief that we can impact government; that those elected should work in the best interest of preserving the rights of people; that the power for change lies within us and not an institution; and that to lead is to serve.
A few years ago, I asked Grandpa what he believed shaped these convictions for him. He responded:
“Most of the better attributes for which you give me credit were inherited graces from a loving and service-dedicated mother and an extremely strict and non-nonsense father. In retrospect, it is their guidance and strict Catholic discipline that were, although unknown to me at the time, shaping my fundamental philosophy of life. It is this: we are put into this world to help one another.
This, I must admit, is something I see in retrospect. I never really considered it a virtue, rather, it always appeared to me as a duty. I was fortunate enough to learn from my parents, and my religious upbringing that we cannot exceed the generosity of God. I have never prayed for power or wealth, but do admit that I have often asked the Lord for the privilege of living a life of comparable comfort. That has been granted. I have a loving and helpful spouse to share these final years, and hopefully, enough financial resources that I may never be a burden to anyone. It is my prayer that this last request be granted.
In summary, I will say this, I have attempted to keep as my guide the greatest commandment of all, “Love the Lord thy God with your whole mind, heart and soul and your neighbor as yourself.” For this I am most truly grateful. (And that I have been able to retain my sense of humor and ability to ‘laugh at life.’) “
Joe Kremer was a pillar in his community, church and state. First, though, he was a pillar in his family. With wisdom, he acted on behalf of his constituents. With wisdom, he built his household. I believe God saw the way he sought to honor Him first in the way he led his family that he elevated Grandpa to the service of many.
I had the privilege to know my hero. The legs that were predicted to never walk again, we clung to. In my favorite “Grandpa” game, Grandpa would sit in his chair, wrap his legs around anyone sitting close to him, and holler, ‘I’ve got a prisoner! I’ve got a prisoner!’ The man who spoke with serious words in the statehouse, wrote love letters to Grandma and penned phrases like, “What a peculiar bird the pelican, his beak can hold more than his belly can!”
Grandpa definitely kept that sense of humor. One day, totally out of the blue, Cindy decided to call Grandpa, “Grandpa McGillicuddy.” Our gaggle of girl cousins quickly picked up on it and would taunt Grandpa with “Grandpa McGillicuddy!” Every time, we’d call it out – he’d bellar, “WHO said THAT?!” We’d shriek and laugh – and then Grandpa would usually say, “Grandma! Those kids are pickin’ on me, again!” The game eventually faded – but the name stuck. You all might refer to him as Joe, but to us, he will always be Grandpa McGillicuddy.
He also centered our family around God. At dinner time, he’d say, “Well, we’re all gonna pray. If you don’t pray, you don’t eat!” And you knew that he meant it! At his birthday a few years ago, our entire family all attended mass together. That day after church, I saw tears shining in his eyes as he said, “It’s just so good to have the whole family worshipping together.”
Grandpa’s gift of story-telling passed down to his children. The stories of Grandpa’s strict, no-nonsense discipline are in no shortage. He was very practical and told it like it was. When my mom was in college, my dad sent her flowers. Grandpa quipped, “Well, flowers don’t put food on the table, now, do they?”
Grandpa wasn’t the one you went to when you were looking for sympathy. But, he told you the truth even when you didn’t want to hear it. …and in my experience, he was usually right. My first “real” job out of college wasn’t going too well; there was miscommunication and undefined expectations – and some “interesting” people to try and work with. As our family gathered one weekend, I sought some advice. Grandpa asked me what was going on; I explained; and he said, “Well, it sounds to me like this is your penance.”
My 22-year-old brilliance responded, “Grandpa, I don’t believe in penance. I believe in grace.”
As my understanding and faith have matured, I now see his wisdom. Grandpa knew better than most that life brings us trials and adversity. God allows these because they are opportunities for us to strengthen our feeble knees and weak arms, so that we may stand firm in our faith until the end (Hebrews 12). From his life experience, he knew the truth St. Paul wrote in Romans 5:
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope – and our hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have been justified by His blood, how much more then will we be saved from wrath! For, if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.“
Our hope does not disappoint. In fact, in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that hope, along with faith and love, are one of the three things that remain. HOPE. I don’t think Grandpa is disappointed today. I think he is finding that he can ‘walk and not grow weary; run and not faint.’ I think he has realized that all of his sufferings and trials here have earned him a crown of glory in heaven.
The hardest thing on earth is to watch your revered and beloved hero grow old and suffer. Knowing that Grandpa didn’t want to be a burden has caused me to wrestle with God in prayer about why. Over time, I’ve realized that 1) we witnessed a miracle – Joe Kremer once again defied the medical odds; and 2) it was for us. Though his strength had diminished, we all still looked to him as the pillar of our family. His passing leaves a hole – a gap to be filled. As I’ve reflected on this, I don’t believe that this gap is meant to be filled by one. Each of us, in some degree or another, holds these attributes of Grandpa’s – a lover of history and country; a servant leader; one who stands up for truth and what’s right; that dry, clever wit; the ability to tell it like it is; the endurance to overcome great adversity; and a stubborn, hold-on-for-dear-life, don’t give up yet will. It is our legacy – and the privilege of our inheritance – to rise up together and stand for truth, as Grandpa did. It is a great privilege, with great responsibility, but following in his footsteps by daily living out the greatest commandment, we will do it.