They built a church with guys like Len

Today is the visitation, tomorrow the funeral for my father-in-law, Len Straayer. Here is the obituary.

Len was the sort of man that used to fill the pews in the Christian Reformed Church: a working guy, good with his hands, lots of practical smarts, meticulous, faithful.

Len was a veteran, a proud member of the Red Arrow Divison — that always was close to his heart and mind. The service medals were on the wall in the den; the relationships forged there stayed with him through his life; the stories from training to bivouac in Australia to the end of the war and home — those also got told over and over.

Len returned and made a life. He found work through friends and family, and ended up working in a small furniture factory where he retired as the foreman and minority partner. He had a practical skill with machines and wood. When the Library of Congress needed new chairs, he took one and then crafted the model they needed to produce it. And of course he tithed it all. And saved.

In success, he was fiscally modest. They lived in the same house his wife had grown up in — nice old four-square, the city is filled with these functional homes form the 20s. He drove an Oldsmobile. And they took nice but not elaborate vacations. Once after retirement they did make it to Europe — a tour. That was enough. The mobile home in Florida was enough excitement.

Len invested in his church. In a small church he was a regular member of the consistory, offering his practical advice. His new work also meant that his children  could have what he lacked growing up, a Christian education. And like so much else, he made it happen.  He worked the annual hamburger fry at the school; when they needed a bus driver, he was it; when they had fix-it questions, he was the one they called.

And Len was meticulous, not just with his accounts, but with his relationships. He was loyal, did business with people he knew, whether it was Hronek’s auto repair, the local grocery store, or Jurgens & Hotvuler where he got his suits. (Oddly, this meticulous care for planning would have been very satisfied with the manner of his departure, efficient, no lingering in nursing, just the way he wanted it).  Sixty years later, he still corresponded with the family that took him in, gave him a second home when stationed in Australia; he was not one to forget such obligations.

And now for the picture book: there are of course, a number of pictures and stories that also define his life.

The Picture Book

There’s one of a young man slouching on the front fender of the car. You can see why Katherine liked him. Nice Dutch kid, ready to go to Ottawa Beach.

Here’s another: the stories of fooling the brass during his service. Len was not management, even when he owned the factory. There was always that distance between the guys and those others (officers, owners, smart guys — the Ann Arbor boy, I was always suspect).

Another photo: Len in a boat fishing — his favorite activity. Inland lakes, pan fish, none of this exotic big lake or surf casting or salmon stuff. On a lake, in a little cabin, and the sour smell of beach, the whiff of marsh on the other side of the lake, modest, nothing too fancy.

A story: Len was a life-long Republican, the sort that needed only to pull one lever. At work he was also the guy who offered jobs to ex-cons. This practical mercy has stayed with me as a model in my own life.

There’s also this string of photos from retirement, reminding me of how we all age, shifting from the young-old, to the increasingly slouched  man in his La-z-boy, still watching his Tigers. The earlier pictures are something of a shock because he looks so vital, so young, though as is the case for our elders I always thought of him as old. (How blind we are to our own path through time).

And finally, there are family reunion portraits too. Early in life with his brothers and sisters (fourteen in all!), later with his children, grandchildren (5), and even great-grandchildren (6). They did well enough, the children to good colleges (that’s two to Calvin), the grand children often to even better schools; the families all active in church.

When I think of the Christian Reformed Church at mid-century, the church here in W. Michigan, it’s not the brilliant intellects (though they were there), but it’s guys like Len. The guys and their families who filled the churches morning and night, and at the summer chapel. They were practical, builders, filled with flaws, often parochial; they did things, made a difference in their communities; elected Republicans, and cared for their neighbors. Their’s was a mercy of hands that did not bother to talk much about deep things, but in persistence and perseverance showed rooted faith.

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