Remembering a Great Man

Jan 19, 2022

At least two momentous historical events occurred in 1912. The first, of course, was the sinking of the Titanic. The second was the birth of a baby named Fred Harlan Wheat. And that baby grew up to be, among other things, my (Gem’s) dad.


My dad was an “old” dad. I say that because he was 52 when I was born. I realize Janet Jackson had a baby at age 50, so these days it’s not as big a deal, but at that time 52 was definitely on the older side of things. Because of our late start together, Dad died when I was quite young. He succumbed to cancer at age 78. I was only 26.


The reality of just how young I was when he died hit home for me a few years ago when our oldest son turned 26. When I looked at him and saw that he was still at the beginning of building his wondrous gift of a life, I realized I had been at my own beginning when I lost my father.


My dad died in 1990, and that was one of those “marker years” for me. By that I mean it made a mark on my entire life. That was the year we met four mentors who introduced us to Jesus in a new way through his words in John 15 and the practice of solitude. That was also the year Alan and I perceived a very clear call to our life’s work while at an Urbana conference.


It was as though God provided a new place for me to stand and a new way for me to live right in the midst of my dad’s illness and death. The gift of “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5) was potently real as my dad’s body wasted away over the course of six months. It was devastating.


Many times since then, at turning points in my adult life, I have regretted that before he died I had not yet become more interested in my dad as a human being. He lived a rich, full life, and I didn’t get a chance to mine it for the gold it contained. My memories of his early-life stories are scattered and treasured.


He was a farm boy born in Holstein, Nebraska. He was one of four siblings. He served in the Navy and the Air Force as a mechanic. One of his titles was Master Sergeant. He had a tremendous oval-shaped scar on his leg from a “shrapnel incident.” You could see where they had taken rectangular strips of skin from his other leg to patch his wounded leg. He had survived the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War. He had previously battled cancer and won.


These are the things I wish I would have asked more questions about. I’ll never know the depths of his personal experiences, and that makes me sad. But I’m thankful for our memories together.


Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And this is exactly the most important thing I know about my dad. I may not know all of his stories. I may have missed out on some really wonderful later-in-life conversations. But I will never be without the memory of how he made me feel.


My dad was a gentle soul. He had a strong work ethic, holding down a full-time job while also single-handedly tending our six-acre homestead. But in addition to all that, he had a tender heart and a peaceful demeanor. My dad listened to me. He encouraged me. He played with me. He’s the one who taught me how to do cartwheels in the front yard when he was in his early sixties. I always felt safe with my dad, and I knew he would always be there for me.


Dad was the one who named me Gem. He gave me the blessing of my name, and because of this I know exactly how he felt about me.


I share all of this for a couple reasons:


First, I encourage you to be the kind of person someone else thinks of when they read that quote from Maya Angelou. They know how you make them feel—valued, seen, loved.


Second, don’t wait to ask questions of your loved ones. Get curious and listen well. Then treasure them even more than you already do.



  • What conversations have you been putting off until “someday”? Why not schedule a time on your calendar for these important interactions.
  • Who is one person that makes you feel seen, heard, and loved? Take a moment to thank God for them. While you’re at it, you might want to send them a quick note of thanks too.