|William A. 'Bill' Topham|
I have always envied those who have known their grandparents because I never got that opportunity. My grandparents had all died by the time I was 5, so my memories of them are distant and hard to recall, but as sad as that is, I did have one older figure in my life that helped me find my way in the world.
William Anthony Topham was my “foster grandfather” and from a different time and era. Born on Dec. 6., 1890, “Bill” Topham was one of a kind and preferred cultivating flowers and tending his garden to discussing politics and social issues with friends and neighbors.
He was an aging Irishman who loved to grill outside during the summer months and had a hearty laugh that could be heard for miles. Bill was simple in many ways and advised me to always look for the best in people and learn what they were most passionate about as it helps to get to know them on a different level.
This he learned from experience, Bill said. Looking for the best in people made him an outstanding supervisor at an Eastman Kodak manufacturing plant that made Kodak cameras and helped him marry his wife, Ida, who was a successful real estate agent for many years.
A visit to Bill and Ida’s home was always fun for my brother Doug and me. They had a fluffy white Spitz dog named “Whitey” and a huge jet-black cat called “Blackie.” The names were chosen for simplicity, Bill said.
In the winter months, my brother and I got to play downstairs at Bill and Ida’s home in their finished basement, the site of many wonderful Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties through the years. It had a full bar, and my favorite item there was a clock with hands running backwards on the wall behind the bar. During the summer we would sit outside in Bill’s colorful garden and shaded backyard taking in cooling breezes blowing in from the lake nearby.
Bill was in his 70s by the time I had first caught a glimpse of him as he hammered in a “For Sale” sign in my parent’s front yard. His wife was the realtor that my parents had hired to sell their first home when we had bought a new one and that’s how we had first met them. They were alone and getting on in years and kind of took us under their wing as “foster grandparents” when they found out that ours had passed away.
I bonded with Bill as his birthday was in early December like mine is and he loved to regale me with stories of his life growing up in the early 20th century.
Filled with tales of a time where automobiles were scarce and of sports legends such as boxing’s Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, Bill Topham also was proud of his service as a doughboy, the American infantrymen of World War I. He once described in detail for me what it was like to be in the trenches on the frontlines of the war in France and suddenly see an American airplane flying overhead. It was the first time Bill had ever seen an airplane and he said it was an astonishing sight in the middle of a war.
Bill never shied away from the fact that he liked to drink. His favorite was “Wild Irish Rose,” a wine from the area where we lived. He also could sing the traditional Irish folksong “My Wild Irish Rose,” although the words became somewhat slurred after he downed a few glasses of the wine.
He loved watching horse racing and other sports on television and was a devoted baseball fan. While watching the 1965 World Series with him on a portable black and white TV set, I asked him why he was rooting for the Minnesota Twins to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in that October classic. He said the Dodgers were favorites in that matchup because of their star pitchers such as Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and everyone expected them to win.
“I’d rather root for the underdog, it’s so much more fun to do that,” Bill said. “Anyone can pull for the favored team, but it takes a special kind of person to pull for the underdog. The reward is so much greater for you when they win.”
It is a lesson Bill passed on to me that I’ve never forgotten about to this very day. I especially think of him if I watch the Kentucky Derby and watch the parade of horses in the field listed as 50-1 longshots.
When I was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Arizona on Nov. 30, 1981, my mother called me and told me that Bill had died at the age of 90.
I consider myself fortunate to have known a World War I veteran like Bill Topham and still miss his wit and wisdom every day.
He once told me to “enjoy all the little things life offers because one day you’ll look back and realize those are really the big things.”Profound insight indeed. <