Saturday Diary / This one's for Bones: a pilgrimage in honor of Dad
November 27, 2010 5:00 AM
I brought my dad back to one of the places he loved most: the Phi Delta Theta house at Denison University. The Phi Delt chapter there was founded in 1914.
By Matt Smith Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It's a beautiful Saturday morning in early November and I'm on the road with Bill Powell, who was my college roommate when we were juniors at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He flew to Pittsburgh from his home in Boston to join me on a pilgrimage to our alma mater.
We're traveling light. I've got a camera, an extra jacket to ward off the autumn chill and a CD of some favorite tunes from our college years.
Sitting on the back seat is the most important item and the reason for this trip: a small, unmarked white box.
The box contains some of the cremated remains of my father, Jim Smith, who also was a Denison alum. Back in 1991, he wrote a letter that he filed away with his personal papers, asking that some of his ashes be scattered on the grounds of his fraternity house, Phi Delta Theta. I was about to fulfill that wish.
He also was very specific about one point: This was not to be a sad occasion. He wanted this to be celebration, with beer and singing.
Bill and I figured we could handle at least half of that request.
Denison held a very special place in my father's heart. He graduated in 1949, leaving with a degree in political science, dozens of friendships that would last a lifetime and the eye of an attractive brunette from Chicago who in two years would become his wife.
(True story: My parents started dating in their senior year, shortly after my mother had gone out on a date with a guy from nearby Kenyon College by the name of Paul Newman. Sure, Mr. Newman made a couple of decent movies and got some acting awards, but Dad got the girl.)
He went back to Granville many times over the years to renew those friendships, sometimes as an alum, sometimes as a parent. His last visit was in 2009, when I took him back for his 60th reunion. He cherished every minute.
My father was both sentimental and pragmatic. In his later years, as he contemplated his death, he drafted several funeral plans and wrote them out, even including hymns he wanted played at his service. A native of Toledo, he kept changing his mind about where he wanted to be laid to rest, but finally decided to be interred in New Harmony, Ind., where he lived into his retirement and where our extended family always gathered for Thanksgiving.
So after he died in June, I had the funeral home prepare three sets of remains: one for a main burial urn for New Harmony, and two small boxes -- one to take to Denison, and the other to take to Toledo where there's a family plot.
When I told Bill of my dad's wishes, he jumped at the chance to join me on this mission. We were fraternity brothers at Denison -- Kappa Sigma -- and we've remained close over the years, serving as each other's best man and co-conspirators in many other adventures.
Once we got to Granville, we were met by Jeff Grindrod, a fellow Kappa Sig, who lives in nearby Newark. Before heading uphill to campus, we bought a case of beer and a bottle of Yukon Jack. The checkout guy looked us over and said: "You want paper, plastic or straws?"
Thus fortified, the three of us drove up to the Phi Delt house, where we connected with Kyle Brown, a senior and the current president of the fraternity. Days before, I had e-mailed him about my plans. He promptly replied he would be honored and pleased to join us for our ceremony.
He brought along three other Phi Delts, and the seven of us spent some time getting acquainted, chatting about Denison, past and present. We talked about classes, old profs, social life and our mutual dislike for the Betas. Some things just never change.
I told them about Dad -- he was called Bones back then -- and his fondness for Denison, I told them how he met my mother there and how he developed deep and abiding friendships with guys I knew mostly their nicknames: Nails, Injun Joe, Wheezer, and Country.
I retold some of his favorite stories. The cow that mysteriously appeared on the balcony of Swasey Chapel. The WWII trainer, piloted by a Phi Delt, that made a mock low-level strafing run over the football field where Denison's then-young coach Woody Hayes thought some bastard from rival Kenyon was spying on his football team. And then there was the guy who complained to my father that the light atop the tower at Swasey -- some 400 yards away -- was bothering him. So the guy pulled a rifle out of his closet and shot it out.
Probably a Beta.
Then it was time to give Dad his sendoff.
We gathered in front of the fraternity house, a stately, three-story brick building, and holding up some tumblers filled with Yukon Jack, we drank a toast to Bones. Then taking the ashes out of the box, I scattered them by the front entrance he once used two generations ago.
"Welcome home, Bones," I said, "Rest easy."
I wasn't sure how I'd feel at that precise moment, but I can only describe it as one of tremendous joy, because I knew I was doing exactly what he wished.
Bill and I spent the rest of the day roaming around campus and then went out for a nice dinner at a restaurant in Granville.
It had been a perfect day, but we had one last item of business to attend to on fraternity row.
In that letter from 20 years ago, my father mentioned how much he loved Denison and all the friends he made -- even a few Betas.
But he also recalled "the chronically stunted bushes out by the front drive at the Phi Delt house, and the grass that was always yellow ... with a peculiar ammonia scent ... and remembered being wakened many times to the raucous refrain of 'Phi Delta Theta we are pissing on your grass.' "
It was a bunch of Betas, coming back to campus after having a few beers.
And so, honor-bound, we stopped by the Beta house and giggling like a couple of college kids, relieved ourselves on the bushes.