Last Friday, a member of our community passed away at the age of 95. When viewed from a distance, the loss of someone so elderly should not come as a surprise. At least, not a total surprise. Not really. Living for just a few years shy of a century is, after all, an extraordinary amount of time for a man to walk this earth. Yet, news of his passing still came as a shock because, even at 95 years old, even as he needed a wheelchair to get around or occasionally haD to ask someone to repeat themselves because his hearing was not as good as it once was, even as the relentless ravages of time had left their mark on him in different ways, LG Vanderwork was as vibrant and unique and curious and inventive as he had been his entire life.
I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him for years and years as did many people in the county; however, I still count myself very lucky for having been given the chance to speak with him about his life over the course of several afternoons. And, as I grieve his passing and grieve for the sorrow felt by those who loved him so deeply and whom he loved so deeply in return, I’m also mindful of—and grateful for—the lessons he taught just by the sheer virtue of being who he was.
The world may idolize the beauty of youth, but those who reach out and embrace life in all its richness are young at heart, and being young at heart is where true beauty abides. Yes, there may have been hardships and tragedies and moments of very real and almost intolerable pain, but that persistent quest and zest for living is what keeps us looking ahead with hopeful anticipation to whatever may be just down the road. And, perhaps, therein lies the key to living not just a long life, but a good life, as well.
LG Vanderwork lived a good life. The story that follows is printed in a humble celebration of those years.
LONG TIME GONE and the good life of L.G. VANDERWORK
As Laverne Gail Vanderwork tells the story of his life, he harkens back more than 90 years to the time when he was a child. It takes no imagination at all to see the boy he must have been. It’s still there in his clear, wide, blue eyed gaze. It’s there in his strong and impassioned voice and in the tales he tells, especially the funny ones that pull just a bit at the corner of his mouth as he speaks and shakes his head a bit self-consciously. It’s there in the content of his stories which reflect, even as a boy, his deep intelligence, precision and insistence on doing things in his own way--a way tempered by an equally strong humility that shuts down any appearance of pride. It’s there in his everlasting curiosity and insistence on “fixing” those things that are broken.
LG has lived any number of lives in the 94 years he’s been drawing breath, and his experiences range from a violin performance on the radio to racing his airplane between grain elevators to unexpected but hard earned fortune to an explosion so fierce and deadly that, even half a century later when Doc examined him for the first time, he said, “Boy, that LG…the pain must have been terrible, and to come back the way he did? All I can say is…he’s one tough son-of-a-bitch.”
Was it a bit of a…blunt…description? Yes. It was also one that made LG laugh and even blush, just a little.
On April 29, 1924 on a farm near Coats, Kansas, LG Vanderwork was born to Archie Carl and Eva Ora Vanderwork. Archie, who was a talented mechanic in ways that came more from instinct than formal education, owned an auto repair shop in Greensburg, Kansas. In 1927, when LG was just 3 years old, that same talent took Archie and family to Tacoma, Washington where, while living on the shores of the Puget Sound, he worked for 3 years building bridges over the tributaries that emptied into the larger estuary. In 1930, the family moved back to Waukomis, Oklahoma where they lived and worked on one of their family’s farms.
LG started first grade in Waukomis, attending the Pioneer School that his family had helped to build. Over the next twelve years, the family would move four more times. “Somebody would call up and say, ‘Hey, we got a farm up here needs to be worked, why don’t you come up here?’”, LG says. “So, my dad would say, okay, and we’d go on up and help ‘em out. Then, he might say that something else looked good, so we’d take off and give that a try. You know, we moved so much that, well, we got to be real good at it.”
Despite the frequent moves, the Vanderworks were as stable and filled with as many aspirations as anyone. Education mattered to the family, and, no matter what, LG continued going to school. But school wasn’t his only talent; he also had an unusually beautiful singing voice, and Eva, his mother, was not about to let that go to waste. She encouraged him in music—singing, playing the piano, the cornet and the violin. In fact, when LG was about 8 years old and the family was living near Enid, Oklahoma, he was chosen to play Christmas songs on the violin over the local radio station—a memory he recalls with a slight smile and that characteristic shrug of his shoulders.
The Dirty Thirties were, of course, a challenge for the family but no more so than for anyone else in Oklahoma at the time. “The dust storms were terrible,” LG says. “You could see ‘em coming, and when they hit, well, you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face. The air was that dark and full of dust. My mother would hang wet sheets over the windows to keep the dust out, and then we’d all sit together in a small room. Was I scared?” He stops for a minute and, in his characteristic style, thinks before answering. “No, I wasn’t scared. We were all together, and, when it was over, we were all right. But that dust sure caused problems.”
He describes the difficulties people had with driving their cars into dust storms and their cars suddenly stalling. “People thought it was the dust clogging up the gas, but that wasn’t it, at all. No,” he continues, “it was the static electricity in the dirt. So, my dad would just take a 20’ log chain and drag it behind the car. That was the ground, see. That grounded the car. People asked him, ‘what are you doin’?’ So, he’d tell them and they’d try it and they would come back and say, ‘why, you’re right!’ Nobody told him to do that. He just figured that out on his own.”
In 1942, LG graduated from high school in Thayer, Kansas, at which point he and his mother joined his father who’d gone on ahead to Towner where the family was farming wheat. Archie and Eva offered to send LG to college if he wanted to go, but LG declined, preferring to stay and work with his father on the farm his father had purchased.
It was 1943. At that time, the Methodist church in Towner was in need of a minister as was the church located in Vernon. It so happened that two ministers were available—Reverend Lyle Gaither and his daughter, Phyllis—and the choice was made for Lyle to go to Towner, leaving Phyllis to preach in Vernon. She was okay with that. According to LG, she preferred as it sounded “more romantic than a town named Towner.”
In the summer of 1943, LG, his friend, Skeeter Scott, and Skeeter’s girlfriend were headed to the movies. Skeeter suggested LG ask “the preacher’s daughter” to go along, an idea LG resisted, at first. And then something changed his mind, causing him to turn around and drive his Coupe up to the reverend’s house. “Phyllis’ sister answered the door, and I asked if her sister wanted to go to the show. Well, I heard Phyllis yell ‘Yeeesss!’ way in the back of the house and then I saw her pulling the curlers out of her hair.” His smile is genuine and tender and slightly shy, as if he still can’t believe his good luck. “Was it love at first sight? Ohhh, I don’t know. Yes, I guess so. It sure turned out okay.”
In May of 1944, LG and Phyllis decided to get married and went to Aztec, New Mexico where Phyllis’ father was a minister with the local church and could do the honors. “But they wouldn’t let us get married until they talked to my parents,” LG says, “and my folks didn’t know anything about it. Well, the only phone in Towner was in the back of the grocery store, so I had to call and then somebody had to go twelve miles out to the farm to get my dad and bring him back and…well, it took some time, but we finally got it done and got married.”
And thus began a marriage that was equal parts husband and wife and best friends. Phyllis loved to play pranks and would do things like making a sandwich for LG’s lunch that had cardboard instead of lunchmeat or putting Jello in a Thermos instead of coffee. Not to be outdone, LG did his part, as well. He recalled the time he took her for a drive and, acting as if it was a spontaneous decision, drove their car into a square culvert that was so tight they couldn’t even open the doors. He then pretended the car had run out of gas with no way for them to get out. “About the time I saw her getting all white and nervous, I started the car and told her it was just a joke.”
One of the joys of LG’s life, and a talent for which he became locally famous, was being a pilot. When asked how he learned to fly, he says, “I took one lesson.” Funny, and, as it turns out, not far from the truth. LG was taught to fly by a retired Navy pilot who had LG solo after just four hours in the plane, reportedly saying, “LG, I haven’t touched the controls once since you got in the plane. So, you just take off, fly around for a bit and then land.”
When asked to explain it, LG simply says, “I don’t know what it was, I just seemed to take to it, like it was the most natural thing.” And so, it was. LG didn’t spend enormous amounts of time in the cockpit, but what time was spent was sheer joy. He describes flying Phyllis to Missouri to see her family early in the morning and being back at home by 6 that night. He describes deliberately flying into a large bank of clouds to see if it’s true about losing your orientation when you can’t see the ground. He describes getting caught in fog and landing at an airport to the shock and amazement of the ground crew who hadn’t seen a plane land in that kind of fog…ever.
And he describes being in an air race in Towner where he and his opponent used the grain elevators as if they were pile-ons in an obstacle course. “It was all going good until all of a sudden I see a set of wheels just a few feet in front of my propeller. It was the guy I was racing,” he says, still slightly amazed, “so I just lowered the plane. He didn’t even realize he was that close, but if he’d been just a few feet closer, well, we both would have been on the ground.” He just smiles and, again, shrugs.
Through a series of circumstances, being the right guy at the right place and no small amount of hard work and honest business practices, LG ran a very successful propane business for a number of years that had him traveling all over Colorado.
However, it was the same business that almost took his life.
He was in Idaho Springs and a series of events had resulted in the hose on one of his propane tanks he was hauling with his truck rupturing and propane filling the air. The sheriff had stopped all traffic as had a few other truckers, and LG had gone to the truck where he was looking for a spigot to shut off the propane, only to discover the rupture had broken the shut off valve. No sooner had LG stuck his hand in the hose than a man with his wife and daughter in the car tried to drive around the sheriff and through the cloud of gas. His car, naturally, stalled and when he tried to restart it, the spark from the ignition ignited the cloud of gas, killing his daughter, severely burning his wife and blowing LG back at least 40 feet. The skin on his face, his hands and his legs below his coat were covered in third degree burns. It took several years and more than several operations for LG to heal, but heal he did, only to get back to work.
And such is just part of the story of LG Vanderwork’s experiences. In his own words, “There’s so much more to tell”, and there’s no doubt that’s true. But of the many things to be learned from just the briefest glimpse of his life thus far, it’s the peace to be found in his answer to the last question. Does he have any regrets? At that, he stops, thinks for a moment and says, “No. I might have done things differently, but I don’t have a single regret. Not one.”