We recently celebrated the 70th birthday of the man who, with the exception of my father, has impacted my life more than any other. Of course, my life is not the only one this great and generous man has affected. So, two weeks ago over a hundred family members and friends gathered at the Pleasant Grove Fellowship Hall for a surprise birthday party to honor a man we love, Rev. Olan Hill, Jr.
Early Saturday morning, Uncle Olan went out to breakfast and running around with his adopted son Carlos. The premise, or rather the lie, was that later Carlos would need to stop by the fellowship hall to take care of some item of business and Uncle Olan would go with him. Before Uncle Olan and Carlos arrived, the rest of us had time to visit . . . a LOT of time!
One of the conversations while we waited was about Layna's new hair color. April told us when she colored it she got it a bit darker than she had planned. Personally, I thought Layna's hair looked nice. Then Layna told us that Papa (Uncle Eugene, my daddy's older brother) said he didn't like it. I was thinking that was a pretty good sign, considering that Uncle Eugene has never been a fashion icon from whom any of us sought advice. But that wasn't all. Layna told us she said, "Well, Papa, your hair is yellow!" We all laughed so hard because we knew what she was talking about. Uncle Eugene and Aunt Mary have lots of iron in their water. Of course, Aunt Mary's hair is snow white and beautiful. Can't figure that one out. Layna, while you were at it, why didn't you mention the comb-over? NOTE: I don't have to worry about Uncle Eugene reading this because he refuses to buy a computer!
I remember Uncle Olan’s fiftieth birthday party like it was yesterday, right here in this very room. Do you remember the “Over the Hill” theme? As Uncle Olan would say, it was just “the other day.” I have pictures in my archives and look at them occasionally. Interesting . . . I was only thirty at the time, I had hair then, and Granny Hinson was there. I guess it wasn’t yesterday, and in a few weeks it will be my turn to go over the hill, too.
I remember Uncle Olan’s retirement reception, also in this very room. Part of this tribute is excerpted from a piece I wrote for that occasion. But that was over a decade ago, and because the truth remains and it was such a well-written piece, I think it bears repeating. Besides, many of you weren’t there the first time I read it, and those of you who were, don’t remember it.
Reflecting on Uncle Olan’s life, I’m reminded of a verse from the Old Testament that speaks of orphans and strays, something both he and I can relate to.
The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land . . . .I graduated from Asunción Christian Academy in July 1976. I was excited about coming back to the States, as Mama and I boarded the plane. Uncle Olan and Aunt Mary Lou had agreed to let me stay with them until classes started at Southeastern in the fall. Several days later when Mama returned to Paraguay, she knew she had left me in good hands. I know this is Uncle Olan’s shindig, but you can’t really speak of him without mentioning Aunt Mary Lou. If it weren’t for her, he would never have become my uncle or surrogate father. So I’ll put her first, like Uncle Olan always does.Leviticus 19:3
How much closer to having my own mama could I get? She loved me as her own. She signed with me to open my first checking account and taught me how to balance my checkbook. (Somewhere along the way I forgot how. I think I need a refresher course.)
She took me to Southeastern to help set up my apartment. She thought she was just caring for me that first summer until I started college. Imagine her surprise when she discovered I was coming home every weekend for the next three years. But she didn’t let on.
I was there for Christmas and birthdays, and she bought presents for me just like she did for Holli, Doyle, and Chuckie.
She says I never complained about her cooking, and I always ate what she prepared. What was there to complain about? It tasted just like home.
If I got sick at school, I knew I could come home, and Aunt Mary Lou would make me feel better. She wasn’t too proud to hold my head. (Some of you know what that means.)
She often took in my friends from Southeastern—Jack & Denise, April, Jimearl—and they came home for the weekends, too.
Her love and care for me never wavered, not even to this day.
Uncle Olan loved me, too. I wasn’t even his blood kin, but it felt like it. He paid for my meals when we went out to eat . . . of course he usually paid for everybody seated at the table.
He bought my first car, a blue Volkswagen Flintstonemobile. I attempted to pay him back until I burnt up the engine. “Oh, that’s what that little red light means . . . .”
He bought my second car, too, a yellow Plymouth Duster hot rod with a Holley carburetor you could hear from miles around. I just assumed that mechanic services came with the car, because Uncle Olan was always there to help me when it broke down. Once, when I was stranded in the parking garage at Maas Brothers in Lakeland, he came to tow me home, breaking the grill on the front of his Plymouth Volaré station wagon in the process. (Yes, that was the same Volaré we too to Oklahoma when Chuckie climbed from the front, to the middle, to the back, to the middle, to the front, the whole trip.)
Another time when I was at home and couldn’t get the Duster cranked, he left work in Tampa and drove all the way to Durant just to help me get it going. Uncle Olan, don’t think for a minute that I’ve forgotten. I don’t care what anybody says about his proficiency at plumbing or painting, I’ve always thought he could fix anything.
It was through Uncle Olan that I began to see the laws of the harvest come full circle, about receiving a hundredfold return in this life. He was the man who would give you the shirt off his back, unless of course he needed it to wipe up spilt varnish from Aunt Mary Lou’s white leather furniture. And he got his returns. Let’s see, there was the video camera he won at the mall, and the truck he won at Disney World, and the Caribbean cruise, and the original oil painting from a Janette Oke book . . . .
Many times I have heard Uncle Olan tell the story of how he, too, was an orphan from Oklahoma sent to California with strangers on the back of a pickup truck, how he wandered the country, how his pants were so dirty he stood them up in the corner at night, how he made his way to Florida by way of Japan, MacDill Air Force Base, Montez Green, and Jesus. How Aunt Elsie and Granny Hinson and others took him in and loved him, and ultimately how Aunt Mary Lou agreed to marry him.
This Oklahoma orphan went to college, earned two degrees, became an ordained minister, a teacher, a public school administrator, a merchant, a notary, an accountant, and local justice of the peace. People from miles around—Mexicans, migrants, transients, rednecks, and what some would call “poor white trash”—knew there was a man at 1503 Sydney Dover Rd. who would help them out, loan them a little money, prepare their taxes, or marry them in the middle of the night.
Everyone just seems to feel comfortable around Uncle Olan. Perhaps that’s why one of the multitude of scruffy little boys who always seemed to live in the house down on the corner knocked on the front door one day and asked Aunt Mary Lou, “Can Chuckie’s daddy come out and play?”
I recall a phone conversation I had with April about Uncle Olan. I don’t remember exactly when it was, but it was “the other day.” I don’t remember our conversation verbatim, but I remember talking about how much we loved him, how he was always so positive and lifted our spirits when we were around him, and how no one else could have joined our family and become such a vital part more than Uncle Olan.
Yes, he loved me then. He loves me now. How do I know? Because every time he sees me, he puts his arms around me, kisses my cheek, and says, “I love you, babe.” He still sees me as his own, and he is mine as well.
Happy birthday, Uncle Olan! I hope you have seventy more. And Aunt Mary Lou, thank you for snagging this great man!