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Tete-a-tete: Grandpa had a ‘Wonderful Life’

As Christmas approaches, our thoughts tend to turn toward those who are no longer with us. Losses loom particularly large when we face our first Christmas without a beloved family member, especially when they’ve been a regular part of our celebration.

For the first time in 20 years, Grandpa will not be spending the holiday with us. He passed away in August at the age of 92.

We’ve never had a Christmas in New Hampshire without him. Every December since we moved to the great Granite State, Grandpa and Grandma would travel from their home in Seneca Falls, NY to spend the holidays with us, leaving just after New Year’s. After Grandma passed away in 2013, Mom would drive to New York and bring Grandpa back for his holiday visit.

Before Grandma and Grandpa would make their visit, they would participate in another holiday tradition: the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival. Seneca Falls is widely thought to be the inspiration for the town of Bedford Falls, NY, the setting of Frank Capra’s classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Seneca Falls has held the festival every December since 1996 to celebrate the town’s connections to the film.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” tells the story of George Bailey, who has sacrificed his own dreams for the sake of helping others and is on the brink of committing suicide due to a devastating turn of events. Clarence, George’s guardian angel, is dispatched to intervene and shows him what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born.

Each year, the festival presents the George Bailey Award to an individual who exemplifies the spirit of George Bailey – someone who is a fixture of the community, who is generous with their time and resources and tirelessly puts others first. This year, the award will be presented to Grandpa posthumously.

I know this would’ve meant a lot to Grandpa, and it certainly means a lot to our family. It’s especially significant given that Grandpa’s similarity to George Bailey goes beyond a love of community and a desire to help others.

Like George, Grandpa wasn’t interested in taking over the family business – a farm in this case, not a building and loan association – and was eager to leave small town life behind and see the world. During their senior year of high school in 1943, Grandpa and his twin brother enlisted in the military to serve their country in World War II.

At this time, they were largely responsible for running the family farm. Their grandfather, who had previously run the farm, was injured in an accident and soon passed away, and their mother and father both worked at other jobs. Their request to enlist was denied, with the chairman of the local draft board telling them they were “drafted on the farm” because someone needed to be working the fields to provide rations for the soldiers.

Grandpa’s twin was given the opportunity to take college classes and soon left the farm for a career in sales. Grandpa, unfortunately, was not eligible for that opportunity because he was married and owned a home.

Like George, Grandpa married a charming and determined young lady who could keep up with his Charleston. Unlike George and Mary, Grandpa and Grandma actually won the Charleston contest in which they participated and did not fall into the swimming pool under the floor of the high school gym. They were high school sweethearts who went to every school dance together and continued to be dance partners until Grandma’s passing.

Their first home was an old structure that was being used for grain storage right up until the newlyweds shoveled it out. Much like Mary with the drafty old house, Grandma used her artistic sensibilities and flair for interior design to transform the former silo into a warm and welcoming home. Eventually, they were able to move into the main farmhouse, which Grandma decorated with the same artistry and skill.

Grandpa and Grandma remained on the farm for nearly 60 years and raised three children, setting aside their own dreams for the sake of the greater good. As with George and Mary, all the money they made went back into the family business to keep things going and continue taking care of people. They were never wealthy, but they were rich in the things that mattered.

As Clarence said in the film, “No man is a failure who has friends.” There was a place for everyone at the farm, with various family members and friends finding a job, a place to stay or simply a place at the table whenever they needed it.

Grandpa’s good character, friendly manner and persistence in doing what needed to be done were evident to all who knew him, and he and his twin brother were a memorable presence at the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival. Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu and famously said, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,” met Grandpa at the festival on numerous occasions over the years. She took the time to send a lovely message of condolence to our family, assuring us that Grandpa undoubtedly has his wings.

From left to right: Grandpa’s twin, actress Karolyn Grimes (who played Zuzu) and Grandpa posed for a photo together at the 2016 “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival in Seneca Falls, NY.

From left to right: Grandpa’s twin, actress Karolyn Grimes (who played Zuzu) and Grandpa posed for a photo together at the 2016 “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival in Seneca Falls, NY.

To quote Clarence once more, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

It’s only natural to experience some heaviness of heart during the holidays when you’re missing a loved one. We can celebrate their life even while we are missing their presence in ours.

No matter the hardships and disappointments we may experience, George Bailey and Grandpa remind us that when all is said and done, it’s a wonderful life.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Dec. 7, 2017


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Tete-a-tete: Drafted on the farm: Grandpa’s war at home

With Veterans Day right around the corner, many of us are thinking of the men and women who serve in the military and the families that support them. Their courage, dedication and willingness to sacrifice have helped secure the freedom and safety of those of us here in the United States and those in numerous nations around the globe.

There are many ways to serve our country apart from being an active duty soldier. For example, we often hear about the Rosie the Riveters who worked in the factories during World War II to provide munitions and other supplies for the soldiers fighting overseas. What tends to be lesser known is that during this same time period, there were a number of able-bodied men who enlisted but were never called up because the government had a different assignment for them. My grandfather was one of these men.

The year was 1943. World War II was raging, with the U.S. having been involved since December 8, 1941, the day after the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Grandpa and his twin brother were in their senior year of high school in Seneca Falls, N.Y. They lived in the neighboring town of Tyre, having moved there at age 13 with their parents and younger sister to live on the family farm.

Like many other young men at the time, Grandpa and his twin were eager to enlist in the armed forces and do their part. Their father (nicknamed “Raging Reg” in his college sports days) had served in the Army in World War I, fighting in France and Germany. Having grown up sailing on the Finger Lakes, Grandpa and his twin hoped to join the Navy and put their love of boating to use for their country.

They went with a group of their friends to enlist and returned to their daily lives of school and farm chores, waiting for their assignments. By the summer of 1943, everyone had been called into service – except Grandpa and his brother.

At that time, they had completely taken over running the family farm, which happened more out of necessity than intention. The reason they had moved back to the farm in the first place was because their grandfather, Ulysses Lincoln Grant Seekell (guess which war he was born after?), had taken a nasty fall off a load of hay and was no longer able to keep the farm going on his own. Their father and mother both worked, so the boys stepped up to help their grandfather. He was eventually completely unable to work and soon passed away, leaving Grandpa and his twin no choice but to take charge of the farm.

With so much responsibility now on their plates, Grandpa and his twin didn’t have much time to wonder why they hadn’t been called up. In the fall of 1943, however, after the crops were harvested and the haying was done, they made an appointment to see Izzy Hershberger, the chairman of the draft board in the neighboring town of Waterloo, and find out what was going on.

As Grandpa tells it, Izzy took one look at them and told them there was no way they were going into the military. “Boys, you are drafted on the farm,” he said. “We have to have somebody working that land out there.”

This wasn’t exactly what they’d been hoping to hear. Instead of setting sail for adventure like their friends, they’d be growing corn and soybeans and getting up at dawn to milk the cows. Izzy’s decree made it official.

This was the reality for many farmers during the latter years of World War II. With so many men having been drafted to fight overseas, there weren’t enough back home to work the fields and raise the crops needed to feed the country and provide rations for the soldiers. As a result, men who were actively engaged in farming had their military service deferred and were drafted on the farm instead.

Grandpa and his twin farmed together through the war’s end and into the 1950s, when his twin relocated to take a job in sales. Grandpa (and Grandma, who he married in 1946) raised three children on the farm, including my mother, and continued to work the land until they sold the property in the mid 1990s.

His tale reminds me a bit of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which Jimmy Stewart’s character sets aside his dream of leaving the small town he grew up in and traveling the world to take over his family’s business for the greater good. And given that the fictional town of Bedford Falls is said to be based on Seneca Falls, it feels like a fitting comparison.

Unlike soldiers, whose courage and sacrifices are recognized with a variety of medals and official honors, Grandpa and his twin didn’t have anything to acknowledge that they were drafted on the farm apart from their own recollection of events. This changed last year when, in honor of their 90th birthdays, their state senator, Michael F. Nozzolio, issued each of them a proclamation celebrating their life’s achievements, including their war-time service on the farm. It was a proud moment for both of them and for our family.

To everyone who has served this great nation of ours, you have my deepest thanks, from the soldiers who fight the battles to the military families who support their soldiers to the farmers and factory workers who ensure soldiers and civilians alike are well supplied. God bless you, and please know that no sacrifice or act of courage, publicly recognized or not, goes unnoticed in His eyes.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Nov. 3, 2016


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