Indian Summer

October 11, 2003

Indian summer came to Michigan last week.  For the last weeks of September and the first week of October it was unseasonably cold and wet, probably the remnants of Hurricane Isabel being spent on us.  Last Sunday it warmed enough for me to do yard work in a T-shirt, and Monday was downright warm. 

Up at Lily Lake near Harrison where my parents have their home the water has been down significantly.   For the past several years, dry summers have led to constantly lower lake levels. The residents there are concerned that it may be difficult to get the pontoons out of the water this fall.

 My parents became full-time residents at the lake in 1992, when my dad had the cottage they bought jacked up in the air so that he could add a full basement under it and put on an addition that more than doubled the size of the house.  This was their retirement home, and was as perfect for them as one could ask.

My parents retired from teaching in 1985.  Mom taught elementary school and dad taught high school industrial education – never “shop”.  They used to say that mom started them up and dad finished them off.  They bought the cottage on the lake and then 80 acres of woods down at the other end of the lake and eventually found that they were making a trip back to Essexville once a week to mow the lawn.  They sold the house my father had built in 1969 and made Lily Lake their permanent home.

My dad was one of those guys who retires but doesn’t stop working.  He always had a million projects going.  His workshop, desk and barn were a mess; he was just too busy to spend time cleaning.  Also contributing to the chaos was the fact that he never got rid of anything.  He grew up in a dirt poor family as the oldest of ten and knew the value of a penny.  He kept detailed records of where his money went.  He kept a book in his glovebox that recorded every expense for the car.  I have the ones that include the 1960 Corvair he bought new on December 19, 1959 for $2,216.30.  I guess he tricked it out a bit; the book shows he sprung $5.95 for an outside mirror at 103 miles and another $59.50 for a radio at 1,500 miles.  When he traded the car in on October 11, 1966 for a ’66 Chevy Bel Air he got $669 for it; he subtracted this from the $4,317.76 he spent purchasing, maintaining and operating the car over 80,880 miles and determined that his cost of operation was 4.5 cents per mile.  Of course, the books holding this data were saved long after their usefulness had ended.

Retirement suited my parents well.  The 80 acres became “Witte’s Woods” and were dad’s playground.  He made roads in the woods, naming one after each child, grandchild and spouse.  He had tractors and sawmills, a backhoe and snowmobiles.  He built a “sugar shack” in the woods for making maple syrup and each spring the sweet smell of boiling sap rolled out of the quaint little building. 

In addition to all of his activities in the woods, he made woodworking projects to sell at bazaars or give to grandchildren.  His basement housed a woodshop that would make some high schools jealous, and it saw frequent use.  Last fall, he reroofed his house and garage by himself.  I asked if at the age of 69 it wouldn’t be appropriate to have the shingles delivered to the roof, but he said that they would just get in the way up there.  This spring one of his neighbors had dozens of trees cut down on their lot, so he had the wood piled on his lot across the street and started splitting it by hand.

Genealogy was another big interest my dad had.  Mom tolerated this with infinite patience, as she did all of my father’s pursuits.  She was content to be along, even if she did not care so much about which Bechtel was related to which Dowker.  She tagged along with him when he went to photograph gravestones at various cemeteries for a genealogy website.

Between all of this, my father was the guy everyone would call if they needed help.  Much of the woodworking in my parent’s church was the product of his efforts.  Anytime anyone was in the middle of a home improvement project and got stuck, he got them unstuck.  He mowed the neighbors’ yards, chopped wood and gave it to widows in the church, wired his son’s barn, tiled his daughter’s house, and along the way made all sorts of loans and gifts to help out those around him.  

Last Tuesday, the 7th, was my daughter Allison’s eleventh birthday.  Dad started the day by sending Allie an electronic birthday card and then called his brother Stu, whom he talked to just about every day at 6:45  a.m. (before the rates went up).  Then he made a contact sheet in Word of the digital photos he had taken before at Hope Lutheran Church of gravestones in their cemetery.  Among the headstones he photographed were those of his father and mother who are buried there.

That done he headed down the woods.  He had been shoveling the muck away from the dock at the cove so that he would be able to get a boat in when the water came back up.  It was a beautiful fall day.  The leaves were just starting to turn and mist was rising from the lake.  The morning started cool but then warmed rapidly on its way to a comfortable high in the mid-seventies. 

There in his woods he loved so much on that beautiful day my father had a heart attack and died.  He would have been 70 this coming Friday, but instead, he was laid to rest in the cemetery in Rhodes near two of his brothers, his brother-in-law and his parents.  He received a 21-gun salute from an Air Force honor guard for his service in the Air Force and the Reserves, from which he retired as a Lt. Colonel.

This last week has been the hardest of my life.  The reason that I am writing this is to celebrate the life of the greatest man I have ever known.  What I have written here is such a small portion of what my father was, and the loss is more than I can express.

My dad carried this poem in his wallet:

A Little Fellow Follows Me

A careful man I want to be

A little fellow follows me;

I do not dare to go astray,

For fear he’ll go the self-same way.


I cannot once escape his eyes,

Whate’er he sees me do, he tries;

Like me, he says he's going to be

The little chap who follows me.


He thinks that I am good and fine,

Believes in every word of mine;

The base in me he must not see,

The little chap who follows me.


I must remember as I go,

Through summer’s sun and winter’s snow

I’m building for the years to be,

That little chap who follows me.


I can only say that the little fellow who followed him loved him dearly and will miss him more than words can say.

Carl William Witte

October 17, 1933 - October 7, 2003

My eulogy from the funeral service.

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Copyright Norman C. Witte 2003