Memorial Service for James Jewel Geary

May 14, 1914 - February 25, 2017

Reflections by Merle Wenger March 18, 2017
Celebrated at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park

Welcoming Remarks

Good Morning. I want to welcome each of you to this James Jewel Geary Memorial service.  I welcome his wife, Pat, Jim and Pat’s children Anne, Ellen, Martha, Laetitia, Leslie and Michael, as well as all of the extended family, and together with them we welcome the friends and associates of a long life, as well as the directors and staff here at the museum who have graciously provided this space for this memorial service.  If you knew Jim, I think you would agree, that in a sense, he is present here today also, as his heart and hand will always be.  I can't think of another spot on this earth that would be as fitting to honor this man's life--the museum that he helped create from the initial vision to the position it holds today, that honors the glory as well as the horror of our country’s Civil War.  When Lt Colonel Troy Marshall gave us a brief tour here as we visited to plan this service, he pointed out the stylistic differences in the contemporary art of the 19th Century painters--those that showed a romantic picture-perfect view of soldiers marching in ordered file, and those that showed the pain and horror, the wounded, the torn uniforms of war.  These were the pictures chosen to decorate the post-war homes, some having lost sons or husbands, some caring for their wounded, some having suffered cataclysmic devastation yet still living and uninjured.

And thus we are gathered here today, united by the completion of a man's life, viewing the entire 102 year hoop, its ends forged together now--a life circle made whole by days of glory and days of strife.  The hallowed sense we feel at these grounds is the same we feel when a loved one dies.  We are left with understanding, respect, reverence, a bit of mystery, and as all historians know, we come to some conclusions on our subject.   We are connected here by one man, his work, by all the lives he touched, by this museum and by the Civil War.  This is a one-time meeting to honor a one-of-a-kind man. Welcome

Main Talk: The Examined Life

Everyone here today knows that James Jewel Geary was a remarkable man.  In one way or another, as husband, father, grandfather or great-grandfather or friend, Jim was just a bit out of the ordinary. 

I noticed that when some 15 years ago Jim asked me if I would conduct his memorial service.  l liked Jim and had gotten to know him quite well in our Unitarian Universalist adult study group.  I was honored, a bit perplexed, accepted the challenge, and set about to research my subject.  Fortunately I had 15 years to observe what made Jim special.  I believe what Jim was telling me is that life matters, that he lived his life as though it mattered, and he wanted attention paid to that. That makes sense to me. It was not meant to be boastful or arrogant, just an intentional lesson.

Jim never tired of examining life. Jim liked to teach. His honesty was compelling. He valued the company of men and women equally. Jim lived to a level of maturity where he had no fear of admitting mistakes. Jim appreciated the simple things of life—that put home and family at the top of the list.

In the 1980's Jim returned to study, earning a degree in philosophy at JMU.  I noticed this when he would quote Spinoza or Descartes and had such a clear conviction of his own defining framework of determinism.  He was quick to reinforce his philosophy by stating, that like Einstein, he believed free choice was mostly an illusion.  I challenged him on that with my belief that our choice to become educated, to become reborn in our view of the world, so to speak, flew in the face of  the philosophy of determinism.  He challenged back that it might be sentimentally comforting to claim such hubris, but in fact it was more likely that my cultural and genetic heritage had made the decision for me. It was difficult to disagree. As usual Jim had examined most of these rabbit hole-objections.

Jim loved this place.  I mean he loved the United Sates of America--he especially loved all 32 national parks he visited with Pat. He taught me to love the desert when he asked our book group to read Desert Solitaire. He loved Pennsylvania where he was born, but he loved Virginia most--he loved the Shenandoah Valley and his life fully bloomed here at the Civil War museum of the New Market Battlefield.  From the first time he drove me here for a guided tour, stopping at the New Market Southern Kitchen for a hardy chicken dinner lunch, Jim's presentation about the importance of this project that honored and defined his life, as well as the life of our nation, flowed out as if he were a trained museum docent.  First to hear about the town, his moving here, him pointing out the office he worked in, how his desk was positioned, how his work day unfolded, then after lunch driving me here to walk the Field of Lost Shoes, narrated so vividly that I almost wanted to crawl in the grass to see if I could find any decayed shoe leather.   And finally after his one hour tour introduction we entered this building, you felt as if you were entering a temple, Jim recounted each of the challenges with architects, exhibit designers, builders, artists, and budgets.  Jim enjoyed his authority here: he had spent a great part of his life making sure everything from the stunning slab glass wall in the entry corridor, as well as the electrified exhibits were both aesthetic and factual. Jim liked to teach.  What I didn't learn the first time, he made sure to emphasize when we paid a return visit.

Perhaps because he had five daughters whom he talked about all the time, I observed Jim's fondness for women.  That extended as well to his wife Pat, whom he complimented almost every time I was in their presence.  I suppose it began with those relationships with his mother, his grandmother and his Aunt. He gives them credit for shaping his philosophy, his politics and intellect.  It seems when Jim grew up, he wanted to be as smart as they were.  We can feel all Jim’s charm in this quote from his talk “Summing Up” which he gave in May 2007.

“What have I learned about women? Oh, that’s a dangerous and abstruse subject. But I will hazard a theory, that I am sure many others hold. I believe that, generally speaking, what a woman most wants from a man, more than anything, is a feeling of security. It’s not sex, as some crude men seem to think; it’s not luxuries, diamond rings and the like.  It is the feeling that he loves her, needs her, that she is important to him, that he admires and respects her as a whole woman, mental as well as physical, that he will be faithful, and will always provide for her. . . .”

Another critical aspect of my observation in what made Jim tick, was his admission of personal growth during his 102 year life. In services at Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalists and in our adult study group Jim described how he had once held racist views but learned that it was wrong and changed his beliefs.  Equally instructive was when he told us how he had been homophobic in his youth and expanded his view beyond that ignorance.  Further, he recounted how his eager tendency to name-drop was an ego trip he could forgo, gaining a chuckle as he recounted how Pat would tease him asking if she might touch him, to emphasize the celebrity that he claimed by his acquaintance.  Eventually Jim had little tolerance for narrow mindedness, he honored diversity.  His love of people and the return affection he received were evidence that here was a man who had risen above the norm.  It was for this examination of truth that I borrowed from Socrates the title of this Jim Geary memorial service.  If “the unexamined life is not worth living,” then Jim, I believe, lived a most worthwhile life. This uncommon honesty, when any person is able to discuss their weaknesses, the errors of their ways, as opposed to only exposing the polished side of the apple, is a refreshingly rare trait.

Jim liked the simple things of life as well.  

I quote from his April 2004 writing “On Nature”:

“I have a fascination. I am fascinated by babies. I can't take my eyes off them. It is supposed to be women who gather around and ooh and awe over babies. Well, I don't ooh and awe; and my fascination is philosophical and spiritual. In fact, babies may give me more spiritual insight than the stars. I look at one of those big eyed bundles of protoplasm, and I wonder what the adult will be like and what will happen to it. Will it be a corporate president, an artist, a dancer, a bum, a derelict, a schizophrenic? The potential for whatever, is all there, wrapped up in that tiny babe. A baby represents the greatest miracle, not just the miracle of life, but the miracle of evolution, of nature's greatest achievement to date, the human being, the human brain. In all the long history of our earth, there has never been anything like us.”

This statement in particular reminds me of a stamp collector examining his collection, holding the glass up close to the specimen, perhaps giving him some insight into the intentions of the engraver, as Jim and Pat so often did with their study of genealogy. To study life up close provided a certain enjoyment.

I remember once in the early 2000's when Jim and Pat purchased some new bedroom furniture, his ear-to-ear smile when he told me how much he enjoyed having breakfast, starting with orange juice and toast, in bed with Pat EVERY morning.    I didn't quiz him on it, but I knew they had a lifetime of memories to share, the walls of their home covered with her intricate needlepoint and his stunning photography.  From the expansive vision evidenced in those panoramas of national parks to the careful stitches of Pat's needlepoint, I knew that theirs was a happy home.  I could see how they complemented each other.  I imagined as they enjoyed their orange juice they were either wrapping up the details of their last cross country trip or planning their next.  I knew Jim was educating himself and mesmerizing Pat.  I knew that Pat was like the accountant making sure everything was in balance.

He wrote to me on October 7 of 2012, as usual, not presumptuous about the remaining years of his life:

We have returned from Carolina's wavy shore;
The roaring, tumbling surf we'll see no more.
It's good to go and its good to come back
To our cozy, comfortable, and familiar shack,
To the hill and the place we both adore.

I’m sure if Jim were here I'm sure he would have a few supplementary tales to tell--maybe a correction or too.  I loved the honesty he extended to me about my writing, or philosophizing, letting me know when he thought it was inspiring another time telling me my pile of words strung together was a real mess. Jim could critique you with a twinkle in his eye that made you feel like he was just being an honorable father. Perhaps that’s the benefit I had of knowing Jim for only the last 20 years of his life—the more messy years behind him.

I appreciated when we wrote poetry back and forth. You can see in this poem, from what I would call our limerick period, sent my way for my 61st birthday on July 5, 2013, that Jim sensed the difference in our age and perhaps enjoyed his seniority.

Hello there birthday boy!
How is it like for you
To reach the count
Where you can say without a doubt,
"I'm now big six and one,
Or thereabout ."
Come let us take a hold,
It's neither young nor old.
Perhaps it's an ideal mark
Where our nakedness is stark;
A point to stop and contemplate;
To think about the future,
To think about the past.
To confront at last
The good, the bad we nurture.
It soon will be two thirds the way
To that ultimate goal, the century mark,
And calls for a prolonged and happy day.
It is not a number round,
Such non-round numbers
  In life abound.
But it says out loud,
"I'm on my way
To that goal of all,
The century's final day.

I loved that Jim never stopped examining life--that he liked teaching, that he valued honesty, and friendship, that he grew to admit his mistakes, and that he appreciated the simple things of life. I think Jim taught us that the examination of life takes on an aspect of the reverent, much like this museum, without claiming to be religious, celebrates life in such a way that transcends simple everyday experience to a level that feels timeless, even eternal. The examined life absorbs the mundane aspects and amplifies the sum total. I believe we honor the life of Jim Geary when we comprehend this lesson.