In the 1940s, my grandmother was summoned to school to discuss her son, Buddy, who wasn’t paying attention in class.
“I don’t know where his mind is,” the teacher lamented. “I know exactly where his mind is,” my grandmother answered. “It’s back home in our workshop. He’s thinking about the next thing he wants to build.”
My Uncle Buddy Tucker’s mind stayed on building things for most of his life. He died last week, just shy of his 85th birthday.
Uncle Buddy finished college and became a civil servant, but he was never much for sitting behind a desk. What he really liked was working with his hands, teaching himself through what today we call tactile learning. Modern educators understand that some of the world’s brightest students learn best by doing. It’s why, across the country these days, “maker spaces” are sprouting up to connect youngsters with the tools and materials they need to make their bright ideas into a reality.
Uncle Buddy was a maker supreme, among the smartest men I’ve known. Years ago, he saw a device for lining crop rows with spools of plastic sheeting to keep out the weeds, then designed and built a better version himself. He offered his services to local farmers, working evenings and weekends to earn extra money for his children’s education. Buddy farmed himself, growing strawberries and bell peppers that he shared with my family. In visits to pick berries, I got my first taste of what real work is.
He built a device to dig potatoes, too, and just for fun, he restored a 1956 Buick. The car was similar to one he’d driven on his wedding day, and its restoration was a kind of valentine to Aunt Rosie, the love of his life.
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As his family grew to include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he sketched and built a big new gathering room on the back of his home. It’s where we went to celebrate Buddy’s life after the funeral.
When my mother began having children, Buddy built her a lovely armoire for the nursery room, which I eventually used for my own children. Repainting the armoire, I noticed the word “Frigidaire” scrolled faintly inside. Buddy, a child of the Depression who hated waste, had recycled a refrigerator’s plywood packing case to line one of the cabinet walls.
Not long before Buddy died, I thought of him while reading “The American Spirit,” a new book by bestselling history author David McCullough. Among other things, McCullough writes about Simon Willard, the 19th-century craftsman, largely self-taught, who built the clock that still stands in the halls of Congress.
McCullough hints that the clock, resting among all those dawdlers and deliberators, shows where America’s real promise lies. The country’s greatness comes from dreamers willing to roll up their sleeves, get dirty and build things.
Uncle Buddy was such a man, and there aren’t enough of them.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.
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