My father-in-law, Carroll Krupp, died yesterday. He lived a long time – 87 years – and yet his death is still a shock, still a stinging reminder that a life, crammed full of joy and sorrow and a million moments that can never be adequately captured, can be snuffed in an instant. He was just a man, like every other man, and there will never be another like him. It is always that way.
Carroll and I had a rocky history. He didn’t want me to marry his daughter, and I married her anyway. He was looking for a doctor or a lawyer for a son-in-law, or better yet, an engineer like himself, and my liberal arts “I want to write the Great American Novel” ways didn’t inspire much hope in my abilities to perform as the all-important Protector and Provider. He made life hell for a while, and he almost didn’t come to our wedding. But on the morning of our marriage he came to me, told me that he had spent a sleepless night, and with tears in his eyes apologized for his behavior and wished me well. I don’t think he ever really understood me. I’m not sure I ever really understood him. But after twenty-three years of wary circling we had reached a sort of grudging mutual admiration. I think he was beginning to be convinced that it just might last.
His own marriage lasted 63 years. He tried and tried and tried to have a son, and then he tried and tried and tried some more. He ended up with six girls – smart, passionate, and opinionated, one and all, and a smart, passionate, opinionated wife. I married his youngest daughter Kate, the surprise fruit of his loins when he and his wife Irene were forty years old. Carroll did what any self-respecting male of his generation would have done under the circumstances; he retreated to the shop and the garage.
And he designed and made things, beautiful things, for his family – tables, desks, entertainment centers, chairs, stereo cabinets. He designed and built his own automobile, dubbed “The Bobcat,” from the blueprints on up, and molded the fiberglass for the body by heating it in the kitchen oven. He made model airplanes – not the kind you put together with Elmer’s glue, but the kind that really fly – and then he flew them in competitions. And won. Then he went to work Monday through Friday and made more things, things that we all now take for granted – the rubber gasoline hose at the gas pump, the carbon brakes that stop the airplanes we fly in, parts of the the suit that Neil Armstrong wore when he strolled on the moon.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Carroll Krupp was a mechanical genius. He was not so much an engineer as a good, old-fashioned inventor, a latter-day Thomas Edison, and when he died he had more than forty patents to his name. He did it with a high school education and a native ability that was astounding. For whatever reasons – his inherent shyness, his stoic German upbringing that frowned upon overt displays of emotion – he wouldn’t or couldn’t express his love for his family verbally. So he did it the only way he knew how; he made love, one beautiful work at a time. And he bestowed the gifts of his imagination and craftsmanship again and again on those he loved.
The fruits of his labor are all around me. They fill my home. But I see Carroll’s legacy most clearly when I leave home, as I do every Thanksgiving holiday. Thirty-five of us – four generations of the patriarch and matriarch, their daughters and son-in-laws, the grandkids and great grandkids, show up at a state park in southeast Ohio and simply relate – laugh, cry, share our lives with one another. We do it every year, and no one would miss it. My nieces and nephews are all grown up now, scattered across the country, raising families of their own. And they keep showing up, again and again, because they know what we all know: this is something special. Carroll didn’t make functional furniture. It was far too beautiful for that. But he did something better, something nearly miraculous in these dysfunctional times; he made a functional family. In the end, the best thing he built was a life, a family, a legacy that ripples generations down the line. He was a good man. I miss him.