Last October 18, Harry McGrath concluded his journey in this world, a very long one. He was 100 years old, so old that those of us who remember him from his working days as a teacher in Winona’s public school system are getting old ourselves. Harry taught geography, at least he did when I was a seventh grader. I think they call it social sciences now, but geography was plenty fascinating back then, foreign lands whose capitols had strange-sounding names like Warsaw, Poland, a country whose agricultural produce leaned heavily to potatoes, and famous for fine crystal (a lot like Ireland, I remember).
Harry was kindly, bemused, avuncular, always wearing a coat and tie as most of the teachers did in those days. He was no disciplinarian, but not even the roughnecks ever gave him any trouble, simply because he was such a nice, decent person that it never occurred to anyone that he should be treated other than accordingly. Though likely to wander off on a tangent in the middle of a subject, he seldom lost his students’ attention, because he was a bright man who kept up with things, unlikely to trot out the well-worn hobbyhorse lecture to the muttered chorus, “Oh no, here we go again.”
Well up to and after he hit the century mark last March, he was still bright and up on things, even driving his car until recently, although to the great disconcert of his daughter Peggy, who graduated one year after me from Winona High those years ago. My mother was also deeply suspicious of Harry’s continued forays behind the wheel, refusing his offers to chauffeur her here or there.
In one of life’s sweet ironies she lived across the hall on the third floor of Callista Court for the last five years of Harry’s sojourn there. She and my dad had become friends with Harry and his wife, Helen, eighty years ago when they were all newlyweds and recent graduates of Winona State, known simply as T.C. (Teachers College) back then. They had socialized regularly since those days until my dad died and Helen was no longer able. There is a family story, unsubstantiated, that Mom broke a date with Harry to go out for the first time with Dad. For sure, they hobnobbed across the hall at Callista, particularly to watch one of their favorites on TV, “Who wants to be a millionaire.”
Peggy recently moved from Rochester to Minneapolis, so it was decided just a couple of months ago that Harry would be moved there to be closer to his daughter. Just last Monday he slipped away peacefully in his sleep.
Fran and I suggested to my sister Nan, who sees mother most days, that she should break the news to Mom before she heard it over lunch or from someone else in casual conversation. “You think?” Nan said. Unspoken was the assumption that Harry’s passing was sad, but hardly a shock. But she did, and reported back that mother had been quite affected, moved to tears, quite unusual for the stoic she has always been, and more so with the passing years.
Ogden Nash, known best for his humorous verse, wrote this poem when he himself was quite old:
People expect old men to die
They do not really mourn old men
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when...
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But the old men know when an old man dies.
So do the old women.