Bennie F. Steinhauser (right) was my father-in-law. We drove 2,100 miles over 5 days for his funeral.
He could be intimidating, without trying to be. When I first met him, in the mid-1970s, he was at the height of his power. He was a veteran school superintendent. He lived in a great house he'd designed himself. He was constantly moving among his ranches and his factory. He presided over Sunday suppers for an enormous extended family that included third cousins.
I was there to steal his baby.
He didn't much take to me. I was a scruffy, bearded college student whose sole ambition was to work at a newspaper. His baby, whom I called Jenni, was an honor student, a space science major, maybe a future Astronaut. She was beautiful, talented, and brilliant. Still is.
So I could never bring myself call him Bennie, even after he asked. It was always Mr. Steinhauser. Maybe, had I had known the other Bennie F. Steinhausers, the ones in his autobiography “Never Alone” (which I insisted on not writing), I might have felt closer.
I didn't know the child who rode to school on a horse, 6 miles each way, whose first language was German, the practical joker who tutored the football players and became the first in his family to graduate high school.
I didn't know the handsome young man who courted the niece of his landlady, who worked at a five-and-dime, and who published his wedding vows in the newspaper of December 7, 1941.
I didn't know the soldier, the interpreter and aide, who packed a bicycle into a filing cabinet so he could pedal around occupied Germany, and whose combat experience consisted of keeping a fellow G.I. from raping a 12-year old. Decked him with one swing.
I didn't know the young go-getter who ran stores for S.S. Kress, or who went to college at night, to build a better life for his young family.
I didn't know the man who rose, in just a few years, from classroom teacher to head of Texas' 4th largest school district, and its 2nd-poorest.
I didn't know the politician who won aid for that district, for mostly-Hispanic children, based on their need and proximity to an Air Force base, who named his first schools for big politicians like Harry S. Truman, and got them to show up.
I didn't know the kind-hearted man who finally asked his kids what they wanted a school to be named, then threatened to “name it after Bing Crosby” until Bob Hope called back with a date for its dedication. (Hope called it his greatest honor, and meant it.) When
his school board canned himhe resigned his first job, after 13 years, it was front-page news, and he had an identical job minutes away within a few months.fairly short time. Unlike 99.99% of other school superintendents, he never had to move for work.
Of course I had a secret
weapon. I knew his secret, his single flaw, his dark shame.
Jenni told it to me.
He wasn't home. “He went out before I woke up and got home after I went to sleep,” she complained. A place would be set for him at dinner, he would promise to be there, but something would come up. A Great Man's work is never done. A full day of crises, often meetings into the night. Or a crisis at his plant, South Texas Perlite, where he cooked an obscure mineral until it popped like popcorn, yielding an insulator for roofs or an aerator for potting soil. Or a family member would have trouble, or a friend, and Bennie never asked “why me,” he just acted. If you want something done, ask a busy person.
His wisdom, judgment, tact and honesty were legendary. If he had old-fashioned values they were good values, Texas values.
Jenni's vacations were hurried affairs, like a long car ride to Alaska. Tossing snowballs in summer, following the lumber trucks up the Alcan Highway. Seeing new people, trying new things. For those days he was Daddy. Until a few days from the end, in South Dakota, when
a phone call came, an
emergency. He he flew away. The rest of the trip passed in silence. (NOTE: Jenni's mom says his leave-taking was planned.)
So Jenni was mad when I first knew her. But it passed. She grew up.
And he changed.
His retirement years were a wonder to behold. They were perfect.
He traveled to every continent. He became present for everything he'd missed before. He supported his retired teachers, became an elder in his church, grew closer than ever to his little brother Otto, often traveling together, Bennie and Ruth, Otto and Helen. When our daughter Robin was coming he flew up from San Antonio, and at age 67 he spent several days building two closets in our bedroom, by hand, sleeping in the sawdust. When she was born all four of them came up together in a van, to hold her, to sit at our table, and buy us fried chicken.
He became, in short, present. For Jenni. For me. For Robin, and for our son John. Present in fact, as well as in spirit, and financially, too. He gave us the down payment for this house. He paid Jenni's tuition. He did similar things for his other two children, in their times of need, and for his grandchildren, and his great-grands.
His last trip was to China, with his son Franklin, who now goes by Ben. They walked the Great Wall, and climbed the steps of Tibetan temples, the son huffing in the rarefied air, Bennie joyfully running ahead, a child of 80. He even built a “doll house” for Ruth on a ranch they owned, just a half-mile from the refurbished cabin he'd been born in, and grew up in. Even at 85 he was planting trees, and worrying over their fate.
When the end came, as it does to all men, he went through all the stages of grief. Only the immediate family knew of the cancer, the pain of the chemo, how the cancer came back again-and-again. He was far too young to die.
Finally, around Christmas, he reached acceptance. He told Ben he had to get out of the hospital, that he had to get home. “They're working on the papers,” his son said. “Papers, I'll sign the papers. Let me sign them.”
All there was before him was a Styrofoam food container. So he signed it, in a strong, clear hand. Bennie F. Steinhauser.
Yet still, he still one thing to do, one favor to ask of God. He couldn't die in a hospital. He couldn't die alone. Never alone.
So he came home, for the last time, on December 27, 2007. It was his wedding anniversary, his 66th wedding anniversary. All those relatives who could be found gathered around him. One by one they went in to talk.
You don't say goodbye at such times. You say I love you.
We were in California. For once, I had decided, we would visit my mother, and my sister, and my brother. Sorry to say Jenni was alone, at my sister's, the next day, when the call came. The end was coming. They held the phone to his ear. “I love you Daddy,” she said. He was gone within minutes, and when I returned from errands a few minutes after that, I took one look at her face and I knew.
So we got home, then drove to Texas for the Great Man's funeral. Well, his celebration, for what else can you call it when a man lives for 88 years, has all the success and adventure and love a man could ever ask for, when he's run his whole race with honor, when he has found peace and seen God.
Jenni wondered if anyone
would show up for the service. At his age, most of his friends should
be dead. But I looked into the parking lot 15 minutes before kick-off
and it was like the last scene in “Field of Dreams.”
People will come.
People came. Hundreds of people. Some in wheelchairs, some on walkers, some struggling mightily up the single step to his casket. I sat next to my wife and was given the tributes. He was my 8th grade teacher. He gave me my first job. He was my best friend. He saved my life. On and on it flowed. The pews were filled.
The next day, yesterday, we buried him in his hometown of Flatonia, in a cemetery close to the freeway, the river-like sound of life rushing by, near the turn you take for the Shiner brewery, in a corner plot, where people can visit easily.
I'm told there's a place there for me, too. But instead of going there I will try to become worthy of him. I will remain true to his daughter, remain present for his grandchildren, and do all I can to be honest, to work hard, in honor of his memory.
Perhaps, one day in heaven, I will see him again. I will shake his hand. I will look him in the eye. And at last I will call him Bennie.