My Dad…


Melvin Joseph Vinson Sr.
(1927-2010)

A life fueled by Love and illuminated by Grace

Melvin Joseph Vinson Sr., “Joe” was born on November 28th 1927 in Palmerdale, AL, the youngest of 4 children. He is preceded in death by his wife Virginia Vinson, his son Jerry Poellien, and daughters Patricia Vinson and Marie Vinson Holmes. He is survived by his children Dick Poellien, Donna Faile, Melvin Vinson Jr. and myself, George Vinson, as well as literally dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a host of family and friends.

After Mom passed away about 4 years ago, Dad moved to the Cocoa, FL area where he lived with my brother Dick and his wife Karen. He spent a great deal of time fishing as well as holding court with his ‘breakfast buddies’. Not long after his move from Birmingham, Dad fought and won a battle against bladder cancer. But he continued to be plagued by a series of recurring ailments, resulting in periods of intense therapy in a nearby rehab facility. It was toward the end of November last year that found Dad working to regain his strength after another relapse. At the beginning of this year, when clots from his legs lodged in his heart, Dad was admitted to the local hospital ICU where his condition steadily worsened. He passed away on Wednesday, January 13th at 10:50am EST. He was 82.

I am convinced that time runs at different speeds. As a child, Christmas took forever to arrive, and summer passed far too quickly. As an adult, our own children grow far too fast. But days like this one, though long-expected, come in spite of prayers to the contrary. But death is a part of life, and we rest in the knowledge that there is One who knows the count of days we have on this earth.

Today we are gathered in this place for a specific reason. Not to mourn the loss of our parent or our friend… but to remember and to celebrate the ‘count of days’ my father enjoyed.

When my family asked me to deliver this message, I immediately began praying for wisdom and guidance. Dad was clear in that he did not want a ‘service’ (meaning he didn’t want anyone making a fuss over him… so very typical of Dad). But he was loved by so many people that our family decided it would be wrong to deny his loved ones a time to gather and to remember.

But this task is a daunting one. How to describe the life of such a larger-than-life character? And I do mean a character! He was Andy Griffith with a 3-chair barber shop… Johnny Cash with a razor. He was a career Army vet with the soul of an explorer and the heart of an artist. There are no words that suffice to tell this tale.

On the day Dad passed into eternity, I was heading back home to Tennessee from his Florida hospital room after coming to say my farewells. I was praying as I drove for Holy Spirit to give me some kind of insight… just a word that would encapsulate the essence of Dad’s life. And about an hour into that journey, my prayers were answered and the word was given.

When I was young, I thought my Dad was famous. Not an ‘Elvis’ famous, or famous like the Beatles… but it did seem that everyone knew and loved my Dad. We would be taking a trip somewhere, and he’d decide to stop for a break in Bay Minnette, AL or Pasgagoula, MS… or some other such middle of nowhere town. And I’d hear “Joe!” Wouldn’t you know that there was some guy that knew my Dad! Of course it never occurred to my child brain that Dad planned a stop to see some old friends!

Dad loved people and people loved him. I do have to admit to being more than a bit confused as to his name. To us he was of course “Dad”. But since he grew up as the youngest of 4 kids (the baby of the clan), his nickname was… ‘Baby’ and he was called that by his family for years (I confess I didn’t much like it at family reunions… my dad was no ‘baby’!). From time to time, former Army buds would come to call… and they would call him ‘Vince’. For a time I thought his name was Vince Vinson! To his grand and great-grandchildren he was Papa Joe (no grandpa or gramps!). But to all his many, many friends… he was simply ‘Joe’.

One nickname he never had, but certainly earned was that of ‘shepherd’. Every family has a black sheep, but our family had a flock. I won’t name names or point fingers, because we know who we are… and Dad loved us in spite of all our trials and troubles.

He was not an educated man, leaving grade school at age 15 to join the merchant marines. But before the age of 21 Dad had seen more of the world than most of us see in a lifetime. He loved history and I’m convinced he left home in order to see the world and follow his spirit of adventure. As a young merchant marine (actually lying about his age to join up) he retraced the footsteps of childhood hero Jean Lafitte the pirate down in New Orleans. Many a time Dad would open up some maps and show us all the places he had been and the wonders he had seen. He worked on the Suez Canal… had layovers in Madagascar… joined the Army in WWII and was one of the first teams into occupied Japan. He later served in Korea, and was stationed in both France and Germany. He was working on building missile silos along the Czech border, and I seem to remember him spending some time in Puerto Rico as well. We lived on many an Army base, finally landing in Birmingham AL after he retired from the military with honors as a Master Sergeant. He had served in the Army Corps of Engineers as well as the 1st Cavalry Division, but traded all that in for a razor and a pair of barber shears.

Dad was an enigma. He could be gruff and tough with an Army bark (and a bite to match), but had an infectious laugh, a down-home sense of humor, and an almost Irish gift of gab. Guys would come by his barber shop in Center Point for a haircut even if they didn’t need one! He could ‘discuss/argue’ with the best of them… traits he passed on to his children in no small measure.

And while he wasn’t musical, he was indeed a music critic. I remember one time watching Joe Cocker singing on the Ed Sullivan Show. “Look at that guy” he exclaimed. “What’s wrong with him?” He didn’t get rock music, but country was his passion, and Johnny Cash a particular favorite. I got a steady dose of the Man in Black as Dad would take me places. I wouldn’t admit it then, but I love JC today due in no small part to repeated plays of “Folsom Prison Blues”, “A Boy Named Sue” or “Walk the Line” from Dad’s eight-track player in his truck.

Dad didn’t play an instrument, but was helpful to me and Melvin especially in our ‘musical development’. As we played our electric guitars down in the basement, we knew we had achieved the proper musical volume and angst when we heard the intensity of Dad’s stomping on the floor!

People often ask if our parents encouraged us to be artistic. Several of us do have some measure of skill with a brush or a pencil, and there were several paintings hung on the walls of our house bearing Dad’s signature. When he painted or why he stopped, I don’t know. When asked about his ability, he’d brush it off by saying “Oh sure I can draw.. want to see me ‘draw some flies?'”

His sense of humor was legendary. When the Apollo astronauts landed on the moon, Dad went out in the back yard and found 2 or 3 rocks, which he then displayed in his shop with a sign reading ‘Genuine Moon Rocks” in big letters, with ‘simulated’ down below in really small type. And people would actually ask him how he got moon rocks…

My oldest nephew Dick Jr. confirmed Dad’s wacky humor. They were riding in Dad’s truck one afternoon (probably listening to Cash on the 8-track) when he slowed down next to a guy riding a bike. He rolled down the window and waved, calling out ‘hey buddy!”. Dick asked “Papa Joe… do you know that guy?” “No” Dad said. “But it’s gonna drive him crazy trying to figure out who I am!”

Dad lived an incredibly full life. He found joy in family and friends, and found a strong faith in his middle years that empowered him through many trials, and indeed through the rest of his days.

And there were trials. As the father of 7 kids, and an income from Army retirement and barbering, money certainly had to be an issue. But it never overshadowed us and I don’t remember lacking a thing. We weren’t wealthy, but we were indeed rich.

But from time to time a shadow would fall. When Dad met and fell in love with Mom, she was a young divorcee with 3 small children. His mother came from a religious background where divorcees do not pass go, much less collect $200. But Dad found his soul mate in Mom, and her children became his children (he became a father to the fatherless). And there was never a distinction between ‘his’ kids and ‘hers’. We were a family and that was enough. The fact that Dad had so many nicknames, my older 2 brothers and sister having a different last name was no big deal.

Shortly before I was born, my maternal grandfather and namesake passed away, leaving Grandma Snyder grieving and alone. Today, such a grieving widow would be shuffled off to be someone else’s problem. But Dad took her in and she lived with us the rest of her life. Indeed she helped Mom and Dad raise us (having 7 kids, you need all the help you can get!).

And as kids will, invariably we made choices that caused our parents pain. The 60’s and 70’s were turbulent times and we were not spared this strife. From a mischievous event with my older brothers that could have cost Dad his Army career, to later issues with drugs and alcohol with his younger kids, Dad loved us and became the advocate for the offender. And while he would make no secret about his feelings of anger and disappointment, he would still love us in a way that was staggering in it’s implications.

Toward the end of her life, Mom became completely bedridden and required almost constant care. We watched as Dad served her humbly and sacrificially, with an intense love that was a testament to their devotion both to God and each other.

While he was indeed a very strong man, Dad endured the greatest of tests… not only burying his wife and soul mate, but suffering the loss of three of his seven children. No parent should ever experience this parting. It is yet another example of the great faith and trust my father has in the Father.

So when God answered my prayer at the very moment of Dad’s passing on Wednesday, January 13th…and gave me the word I had been searching for about him, I was overcome. When I thought about his life and how this incredible word applied, I wept tears that were filled not with loss or sorrow… but with joy. You see, I had been expecting words like ‘loving’, ‘merciful’, or ‘faithful’ (all would certainly apply)… but the word Holy Spirit whispered was ‘scandalous’.

When Jesus encountered a woman caught in the act of adultery, his response was not to condemn and to pass judgement, but to love and forgive in a way that was more than shocking… it was deemed scandalous. God the Father loved us with this same scandalous love when He sacrificed His son for our sins and shortcomings.

So what really is this ‘scandalous love’? How does it play out in our ordinary lives? The Bible describes it this way…

…to be a father to the fatherless
…to help the widow and the afflicted
…to help the prisoner and the oppressed
…to love others by serving sacrificially

Can you see the pattern emerging? Dad endured many situations that were the stuff of scandal, but loved through it all with a love that defies convention and common sense.

Do you see scandalous love of the Father reflected in the life of my father?

His was a life that was indeed fueled by Love and illuminated by Grace…

We love you, Dad…

George Vinson
Saturday, January 30, 2010

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