This week, “The Archives” is devoted to a little personal history of the archivist. Six years ago this week, my Grandpa Jack Carroll passed away. To my youthful eyes, Grandpa Jack was a man who was larger than life. He had been a successful boxer in the Navy, an All-American football player at the University of Nebraska, and a successful football coach at Sunnyvale High School in San Jose. He was the epitome of what a grandfather should be, so much so that the two boys who grew up next door to my family even asked their mother to remarry so they could have a grandfather (theirs had long since passed away). Jack was gentle and kind, cheerful and funny, and endlessly optimistic.
But that was not always the case. Human beings are complex creatures. We live multi-faceted, compartmentalized lives. We are, at our core, both shockingly fragile and enduringly resilient. We are capable of moments of gross selfishness and of amazing sacrifice. My grandfather, Jack Carroll, was the embodiment of this dualism of the human existence. If he were to be judged solely as a father, it would be hard not to label him as grossly incompetent. He had achieved success in hyper-masculine environments such as the boxing ring in the Navy, and on the football field both as a player and a coach. Unfortunately, trying to impart this hyper-manliness to children can result in a violent formative experience. Fistfights soon became the answer to most conflicts—between siblings, and between father and sons. Jack also became ensnarled in the thorns of alcoholism. He often had to be pulled out of the local bar by his wife, and was guilty of several charges of driving under the influence.
Seemingly lost in a thicket of violence and alcoholism, Grandpa Jack decided to make his way out of the darkness and into a life absent of conflict and booze. When and where this decision was made is unclear. But what we do know, and what is most important, is that Jack made a clear and conscious choice—to no longer remain the person that he was, and to reinvent himself in order to be the person he wanted to be. He gave up alcohol, recommitted himself to his wife, Beverley, and remained faithful to her throughout the rest of their marriage. He built on his failures as a father to remake himself as a grandfather. While his life was certainly still wrought with challenges, he had seemingly shed the skin of his former self and re-emerged as a person that everyone came to admire and adore.
As I look back on my life, I cannot imagine what it would have been like without Grandpa Jack. I will never forget his constant aphorisms about doing your best, studying hard, being a good friend and, more importantly, a good person. Two of the greatest gifts he gave to me came not through direct advice, but were imparted to me when I meditated on his life after he had passed away. What I found was ultimately one of the greatest lessons he has ever given me.
First, through his failures as a father, I am convinced he, in some way, molded my father into the man he is. Jack inadvertently gave my dad a clear outline of how not to be a father. Building on his father’s mistakes, my dad became a wonderful parent. My parents created a family that was free of violence and filled with love, kindness, and encouragement. I am endlessly grateful for the childhood they provided my siblings and me. Second, Jack’s life is a clear demonstration that it is never too late. The human spirit is capable of great elasticity—it bends, but rarely does it break. Not only are we incredibly resilient, but we have the power, sometimes through sheer force of will, to rise up and remake ourselves into the person we want to be.
Jack demonstrated that the point of no return does not exist. At the lowest place in his life, he made the decision to change himself, and through grit and determination, he became a new man. I am confident it was not easy. But I am sure he would be happy to know that he is remembered as a kind and gentle soul, who gave wonderful advice and encouragement, and accepted everyone. We miss him terribly.