William Jess Higgs (March 21, 1909 – October 15, 1977)
I’m not old. If you think I am, just ask my wife, and she’ll straighten you out pretty quickly. Nevertheless, there is no denying that my father was born exactly one hundred years ago, just seventeen days after William Howard Taft became president of the United States. Looking back now, most of us have trouble imagining the world of 1909, and as I ponder my direct link to it, I have a strange feeling, of a time long, long ago, and yet not so long. Although my father died in 1977, many other Americans born in 1909—more than 79,000 of them—are still alive today.
William Jess Higgs (always known as Jess) does not appear on anybody’s list of great men. Good thing, too, given the truth of Lord Acton’s declaration that “great men are almost always bad men.” (A statement whose truth, by the way, hinges on the assumption that Acton’s reference to “great men” pertains to men who occupy positions of great governmental power. Who can dispute that William Shakespeare or J. S. Bach was a great man?) Jess never cast a shadow in the halls of power, nor did he wish to do so. When I was growing up and got old enough to think I knew something about politics and to express opinions about politicians, he used to infuriate me by simply saying, “They’re all crooks.” I’d think, What does he know about it? Fifty years later, I am inclined to think that he knew practically everything he needed to know about politicians.
Born in the backwoods of Muskogee County, Oklahoma, unable to attend school after a brief attendance at grade school, thrust at a tender age into the position of the family farm’s chief worker by the death of his father and later by the death of his stepfather, Jess lived in the world of work. And he was very good at working: when I was growing up, I never knew him to miss a day of work. I always supposed that he was happiest when he was at work. He was reputed to be an excellent farmer, among many other things.
The range of things he knew how to do—to grow, to build, to repair—never ceased to amaze me. I used to look over his shoulder as he worked on an automobile or tractor engine and marvel that whenever he needed a wrench, he simply reached into the tool box and took out the one that fit every time. (To this day, I try one, discover it’s too big; try another; discover it’s too small; and pray for an eventual convergence on the right one.) Even after I had earned my Ph.D., he used to look at me with a gleam in his eye and say, “The trouble with you is that you don’t know nothin’.” And I knew he was right.
I didn’t need any commandment to honor my father and mother. It never occurred to me to do otherwise, in view of the examples they set. My father belonged to a generation in which a father generally did not play the role of pal to his kids. Although I never doubted that he loved me, he occupied a different, somewhat elevated stratum. So, as I matured, I automatically came to respect him, at the same time that I loved him. I appreciated that his own understanding of his chief duty in life was to support his family, which he invariably did, even during the Great Depression, when finding work was a difficult task. He was not the kind of man to go on the dole. Indeed, I doubt that he ever gave any thought to that possibility, even when people all around him were eagerly accepting some sort of relief.
Although he had a wonderful, practical-joking sense of humor and loved to tell cock-and-bull stories at the dinner table, waiting for my mom to finally catch on that he was pulling her leg, Jess was a taciturn man. Yet hardly a standoffish man. Everybody loved him, especially the children. He obviously preferred the kids to the grownups, if given a choice. Everyone who worked for him, when he became a foreman and then the assistant superintendent on the big ranch in the San Joaquin Valley of California where I grew up between 1954 and 1961, was extremely loyal to him and spoke highly of him: “Jess” they’d say, “is a good man to work for.” He expected every man to do what he was hired to do, but he posed no threat to jerk anyone around just because he was in a position to do so. Although he had been reared in a racially bigoted environment and some of his idioms would not pass muster with today’s guardians of political correctness, he treated everyone the same, regardless of race.
It’s natural for a man to compare himself to his father. I’ve done so a million times, and not once did I measure up. After he died, so many people came to his funeral that the chapel overflowed, and some had to stand outside the doors during the service. I remember thinking, “When I die, I’ll be lucky if a dozen people show up.” To say that he had a greater, more fundamental effect than anyone else in making me the kind of man I became would be an understatement. I don’t know for sure that they aren’t making men like him anymore, but if they are, I’m not encountering them. Maybe the years that followed closely after 1909 produced a different kind of men, or maybe there was something in the water he drew from the family well on that backwoods farm in Muskogee County.