MY UNCLE IN HAWAII DIED RECENTLY. A FEW
days ago, I was astonished to see his obituary in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. I knew he was accomplished in his field, but I never dreamed that his passing would be news as far away as Wisconsin. I honestly never realized that he was famous. But that too is a tribute to the man.
His name was Charles Sutton, but my grandfather nicknamed him "Ty," after his favorite baseball player. (My grandfather didn't know much about the true personality of the mean, low-down Ty Cobb in those days.) The family business was a lumberyard in small-town, rural Oklahoma, so when they grew up the Sutton boys went into various aspects of the construction business. Ty decided to become an architect.
The Sutton daughter got married and had me. I was just a little kid at the time, but I remember how proud the family was when Ty, fresh out of architecture school at Oklahoma State, received a fellowship to study in Europe. He and his bride, a beautiful local girl named Jean, set off for Paris. While they were there, they kept in touch, sending postcards to my mother and presents to me, strangely different kinds of toys, like a set of little French policemen that filled me with wonder that there was a wide world out there beyond the confines of my little Oklahoma town.
Later, Ty and Jean came back to America. He got a job with some Chinese guy. (Now I recognize the name: I.M. Pei, one of the great architects of the century.) They moved to New York City.
That was the impetus for one of the great road trips of my childhood. I was probably around 10, with a little brother and sister, and we all piled into the car for Manhattan to see Ty and Jean. As we stayed with them in their high-rise apartment, Ty introduced us to the marvels of doormen, French restaurants, the subway, art museums. As I experienced utterly new taste sensations like saffron, lamb, and brown mustard, again I was filled with wonder at the wideness of the world.
As if New York City were not exotic enough, my Uncle Ty and Aunt Jean next moved to Hawaii. Mr. Pei's firm was designing the state capitol building for this brand-new member of the union and Ty was one of the architects in charge. Soon after, he launched his own company and his own reputation took off.
My grandparents and parents traveled to Hawaii to see them, but by this time I was in college. Finally, as a present upon finishing grad school, my parents sprung for a trip to Hawaii for my wife and me. Again, Ty and Jean could not have been more gracious as they introduced us to still more new experiences: sailing, wine punch, snorkeling, sushi. Again, I was filled with wonder at this wide and marvelous world.
As my own career got going, I was humbled and pleased beyond belief to see that Ty was following what I was doing. He got way into Christianity about the same time I did. He read what I had written about Christianity and the arts and told me how much he appreciated what I had to say. He turned his pastor onto my books. I was amazed that someone as sophisticated as he was found value in my writing.
Then my Uncle Ty set forth into yet another realm beyond my imagining. He contracted Lou Gehrig's disease. He lost his ability to walk, to eat, to move. He spent years upon years totally paralyzed.
Somehow, he could read; and somehow, something was rigged so that he could write. I still occasionally received
e-mails from him, complimenting me on something I had written. Last year he wrote a long narrative about his illness. For example, he said what it was like not to have tasted any food for so many years, since he had to be fed intravenously. But there was not a hint of self-pity or a plea for Dr. Kevorkian. Simply the same faith, thoughtfulness, and love of life that he had always shown. Again, I was filled with wonder.
Uncle Ty showed me that it is possible to be both sophisticated and down to earth, that a person can be accomplished without forgetting his roots, that creativity and faith go together.
And now, he has passed away, going to still another realm beyond my imagining. Again, he is going ahead, blazing the trail, showing that I can do this too. Again, I am filled with wonder at how wide the world is.