If you never had the privilege of meeting William J. Geiszler, don't worry he we was making his way around to you. To say he never met a stranger seems a silly understatement. When I started dating my wife almost an entire span between birth and a driver's license ago, Bill was a silent presence in the back of the room, living only to care for his ailing wife. Then Rosemary died and he was like a yellow dwarf star that just started expanding in presence and spirit to this red giant that filled all rooms and outdoor venues where you found him in attendance.
I must have listened to each of his stories a hundred times; he had them on a mental iPod playlist that he assigned to the people he met and loved. If you were being called to listen to a rerun of one of Bill's stories, you should have considered it an honor because it meant he liked you. He started dating again and not just dating but actively juggling multiple "friends" as he used to call them. He fell in love and lost another partner to untimely passing and that shook him up so much that he never got so arrogant as to use the word commitment past his 85th year. But he still had love in his heart for his family, his Catholic faith, for his native city of Columbus Ohio and for the great institution of Ohio State Football in that order.
Bill was a World War II Veteran and he'd often thrown in a few little tidbit stories in his repotoire. As soon as I'd walk into a family gathering, he would grab my elbow, pull me aside and take me on a journey through his life. Eventually he began bringing props--photos, journals, newspaper clippings, whatever he could find to aid his presentation. And his stories got better through the years and he started telling them more often when he realized that people actually wanted to listen to him tell them. The narrative of Bill's stories could not have been stripped of his telling them and remained as effective as they were any more than the body could be stripped of the spirit and still rise to ambulate.
In 2008 Bill approached me about wanting to write his memoir from The War. I had been begging him for years to put a pen to paper so he could leave a legacy to his great granchildren who would never understand from an adult perspective how good a man he was and how lucky we were to have him in our lives. To be honest, I never thought he would give his energy to the project but I was wrong. Bill came to me two months later with copy. The next month, he'd shed the notebook and pen because his hands shook too much and hurt for days after trying to write. Now he had a binder full of typed copy and audiotapes which I spent many nights and weekends over the next several months transcribing into a manuscript. He brought photos and documents that I placed within the narrative structure. He had taken up a volunteer position with the Columbus Ohio Honor Flight after his amazing trip with them to Washington D.C. where he met General Colin Powell and charmed the heart of a young and beautiful Lieutenant assigned to escort the group. And he wanted to talk about that too.
By the Fall of 2010, the manuscript was proofed, completed and we were just about to put the order in for printing when my son's Elementary School invited Bill to speak for Veteran's Day. He created his own special playlist for that one. The Children were fascinated by him, an old man who still approached life with the same wonder many of them felt in their hearts, the same wonder many of them likely no longer saw in the eyes of the adults they dealt with--Grandpa was an anomoly like that. And of course, he wanted to include that experience as part of the book. So, we went back to the manuscript and added a final chapter, what became in my opinion the perfect ending to the story Bill wanted to tell the world.
There were many stories he held back from us though, from his younger days before the war, mysteries about his father's death near a railroad track that almost nobody alive knows the full story behind. And there were stories after the war, behavior he wasn't proud of, mild by today's tabloid standards yet still unbecoming a soldier of the United States Army in Bill's mind. But he had his moment of clarity and he made his choice, the right choice, to assume the title of Grandpa the Great, a moniker the entire family gladly took to calling him, mostly because it was true.
The loss of William Geiszler, three days before Christmas in 2011, has sent all of us who knew him reeling as if we were walking down the stairs and the bannister suddenly fell away during our descent. I don't like to think about gathering for Christmas without Bill, waiting for a firm finger that will never again tap me on the shoulder to call me away into the sunny sitting room he always liked to hold court inside when he told his stories.
I'm not even sure how I would have said goodbye to Bill if I'd have had the chance but I have had the ending of A Christmas Carol going through my mind since I was told of his passing and I'd like to paraphrase the great Dickens in honor of Grandpa the Great:
[He] was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more...He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world...for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
Goodbye Grandpa the Great, you were an inspiration to us all for how to grow old with grace and laughter and true friendship.