My uncle Gary Hedrick passed away unexpectedly on 17 March 2019. I had the opportunity to offer this eulogy at his funeral in Greensboro, North Carolina, on 22 March 2019.
James Gary Hedrick was born 16 August 1946 in Iredell County, North Carolina, to James and Reba Hedrick. He was the oldest of three sons. The other evening I was speaking with Daria and I asked her where her dad grew up. She replied, “I don’t know what the place was called. We always just called it ‘the country’.” So that’s what we’ll go with: Gary grew up in the country.
Around the time he started high school, his family moved here, to Greensboro, where he lived the rest of his life. He attended Page High School. After high school, he joined the United States Navy.1 After his stint in the Navy, he served in the U.S. Naval Reserve for 20 years. His service in the Naval Reserve took him to places such as Norfolk and New York and as far away as Italy.
Our family didn’t do a whole lot of overseas travel then. I remember after he returned from Italy sitting there and asking him about everything he saw. When I finally got to go to Italy myself, one of the first things I thought when I arrived was, So this is what Gary saw.
Gary also worked as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. To this day I can’t see a post office or a mail carrier or a postage stamp without thinking of him.
In the early 1970s, he met and married Linda.
In 1972, Daria came along.
Daria remembers that every Sunday her dad took her and her brother, Jamie, to do something: to the park, to the country, or to the movies.
In 1982, another significant event happened in his life, because I came along.
I have known Gary my entire life. Over the past week, I’ve tried to think of my earliest memory of him. The thing is, when you’ve known someone your entire life, it’s hard to recall your first memory of him.
But one of my first memories is standing in his kitchen — and many of us in this room enjoyed so many meals with Linda and Gary in that kitchen — with my brother, Daniel, and my cousins Rory and Brooks. Gary was making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch for us, and as I recall I got the first one, maybe because I’m the oldest. He handed it to me and I handed it back and told him, “You made it wrong.”
“What do you mean I made it wrong?”
“You made it wrong. You put the peanut butter on one side and the jelly on the other and then put it together. You’re supposed to put the peanut butter down and then the jelly on top of that and then the bread on top of that.” And I refused to eat it.
“What’s the difference? It’s the same thing!” Gary retorted.
“No, it’s not.”
And I think he took the sandwich from me, gave it to Rory and said, “Here, you eat this one,” and he made another one for me — the right way this time.
Now I have my own children, about the same ages my brother and cousins and I were when this happened. They do the same sort of thing to me. “Dad, but you made this wrong!” And I channel my Uncle Gary as I reply, “But it doesn’t make a difference! Eat it!”
He is also, I believe, the only person who has ever taken me fishing. I think I remember going fishing with him at Oka T. Hester Park here in Greensboro. He taught me how to cast the line, and I got pretty good at it, if I say so myself. So, after casting the line a few times and catching one or two fish that we threw back, I was ready to try again. I started moving my wrist just as Gary had taught me and then let go of the reel. The only problem was that I let go while pulling it back away from the water, and the hook and line flew far into the woods behind us. Gary went off grumbling to retrieve it.
Another time Gary was once again with me, Daniel, Rory, and Brooks. (For all I know it could have been the same day as the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.) He took us to Shannon Woods Park, down the street from their house. There is a creek that runs through the park. As the creek enters the park it runs through a concrete culvert. We were exploring around the creek when we saw a mama duck swimming in the creek with five or six little ducklings following behind. The mama duck hopped up into the culvert, followed by her ducklings. But the last little duckling just couldn’t quite make it. Daniel, Rory, Brooks, and I looked on in horror as this little duckling’s family kept on swimming. “Uncle Gary,” we cried out, “save the little duck!”
“No, it will be fine. It will get up there on its own.”
“No! It won’t! And it will be lost and separated from its family! You have to save it!”
Gary finally relented and scooped the little duck up and into the culvert, and it waddled ahead and caught up with its family.
In recent years, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how remarkable it is that Gary spent so much time with us. This is just a partial list of the places I remember going with Linda and Gary over the years, and I’m sure many of you could add to it:
- Here in Greensboro: Hester Park — which had the best playgrounds anywhere — again and again, along with places such as the Greensboro Science Center and the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park.
- In North Carolina: Boone, so many times; Chimney Rock; Ghost Town in the Sky; Tweetsie Railroad; the Blue Ridge Parkway; the Great Smoky Mountains; Pinehurst; and, of course, Myers Lake so many times.
- Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.
- In Florida, Disney World — twice! — and SeaWorld and Universal Studios and even Gatorland.
- Luray Caverns in Virginia.
- New River Gorge in West Virginia.
- Amish Country and Hersheypark in Pennsylvania.
- Cedar Point in Ohio.
- Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada.
- And, of course, Dollywood and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee.
As I remember, one of Linda’s favorite stories to tell about Gary happened on a trip to Dollywood with me, Daniel, Rory, and Brooks. At one point during our visit to Dollywood, we went to a performance — you know, one of those musicians on the amusement-park circuit.
Now, before I go any further, I should note that Gary had one of the most admirable traits you can find in anyone: the ability to sleep anywhere.
You can see where this is going.
This was not a quiet performance. It was loud, with a riled-up crowd. And somehow, in the middle of it, Gary, there at the end our row next to the aisle, fell asleep. Well, at the end of his performance, the musician, still playing his guitar, music still playing loudly, decides to go down the aisle and shake hands with the people at the end of the rows. You could see that this guy was feeding off the audience’s energy — until he held his hand out to Gary, who was still fast asleep. His jaw dropped — and Linda pulled the look off perfectly when she told this story — and he turned right around and went back to the stage.
To be in Gary’s life — to be loved by Gary — was to have his time. Whether it was driving their RV up and down the East Coast from Florida to Canada, or building a playhouse in the backyard for his children, or trudging into the woods to retrieve a wayward fishing hook and line, we had Gary’s time.
Linda had a stroke in 1998, and he spent much of the rest of his life taking care of her.
He lost Linda in 2011.
He lost his brother William the year before, in 2010.
Just a couple of years ago, in 2017, he lost his grandson Benjamin.
And we lost Gary last week.
But we can see him in the eyes of his children, and his four grandchildren, Brandon, Molly, Allie, and Ethan, and his great-grandchild, Darren.
Before I end, I want to say a few words about the faith that many of us in this room share, to add my own witness to the witness given so beautifully by Dr. Shive.2
About 2,000 years ago, a man named Jesus of Nazareth walked and taught in what today we call the Holy Land. Of course, he was more than a man. He was the Son of God. He inherited from his earthly mother, Mary, and power to die. But he inherited from his Heavenly Father the power over death. As the New Testament apostle Paul taught, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Because of this — because of Jesus’s resurrection and his triumph over death, which we celebrate at this time of year — each of us can testify as Job of the Old Testament testified:
“… I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
“And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:
“Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold …” (Job 19:25–27).
To this I add my own witness of the reality of Jesus’s resurrection. I am grateful for the knowledge that we will all see Gary again someday.
But that doesn’t rid us of the pain of his loss in the meantime. Even if death is only a separation, it is still hard to go on without the people we love. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah taught:
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4–5)
God, through Jesus, can carry us through our sorrows, because he has suffered them with us and for us. I hope and pray that God’s peace and his Spirit rest on all of us as we cope with this loss.
But through this, I am grateful to our Heavenly Father that I ever knew my Uncle Gary, James Gary Hedrick.
Read Gary’s obituary here.