Family History, History and Biography, Notes & Essays by David Rodeback

He Was Something: A Tribute

Reuben Harold Babcock - He Was Something

I went to a funeral this week. I was about to tell you where, because it matters, but it seems to matter more that it could have been many places other than the place where it was. It could have been almost anywhere. It was something.

In the foyer of the church were tables displaying artifacts of my uncle’s life. There was his army uniform, a simple, coarse garment with corporal’s stripes and a single short row of campaign ribbons. There was a small, thick binder full of cartoons he clipped from newspapers over the years. There were photos from every phase of his long life. My favorite had my mom in it, with the rest of the siblings and my grandparents. She’s been gone twenty years now, and the photo was from a time before I knew her.

I should probably tell you his name, and I will at the end. But for now it seems important that the man I’m describing could have many names, including the name of someone near you.

I took a few notes as two of his daughters and others spoke of his life.

Farmer, Soldier, Missionary, Dad

Except for his time in Japan during the Korean War and his subsequent Latter-day Saint mission to the Hawaiian Islands, he lived his entire 94 years in a little valley where farms fill the space between brown mountains. The valley itself has seemed too brown in recent decades, though in the past two years I’ve seen it as green as I remember from visits in my childhood. It wasn’t green this week, but that’s different. The fields were still covered with snow.

He was a farmer who raised cattle and the crops to feed them. Some of his farming was dry farming (no irrigation but rain and snow), which seems to me a far greater exercise of faith and a far greater gamble than farming generally, which is striking enough in those ways. It probably helped that he was quietly cheerful, having resolved at age 16 to think positively. His children remember him saying, “The only thing I don’t like is tripe and buttermilk.” (I don’t want to know if those go together as one thing or if that was a witty miscounting.)

I said he raised cattle, which is true. I never asked him, but judging from what I know of his life and character, he’d have told me he was doing something far more important: raising children, and then raising grandchildren too.

Dad Jokes at Home on the Range

He was a local historian, an amateur mapmaker, a reciter of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a lover of puns, and a teller of dad jokes from time almost-immemorial. (Those last two honorable traits run in the family. Just ask my children.)

A piece of rope walks into a bar. Says the bartender, “We don’t serve your kind.” So the rope leaves, ties himself in a knot, and frays himself at one end. When he walks back into the bar, the bartender asks, “Weren’t you just in here?”

“Nope,” says the rope. “I’m a frayed knot.”

He played the guitar and the harmonica, and his funeral included a beautiful performance of “Home on the Range,” a song my mother, his sister, taught me and taught me to love. He is the grandfather of some musical talent.


He knew the constellations. He knew cattle. He could pick up a pair of pliers and the severed foot of a slaughtered bovine, pull on a tendon with the pliers, and show you how the tendon moves the hoof.

As a child he rode stick horses – he had a stable of them – and rode in a Model T. For most of his life he rode real horses. He once built a log cabin – not the fancy kind people use for vacations, but the simple kind people make their home.

He was a peacemaker. When strife arose at home among his seven young siblings, he wrote out a contract saying, “I will not fight,” and made them all sign it.

He didn’t curse, not even at the cattle, unless you think “cockeyed” is cursing.

Repairer, Not Just of Things

He was a carer for orphaned animals, a helper of neighbors and strangers, a listener to anyone who needed to talk and be heard.

He was a Scoutmaster, but not just a Scoutmaster: a Silver Beaver. He was an LDS temple worker. He was a military policeman for a while and by all accounts a gentleman to the end of his days.

“He could make a hard decision with a calm demeanor,” someone said.

He could repair almost anything with wire, and he kept plenty of wire in his truck.

He was a man of faith and he was faithful. He was humble, churchgoing, content, grateful, frugal, generous. People who knew him well report that he quietly turned people to Jesus Christ.

He was a hard worker and an honest man. He was so honest that, in his final days, as he lay in a hospital, struggling with emphysema, and someone pointed out that he had never smoked in his life, he had to correct them. One day he and a friend – whose name I recognized – tried smoking cornhusks. That didn’t work too well, so they tried smoking cedar bark. That didn’t go well either, so he gave up smoking forever.

A Man Out of Time? A Time Out of Men?

At the end of his life, a doctor told his family – out in the hall – “There is a man who is not afraid to die. He must be something.”

He was something. Maybe the only people who knew it were his family, friends, neighbors, comrades-at-arms, fellow missionaries, and strangers he encountered in a place that doesn’t have all that many people in it, including strangers.

But repairing things with wire (or at all)? Shearing sheep (my grandfather raised them)? Cattle drives? Clipping cartoons from a newspaper and collecting them? “Home on the Range”? I found myself thinking, was he a man-out-of-time? That’s not an intentional, truly awful pun about death, though perhaps he would appreciate it that way. What I mean is, has our time passed him by?

No. I choose to think better of our time. I am not his sort of optimist, but on reflection I think he was a man for every time, and we don’t have to look very far to find more men and women like him, if we have eyes to see.

In a sense I just answered this next question, but are we a time out of men? Some people think so, in various senses. I choose to believe we are not, and I’m not just pulling hope out of the air. The simple fact is that there are good people all around us, including fine men and women who don’t get their stories on the news; who are disdained, not celebrated, in popular culture if popular culture notices them at all; who don’t very much resemble the characters we see on small screens and large; and without whom communities and nations could scarcely function at all.

There If We Look

As good as he was – is, says my faith – perhaps he is among the best of us – and as unique as every individual is – I’d be willing to bet that nearly every one of us has some people near us who, in the essentials, are much like him.

He really was something. He really is. And if, having read this little essay, a few more people know it, I am pleased. But for my words here fully to succeed, here’s what has to happen. You have to look around you, and keep looking until you find someone like my Uncle Harold. That’s his name, or Reuben Harold Babcock, officially.

If you look and look and look but can’t see people like that, keep looking. They don’t have to be farmers. Some of them live in the city. Meanwhile, you could always be such a person in your own way. Probably you already are.

David Rodeback

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