Judging by the latest Nielsen ratings and pop charts and presidential polls, such virtues as honesty, humility, kindness, faith, and basic human decency are no longer in fashion. All the more reason we’re going to miss Harold Dills, who died Monday after a long and courageous struggle with cancer at the age of 78, which was far too young and and yet old enough to have brought him to a time when he was something of an anachronism.
Dills was much loved in his hometowns of Cullowhee, North Carolina and Edmond, Oklahoma, and widely admired in the construction industry that has lately built the greater Oklahoma City area into such up-to-date shape, and he never minded a bit that the rest of the world had never heard of him. Fame never had any appeal for him, and he only desired a sufficient fortune to provide a good life for his family, and the love of his family and the respect of the people he dealt with and the laughs he got in along the way were always reward enough for his efforts.
The small town boy joined the Air Force after graduating from high school, probably with hopes of seeing the world, but he wound up at Tinker Field in Oklahoma City. It turned out to be one of those lucky breaks that occasionally come the way of small town boys, though, as he met a woman named Claudette Patten and fell madly in love with her, got married and started learning the construction trade from his father-in-law, a great guy who knew everything there was to know about bending sheet metal. Three children soon followed, and a company of his own to pay for their upbringing, and he even wound up rooting for the Sooners and otherwise becoming a contented Okie.
Claudette Dills was our cousin, although our mom’s parents had spread their four daughters out over 21 years and as the oldest daughter of the oldest sister she was the same age as our Aunt Buzzy, which was plenty confusing to our younger selves, especially because Claudette had the same matriarchal bearing as our Aunt Fredia and always seemed more of an aunt to us, which means that Claudette and Harold’s three children are second cousins or grand-cousins or cousins once removed or something, these things being quite confusing even to our older selves, although their children always seemed cousins, and like to call us “cuz.” This made Harold Dills a sort of uncle to us, because in our family anyone who marries in is as good as blood, and he always treated us with an avuncular affection.
Somewhere along the way he had acquired the nickname “Cotton-Pickin’,” which struck our brothers and us as downright hilarious, and we’d always like to tease him that “You’re ‘Cotton-Pickin’,” and he’d laugh and poke our boyish bellies and say “No, you’re cotton pickin’,” and he’d always indulge us this comedy routine until we grew tired of it and ran off to loudly play with his children. He liked our other jokes, too, or at least pretended to, and would share some good clean ones with us, and he never seemed to mind all the high-pitched child revelry at the family get-togethers. Always sweet and sunny and smiling, with no harsh words for anyone, he seemed the most likable guy in our world.
As we grew older, we came to appreciate he was even more than that. We watched with admiration as his ACP Sheet Metal Company — the initials standing for “Another Cotton-Pickin'” — grew into a thriving business. When the Oklahoma City economy was going through its oil-driven booms he got his share of the sheet metal business by offering quality work at fair prices, and when the inevitable oil-driven busts came along he continued to prosper as the fly-by-night operators were exposed. The small town boy proved a remarkably shrewd businessman, and we don’t mean that in the modern sense of someone who can successfully hoodwink others, but in the old-fashioned small town sense of someone shrewd enough to understand that meeting the requirements of a mutually-beneficial contract is not only the right thing to do but also the smart play over the long run.
Harold Dills was also the kind of guy who would do the right thing even if wasn’t the smart play to make, and he generously shared his prosperity with his church, the needy in his community, and just about anyone he encountered who could use a helping hand. Over the long run that seemed to work out for him, as well. His son Jay learned all the hard math and makes a good living for a gorgeous wife and the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen as an engineer. His daughter Patrice Douglas became a lawyer, has served the state of Oklahoma well in a variety of capacities, made a run for congress that fell short but was honorably run, and her own good-looking kids are going off to the sorts of schools you need good grades and high test scores to get into. His other son, Nathan, has fought the local meth dealers as a state attorney and now runs the family business, and provided some more promising grandchildren. More importantly to “Cotton-Pickin’,” they’re all good people.
He remained madly in love with Claudette through 47 years of marriage until her death a few years ago, and despite his grief he was pleasantly surprised to find that a prosperous fellow with wholesome Andy Griffith good looks and a sunny disposition and a reputation for rock-solid integrity attracted the attention of all the local women of a certain age, and he wound up getting married to Linda, the best of them, who was quickly welcomed into the family and much appreciated for the joy she brought to his life. He also got to do some of that world travel that the Air Force hadn’t provided, and the pictures of him riding a Venetian gondola reveal a very surprised satisfaction, and he meticulously restored a couple of old Model A automobiles that he used to take the grandchildren out for ice cream, and had good seats for the NASCAR races that he’d loved since his boyhood days in the pre-Junior Johnson era of the sport. He didn’t even seem to mind that the rest of the world more admired the latest smutty set sit-coms and narcissistic pop stars adorned with bling, or that one of America’s political parties would point to the business his hard-work and hard ethics had created and say “You didn’t build that” or chalk it all up to the “white privilege” of a sheet metal-bending boy from the hills of North Carolina, or that the other party is offering up a narcissistic pop star adorned with bling who made his much bragged-about fortune by shorting all the contractors who built the buildings with his name trumpeted on top.
Harold Dills was beloved by his family and respected by the people he dealt with, and he knew that in the long run that was the better deal. When we learned of his diagnosis we sent him a long e-mail telling him that he would be in our prayers, and we took the opportunity to tell him why we considered him a great man. His short reply arrived a few minutes later, telling us that he very much appreciated the prayers but thought all that “great man” stuff was a bunch of hooey. With all due respect, we will have to disagree.
Making America great again can’t be achieved by even the the least humble strong men, but will require a whole lot more men like Harold Dills, and those good ol’ Okie boys who offered us a helping hand when we encountered some car trouble on the way to the funeral, and all the rest of that diminishing stock of men who do the right thing even when it doesn’t seem the smart play. We’re not sure where they’ll come from, what with all the kids being raised by Baby Mommies and Baby Daddies and on what’s on TV and the pop charts and the presidential races, but we hope that something of Harold Dills’ goodness will somehow persist. Those grandkids of his are a very promising lot, and we’ll try to do our best by providing some avuncular kidding and clean jokes and good advice at the family get-togethers, and never raising a fuss about the high-pitched childhood revelry, and letting them know what great men this country once knew.
— Bud Norman