A Eulogy for Dad

Charles Burke Baxley was born on March 25, 1952 and lived 72 years. Now, if I continue on to read the appropriate list of his accomplishments, his interests, and his activities, or if I stood here and just listed the family and friends whom he loved, we’d be here the rest of the day and into the night.

Instead, I’m going to try and paint with a broad brush and give you an idea of who Charles was as a friend, as a professional, and obviously, as a father. I’ve got four themes that I think resonated throughout his entire life, but let’s start the story at the beginning, with flight.

Dad grew up in Camden, SC in the 1950s and 60s. He loved the Little Rascals and as best I can tell, that was a good reflection of his childhood. Adventuring, experimenting with radios and TVs, eating hot dogs, putting cherry bombs in mailboxes, and playing with friends. He was fascinated by technology and once told me that as a child he felt his life would be complete if he had three things in his wallet, a driver’s license, a HAM radio operators license, and a pilot’s license. He earned all three when he soloed the day of his 16th birthday. There is a story that involves landing on an abandoned road and meeting a friend on a motorcycle with a hand out for a quick takeoff. A touch and go with a hand off via motorcycle was a very useful thing to practice, apparently.

For the last several weeks, mom has had a newspaper clipping on the fridge. It’s yellow with age and has a picture of a handsome dark haired young man and reads “Camden Boy Goes to Austria!” Thanks to the Civil Air Patrol he got a exchange trip to Austria. And thanks to the US Air Force, he was able to attend the University of South Carolina on an ROTC scholarship.

After he and my mother were married, he informed her that he wanted an airplane. Mom informed him that he could get an airplane if she could fly it. So she also earned her pilot’s license and over the years our family had several airplanes. With an airplane comes freedom to adventure and travel and that’s what my parents did. They didn’t just fly, an airplane was a way to go places, to learn new things, to allow dad to get boots on the ground and explore geology, geography, history, science, and more. They flew up to Canada and across the country, but also did quicker jaunts, often taking friends out to Savannah or Raleigh for dinner. He flew down into the Grand Canyon and across the Rockies. They tell me often about a very romantic trip they took to Alaska.  Nine months after that, they needed a car seat in the airplane because I was “a keeper”.

The two planes I remember were the Bonanza and the twin-engine Piper Seneca that my parents called Bravo Lima Bean! (like that would make vegetables more fun?) and we flew across the country in all directions. Dad occasionally flew professionals, as he was a commercial pilot and did some mercy flights. He would sit at the table spending hours meticulously planning long flying vacations to make sure we were safe and were going to see all the sights.

Flying was so much a part of my childhood that it was assumed that I would get the pilot’s license to go along with the driver’s license and dad and I enjoyed flying together. As a family, we made a regular pilgrimage to Oshkosh, WI most summers for the EAA fly-in. Later, it was just dad and I, walking around, talking about airplanes and plans, life, family, law, and well, more about airplanes. I liked the newer innovations in personal aviation (Car plane!), he liked the war planes, but we both liked the vintage aircraft.

Dad’s last vacation (“The bucket list trip”) reflected his loves : 1 car museum, 2 presidential libraries, 3 dear friends in the Chicago area, and not 4, not 5 but 6 airplane museums and 2 full days at the mecca of flying – the Osh Kosh annual fly-in.

Professionally, dad was a lawyer. He was always interested in law and politics, probably because he was so fascinated with people. He was attending a luncheon hosted by Strom Thurmond at Presidential Classroom for Young Americans in DC when he met my mother. Later he interned for a summer in Senator Thurmond’s office. When the Air Force wasn’t ready for him upon graduation, he enrolled in law school, graduated, and then did active service as a JAG officer at Shaw Air Force Base, getting his feet wet in the practice of law.

Together with his law partners, he established a law firm, Baxley, Pratt, and Wells, which is now Baxley, Wells, and Benson. Dad did a little bit of everything. I worked for him for several months while waiting for my bar results and got many a lecture that started with the original common law background from England and the various case law that followed. He was a compassionate advocate, a great listener, and an exacting grammarian.  He expected the same of me as he taught me to practice law.

While he did everything from real estate to family law to business law, there were a few areas of law where he became an expert. Tree farming was a family business and dad participated in the Forest Landowners and owned several tree farms, but also became an expert in the law surrounding managing and harvesting trees. Not even a month ago, my husband was getting legal advice from dad on a very esoteric aspect of tree farm management law. Similarly, he became an expert on nursing home law. And, thanks to the Ridgeway Gold Mine, an expert on mining laws.

Dad served 15 years as the City Judge of Camden. I have early memories of dad frequently leaving the supper table when the police called. Sometimes I could tag along. While I scribbled on the carbon copy paper forms, dad donned his huge black judge’s robe and administered justice.

Dad was active in a wide variety of community activities including working with the Boy Scouts and earning a Silver Beaver for his work in relocating Camp Barstow.

When dad decided to run for school board, Burke and I were conscripted into painting signs to hang on our fence reminding people to VOTE FOR DAD and I spent many days hanging out by the polling place reminding people that their vote mattered. In local elections, results are often decided by a small handful of votes or, as dad would say, you should have called 20 more of your very best friends.

While I’d love to say it was our charming canvas signage that did the trick, it was more likely the fact that dad sat down each evening with the phone book and made calls and talked to people. Even after he was elected, if you called him with a question, he would take the time to patiently listen, ask questions, and then answer your pressing query about why school was closed when it was only threatening to snow.

I’d made it to high school at this point and was taking a full load of college-prep courses. One day, dad asked me to weigh my bookbag, which came in at a staggering 60 lbs (it was simply inefficient to get to my locker, so I just carried it all). With laptops getting cheaper, dad started the initiative to give every child in Kershaw County a laptop and work towards making bookbags lighter.

He was also a huge proponent of vocational education and since I was his poster child, I was deposited at ATEC and told to choose a class. But I understand why vocational education and his work with the Kershaw County Vocational Education Foundation was so important to him. He was actively involved in the building of new schools, including the Woolard Technology Center so that kids from Kershaw County would graduate high school with a valuable, marketable skill, giving them better futures and our community productive citizens.

Dad was a great organizer of people and projects. He coupled his interest in history with his ability to bring people together and created a history coalition. From giving tours and military staff rides, to hosting round tables on Revolutionary War topics, to publishing an online magazine, (One. Letter. At. A. Time.) he connected people with similar interests to create a large fellowship and expand the knowledge of Revolutionary War Battles in the South.

In 2007, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto for his service to the State of South Carolina. To celebrate, and with only a few days’ notice, mom and I decided to throw a surprise party. I had a friend from law school ask for a tour of the battle of Hobkirk Hill in order to drag dad out of the house. When we returned home, every room in the house was crammed with people congratulating him. I think of that moment often, when we walked in the back door, and the rooms were bursting at the seams with people cheering for dad.

The capstone of his career was chairing the state commission to celebrate South Carolina’s Sestercentennial (250th) birthday. From the beginning, dad had a clear vision in mind for the project. This was his chance to dream big and make sure history came alive for everyone. He wanted his granddaughters to hear amazing stories about the clever women of the revolution. He wanted his friends to delve deeper into their research projects. He wanted to make sure it was well known outside of our state that South Carolina men and women made a significant contribution to American freedom. And he wanted to preserve all this activity and knowledge for future scholars and citizens.

I think one thing that stands out the most, looking over everyone gathered here today to remember his life, was how very much he loved people. If he was still with us, he would have counted each person here a friend and would want to spend significant time talking to each of you.

From his siblings to his childhood friends from growing up in Camden, there are people here who knew him far longer than I. But I have early, formative memories of learning from him how to be a friend, how to remember the details that are important to people, how to listen and ask good questions, AND how to take ten minutes getting to your table at the Lugoff House of Pizza because you have so many friends you need to talk to….

He would always say, “oh, you know who that is, right? That’s so-and-so, he’s (or she’s) my friend.”

Dad had an irreverent sense of humor, something that perhaps came out more around his friends than it did around me. But he did love to name, or rename, things. We had cats growing up and he named our big fluffy white cat AN for Attractive Nuisance (toddler me promptly re-named this cat Mr. Meow). My first cat was Mistoffelees and much to my disgust, he renamed her Miss-Lot-of-Fleas. And my last cat, a stripy tabby, he called Yipes!

As I said at the beginning, I can’t possibly name everyone who mattered (and please forgive me later if I’m not as expert at remembering names as dad was). But let me just tell you a few stories about his friends.

One of his hobbies was woodworking. He did a lot of the woodwork in our current house, from the moldings to the mantle, and I often tagged along when he went to his shop. It wasn’t a shop in our backyard, or anywhere near our house. It was in a friend’s back yard, and it was clearly a communal shop. While woodworking was done (I built a shelf!), much more cleaning and organizing and a lot of talking was done.

He also liked clubs. He was a member of several clubs that combined his love of service with his love of friends. When there wasn’t a club that met his needs, he and his friends instigated one. From the RTR club to Possum Breeders, you’ll have to ask the members what those clubs were all about.

Dad had friends he met through the practice of law, from his clients to other attorneys, friends he met through his clubs and service activities, friends he met at a table on vacation, friends he met in the Charles de Gaulle airport…. you just couldn’t take him anywhere, he knew everybody.

Dad and mom recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. He loved his family, his children, sibs, his nieces, and nephews who came to visit over the summers, and later, all of his grand nieces and nephews who he wanted nothing more than to watch play and spoil rotten. He loved his friends and many of their children were regular playmates, friends, nanny-brothers, and now friends for my children. He adored his grandchildren, taking them on train rides, showing them basic woodworking repair skills, and even when he could do little else, watching endless You Tube videos of rocket launches and woodworking just to spend time with them.

He never met a stranger because he was endlessly and genuinely interested in people, wanted to know what they were thinking and why, wanted to learn about an endless number of topics, and so ended up making friends for life throughout his life. We are all better off for having known him, having received his mentorship, his support, his friendship, and his love.

I have one more thing.

Our home was always full of music and poetry. Any repetitive task or saying was done in song or rhyme. Dad’s contributions to this were frequently pulled from the TV jingles and popular shows of his childhood as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Mom’s were often snippets of poetry. She has contributed the following poem that sums our sentiments up so well.

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,

And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,

But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

Abou Ben Adhem by Leigh Hunt