Yesterday, my family buried our guiding light: Dick “Po” Griest, my father. I spent the last week writing his eulogy. Sharing it with all of our friends and family who gathered yesterday was the great honor of my life. I am posting it here. Thank you for extending so much love and compassion our way.
EULOGY: THE TAO OF PO
Somewhere in the spirit world, my Dad is thrilled that all of you have gathered here today. We know the journey was not easy. It’s the start of the work week, and Corpus is bien lejos. Nonetheless, you traveled here from Panama, from Kansas, from North Carolina, from Georgia, from Austin, from Houston, from San Antonio, from Kingsville, from the Valley, from Sinton. Given all of the construction in Corpus, even coming over from the South side was a trek. There was nothing Dad enjoyed more than a road trip, so you have already honored him deeply.
Speaking on behalf of my mother Irene, my sister Barbara, my brother-in-law Alex, my nephew Jordan, my niece Analina, and their partners Jessica and Elise, I thank you for replenishing our family reservoir in this, our saddest time.
Today we will pay tribute to the vibrant life of a man called PO by his grandkids. We will do so by sharing what he loved most, his family and his music, and we will conclude with his favorite meal.
Let us start by reflecting upon his biography. Po was a happy-go-lucky man with great wisdom in his ways. Let us consider his life story via the 8 tenets that guided him. A TAO OF PO, if you will.
Tenet 1: BE PROUD OF WHERE YOU’RE FROM
Po never met a stranger. If you were seated one table over at Cracker Barrel, or selling cosmetics at the counter at Padre Staples Mall, he would strike up a conversation with you. And the very first thing he’d ask was: And where are you from? First, because he genuinely cared, but even more importantly, because he was super excited to share where HE was from. And that place was Minneapolis, Kansas.
It is a town of 2,000 surrounded by golden prairie, and to Po, the heartland of the universe. He was born there in 1937 and had a magical childhood, romping around the park with his big brother Reed and going on sleigh rides every Christmas. In the evening, their family of four sat down to a supper featuring plates piled high with meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, a mountain of mashed potatoes and a river of gravy, all whipped up by Po’s beloved mother, Madge.
Po may have left Minneapolis at age 17, but Minneapolis never left him. He reminisced about his hometown throughout his life. Every summer, we would pack up the van and make the 870-mile drive out there, pulling up to Cozy Inn half an hour before it closed. Tradition dictated sitting on the barstools lined up at the grill and ordering a six-pack of tiny burgers cooked right in front of us. Then we’d spend the week with Po’s beloved nieces Tammy, Stacy, and DeeDee, who join us today along with those here in spirit: Po’s sweet nephew Don, his sister-in-law Jolene, his big brother Reed, his parents Madge and Loris, and dear Marilyn. Minneapolis gave Po not just an identity but an anchoring that centered him throughout his life.
The Tao of PO, Tenet 2: DO WHAT YOU LOVE AND THE MONEY WILL FOLLOW
Po could not remember life before drumming. When just a toddler he started pulling pots and pans out of the cupboard and banging on them with wooden spoons. His mother pinched and saved for years to buy him a professional drum set. Po played in the high school marching band while still in elementary school and he auditioned for the U.S. Navy band as soon as he graduated. He beat out competitors from across the country, then spent the next 20 years entertaining troops on Naval aircraft carriers, introducing jazz to war-torn Japan, and heralding the arrivals of Admirals, Prime Ministers, and Presidents. Later in South Texas, he formed the Dick Griest Combo and joined numerous other touring bands.
Never in his life did Po earn a paycheck for anything besides his art. That is something most artists only dream of.
As Alzheimer’s began to restrict Po’s activities, drumming became not just a livelihood but a lifeline. Even after he could no longer walk, could no longer talk, could no longer feed himself, if you slid a drumstick into Po’s hand, he could still find the rhythm.
The only beat that lasted longer was his heart.
The Tao of PO, Tenet 3: LOOK OUT THE WINDOW!
Po saw the whole world with the US Navy Band: Hong Kong. Corfu. Newfoundland. The Rock of Gibraltar. Spain. Greece. As soon as the ship came to port, he’d hop on a bicycle, or better yet, a train, and head into the countryside. According to Po, that was the only way to know a place.
As soon as Barbara and I could hold our heads up straight, we got buckled into the little seat on the back of his bike and ridden all over town. Every day after school, we’d set off on an excursion to the T-heads or on a ferry ride to see the porpoises. Every summer, Po would pack up the van for a family road trip to the Redwood Forest, Mesa Verde, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone, with John Denver crooning through the tape deck. If Po saw us with our noses in a book, he’d say LOOK OUT THE WINDOW. Witness this glorious view.
Po’s love for the open road was infectious. I have no doubt I became a travel writer because of it, and Barbara has continued the family tradition, taking her kids on extraordinary adventures every summer.
The Tao of PO, Tenet 4: PLAY IT BY EAR
Po was not a fan of planning. Any time you tried, he’d say, “Let’s just play it by ear,” meaning that we should trust our instincts, so that spontaneity might bloom. Like that winter night in 1967, when he got a gig at a jazz club on Carancahua Street during his brief stint at the Naval Air Base here in Corpus. Suddenly, a beautiful young woman walked in. Po had to act fast, because she appeared to have eyes for the saxophonist. That was her favorite instrument, plus she liked his curly hair (and Po had no hair). So at intermission, Po walked over to introduce himself and accidentally spilled his Coke all over her shoes. He led her backstage, cupped her feet with his hands, and gently wiped them clean. They got married three months later. Dad’s next gig was Mardi Gras, and the only way Tío Ben would let her accompany him was as his bride. So Tia Benita stayed up all week sewing a white satin dress and then rented out the YMCA, where they said I DO. On February 3, they celebrated 51 years of marriage. This all proves that playing it by ear can be the best plan of all.
The Tao of PO, Tenet 5: DO WHAT YOU LOVE EVERY DAY
Po had a man cave before the term was invented, in the four-car garage behind our house. Over the years, he turned it into a shrine of joy: a train set ran around the ping pong table, hot air balloons dangled from the ceiling, Frank Sinatra posters plastered the walls, and Christmas carols rang out year-round. Every inch of that garage made Po happy, and so did every hour of the day. He would rise before the rest of us to brew Mom a cup of coffee and make us breakfast, then pack our sandwiches and walk us to school. He and his buddies would play tennis at the base and feast on Whataburgers afterward, and he’d come home to practice drums and piano until it was time to pick us up from school. Mo informed Po on their wedding night that she’d cook once a year, and we still relish the lasagna she bakes each Christmas. For our remaining 1,100 annual meals, Po would either blend a cup of instant rice with cans of tuna and cream of celery and pop it in the oven until the cheese started bubbling, or he’d take us to Furr’s Cafeteria. All the waitresses there knew our names and the score of my latest Little Miss Kickball game as well. And on weekends, we’d go to the Doremuses, where we each had a best friend in Vicki, Pete, Topher, and Daniel, and would play pinochle late into the night.
The Tao of PO, Tenet 6: SOMETIMES THINGS JUST DON’T WORK OUT
Any time we passed by a boarded-up restaurant or a shop that had filed for bankruptcy, Po would point and say, “They tried it! It just…. didn’t work out! But, they tried it.” This made failure seem almost… charming. No need to feel bad about it, because it happened to all of us, and the effort was what mattered. This attitude has gotten me through many a disappointment, starting with my junior year of high school, when I failed my driver’s test not once, not twice, but THREE times! The first time I didn’t even make it out of the parking lot. Po hugged me afterward and said, “Sometimes things just don’t work out!”
This motto has been especially helpful since I’ve became a writer, where the ability to handle rejection is paramount. After I moved back in with my parents to write my first book and every publisher in New York City rejected it, Dad revised this philosophy by saying: “Sometimes things just don’t work out… but keep at it til they do.” He brought me a Subway sandwich for lunch every single day that year. Even though that book was about communism, and he was a Rush Limbaugh-loving Republican, he got his denim shirt emblazoned with a big red star and wore it to all my events when Random House finally did publish it.
The Tao of PO, Tenet 7: PLAY IT FORWARD
Po loved music so much, he couldn’t bear to keep it to himself. He started teaching the drums as soon as he retired from the Navy, first at Melhart Music and then at his man cave at home. Many students grew up taking lessons with him and became professional drummers themselves. From age four onward, as soon as Jordan and Analina arrived for a visit, Po would sit them down at his drum set—the same one his mother bought him half a century before—and show them how to “BOOM get a rat trap bigger than a cat trap.” Jordan pursued interests in the health field, and Analina continued drumming. She is now a music major at St. Mary’s University who performs at Sea World and for several bands in San Antonio. We are so proud she is continuing his legacy.
The Tao of PO, Tenet 8: LOVE UNCONDITIONALLY
The last complete sentence my dad said to me was I LOVE YOU MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW. Since I have no children of my own, it is true that I may never experience such a primal love myself, but I felt it from him my entire life. Po loved his family truly and wholly and simply and purely and he showed it in every way possible.
Even when his health started faltering, he never missed a birthday party, reading, school play, concert, or graduation. Every Valentine’s Day, he sent Barbara and me a huge bouquet of flowers. His was the kind of love that fortifies your core in childhood so that you can withstand the tidal waves life later sends crashing your way.
When Po slowly began to recede, our love for him surged with a 50-year force.
Mo spent every day with him, assisting with his wound care, shaving his beard, trimming his toe nails, and reading aloud stories from the latest Readers Digest. Po in turn would say Hi Hon as best he could.
Even though he was fighting for every breath, he managed to hold on last Saturday night until Barbara, Alex, Jordan, and Analina could drive in from San Antonio to say goodbye. Then he waited five hours more for me to arrive from Marfa. When I reached his bedside, he lifted his hand so I could hold it.
In the early morning hours of Sunday, July 7, Barbara and I began playing his favorite songs, including John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High and Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Then I remembered a song that Po and I used to love singing together while he played the piano when I was a little girl. It wound up being the last song Po heard before setting off on the ultimate journey. No lyrics encapsulate the Tao of Po better than this.
59thSTREET BRIDGE SONG by Simon & Garfunkel
Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
Hello lamp post, what ya knowing?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growing
Ain’t you got no rhymes for me?
I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me
Life, I love you
All is groovy