The Lessons My Dad, Royce Humphrey, Taught Me

My dad passed away this evening at the age of 90.  James and I spent much of the day in Hancock, and talked and laughed with him prior to his passing. Though mighty sad we left the house with a sense of peace about my dad.

I have lots of thoughts inside and find that at times like this some open writing is the best way to release some of what I am feeling.  This blog has been open to all sorts of topics, but tonight I use it for a very personal one.


My dad taught me three things that might seem way different from what most boys learn.  They have nothing to do with sports, fishing, hunting, or engines.  They would on the surface seem to have little to do with day-to-day living.

Yet nearly 50 years later these three lessons have never been forgotten, and have become etched into my life.

The land we lived on in Hancock had probably fifty acres of woods, in addition to the acres of open space that was dotted with wild roses, wild strawberries, endless black-eyed-susans, and way back by the fence line an ever-growing field of irises that never had any attention than what Mother Nature provided.   The whole area was great for exploring as a kid, and more peaceful walks later in life.

As a boy I loved to walk in the woods populated with white pines and oaks. After I got to a certain age I would take the axe along and chop on this dead branch, or even take down a very small spindly tree here and there.   When I grew into my teenage years there was one tall white pine that I would wail on with the axe.  All the tensions of youth were unleashed on that tree.  At the end of my teen years I had discovered there was far more tree than angst.  When I left home it was still standing, but with a very haggard look.  Over the years it came down with age, and others grew up in its place.

That I had narrowed my axing to a single tree by the time I became a teenager had to do with some thoughtful words from my dad.

He told me as a boy you just never know when a tree will be needed to hide under in the rain, or climb in order to get away from a wild animal.  When describing the latter point he would make the noise of a bear and growl.  If the image of a rabid badger coming at me did not paint enough of a picture, dad’s vocalization of the creature was all I needed to know trees were my friends, and I should respect them.

Planting a tree in 2001 in back of our home in Hancock.

As such all my life I have loved trees, and in the recent past have used my voice to make sure that Madison protects them when street construction takes place.

Dad’s lesson about trees took root within me, and in some way made a difference where I live.

As a child, I often walked with my dad in the woods, where he would talk of the small trees that seemed to me to lack a continuous rounded beauty.  One side of so many seemed to be deformed.   They did not get enough light, or were too close to other trees in the woods.  Dad would comment about the misshapen trees, “They all want to be a Christmas tree!”  As I got older, that message seemed ever more important to me.  When it came time to chop down my own tree for Christmas, I always sought out a nice tree, but one that was not quite perfect.  My friends would smile and gently chide me about the ‘Charlie Brown’ tree.  Yet, decorated in all the lights and glass ornaments the tree was always perfect. 

Each season for years and years, I took my dad’s axe to the woods and dragged my tree through the snow and brought it to our ‘barn’ where my dad would eye it up and then reach for some wood pieces in the pile near the back of the building.  He would measure a bit then take the wood and place it over the side of a wooden potato crate and cut for perfect dimensions. He would hammer and fashion the pieces together so the small trunk of the tree would fit without slipping out.  As we worked, I would look out the door of the barn and see my mom at the kitchen window.  She carefully watched our progress, ensuring that we didn’t do anything foolish, or hurt ourselves.  Steam collected on the window panes from something wonderful cooking on the stove for dinner. 

Days after I had the tree back in Madison my dad would phone to inquire as to how it was standing.  I always answered that it was up and decorated without a single problem.  Vendors do not put less-than-perfect Christmas trees on the lots in the city, but I can say with all honesty that my little trees from those years could stand in competition with any of them, if the competition were about conveying life’s lessons on love. 

I never asked dad about the reason he came up with his philosophy about Christmas trees.  It just fit him, and never seemed to need an explanation.  It means we all are needed in life, and all fit in somewhere.  And with a little help from someone can be what we dream of.

If I now have a soft spot for hungry little animals on our lawn it would come from my dad who made sure every year the wild turkeys would have corn to eat in an area in the woods where they came to scratch and peck around.  He never hunted them, or wanted harm to come their way.  When the icy crust of snow would prevent the turkeys from finding any food would be the time dad would be lugging a pail of corn to the woods.  And he did this year after year.

On Thanksgiving and Christmas my mom would get a skillet out and put this or that into the mix, add some milk, and warm it up.  Then my dad would take it out to our field and feed some cats that lived across the road.  I still recall my mom making a holiday meal for the cats, and my dad helping to deliver it.   In the high snow months my dad even made a path down to the field so one of the smaller cats could walk easier to the place he fed them.

None of these lessons will make one wealthy, play sports better, or make an engine run smoother. 

What dad taught me was more important.

Dad in his own way proved how to be reflective, more aware of the world that is right outside our window, and how to care about things smaller than ourselves.

Lessons I will never forget.

Thank You Dad!