Never underestimate the power of a kind word or deed. Kerry Trotter reflects on the life of her grandfather, “Spoose,” and how his simple gifts of love and faith inspired so many.

One of the first phone calls I made from my brand new phone in my brand new Chicago condo during my brand new flirtation with self-sufficiency was to my very old grandparents.  

It was 2004 and Moose and Spoose, their quirky names to us grandkids, were living in Phoenix. I missed them.

“Hey Spoose!”

“Ker! Howaya? Oh, before I go on, your grandmother needs your new address.”

“Sure. It’s 1400 West Cortez Street, unit number…”

“Cortez!” he interrupted. “Oh yeah, hell of an explorer.”

I burst out laughing at this very sincere aside of my grandfather’s. It could have been the fact that he was complimenting a long-dead Spaniard, or that Cortez’s colonization of Mexico probably didn’t win him any humanitarian awards. Or it could have been that it was just a typical “Spoose” thing to say.

Everyone, according to my grandfather—even a pillaging womanizer—deserves some credit.

Spoose, or Jack Leonard as the rest of his boosters knew him, died a year ago today. He was 94. His passing was unexpected in the way it should be, in that his illness was short and dignified, but not tragic or untimely. He left behind his wife of nearly 68 years, four sons, four daughters-in-law, and over a dozen grandkids and great-grandkids, all of whom were completely shook by his passing but totally devoid of regret. There was no unfinished business in this family, no one who wasn’t entirely certain of how he felt about his kin—and how he felt was that we were the greatest. Not all of us collectively, but each and every member of his clan managed to share a superlative. Never mind the impossibility of the claim, when we left Spoose’s company, we felt it.

I’m still grappling with his absence—still in that post-funereal fog where we’ll quote him and then invariably utter, “I can’t believe he’s gone.”

It’s true. I still can’t believe he’s gone.

He was a character, a big, Irish personality full of stories and songs and quick, endearing wit. He was a talker too, often sneaking off to keep the company of a gas station attendant trying to work, or a “sandwich artist” paid to serve up a friendly spiel. We’d shake our heads as we watched, always from a distance, as Spoose regaled a surly teen wearing a Yankees cap with old Snuffy Stirnweiss stories. Invariably Spoose’d walk away with a smile on his face, saying something about that poor teen, desperately trying to shake this old stranger’s company, being “the greatest.”

Spoose was a faithful man, bearing a certain outwardness with his Catholicism that none of us inherited. He didn’t have a “holier than thou” bone in his body, and his faith wasn’t about logging maximum hours in church or being the most visible parishioner. His faith was about humility and daily service. He would get down on his knees to pray at home, sing loudly during Mass, bow his head before meals while the rest of us dug in with the abandon of a pack of feral dogs.

It was a faith formed by his parents who fled their homes in Ireland as teenagers, hungry, poor and terrified. They clung to it like the few cents sewn into their jacket pocket. They offered it up while the black, unforgiving sea roiled below their feet. Spoose understood suffering because of the toils of his parents, because of his Navy buddies lost in battle, because of his younger sister succumbing to scarlet fever, because of his mom dropping dead at his feet. Because of his stillborn daughter.

But like so many of his generation, that suffering was repurposed into love. The bad cards dealt early were reshuffled for his kids. There were no grudges. Even when friends and business partners betrayed him, he offered his hand. 

He turned the other cheek. 

He died having lost his life savings (twice), with a laundry list of failures, hurt and strife on his watch. But he died happy.

I credit this to his uncanny ability to give. Some say he trusted too much, was too generous when it came to his earthly lot, was too willing to give even shifty folks the benefit of the doubt. This gifting hurt him, yes, but he didn’t see it that way. He gave everyone the shot they deserved. Whether or not they did right by that opportunity was almost irrelevant. He gave anyway. Even as he was lying in the hospital bed where he would soon die, he mumbled a nearly incoherent thought to the doctor on call. He had to repeat himself multiple times, under great strains of coughing fits and shortened breath, until finally my dad was able to translate.

“He said you’re a sharp dresser,” my father relayed to the physician, wearing the standard-issue white coat. 

In an ironic twist, Spoose was a bit of a packrat, clinging to boxes full of keys for cars long gone, desk calendars for years long passed, shoe shine kits in multiples heretofore unseen in one man’s closet. He claimed it was a habit informed by his childhood during the Great Depression. I claim he gave so much of his person he needed a little material respite for himself.  

 Spoose valued the “little guy,” the underdog, the forgotten and the disenfranchised. He’d root for the losing team, bet on the unfavored horse, and pick the scrawniest fighter for the KO. He wanted to make sure everyone had a shot. He doled out a pure, Christ-like love for those who didn’t have a voice, becoming incensed at news of corporate greed and politics insensitive to poverty, illness or lifestyle. He had faith we could all be better, give more.

He was a boots-on-the-ground believer in God. He delivered love knowing that everyone deserved it, and that receiving love was en empowering gift with no equal. 

Spoose chose to be cremated, and his remains are now interred in a splashy vessel my grandmother selected from the funeral home’s expansive catalog in her grief-stricken haze. The urn is a large, black and white ceramic number with a baseball encased at the top. The Chicago White Sox logo is branded front and center.

While my grandfather loved baseball, the White Sox were never, ever his team.

The incongruity of this choice, the randomness of the selection was and is riotously funny. Jokes ensued that Spoose, the last vestiges of his corporal remains locked in the wrong vessel for eternity, would haunt us as his means of restitution. He would walk through walls under the cover of darkness, singing “Galway Bay” and playing the spoons. And he would stay for hours and talk about his friendship with the late baseball legend Buzzy Bavasi, who was, you know, the greatest.

Talk about scary.

We weren’t being insensitive. Spoose would have found it absolutely hilarious. Further, it’s almost too perfect that he was stuck with the White Sox. Not the big-ticket Yankees he followed with his young sons, or even the more popular of our two hometown teams, the Cubs. He unwittingly aligned himself with the Sox, who can’t give tickets away to most games.

He’s rooting for the underdog, even in death, and he’s giving them, as he always has, a few lessons in what it means to be great.

No, the greatest.