On September 11, 2019 we laid to rest one of the world’s brightest lights, Mr. Wayne Palmer or “Papu,” as family called him. Papu was my husband Mitch’s grandfather, playing a father-figure role in his upbringing. I never knew my grandfathers but Papu didn’t hesitate stepping into the role for me too. He wore big shoes and though they must have been heavy, he never complained of their weight. The world will never be the same without him and to keep his memory alive, I’ll share some of my favorite memories from the short time I had with our dear Papu.
I first met Papu back in 2015. Mitch and I would visit Papu on weekends and take him out for breakfast or lunch then spend some time with him watching TV and catching up. I learned quickly that though Papu was 96-years-old, he could easily run circles around people half his age. He was recently retired, taking his second retirement three years prior when he was 93, but he kept busy mowing several acres of grass each week between his property and and neighboring properties. He also lived alone and believe it or not, was a legal and safe driver. To say he was a hard-worker would be an understatement. He was funny, wise, an expert handyman, and sharp as a tack. I was impressed.
He was also an American hero, serving our nation during the second World War. He didn’t talk about that part of his life up until his last few years. As a survivor of the deadliest war in history, who could blame him? I’ll never forget one particular morning when we sat down for breakfast at Whataburger. Donning his iconic WWII veteran hat, a staple in his wardrobe, Papu pointed out another patron who had entered the restaurant. This man was wearing a veteran’s hat too. Then suddenly tears streamed from Papu’s eyes and he started to tell me about the horrors he witnessed off the coast of Normandy Beach on D-Day. He said the ship he was on had hit a mine, blowing out the rudder. He was stranded with a front row view of the carnage that would unfold on the beach, in the sea, and in the air. It was heartbreaking and sobering. When we got back to his house, he showed me the tapestry that hangs on the wall of his bedroom, decorated with his portrait, badges, and medals from the war.
When we saw Papu on weekends or over holidays he was ever the same- strong and quick as usual. He always had a lot of help from my mother and father-in-law over the years, who lived a few hours away and visited him like clockwork, but he was still very independent. He almost seemed ageless. Like time had moved on but he didn’t budge.
He once told me, “I’ve always been the same. Happy-go-lucky. That’s just how I am.” He truly was content and jolly as could be. He was a gentleman too and thus extremely popular with the ladies everywhere he went. Like any good ladies-man, he was a sharp-dresser, often sporting collared shirts and slacks. He would sometimes wear a little bolo tie and I thought it was the most adorable and classy thing ever. And so very Texas.
About a month after Papu’s 98th birthday, we took him out to Mitch’s step-father’s pond to go fishing. It was my first fishing trip but Papu was no novice to the sport. Angling with a good old hook and line was one of Papu’s greatest passions in life and he was very good at it. Due to his age, he hadn’t been able to get out and enjoy his favorite pastime like he used to, so we were really grateful for the opportunity to be there with him.
Papu said he loved sitting around peacefully waiting for the fish to bite. He was a patient man, after all. That day he taught me how to cast a line and he was so happy when I caught my first fish. It was even more special because it turned out to be the only catch of the day. After a few photo-ops we threw her back.
For Papu’s 99th birthday his church, Trinity Baptist, threw him a big party. They dedicated the entire day and church service to him complete with a potluck lunch. April the 14th was no longer an ordinary day, it was Wayne Palmer Day. It always will be.
The next morning he drove himself to Whataburger for breakfast and to his surprise, another birthday party was waiting for him with cake, balloons, and all. Papu had been a loyal customer of the Whataburger near his home for many years, visiting for breakfast 3 or 4 times each week. It didn’t take long for him to grow close to several Whataburger employees as well as other regular patrons. As a staple in his life and routine, the Whataburger bunch became his extended family.
A few weeks after his party, Mitch and I took off to travel the country for a year in our RV. Besides the two of us, no one was more excited for our adventures than Papu. Mitch would call him every week or two from the road to check in on him and catch up, and before we knew it the year had passed an we’d be back in Texas to celebrate Papu’s 100th.
Papu’s 100th birthday party was really more like a week-long festival. The grand celebrations started with a house-party at Papu’s place where family and friends traveled from all over the country- and even as far as the United Kingdom- to commemorate the momentous milestone.
Papu was all smiles surrounded by family and friends who loved him. He reunited with grandchildren he hadn’t seen in years and got to hold great-grandchildren he was meeting for the first time. It was a long, exciting day and the festivities were only getting started…
Next, the party moved to Trinity Baptist for a special Wayne Palmer Day celebration. Papu arrived by limousine and joked that when it had surprised him in his driveway to pick him up that morning, he thought it was a hearse and hollered out, “I’m not ready yet!” He stepped out of the limo, onto the red carpet, and walked up to the church doors cheered-on by his adoring friends and family.
Once inside, Papu was called on stage where Pastor Steve Cowart presented him with a letter of thanks and appreciation from the city mayor. He also received a letter from a Texas congressman, along with a folded American flag that had flown at the United States Capitol. The highlight of the service was when Papu sat with his pastor for an insightful live interview about his life over the past 100 years, which included stories from his childhood and military service during WWII (the interview begins at the 37:00 minute mark in the video below for anyone who is interested in watching). The church members, who Papu considered family, also prepared a grand luncheon that followed the service that day.
The celebrations continued the next day at Whataburger, where employees prepared a spectacular party and presented Papu with his usual order, the “Mr. Palmer Special,” which consists of one pancake, one scrambled egg, two slices of crispy bacon, and a senior coffee.
Whataburger’s mascot, “Whatadude,” several family members, and friends also joined in on the early-morning celebration. Customers who visited the restaurant that morning, totally unaware of the event, stopped by Papu’s table to wish him a happy birthday and to thank him for his service. Some kind patrons even handed him gift cards. If anyone was worthy of all the attention, it was Papu.
His parties even gathered media attention, making front-page headlines not once, but twice…
A few days into his 100th year, Mitch and I took Papu fishing again. He was so excited to get out there that morning, that when we arrived to pick him up he was already waiting for us on the porch with tackle boxes and rods ready to go. He even wore a special hat for the occasion, adorned with a little bass fish patch.
It was so nice seeing Papu out in his element and doing what he loved. Mitch and I had talked earlier about how all we really wanted was for Papu to catch a fish for his 100th birthday. Unfortunately, the fish just weren’t biting that morning and we started to lose hope. Papu partially blamed himself a bit saying the bait he prepared, garlic-seasoned hot dogs, was too dry and overdone. “No way,” we told him, “the fish are just hiding from all the wind and rain we had.” After a few hours of not even seeing a fish swim by, we were ready to give up. Just then Papu caught something on his line.
I told him I was so glad he caught a fish and that if any of us were going to catch something that day, I wanted it to be him. With a smile he looked at me and replied, “Well I wanted it to be you.” And with that one line Papu perfectly summed up his spirit and personality. He thought of others before himself, and while I thought I was out there that day for him, he thought he was out there for me.
We stayed in town for a few more days then told Papu we would see him again in a month. We would head out in the RV down to the Florida Keys then on our way back to Austin we would stop by to visit Papu for a week in early June. But instead of the typical, quiet visit we had hoped for, Papu ended up in the emergency room on the day of our arrival, diagnosed with pneumonia. Luckily he was able to return home after a few days but he had lost a lot of strength and we knew he would need help. So instead of continuing on to Austin for the summer, we decided to stay by his side. More now than ever before, we were grateful for the flexibility that had come with our nomadic lifestyle. We parked our home-on-wheels on his property, and so began our new adventure of trying to keep up with a very quick and social 100-year-old.
“This is my grandson, Mitchell,” he would say, “and my grandaughter, Heatherly, his wife. They’re going to be staying with me and taking care of me from now on.” He spoke those words dozens of times as he introduced us to his friends from church, people from the community, or to his nurses and doctors. He was a centenarian and I knew that “from now on” wouldn’t last forever but I wasn’t expecting it to get here so soon.
Like any family sharing a home, we started to develop routines…
Mitch woke up early and helped Papu get ready for the day. Next, I made breakfast and then we watched Live with Kelly and Ryan, The Price is Right, and rotating shows on the Game Show Network. In the evening we watched Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, and American Ninja Warrior. With Papu delegating, Mitch completed the weekly mowing. We took care of shopping and chores around the house so that Papu could just relax.
We talked about the news, griped about trash being thrown into his yard, and kept a lookout for resident deer and birds. We sat out on the porch to warm up in the Texas heat. We ate meals together at the counter, usually three a day, and we never went to bed without dessert. We checked the mail, which was mostly a plethora of free gifts from all the charities Papu and his late wife had supported over the years. He had stacks of free calculators with extra large buttons, wall calendars for 2020, notepads, greeting cards, and personalized address labels. Occasionally a bill or something much more interesting would arrive, like when Papu received a photo album with pictures of his 100th birthday celebration from his step-daughter, Toni.
We ran around taking care of errands, going to doctor appointments, and of course, attending church services. Papu was deeply religious and devoted to his church. We accompanied Papu to his Sunday school class, which is typically reserved for those who are 75-years and older, but his teacher and classmates graciously welcomed us as we sat by his side. At the ripe age of 100, Papu also joined the nightlife scene. We went out to a local Mexican restaurant to see live music by Glenn Lenderman, the talented spouse of Papu’s dear friend Crickett. Papu had talked about Glenn being a musician often, so when we found out he had a few performances coming up, we marked our calendar.
Best decision ever! We didn’t really know what to expect that night and only hoped Papu would enjoy himself. The music had a greater impact on Papu than we could have imagined. He tapped his hands along to the beat, smiled, made jokes, and at several moments became teary-eyed, overcome with emotion. He was full of joy. At one point Glenn let the crowd know how Papu-the-WWII-veteran had just celebrated his 100th birthday a few months prior and dedicated the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” in his honor. The crowd cheered and Papu was truly touched. He had so much fun that night he didn’t want to leave.
We also went out for pedicures, something Papu liked to do once per month. The ladies who helped us could not believe Papu was 100 and sweetly thanked him for his service. Months later we went out for pedicures again with more family members and Papu joked how pretty soon he would be able to say he had been to all the nail salons in town.
And even though he was 100, Papu could still drive his truck. Most of the time Mitch and I drove him in ours, but Papu still liked to get behind the wheel when he could. One day he drove me to his appointment at the Veterans Affairs Clinic and to run a few errands. He told everyone we encountered that I was his co-pilot and gave them a wink.
We went out to see Glenn Lenderman perform again. Another fun night in the books! This time Papu requested a song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” one of his favorites by Glenn, who theatrically played the role of both fiddler and devil. Papu really enjoyed the music and was looking forward to attending more of Glenn’s performances over the next few months.
Life was pretty good. We always found something fun to do, like celebrating National Root Beer Float Day with free floats from Wienerschnitzel or visiting Mom’s, a local diner Papu hadn’t been to in years. Papu also kept busy playing with our Yorkie, Gaius, or working on word search puzzles.
As always, Papu kept a neat appearance shaving daily and visiting his barber every month. During our last visit to the barbershop, there was a line and we waited a short time while a handful of men before him received their haircuts. A kind patron who joined the queue insisted on picking up the tab for Papu and another WWII veteran who was in the shop that day. Every customer in the shop also thanked Papu for his service on their way out. It was always heartwarming to see others show Papu the respect he deserved.
Then Papu went back into the hospital, pneumonia still the culprit. He was fine just the other day and seemed to have his strength back. In fact, his physical therapist wanted to discharge him because he had improved so much. It was hard to comprehend how he could decline so quickly. After a few days we took him home again, this time on continuous oxygen.
Things became more difficult then and Papu would need a lot more care. We all agreed that putting a baby monitor in his bedroom would be the best way for us to hear if he needed help during the night. We tucked him in at bedtime, felt comforted by the rhythmic sounds of his breathing, and were quick to his side anytime he called for us. One night as we got ready for bed, he held on to my hand and with a classic Papu wink, reminded me that we could hear him through the baby monitor, but he wouldn’t be able to hear us. He was still that funny and quick-witted Papu, but it was heartbreaking to watch a man who had always been so strong, start to slow down. Just standing or walking a few steps took his energy, so we started to rely on a walker and wheelchair. He called his friend Crickett and choked up as he told her he wouldn’t be able to make it out to Whataburger anymore. After a few more days of being home, and in true Papu form, he started to improve again. We talked about how when he was ready we could go back to Whataburger for breakfasts and church on Sundays using his walker or wheelchair. I believe he had every intention of making that happen, but in the meantime I made him Mr. Palmer Specials at home, and on Sundays we watched church services on television.
Papu’s daughter and her husband came down from Oklahoma and spent Labor Day weekend visiting with him. His granddaughter also came by to let him meet her new puppy. Papu was always happy to have family by his side.
Soon after Papu would end up in the hospital again and unfortunately this time he wouldn’t come back home with us. Family members traveled from around the country and friends from church and the community all gathered to his bedside to see him once more. In his last days, Papu was surrounded by his loved ones, never alone, even during nights when we took turns having “slumber parties” in his room. Though it broke our hearts to see him go, we were glad he went peacefully and without suffering. It was September 7th, 2019. With his final breath he mustered the strength to pop his arm up and wave goodbye.
He had a full house at his visitation and his funeral service the next morning at Trinity Baptist was lovely. The lawn was decorated with American flags and one was placed inside the church on the pew where he always sat for Sunday service. It was September 11th, a poignant day for all Americans, now even more so as we laid a great man to rest.
He had eight loving pallbearers to escort him to the hearse. The Southeast Texas Patriot Guard Riders were present and led the funeral procession on their motorcycles. It was a long 11 miles from the church to the graveyard. Police officers blocked ramps and stopped traffic headed in the same direction so that our precession was not interrupted. What I did not expect to see was nearly every oncoming vehicle we passed traveling on the other side of the median, pulled over along the highway to show their respect as Papu’s hearse drove by.
Papu’s graveside service was conducted with military honors. An honor guard detail was present, including a lone bugler who played “Taps.” The young men performed the folding of the United States flag that draped over Papu’s casket and presented folded flags to his daughters. The local Veterans of Foreign Wars post and Patriot Guard Riders also presented his daughters with bibles and letters expressing their heartfelt condolences.
Following the services, Trinity Baptist prepared a beautiful lunch for the family. Then later we all gathered at Papu’s home to plant a tree in his honor. The weatherman had predicted rain, but blue skies held out long enough for us to plant Papu’s tree, a tradition carried on from seven years ago when Papu’s second wife passed away. Papu requested a cork oak tree, a symbol of liberty and honor.
The day was one we won’t soon forget, because it wasn’t just an American hero who we laid to rest that day. It wasn’t just an American hero who we will fondly and proudly remember.
Papu was our hero. Loved and cherished deeply.
May he rest in peace. May his spirit of contentedness and kindness always carry on.