Opinion: Of Granddaddies and Pop

SDN Editor Ryan Phillips’ grandfather Robert Chism goes up for a shot during a high school basketball game. (Photo courtesy of the Tuscaloosa News)
SDN Editor Ryan Phillips’ family cooking a hog sometime in the late 1980s-90s. From left, wearing hat, Dale Phillips, his father and Joe Phillips, his late grandfather. On the far right in a collared shirt and hat is Phillips’ other grandfather, Robert Chism (family photo)

I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the influence of the men in my life.

I count myself beyond fortunate to look back and reflect on the lessons learned and writing a simple column won’t do it justice.

This time last year, I told you about my Dad, or “Pop” as I often call him.

He worked for nearly three decades with a gun on his hip and a badge on his chest - sometimes taking side jobs - to put food on the table.

He may not remember it, but I will never forget how proud I was when my Dad won employee of the month at his side job at Office Depot.

My brother Brad and I had a great upbringing because of that work ethic. Dad didn’t have to take on the extra hours slinging office supplies or refereeing football games, but he did anyway to make sure we never hurt for anything.

I also remember being beside myself with fear when Dad came home with his arm in a sling after dislocating his shoulder. While working at the University of Alabama Police Department in Tuscaloosa, a traffic stop turned into a foot chase that saw my Pop tackle the suspect and pop his shoulder out of place in the tussle.

While wrestling on the ground, another officer responded and both my Dad and the suspect were sprayed with pepper spray to get the suspect subdued as Dad fought him with one hand.

These were just some of the bumps and bruises he endured to make sure our family would be taken care of. I never once heard him complain.

He would go on to be one of the best homicide investigators Tuscaloosa County has ever seen and is now retired from the sheriff’s office.

But he was raised by an equally-great man.

Now to be clear, I have an unorthodox set of grandfathers because they are both referred to as Granddaddy, followed by their first names.

My Granddaddy Joe - my Dad’s Dad - passed away when I was a teenager, but I can still hear his voice and laugh in something as simple as a Fats Domino song.

My favorite memory of my Granddaddy Joe is hearing him sing “Ain’t That a Shame,” although he would always say “Ain’t that’s a shame.”

He never finished high school, but could speed read and was one of the handiest men in the area.

Every year until his health got bad, he and my Grandmother would put out hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights, some of which were wrapped around creative frames welded and constructed by my Granddaddy Joe.

The one that sticks out the most was a frame of Santa Claus in a helicopter, waving to motorists on the lonely country road as they drove by in the cold night air. If it didn’t lift the spirits of those passing the hill lit up like an airport, it certainly boosted mine.

He and my Grandmother would also welcome kids from the local Children’s Home to see the lights and they would often take gifts and snacks to the children.

Granddaddy Joe had a rough upbringing, losing his father at a young age, so I think he understood better than most the power of love and compassion.

He grew up to have the biggest heart of any man I’ve ever known and it’s no wonder he ended up married to my saint of a Grandmother.

It was never about color or status to him. It was about love.

My Granddaddy Robert (Chism), on the other hand, is the biggest man I’ve ever known and one of the hardest working.

As a little fella, I was in awe of his monster frame - one that passed me over on the genetic front and was inherited by my younger, and bigger, brother.

His health in recent years caused him to slump over slightly, but in his day - and even when I was smaller - he towered at 6-foot, 7-inches and was one of the best athletes Tuscaloosa County has ever seen.
Now picture, if you will, this physical specimen playing basketball in an era with no three-point line and no dunking.

Going to small rural Montgomery High School in north Tuscaloosa County, he was a force on the basketball court and the baseball field.

In a scrapbook are the yellowed newspaper clippings from the Tuscaloosa News that tell the tale of his greatness and show the divide between the mountain of a man and the smaller athletes of the day.
One victory in particular saw him drop 29 points - more than half of his team’s final tally - against a much bigger Brookwood High School.

But as is the case with many small town sports heroes, his talent was overlooked by his school of choice - the University of Alabama. Instead of wallowing in bitterness at being passed over, he married my Maw Maw and enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Had he gone on to play in the NBA, I might have been born a girl named Chelsie, or whatever name it was my Mother was stuck on if I was going to be a girl. Worse yet, I may not have been born at all.

But still, there has always been a high premium put on basketball on my mother’s side.

For years, a deep crack in their front driveway has been used by my brother, uncle, cousin and I as a free throw line. Because of my grandparents, we have played countless games, taken an innumerable number of shots and argued more outcomes than I care to mention. An old metal pole cemented into the ground held up that old basketball goal for decades, well before I was born. But it wasn’t too long ago that the pole had long rusted and the pale silhouette of Jerry West in the red, white and blue NBA logo on the goal was nearly eroded by the years and elements.

But there’s a nice, more modern goal in the driveway, now.

Even just a year or two ago, Granddaddy Robert could still tickle the nylon standing flat-footed in house shoes.

I played sports all the way through high school and wasn’t even a quarter of the athlete my Granddaddy Robert was, but his expectations weren’t focused on sports. Rather, I learned from him to make my own way in life by honest hard work.

We shouldn’t need a special day set aside to show love to fathers, but if you have a pop or granddaddy you can hug today, take the time to let them know how they have influenced you.

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News and Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of either paper or their staffs.