Michal Weber arrived in Shamokin, PA, Northumberland County, from Stuttgart, Germany around 1770, changed his name to Michal Weaver, and the family with most of its branches would always live there. He volunteered to fight for his new country and was appointed as Captain of the Northumberland Militia under George Washington from 1776-1778 until he was injured and returned home to Shamokin and Shamokin was where my father was born in 1914.
In the mid 1920’s at the age of 11 or 12, my father contracted scarlet fever, and was cared for and cured by his Aunt Margaret, an Osteopathic Physician. In an era when thousands were dying of this disease, his recovery was just short of miraculous. Then when you add that this physician did not practice conventional medicine but instead opted for osteopathy, the story takes on a surreal patina that is hard to ignore. My father lived with her during this time and she got to know him quite well. She thought she saw something in him and made him an offer that he must have found difficult. She offered to pay all of his college expenses if he would become a physician. After some thought he told her “no thanks, I want to be an engineer.” She wasn’t upset by his decision but responded, “that’s fine, but you’ll have to do that on your own.” The rest, as they say, is history.
All of her care for him was done free of charge of course. It was a favor done for a family member not unlike so many other favors that we all do throughout our lives. This one, however, made a lasting impression on my father that he would carry forward and apply to his own life, the lives of his children, and the lives of his grandchildren. While he sometimes second-guessed his decision, wondering if he would have been a good doctor, the circumstances surrounding this favor and its lasting impact would stay with him forever. He would later become the President of the Greater New Bedford United Way for many years and would stress the importance of volunteerism to his children. For us, volunteerism started with Michal Weber.
As I was growing up, I was never allowed to work at a job for money. I would sometimes mow a lawn, rake leaves, or help clean out a garage for people, but these were all classified as things you just did for people because you wanted to. Only I didn’t really want to. This whole idea of forced volunteerism on a teenaged boy wasn’t very pleasant. I never got an allowance and there were always more neighborhood projects that needed to be done. It was yet another unusual way that Dad would teach me, but I didn’t appreciate it very much. At that age, I just thought I was the one that got to do everyone else’s dirty work and I didn’t like it at all.
When Dad married Elinor however, there was a big change to what gifts and favors meant. To Elinor, a gift required, at a minimum, a large thank you. It also required a reciprocal gift in return. Elinor was known as a generous person but each gift had a price. When she gave my father’s money to the church, she made sure there was a plaque on the wall that told everyone what she had done. I began to notice that expressions like ‘after all I’ve done for you’ began to permeate her conversations. Many of the acidic attacks that Elinor and Barbara conjured up against Janis and I were begun with the word ‘ungrateful.’ Clearly, Elinor’s concept of a gift or a favor was at odds with what Dad had taught us all our lives. My father’s concept was rooted in his Christian beliefs. I never explored where Elinor’s concept or beliefs originated. However, my father fell silent during this period and failed to defend himself or his children.
When you were born and we had moved to Virginia, I began to recognize opportunities where little favors would help people’s lives. This was an integral part of my father’s teaching. It was good to be able to do something nice for someone, but the important part was being able to see that someone needed help but probably would never ask for it. I’m sure it must have seemed strange to you that I would take time away from you in order to do something for some other family, but slowly we began to work you into these activities.
As an example, in our neighborhood the houses are built well away from the street, leaving long driveways. Throughout the neighborhood are people in situations where a little help becomes a welcome relief. This became most apparent when the big snowstorms locked everyone indoors. I had a snow blower and I began clearing the driveways for those who really couldn’t help themselves. Gradually we got you involved with a little shoveling as well. I wanted you to see not only who we were helping, but also who we were not helping. It was important to help those that had difficulty or could not otherwise help themselves. This was how I was taught.
I’m sure you thought it was a little strange that we did this and other things for people every year, and still do. Even stranger perhaps was that we didn’t want anything in return. We were helping people who needed help. We didn’t knock on the door and make them admit it or make them ask for it, we just did it. Most often, we would see a very cold hand waving out the front door and that thank you was all there was. It was, and is, more than is needed. My goal, as taught by my father, was to simply be a good neighbor and do things for people as unobtrusively as possible. We were trying to teach you the art of the favor. A true favor (also called a gift) is something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance. It is something that doesn’t require any acknowledgement, not even a thank you. It is given, not traded.
There are younger families in the neighborhood now that seem ready to provide more of these little favors. As we get older, those that we had hoped to teach replace us. Always the lessons are there and always we hope that someone will be there to inherit them. The lessons are not mine, not my father’s, not his Aunt’s, and not even Michal Weber’s. The lessons belong to all of us.
It seems that those lessons for you were remembered. You have both already volunteered your time and resources in so many ways in your young lives. You help each other, you help your friends, and you help your neighbors. No matter what else you will do in your lives, we know that you are good people. Once again, my father’s teachings continue to live on.