Of all the stories we tell, those that belong to us are the most important ones to share.
When my father informed all of us that he was closing his weightlifting gym and donating a lifetime of trophies to an area charity, I was stunned. "If I don't do it now," my now 87 year-old Popeye told me, "you'll have to do it later." He raised a bushy eyebrow in emphasis. I knew what he meant. And even though he was right, the realization hit me like a proverbial Bluto punch to the gut. The gym had been a staple in my life growing up, at first in the basement of our home in Indiana where area boys assembled three times a week and learned how to become men, later in his home in Arizona where he displayed his trophies on shelves lining a garage-turned-fitness center and kept a faithful training schedule well into his 80s.
The gym is where I watched Dad train faithfully, relentlessly, to earn local, state, national and world powerlifting and weightlifting titles. It's also where I spent countless hours seeking his counsel and, sometimes, training by his side (okay, exercising). By the time he stopped competing, he'd won the Junior National AAU Weightlifting title, 10 National Masters Weightlifting and six World Masters Weightlifting competitions as well as a mention in Sports Illustrated Magazine and induction into the National Masters Weightlifting Hall of Fame.
My sister photographed every single trophy in his collection -- 151 of them -- before the plates were stripped and the remaining statues donated. We intended to add the photos to the family website where Dad had already stored hours of family videos. But there were stories behind each of these trophies, stories that wouldn't be told unless someone collected them. Stories which included weightlifting legends like Bob Hoffman and Leo Stern, Hollywood actors Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum, and lesser-known characters like Chuck Ahrens and Mac Batchelor. Stories I wanted my children to know and share with their children. Stories I wanted to hear directly from him before he wasn't around to share them any longer.
That's when I realized the responsibility for collecting and sharing these stories belonged to me. Over the next six months, I plied Dad with question after question, using my journalism experience and memories as his daughter to ask him about things I knew -- and things I thought I knew. During phone conversations and dinner dates, he talked about the preparation and circumstances behind the trophies. Sometimes, when he would remember something worthy of note in a casual conversation, I would make notes on my phone. Other times we would schedule interview time and I would type as he talked, admiring his vivid recall of events that took place more than 60 years ago. What he couldn't remember, we were able to piece together after consulting his journals where he meticulously recorded every single workout and weightlifting meet result of his entire career. More than anything, I was thankful to be able to hear the stories from the man himself.
Through the marvel of modern print-on-demand technology, my sister and I were able to meld Dad's stories with the photographs of his trophies into a commemorative book in time for his 84th birthday. I knew the effort was worth every minute as I watched him thumb through the pages. "This book that you and Denise have put together is the perfect solution to the turmoil I felt giving up my trophies," he wrote on my copy. "The family now has a start in preserving some of the Judd family history, history that does not exist before me."
I purchased a book for each of my three kids and asked Dad to write a personal message to them inside the cover. Years from now when they open it, the first thing they will read is a sentiment from their grandfather, written in his own hand, just for them. One day they will tell his story to their children, likely interspersed with stories of their own, as part of a legacy that will continue as long as there are family stewards willing to take it forward.
Every family has a history, a collection of stories which has ushered in present day, a legacy on which future generations will proudly build. And every generation likely has at least one storyteller, someone who shares snippets of life from days gone by or carefully preserves present day history for others to share at a later time. I am that person for my family. Of all the marketing collateral I create for my clients on a daily basis, the journaling I do for my kids in scrapbooks which contain family recipes and photos of relatives they barely knew, or books like this which chronicle amazing accomplishments from those most familiar, are my most treasured bodies of work.
They will become yours, too. In the midst of telling everyone else's story, don't forget to share your own.