Sometimes, saying goodbye isn’t easy.
I had no blood relation to George Dennis Yawn, or “D,” as many of his family members called him. But it didn’t matter. Dennis treated me like family, anyway. And that wasn’t surprising, because that’s how Dennis’ wife, Martha, their son, Russell, his wife, Angie, and Dennis’ daughters, Gail and Laura, and their families have treated me over the years, as well.
The Yawn family’s yearly New Year’s Day celebrations—complete with Dennis’ homemade chili—became a tradition for me, starting roughly ten years ago, when I was invited to join them at their home in Helena one January 1st.
Dennis would sometimes start work on the chili days in advance, trying various mixes of spices and ingredients. During a few chili gatherings, you even had your choice: spicy or not so spicy. There was always plenty of other food, football games to be watched on television and lots of kids running through the house.
A few times, when I got so full of food that I couldn’t move, I joked with Dennis that I’d have to take a break but that I’d be back in a few more hours for another round of eating. In his ever calm demeanor, Dennis would say, “come on.” Dennis made it clear that I didn’t need an invitation. When he said come on, he was serious.
One year, when invited to an upcoming New Year’s chili gathering, I mentioned to Dennis that—as much as I appreciated the invitation—I didn’t want to invade on what I’m sure was intended to be a family gathering.
Dennis was quick to correct my thinking. I was expected to show up.
The chili was always good, but it wasn’t just Dennis’ culinary efforts each New Year’s Day
that helped draw me into the Yawn family. It was Dennis and the Yawn family. Every one of them.
There are people whose every word you have to be careful about trusting, and then there are people who are as solid, genuine and down to earth in their dealings with you as could ever be imagined possible.
Honesty and a willingness to help others was a big part of how Dennis was wired. If you needed help, he was there, no questions asked.
Dennis lived a modest, quiet life, working every day to excel as a husband, father, grandparent and friend. He was neither flashy nor extravagant. And he served his country, as well, in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, prior to working in the private sector.
Dennis’ spiritual strength was unmatched. Despite the loss of a son many years ago, he never held what happened against anyone. One day, I had to ask how he and Martha coped with such a devastating loss, so I stopped by to visit. When I pulled up, Dennis and Martha were outside, pulling weeds from in front of their home. I explained what had been going through my mind. “How do you do it?” I asked. Wasting no time, Dennis pointed his finger upward and, with a tone of total confidence, answered, saying, “He’s in control.”
Dennis was a well known face around the Helena community, having served 17 years with the City’s Utility Board. If you had questions or problems involving water, Dennis was the go-to man.
In the pre-dawn hours of December 13, 2011, after 83 years, George Dennis Yawn quietly slipped away, but not before his family had a chance to let him know, one last time, what he means to them.
“D” leaves behind a family including twelve grandchildren he had a ball spending time with. What about trying to fill the void he leaves? No one will even try to go there.
For me, the sadness is heavy, but I must confess to feeling some joy. I am so blessed to have known this man and his family, and to have spent time around him, enjoying the fellowship and wry humor that were such a regular part of life in the Yawn household.
What if I had never crossed paths with Russell, who I met through our mutual involvement in amateur radio, and who would eventually introduce me to Dennis and the rest of his family? What if all the wonderful times I’ve had with the whole Yawn family were to have never been a part of my life? It would be my loss.
Russell and I got joy in helping Dennis get his amateur radio license, too, and getting to talk with him on the air. Ham radio operators frequently make fun of their government-issued callsigns. Dennis’ radio callsign was KD4THB. It wasn’t long before we all got laughs from referring to Dennis as THB, the thick headed bozo. Dennis took it in stride; when he saw a chance to get in a jab at us, he took advantage of the opportunity.
In my friendship with Dennis, I’ve wound up with an additional gift: I have the chance to try to be like him. If I can work to be a better person, to be more understanding and to show more compassion, then Dennis’ spirit lives on.
And it just may be that the annual New Year’s Day chili gatherings won’t end with Dennis’ passing.
As family members prepare for Dennis’ December 16th service, Laura seriously kicks around an idea: “What if we continue the chili gatherings in honor of D?”
I have no doubt Dennis is grinning ear-to-ear at the prospect.