Unsung Heroes - Don Carney

Posted by Rob on September 26th, 2012 at 3:57pm

This post is in a series on my blog entitled "Unsung Heroes." In case you haven't read it before, here is why I think these blog posts are important:

When my grandfather passed away in December 2010, I had a strong regret. I wrote a eulogy for my grandfather which I delivered at his funeral, but as I wrote about all of the things he meant to me and others, I regretted not telling him these things directly before he passed away. I promised myself I didn't want that to happen again.

My blog is about almost anything, but I also want to periodically take the time to write about people to which I need to say "thank you." Sure, I've personally thanked many people for the countless things they have done for me, but there are some things that deserve to be publicly highlighted in black and white. That's what these posts are about - the unsung heroes in my life, like my grandfather, who have made me the man I am today.

I was 12 years old when I met Mr. Don Carney.

My parents had just purchased a home across town, and Mr. Carney and his wife were our new next-door neighbors. At the time, Mr. Carney was in his 60’s, but he was as active as any 20 year old. He loved the outdoors, doing things with his hands, and spending time with his family. However, I soon discovered that Mr. Carney wasn’t any other next-door neighbor – he was someone from whom I would learn much, greatly admire, and hold with the highest respect.

When we moved into the home, it required many “projects.” While my father is very competent, he had little experience with designing and installing a full acre lot irrigation system or building a 90-foot wide retainer wall. Mr. Carney insisted that he help with these projects and countless other ones. He spent hours upon hours over many years helping us with these “projects,” and when my father tried to pay him because it was obviously more than neighborly help, he always refused. He genuinely enjoyed helping us, and while we tried to return favors by cutting his grass or other small tasks, they paled in comparison to all that he did for us.

One hot summer day, I was cutting the grass in our front yard. As I made a pass down the yard, I saw Mr. Carney watching me intently. I stopped the mower, and he came over to talk to me. He never chastised me, but this day was an exception.

“Why is your hat on backwards?” he asked.

“Because it’s hot,” I responded, realizing that my answer was a poor excuse/reason.

“Put your hat on the way it’s meant to be worn,” he instructed. “Atta boy, now come inside for some dessert,” he said after I fixed my hat.

From that day on, I rarely wore my hat backwards. And if I did, I always made sure to turn it around before riding past his house. It was only his small personal pet-peeve, but I respected him so much that I didn’t want to disappoint him.

Living next door to Mr. Carney on the river, he knew how much I loved the water. When I was 14 years old, my parents bought me my first Jon boat (a 12” aluminum flat-bottom boat with a 7.5 hp Johnson motor). When I flipped and sunk the boat on the first day I had it, Mr. Carney helped me pull the spark plugs and get it running again. A couple years later, he gave me a pontoon boat and named it “Prince Robert.” That’s who he was – a genuinely kind-hearted person who would do anything for anyone.

While Mr. Carney and I were always very close, my senior year in high school brought us even closer. Every Wednesday night at 7:00pm, Mr. Carney had me over to visit. We sat in his garage, which was the ultimate “man cave,” as we talked and shined my black leather shoes in preparation for the ROTC uniform inspection I had every Thursday at school. Mr. Carney served in the Navy as a young man in World War II and witnessed the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima. He told me he could shine shoes with the best Sailors in the Fleet. And he was right; his spit shine technique helped me immensely through plebe summer (and restriction) at the Naval Academy.

But more importantly, we spent those nights in important discussions as men about life, my future career, and how to be a good person. He had it figured out, and I wanted to listen.

After an hour or so, Mrs. Carney would bring us dessert in the garage. She makes the best desserts. Our conversations would turn to lighter topics, and eventually, I’d give Mr. Carney a hug and head home. I certainly didn’t take those conversations for granted then, but now that I am older, I realize even more how much they really mean to me. Every young man needs a Mr. Carney.

Mr. Carney passed away in March 2006. I couldn’t attend the services because of my commitments to the Navy at the time, but my parents told me that there wasn’t an empty seat in the church. I wasn’t surprised – all of those people had the same love for Mr. Carney that I did.

Mr. Carney is the epitome of an unsung hero in my life.

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