I apologize if this comes off as a reaching terms of tying it to Purdue, but the subject of today's Profile In Badassery had a major role in shaping my life and my love of sports, thus giving way to this site. His name is Raymond Dillon, and he was my grandfather whom I idolized. He passed away 21 years ago today.
My grandfather was born the last of at least ten children (the records are a little sketchy) on March 21, 1917 in rural Grant County. His father, Rufus, passed away when he was a toddler and his mother Desta, passed away before he was 12. There has been speculation that he was not their child, but the child of one of his "sisters" that was raised by her parents because of her young age. It's hard to tell, as everyone who would know the truth is long dead.
Being orphaned at age 12, my grandfather had an interesting life. He once sold a newspaper to John Dillinger himself. When sent to live with relatives in Michigan he didn't like living there, so as a young teenager he walked back to Marion, Indiana to live with his sister and her family (thus adding even further speculation to the lost family story).
My grandfather attended, but never graduated from, Marion High School, a secret that has always been my great shame given the Kokomo-Marion basketball rivalry I have always equated as more personal than Indiana-Purdue. He eventually served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, working as a mechanic in South Carolina on B-17 Mitchell Bombers. I've never known how he met my grandmother. I just know they were married April 25, 1945 as the war was ending and his time in the service was coming to a close.
Three and a half years later my mom was born as their only child. She was a daddy's girl from the beginning, and My grandparents raised her to love sports by taking her to Kokomo High School basketball games from a very early age. They had moved from Marion to Kokomo when my mom was two because my grandfather quit smoking and started working in the Chrysler transmission plant, and basketball was simply the thing to do on Friday and Saturday nights. They had no personal connection to the team, but this was during the golden age of high school basketball in Indiana. They went because everyone went, and it has started a tradition in my family that continues to this day.
My mom graduated high school in 1967, got a job at Delco, married, and had my sister by 1970. Through my mom's divorce to her first husband and marriage to my father my grandfather was always there, and when I was born in October of 1979 he was so excited to have a grandson that he left the house to see me at the hospital without even putting his shoes on. The story goes that he got word from my grandmother I was born and had walked out the door before she was off the phone. He went to the hospital, saw me in the nursery, and went to work without even seeing my mom. He then called my grandmother to bring him his shoes.
Naturally, we bonded very early on. Since my grandparents lived less than three blocks away until I was five I spent a lot of time at their house. My sister would spend weekends with her dad, so my parents had a built-in baby sitter a few blocks away and I always wanted to stay with them anyway. We would watch sports on TV at all times, especially Cubs baseball. I grew up watching WGN and Harry Carey virtually every afternoon sitting on my grandfather's lap.
I still remember the exact day: June 28, 1988, when my grandparents got three tickets through a newspaper promotion where two busloads of people from Kokomo to Chicago on a day trip to see the Cubs beat the Phillies 6-4. Since I was only eight, I basically thought I was going to visit God for the day. That's how much excited I was to actually be going to Wrigley Field. To this day walking up the ramp and seeing the ivy for the first time gives me chills.
That visit just came a few months after we had somehow managed to grow closer. You see, my mother was diagnosed with malignant melanoma that March. A mole on the calf of her leg had gone bad and by the time it was caught the cancer had nearly gotten into her blood stream. A chunk of her leg gone, a skin graft, her lymph nodes, and four chemotherapy treatments later she was fine, but it was a close call. During the months of her treatment I spent even more time with my grandparents. They would take me to my own games, as I started playing baseball for the first time that spring. For the next three years my grandfather would not miss a game, as they came back from wintering in Florida in time for Opening Day.
We were about a week away from opening day and their drive back on April 13, 1991 when my grandfather was sitting in the Florida room of their trailer in Zephyrhills, watching yet another Cubs game, while my grandmother was working on dinner. One minute he was answering my grandmother's questions, the next he was gone. He had died of a massive, unexpected heart attack less than a week after getting a clean bill of health from his doctor. His doctor had even said, "Mr. Dillon, you're as healthy as you have been in years," despite diabetes and a scare with a blood clot a few years earlier. My grandmother called 911 and the fire station was at the entrance to their retirement community, but they could do nothing.
We got the phone call as we were leaving to go to a wedding. The next few days were naturally a blur, as my childhood hero was dead. I knew he had been sick a few times, but he was my grandfather. He was supposed to be invincible. All I remember is going to his viewing in my baseball uniform because we had pictures that night. That season I pretty much played to his memory and batted something like .900 as I released my grief on baseballs.
I feel like much of my adult life and my love of sports was shaped by him. My dad is not nearly the sports fan that I am. In fact, he was often working and usually only went to Purdue football games with me. My grandfather was always there though. I think I was always the son he wanted. As much as he loved my mom, I know he wanted a son too.
Even 21 years later his influence can be seen. I have the flag that was on his casket in a place of great honor in my home, but I insisted on not taking it, despite my grandmother wanting to give it to me, until she too passed away almost four years ago. I know my grandfather shaped me to pursue a career where I could make a living doing something in sports. Even now, I always insist on wearing jersey number 9 whenever I play something organized because that was the last number I wore when he was still alive. The fact he served in World War II caused my interest in history, specifically World War II history, which is a hobby of mine.
He's been the first person I have thought of at every major moment of my life over the past 21 years. The pain of his loss really hasn't gone away. Sure, he'd be 95 today, but I'd love to just have a June afternoon at Wrigley just once to share a beer with him. I know that if the Cubs ever do win the World Series I'll be thinking of him.
I think it is because of him that I am such a passionate fan or Purdue. Let's face it, both Purdue and the Cubs don't exactly have a ton of great success. Still, their fans are deeply loyal. My grandfather became a Purdue fan because of my father and even though he never attended the school, he was as loyal of a fan as could be. I think he just enjoy that the final years of his life he had retired and he could spend it with an eager young grandson that shared a lot of his same interests.
If that's not badass I don't now what is.