"Courage Unlimited"
A Biography of My Grandfather

Dateline: 6 October 2013

Percy Philbrick (1896-1971), enjoying his grandson (possibly me) back in the late 1950s

In July of 2007 I posted an essay here titled My Mother Was a Writer Too. In that essay I told of a paper my mother had written for an English assignment when she was a senior in high school (1954). My mother showed me the paper when I was a senior in high school (1976). It was a biography of her father, a common potato farmer who lived his whole life in Fort Fairfield, Maine. I learned things I never knew when I read that paper. 

I never forgot the biography, and I hoped that I would find it among my mother's personal papers after she died back in 2003. But  I didn't find it, and I have long wished that I could read it again.

Well, today, as I was cleaning and trying to better organize my office, I came across the biography. I had it all the time. I simply overlooked it. 

The paper is nine pages long, and written in cursive with a fountain pen. That's the way it was done back in those days. At the top of the page my mother's English teacher, Mr. Woodcock, has graded the paper A+ and written in red pencil:

This is by far the best biography a student has ever written for me. Your father sounds like a fine person.

I decided to look on the internet and see if I could find a high school yearbook picture of my mother. This is her at 18 years old, when she wrote the biography I am about to share with you...

While I was at it, I thought it would be neat to find a picture of Mr. Woodcock. My mother thought the world of Mr. Woodcock. He saw talent in her writing and was an encourager. Many years later she contacted him and they had a great visit. Here is a picture of Wallace L. Woodcock from the 1953 yearbook...

A Google search of Wallace Woodcock brought me to his 2008 obituary, where I learned that he was in World War II and received the Bronze Star for bravery during the Battle of the Bulge. He and his wife were married for 56 years. They had had 7 children, and 16 grandchildren. 

Please keep in mind that the biographical essay that follows was written in 1954 by an 18-year-old girl. It is not written by a professional writer. But it is clearly a heartfelt tribute. I don't suppose my mother had the 5th Commandment in mind when she wrote the essay, but she was clearly honoring her father. 

If you have a copy of my book, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarianmy grandfather is pictured on the cover (with me at two years old). In chapters 31 and 32 I have written some aboutmy grandfather, alluding to the hardships he and my grandmother faced as poor dirt farmers, but my mother's biography provides some further insights. 

It is my desire to honor my mother, and the memory of my grandfather, by publishing this story here. It is my hope that my children, and perhaps someday my grandchildren, as well as other descendants of Percy Philbrick, will read it and be blessed by it. 

Beyond the personal value of the writing, I think there is a social-historical value to it too. This is, after all, the biography of an agrarian man who was, like many an agrarian man of yore, well acquainted with hard work, responsibility, failure and sorrow. Yet he stayed the course, holding to faith and family, and his character was refined by the fires (literally and figuratively) of his life. That's the way I look at it, and I cherish the memories I have of my grandfather Philbrick.


Courage Unlimited
By: Mary Philbrick 

There are probably very few people who, when looking back on their childhood, cannot recall having been punished for doing things which their parents considered very wrong. Looking back now I recall having been the victim of such punishments myself. But among them all there happens to be one which stands out in my memory much more vividly than any of the others.

I couldn't have been much over the age of four when one day I suddenly burst into the house, in great excitement, exclaiming to my mother that that naughty girl across the road had just said "shut-up." No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I felt myself being hurled into the air, felt the great impact of a hand on my behind, and was suddenly, and with great force, set into my high-chair. With great horror I realized that it was my father. Having raced into the house in such excitement, I hadn't noticed that my father was anywhere within earshot. Now, with a very painful feeling, I realized that he had warned us many times about playing with "those naughty girls across the road." As he commenced to remind me of this himself, and I began to get over the shock of being hurled so unexpectedly into the air, I began to fully realize my mistake and to feel very sorry for myself. As crying seemed, at the moment, the most natural thing to do, I began to howl. I don't recall much more of that incident, except that I was commanded to remain in my high-chair until I could stop my sniffling.

Now after hearing this story there are, no doubt, many people who would draw the very wrong conclusion that my father is a harsh and unfair person. Nothing could be further from the truth! He is, without a doubt, the most tender, kind, and understanding man I have ever known in my eighteen years of life.

However, he does have a bad temper at times. But I have never, and I don't believe anyone else has, seen this temper displayed unless for a very good reason. Perhaps one would say that he had no good reason for losing control of his temper in the incident which I have previously explained. That is not true, for he had as good a reason as any man could ever have. You see, we had been told continually to stay away from the children across the road as much as possible. The reason for this being that they were, without a doubt, extremely mean and vile people. Naturally, my father wanted to protect his children from the undesirable talk and behavior of these children. This doesn't mean, however, that my father ignored these people himself. No, my father just isn't the kind of person who will snub anyone that he knows, unless they have given him a very good reason to do so.

I doubt very much if I will ever have the privilege of knowing another man as tender hearted as my father. I'm sure that he would gladly give up everything he has ever owned to a person he loves and start all over again himself, if he thought, for one minute, that he would make that loved one happy. As a matter of fact, I have seen him do almost this very thing at one time in my life.

Looking back, I can never recall a Christmas when we were all sitting around opening gifts, that I didn't see tears in my Dad's eyes. It seems that at times he's so full of love and thankfulness that he just has to let it go somewhere. But don't get the wrong idea. Christmas isn't the only time that I have seen tears streaming down his very quiet face. There have been times when just an ordinary letter from someone he loves will have the same effect on him; or the news of a child, whom he has never heard of before, being killed. Yes, my father has an extremely tender spot in his heart for children. He is a man who would gladly give up his life so that any child might live.

Any person outside the family would probably get the idea that my father is a man who never gives much thought to religion, as he never goes to church. If these people could walk into our home, practically any Sunday out of the year, they would find Dad sitting by the radio listening to the Sunday services coming over the air. I have known him, on many Sundays, to remain seated by the radio hour upon hour just listening to these services.

As far as courage, I don't believe there is a man in the world with any more courage than my dad. It's my opinion that his great courage began to show when he was a very young boy. You see, my grandfather seemed to be kind of a strange man. As far as my dad was concerned he never seemed to have much understanding, and in my estimation, little kindness.

School was one of the things that my father loved dearly. He was up before the crack of dawn every morning doing the chores so that he could get an early start on his seven mile walk to that beloved school building.

He loved sports too. Upon entering high school he began playing basketball against his father's wishes. Yes, he played basketball, but not for very long because his father said that there was work to be done on the farm which was much more important than any of that silliness. So, much to his great sorrow, Dad had to give up playing basketball, because practice was taking up too much of his time.

Since Dad loved school so, and had such great courage and enthusiasm, he proved to be a very good student. But this seemed to mean very little to his father and, against Dad's wishes and pleading, grandfather made him quit school when he was in the middle of his second year of high school.

After this decision was final, he went on working, without complaint, on the farm. I've often wondered what my father's thoughts were at this point in his life. But I doubt very much if I, or anyone else, will ever know, as he is a man who keeps his sorrows to himself. However, I do know that he must have felt very hurt about being made to quit school, because even today when it is mentioned a very sad look seems to come over his face.

It seems that, for years, my father had nothing but misfortune. While still a boy he saw his mother, whom he loved dearly, being trampled to death by a horse. After her death he and the other children took care of things themselves until grandfather married again. Father also learned to love this very kind woman, who was taking the place of his mother. But, with the passing of a few years, they found themselves without their second mother. Death had dealt its second blow.

Upon becoming a young man, father married a woman of great beauty, and in a few years, found himself the father of four children. Three of them lived to grow up. While the children were still extremely young, they suddenly found themselves without a mother. Yes, father had lost another loved one to the cold hand of death.

I don't know exactly how many years elapsed after the death of his first wife, and his meeting and falling in love with Mother. But even after this marriage misfortune still hung over this man. Together they suffered the loss of three homes and two barns through fire. This alone would seem enough reason for most people to lose courage, but not so with father. He has always been a very hard worker and with each loss he would simply keep working, with little trace of discouragement, and with the hope of gaining enough to rebuild.

Mother helped greatly during these long, struggling years, as she is a woman capable of taking a great deal before becoming discouraged herself.

Together they raised their eleven children, three of whom were of his former marriage, and through it all they have remained smiling, loving, and kind people, regardless of their many hardships and misfortunes.

I believe I could go on for hours telling of the good points in this wonderful man, but my cramped hand compels me to stop.

Just one more thing. I have heard the comment made by a few people, that they thought my father looked ugly. It is my idea that at times people draw this conclusion because of his large frame, and the expression covering his face—the expression of determination or deep concentration, which may at times dominate the reflection of great kindness and tenderness. However, I will give these people a fair warning. If one happens to be of an undesirable character, stay away from this man's children, as he may display a look of genuine disgust, in which case, his well hidden temper may appear.

Incidentally, I have not done this man justice in my writing. He is a finer man, by far, than I could ever hope to explain in my humble gathering together of words.

Percy and Gertrude Philbrick, my maternal grandparents, as I remember them from the summer-vacation visits of my younger days.


—For more about Percy's father, read Elias Moses Philbrick's Farm
—For insights from my grandmother's perspective into the loss of their home by fire in 1934, read The Cherished Letter

—My Grandmother Philbrick died twice. Read The First Time My Grandmother Died for the story.

—To Read about Elias Philbrick's father, Freeman Philbrick, and my family line all the way back to Thomas Philbrick, who came to America in 1630 with John Winthrop, read My Puritan Roots

—Did you notice that my grandfather walked seven miles to go to school. Wow.


Cynthia (C.L) Lewis said...

Excellent essay. I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Very nice indeed. Thanks for sharing this with us.

P.S. Did you see Bill Moyer's interview with Wendell Berry? I looked for you in the crowd thinking you may have made the trip to Kentucky.


Herrick Kimball said...


What a great link. Thanks for letting me know. I've never been to Kentucky. But the funny thing about you saying that is that my wife and I were actually talking about maybe driving there this weekend. No kidding.