It pleases me enormously that my nearly 20-year old granddaughter is not embarrassed to call me Boppa. She does it not only in public but even on Facebook.
“Boppa” has a history.
Wilbur Groendyke Dunning was Bill to his family of four other brothers and a sister. All the boys sounded alike on the phone, so when one called us in Westtown, he would say, “Hello, Art, Bill, Pres, Sid, June.” June was Frank, Junior, named for their father. He usually stopped when the right one answered. He was the second eldest.
He married Ethel Barnard and raised a couple of kids in the stone manor house of her father’s farm. They had chickens, a lot of grass to mow, and a dog named Monte who would lick the butter off a piece of toast and bring it back for more.
Bill Dunning started teaching chemistry at Temple at the beginning of time. He retired, then returned to teaching at PMC (now Widener) until his second retirement about the same time I was flunking freshman Chemistry at Stevens. I was not at the time smart enough to ask for help. He enjoyed working with his hands in the dirt as much as he enjoyed working with college kids. We had a pretty serious vegetable and flower garden in Westtown.
All the Dunning boys were athletic. Sidney, the tallest, turned down a major league pitching contract because they played ball on Sundays and the five of them together were tall enough to have fielded a pretty fair basketball team.
Interesting man he was. Ordained an elder in the Presbyterian Church of Frankford six months before my mother’s birthday. Invented and patented “red gas,” an anti-knock ingredient for gasoline that might have prevented our pumping tetraethyl lead onto our roadsides for decades. Rode the train every day to school. Transcribed hundreds of books into braille for the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind.
I had it good as a kid. My own folks moved back to the family home shortly after my grandmother whom I called “Da” died in 1953. Everyone shared the chores and I always had a built in babysitter. Boppa was usually home when my folks were out and vice versa. And my dad’s parents were just down Street Road at the station house on the Pennsey.
He made sure I had my own copy of Christopher Robin while I lay on Da’s bed eating Fig Newtons and pulling Jason’s tail. Jason was a great, golden-fleeced tom cat, the kind that comes but once a generation. I’m often not sure whether to identify with Christopher Robin or Pooh but I learned enough to make sure our cat, Ruff, was another.
He bought me my first slide rule when I entered Stevens. Keuffel & Esser manufactured its last slide rule in 1975. I still have Boppa’s first and my last. A slide rule does not depend on batteries.
He taught me, years before I had figured out that I would teach, too, that the teacher must stay a chapter ahead of the student. And he taught me how to coil an extension cord in a chicken laying box so it would not tangle.
Boppa was a quiet, private Victorian gentleman of strong will and strong opinion. I only once heard him complain — about a truly lousy honors chemistry course my high school snookered me to take — and that was after I had been graduated from college. He did not accept specious logic at the dinner table, at church, or in the news. He did volunteer at church, in the Township, and with friends. He did not like Dial soap because their commercials promoted “wishing everyone did.” He did speak Latin and read German.
In 1982, after living in the same house for more than 60 years, he took stock. “All my friends have died,” he said. “All of my brothers except the oldest have died. I have nothing more to keep me here. Let’s move to Florida.” 18 months later, after selling the farmhouse in Westtown, he and my folks started another great adventure, one that would last until his 100th year. He bought a little house in the middle of the Keys. I’m sitting there now, watching an egret preen on the rail of the boat next door.
Barnard/Dunning/Harper generations ran about 30 years each for a couple of centuries so he was 60 years old when I met him for the first time and he became Boppa. I guess I’m old enough to grow into it now, too.
Buying the first text book. $1.95
Buying a slide rule. $29.94
Remembering history. Priceless.
Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.