Meet the old man from McDonald’s, the very real Marvin Campbell

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

Last week’s blog about an older gentleman mourning the loss of his wife touched many readers like Lynn, head of a local senior center, who commented that I might have referred him to a senior center to get involved as a volunteer. Hmm. A little conflicted about the best way to delicately do that, I nonetheless went back to McDonald’s Restaurant on Broadway the very next day. In the first booth sat my guy, wearing a crisply pressed plaid cotton shirt and gray jacket, his gray hair neatly clipped close to his scalp, quietly eating his breakfast alone.

I approached his table with some trepidation and properly introduced myself.

“Sure, I remember talking to you,” he said.

I admitted then to telling many thousands of people, via the Web, that an 88-year-old man I met at McDonald’s had told me he missed his wife. He regarded me in that moment with some trepidation himself, so I just blurted out my strange request — that maybe he’d tell me more about that, knowing I would write down what he said for other people to read (and this time, could I reveal his identity?).

He shook his head in puzzlement. “Don’t know why you’d want to do that,” he mused. “But I guess I don’t know why I’d mind, either.”

I never had a computer and don’t want one,” Marvin stated flatly. “But if you want to tell people reading computers that we had the best life any two people could have had, that’s true.” And with that, he waved toward the seat across from him, inviting me to sit, and then he took out his wallet and showed me a picture of a woman with gray hair and smiling eyes.

“She was very beautiful,” I said, admiring the love of his life.

His eyes teared. “I still get choked up a little, looking at her like this,” he said. Beatrice: The woman he met on a blind date in 1941 and married in 1944. “I used to tease her that she stayed blind even after that first date, to marry me,” he quipped, smiling.

Making Peace with Her Death
Beatrice died of Parkinson’s Disease only a few weeks short of her 87th birthday. She’s buried in a hometown family plot in Waterloo that Marvin often visits. “We had talked a lot over the years about what to do if one of us was suffering, and she really suffered the last few days. But it was still real hard when the doctor asked me what I wanted done and I had to ask him to turn off the machines. But that was her decision to make, and it was what she would have wanted, so I did it for her.”

Marvin owns the adjoining grave. He has buried parents and a troubled sister, who committed suicide, and then he most recently lost a brother. “I told my kids I can’t die just yet, because I can’t afford another funeral,” he joked. “But actually I’ve prepaid my own funeral. My home [since 1971] is paid for, and my car. I don’t owe anybody anything any more. I don’t have a lot of money by any means, but I’ve got enough to live on if I’m careful. Got it all taken care of so I won’t be a burden, and that’s all the money I need, I guess.”

His mind flits back to Beatrice: “Once my wife was reading the obituaries and noticed a friend of hers from school had died. She wondered out loud who was going to be next. I told her, ‘Hey don’t you look at me that way, ’cause I’m going to live to be 104, when I’ll be killed by a jealous husband.’ She had a good sense of humor and I was just kidding, but now here I am, with my friends and family dying off, and my wife gone, and me still here.”

I asked, “Do you believe you’ll be reunited with all these loved ones in some way after death?”

“I sure do hope that, sometimes,” he admitted. “And I don’t want you to think I’m crazy, but I talk to her every night. I mean, I really do talk to her. And if that makes me crazy, then I’ve been crazy for quite awhile now.”

“Crazy in a really good way,” I suggested.

Their Life Together
Marvin shared a glimpse of his childhood on a small dairy farm in LaFarge. He remembered riding the family’s small horse to school, two miles away: “If my dad was going to need the horse on the farm on any day, instead of stabling it in a friend’s barn by the school, I’d get off and tie the reins together, clap my hands, and that horse would head on home. But then I’d have to walk home myself later.”

Many miles later, a friend arranged a blind date for Marvin with a woman working as a live-in maid for a Madison-area mink farmer. Marvin had already worked three years at Ray-O-Vac when he fell (hard) for her. The mink farmer realized he might lose good help if she left to marry her suitor, so he offered Marvin a job. For the next 27 years, Marvin helped raise mink at the same time he and Beatrice raised a family of three children.

“That’s what happened to my leg, I think,” he mused. “We had an automatic feeding machine, and ‘automatic’ meant that I stepped on a foot pedal to release food for each mink. I fed about 10,000 mink two or three times daily, so that’s how many times I had to reach out with my foot and hit that pedal. Now my leg and knee joints don’t work so well.”

But back then, nothing derailed Marvin. “I got laid off from the mink farm and that same Wednesday, there was a job at the Henry Vilas Zoo in the paper and I got it. I was happy — I’d spent most of my life taking care of animals.” However, his poor legs got the shaft again when he found out he was to patrol the zoo from midnights to 8:00 a.m. on foot. Twelve years later, he was promoted to zookeeper, and given watch over the orangutans, monkeys, seals and big cats. “I loved that,” he said somewhat wistfully, and he stayed at the job until retirement.

What makes a good life?
My dad gave me advice when he found out I was going to marry Beatrice. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘don’t ever go to bed mad at your wife. Talk things out first. You’ll sleep better and wake up happier.’ I never forgot that advice. We were married 68 years, and we never went to bed mad. We had our differences and our spats, sure. Everybody does. But we talked through everything every night. We respected each other and our marriage that way.”

The other secret was being grateful for each day and living in the moment. “We always wanted to go to Alaska, so in 1995, I put a little 13-foot trailer on the back of our car and off we went. She was worried it would break down, but I said, ‘So what if it does? I’ll just tow it back home.’ We went through Canada to the only place in Alaska that you can drive to, and it was wonderful. Beautiful mountains, we saw the little logging boats, everything. My wife was a good sport at every age. We did what we could do and we appreciated every single day we had.”

He added, “Once we were just sitting together reading or watching television and my wife looked over at me and said, ‘Marvin, if we were both to die tonight, it would be okay because we’ve had a great life. I wouldn’t change anything about it.” That made me feel really special, like I’d somehow given her what she needed over the years. And the other part of it was that we both agreed we’d had really good kids. They grew up without giving us too much trouble or costing us too much money because of their troubles. They’ve all gone on to live good productive lives, and I’m proud of them. So was she.”

A daughter lives up the street from him. Two sons live out of the area. Together, they’ve given Marvin eight grandsons and 12 great grandkids (“boys and girls,” he beams). “I’ve got a lot of family and I love being able to go visit them. If not for them, I’d go back up north, to more of a wooded, farm kind of life. I prefer that to wandering around here without my wife. But I can’t move away from my family now. I feel committed here.”

“Would you do anything else differently, if you could?”

“I’d really like to have a little doggie for companionship,” Marvin answered. “But my yard is mostly fenced but not all the way. Also, I couldn’t kennel a dog to leave and visit family — couldn’t do that. So I’ll never have another little dog, I guess.”

Health, Money and Love
My last blog contended that health and money are great, but love keeps our individual worlds in orbit. Both Marvin and Beatrice had diabetes and they worked for every dime they got — hard, manual labor — but Marvin said they had all they needed. Now, despite a bad back (two operations) and a finicky leg, he says he can live with all that. He pokes his fingers four times a day to check blood sugar levels and he watches what he eats. No big deal. But what he almost can’t abide is the separation from his wife.

“I gotta get on home soon,” he said, putting his breakfast remains back on the McDonald’s tray. “But to what? I did my laundry yesterday, so don’t have that to do today. I could go do almost anything; I still drive and I still got my health. Play cards. See my granddaughter, who cuts my hair — she won’t let me pay her for that, so I slip her boys a little money to make up for it, but my hair don’t need cut right now. What I want to do is go see my wife again.”

The Question of Volunteering at a Senior Center
Marvin, one reader asked me to ask you if you are involved with a senior center…. if that helps pass the time for you.”

“I do play cards at senior centers,” he said. “I still will go to the one in Fitchburg — my wife and I used to run the card tables there and it’s my favorite — and sometimes in Oregon and McFarland. I know all of them around here and I have my favorites and one I don’t care so much for. Sometimes I still like to play cards and just talk to a few friends. But it’s like the Masonic Lodge,” he said, proudly displaying his lodge ring. “I was Master of the Lodge and also treasurer for 30 years, but I don’t want to hold an office now. I’ve already done all that.”

The Puzzle Pieces Come Together
What he does do, to keep himself busy these days, is jigsaw puzzles. “I buy them at Goodwill for 99 cents,” he said, and then he puts them back in the box and donates them back. The last one, a picture of a pretty scene, had two pieces missing. “Didn’t know that until I couldn’t finish it, darn it,” so he wrote that on the box before donating it back. His other recent favorite was a picture of a horse’s head.

Knowing that, I have a fitting thank you gift in mind for Marvin for introducing me, in his way, to his wife and family over a cup of coffee at McDonald’s. I’m thinking a scenic jigsaw puzzle of Alaska.

Thanks, Lynn, for sending me back to get the rest of the story. That was a gift to me.

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