I held the fish out of the water, showing my family proudly how big it was. Then I heard my Opa bellow, "give the thing a fighting chance, dammit!"
He wanted me to put it back in the water as soon as possible to ensure it's survival. He was big on ensuring the survival of all creatures, big and small. He fed critters. All critters. Deer, birds, squirrels, rabbits, feral cats and dogs. But most of all, he fed people.
He was around ten years old when the WWII ended. As the son of a German officer, he spent several years in German occupied France, living on a French farm. His hosts were kind to him and revisited the farm as an adult to give thanks. When the war ended, he had to find his way back home, unassisted. He was ten years old. The French, indeed the world, had no love for the germans, not even the children. He was tough, smart and resourceful.
He would talk about the war often, but usually not until later in the evening after a number of drinks. "Who wants some sweet shit?" He would ask, after dinner. This meant "who wants some whisky?" I think it was his way of dealing with the memories. When he did talk about the war, he did so studiously and not personally. Very rarely did he tell a personal story about his experience.
He loathed Hitler and the Nazi's. He spoke of the famine he saw throughout Europe. Both of my grandparents had witnessed extraordinary famine and extreme poverty. My grandmother used to follow around the coal wagons as a little girl and elbow her way through other kids for the scraps that would fall off of the wagon. They scavenged for food and any other precious resource.
My grandfather came to Brighton Michigan as the first exchange student the town high school ever had. He liked the town so much that he returned after service and made it his home. He had intended to study medicine at the University of Michigan but my grandmother got pregnant and he withdrew from school to work. Eventually, he started his own machining company. He had a single C&C Laith. He named the company, Brighton NC Machine. It was just him, a Laith, a phone and a cot. A familiar story for a budding entrepreneur. He made the sales calls, machined the parts and delivered them. He had a few friends as outside investors.
Over many years and tireless work that kept him from his wife and children, he made some headway and the company grew. Eventually they would employ over 100 people.
Opa was a product of his childhood, as we all are. Every other Friday he would personally walk the shop floor and hand out the paychecks. With each paycheck he would give his employees a loaf of bread. This was a common gift from Opa. If he showed up to your home, he always brought with him a loaf of bread. To them, as children in war time nothing could have been more precious. It was the ultimate gift. It was telling of the man he was.
When you entered his home, he would immediately begin offering you food and drink. "Would you like a cooke." He would ask. "No thank you, Opa." and he would reply, "Well then, how about two?"
He gave bear hugs. Giant ones. His appetite for food and drink was large. His appreciation for nature was too. When I was a little boy, I was playing in the wood behind his home with my cousins. We stumbled upon him sitting on the top of the largest hill, sitting crosslegged with his hands on his knees and eyes closed. He looked so peaceful. He was meditating.
They lived in a large stone house in the country that we all referred to as "The Stone House." It was the center of all of our lives. My grandfather spent his days working at the shop, then he'd come home and tinker on his tractor or some other contraption that needed repair, then head in for supper.
Their kitchen table was and is my favorite place on earth. It had a stained glass lamp that hung low and cast a red light over the table. Outside the large kitchen window was a big lilac tree and a few bird feeders. We'd all sit and comment on the birds and wildlife.
During dinner and after, the conversation was lively. Dictionaries and encyclopedias would inevitably emerge as ideas and definitions were challenged. Debate was heavily encouraged and Opa was the champ. He had a way with words and was a big fan of flexing his lexiconian chops. English was his second language but he could school the natives. He was smart. Extremely smart and he liked to show it off through language. He was a big fan of the word "rudimentary." Used it often. As a kid, that word seemed enormous to me. Everything about Opa seemed larger than life.
I saw the way people admired him, as a boss, as a husband and as a father. I saw the way he would be late for dinner because he was visiting a sick friend (and dropping off bread). I saw that he donated large sums of money and time to causes like Lacasa, a shelter for battered women or gleaners, a food pantry for the underprivileged.
I saw him give profit sharing to his employees, even in the lean years. I saw him offer tuition reimbursement and I saw him continue to pay terminally ill employees well after they left his charge.
When I went to college, he offered to pay my tuition. Education was the most noble pursuit, in his mind. When my grades failed and I asked him to continue paying he refused, saying "I'll not throw good money after bad." -This felt cruel at the time, but was such an amazing life lesson for me. I owe him such a debt of gratitude for this (and many other lessons.)
He was fond of the Tagore quote, "I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and found that life was duty. I acted and behold, it the duty was joy." You can hear him reading this quote here:
A few days ago, hospice was called in to help my Oma care for my Opa. On fathers day I was able to visit with my children. My son, Atticus has my Opa's name as his middle name. Often, when people hear Atticus name for the first time, especially if they're fans of literature, they'll remark that he has a big name to live up to. I always say that it's his middle name that has the biggest shoes to fill.
Brighton NC is still around. In fact, much of my family works there. I have been asked a bunch of times in my life why I don't work for the family business? I always say that I never wanted to work for my Opa, I wanted to be my Opa.
Those are some huge shoes to fill. I'll never get there, but without my Opa there is NO WAY that I would be an entrepreneur today. There is no way that I would have this insatiable appetite to build something of substance that can employ people towards a common purpose. I owe him so much.
Today, I left work early to go visit him. My aunts were there and two of my favorite cousins. We all sat in his room, my Oma sang German songs and we told stories past and present. It was nice. When it was time to move him, I was asked to hold one side of his sheet. When finished he grasped my hand. I held it for a long time. My Oma said, "why don't we give Steven a few minutes alone with Opa."
I am so grateful for this. I'll admit, I was a bit terrified. What do you say? I said, "I love you." I said, "thank you." I told him I have a company I am building and like you, I will take care of my employees. I told him that I have a beautiful family and that he was such a wonderful influence on my life and that I will be eternally grateful." I said, I have to go now Opa. I will see you tomorrow." I kissed him on the head and said one more "I love you."
Tonight, my mom called at 10:15pm and told me, through thick tears, that Opa died. I kid you not, immediately lightening began to strike outside. Not far away, faint lightening but right on top of the house type of lightening. I began walking upstairs to tell my wife and a huge bolt struck outside and our power went out. As I walked in the bedroom the power came back on and my wife said, "That's some crazy lightning." I replied, "Opa is dead."
When I stopped crying, I wrote on my notepad, "He left on a bolt of lightning."
Thanks for listening Hubski.
In case anyone is interested, below is the Eulogy I gave. The grammar is not edited.
I once caught a fish up at the cabin on lake Charlevoix. I held the fish out of the water, showing everyone. Then from the porch I heard a bellowing voice say, "give the thing a fighting chance, dammit!"
It was, of course, Opa. He wanted me to put the fish back in the water so it wouldn’t die. He loved animals. He dedicated much of his time to feeding critters. Deer, birds, squirrels, rabbits, feral cats and dogs. But most of all, he took pleasure in feeding people. In fact, if he ever offered you something to eat and you declined, he would continue to offer it to you, over and over, until you accepted.
A common scene,
Jack: “Would you like a cookie.”
Person: “No thank you.”
Jack: “Well then, how about two?”
And this would continue until you finally found yourself with the cookie in your hand.
He was born in 1934 and raised in both Germany and Nazi occupied France. He was many things; a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, an entrepreneur and a friend. He was known by many names; Joachim, Achim, Jack, Fudda, Dad, Opa. No matter how you knew him or what you knew him as, I guarantee you had never met, nor will you ever meet another person like him. We could all live 100 lives and never meet another “Jack Clausnitzer.” He was an awesome individual, a powerful non-conformist.
As a child he saw the effects of war, first hand. At the end of WWII an 11 year old Jack had to make his way from the farm he was sent to live on in France to his home in Germany. There he was reunited with his family. The perils of war and post war, would give him a compassion and empathy that would last the rest of his life.
He was a pacifist, he believed that every person deserved to be treated with dignity, no matter your economic status, race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual affiliation. He had absolutely no patience for tyrants, bigots or bullies.
He came over to the US as Brighton Michigan’s first ever foreign exchange student and lived with Pat and Ella Sharkey. He worked for Pat, who owned Pat’s Market and was the town butcher and Rudy Bōwen’s Michigan Landscape Nursery. The local rotary club was impressed with Jack and raised money to send him to his first year of college at Albian. Overwhelmed by the hospitality of this country and in particular the people of Brighton MI, Jack resolved to become a US Citizen. To do so he joined the army. He was stationed in Manheim Germany, which was also his home town. It’s at this point that “Jacks Story,” Becomes Jack and Heide’s Story. His friend since childhood, Heidede Garogina Niemann married Jack in 1956. Shortly thereafter, their daughter Susie was born. Once Jack had served his time in the army and Susie was old enough, they crossed the Atlantic and arrived in New York with a VW Bug, some books and little else.
Imagine that? You are leaving your homeland, your wife speaks no conversational english, you have a new family and you were striking out with very little resources in order to provide a better life, in a great community. He wanted to live HERE.
11 months later, their first son Tim (my father) was born and 18 months after that, my uncle Tom arrived, then the final piece of the puzzle, my Aunt Helen was brought in to the family.
Jack attended the University of Michigan while working at a machining company and he became convinced that Numerically Controlled (or nc) machines were the future of manufacturing. When he couldn’t convince the owner to allow him to pursue this. Jack decided to start his own business.
To do this Jack and Heide enlisted their close friends Dave and Shirley Barton and John and Joyce Ewing. They all drained their savings and borrowed $125k to buy an American Tool Works NC Lathe and place it in an old rented pole barn in Pinkney. In 1965 Brighton NC Machine came to fruition.
Jack worked tirelessly day and night for years. Often sleeping in the shop on a small cot. Times were lean, but every once in a while when there was a good pay day, Jack would come home with giant Hershey bars, a ring of bologna and some canned fish to feast with his family. On special Sunday nights Jack would hunker down and watch the Wonderful World of Disney with his wife and kids.
Shirley Barton joined jack full time in the late 1960’s and eventually, the Barton’s and the Clausnitzer’s owned Brighton NC 50/50.
Jack was a creator. He was a doer. As my Aunt Susie recently told me, “He had no governor on him, he was either full blast or sleeping.” This is captured in a photo board outside, if you would like to see.
He took great satisfaction in action, in doing. He was fond of the Tagore quote, “I dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and found that life was duty. I acted and it, the duty was joy.”
Some people spend their lives complaining about the world they live in and other people fashion the world they want. That was my Opa.
Eventually, Brighton NC grew and would employ hundreds of people over the years. Every morning, without fail, Jack would walk the floor of the shop and great everyone. Regardless of how large the company got, he wanted to know every employee.
Jack always brought with him a loaf of bread. Whether he was visiting a sick friend or just stopping in for a visit, the bread was under his arm. To this day, Brighton NC distributes hundreds of loaves every week to suppliers, customers, employees and the like.
He had an insatiable desire to feed people. In fact, if you were to dine with him, you would never catch him serving himself until all others had been served first.
The Barton’s and the Clausnitzer’s didn’t just grow a business together. They grew their families together. They bought a large house out on Teahen rd. that we referred to as "The Stone House." Growing up, the Stone House was at the center of all of our lives.
My Opa spent his days working at the shop, then he'd come home and tinker on his tractor or some other contraption that needed repair, then head in for supper. He would come in from the outside in a white t-shirt with some oil stains on it, usually about 30-45 minutes after my Oma would have liked him to come in.
I bet many of you remember the kitchen table at the Stone House. It had a stained glass lamp that hung low and cast a red light over the table and outside the window was a purple lilac bush and some bird feeders. Oma, Opa, Shirley and their dinner guests would have some lively debates at that table. So lively that dictionaries and encyclopedias would inevitably emerge as ideas and definitions were challenged. Opa was pretty good in these debates. He had a way with words and a tremendous vocabulary. But his true oratory power came by way of the…… pause.
You never knew when he was done talking because he was apt to taking long…….pauses while still……..in a sentence.
He was extremely idiosyncratic. I’m sure many of you remember that if you asked him “how are you doing?” He would always reply, without fail, “I can’t complain, as of yet.” One day, after he had gotten sick I asked him “how are you, Opa?” And he replied, “I could complain, but I won’t.”
He was fond of giving bear hugs, of calling his grandchildren “Sphellecup,” he liked pickled herring, smoked salmon, Jack knives, pockets full of pens, smoked oysters, music, signing, drinking, ringed bologna, marzipan, heath bars, meditating, hiking, hay-riding, toys, taking his family on trips, kesslers, Lebkuchen, mechanical contraptions and of course his friends.
Jack, Heide and Shirley paid for their employees to take college courses, gave profit sharing and took their entire extended family on trips to Chicago, Toronto, Cancun and the Bahamas. Jack and Heide gave to Lacasa, gleaners, Oxfam many others and have fostered children and opened their home to many people in need.
My Opa is my hero.
When people ask me why I don’t work for the family business I reply that I didn’t want to work for my Opa, I wanted to be my Opa. I am forever grateful for the example he has set for me.
I admire my Opa so much that I gave my son the middle name of Achim. His first name is Atticus. People that are fans of literature will often tell me that my son has some big shoes to fill. I always tell them that it’s his middle name that carries all the weight.
On behalf of the Clausnitzer clan; Thank you all so much for being here and helping us celebrate the life of my grandfather, Jack Rudolf Clausnitzer. As is evidenced by all of you here today, it was a life very well lived. And if he is in heaven now, and some angel asks him, “Jack how are you doing today?” I have no doubt that he will once again say “I can’t complain.”
We love you Opa, we will miss you.