In 1947 my father, Eric Spiess, moved with his small family from North Dakota to a tiny farming town in Northern California. Invited by a relative with whom he’d made some investments to come to this land of boundless opportunity, he found that the monies that he’d sent were mostly gone and the investments were nearly nonexistent.
Eric was a man who’d learned to endure life’s difficulties without complaint. His wife, Laura, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was gradually losing her mobility. His 6-year-old son, Richard, had been born with brittle bone disease, a congenital condition that made him likely to have major injuries from the slightest fall that wouldn’t have stopped any other child. He needed constant and expensive medical care. Eric now found himself far from his family and his circle of support with few resources but his own willingness to work and facing the prospect of huge medical bills he didn’t know how he’d ever pay.
He had leased some acreage for farming and also became a representative of an insurance company to help make ends meet. With Eric having two family members with disabilities needing support and care, a farm to work with all the myriad and insistent chores and tasks that must be done every day and beginning an insurance business from scratch, I find it hard to imagine most people today carrying such a load. But that wasn’t enough for Eric Spiess. Wanting to become a part of his new hometown, he volunteered to serve on the city council!
The mayor soon learned about Eric’s son’s fragile condition and his ongoing need for surgeries. The mayor was a longtime member of the Shriners and one day told Eric, “You know, the Shriners Hospital for Children never ever charges anything for their services. Would it be OK if I recommended your son to them?” Eric was stunned, for he had never heard of the Shriners’ program nor had he any idea of how he’d be able to afford the care his son required. “I’d be forever in your debt,” he replied quietly.
Richard Spiess was in and out of the Shriners Children’s Hospital in Oakland many, many times for multiple surgeries and other treatments. He received the most wonderful and tender care from them until the day he died at age 23.
Eric never forgot the mayor’s kindness. He felt it was his mission to pass along that kindness wherever he went. Years later, after Eric had become financially successful in his insurance business and in local real estate investments, one of his tenants came in to pay her rent. She and her husband had two children, and Eric knew they were struggling to afford the basics in their lives. When she handed the rent payment to Eric, he simply smiled and waved it away and said, “Hey, put it to good use this month for your family.” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
When Eric “retired” at age 88, the community threw a big shindig-a retirement party in the community center. The place was filled, wall-to-wall. People in a seemingly never-ending stream waited patiently to get to the microphone to tell stories of how Eric Spiess had helped them in their moment of crisis.
This is a story of a man who never forgot his own early struggles and pain. Although he had reached considerable success in his life, it hadn’t changed who he really was. There are so many stories in our family about Eric’s quiet, unassuming, unconditional kindnesses, done without fanfare and kept in confidence. Today, as we talk with our children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews about any problems or concerns they might be having, we often find ourselves asking them this question, “WWGD?” or “What would Granddad do?” It reminds them-and us-of our family’s traditions and values.