Work it out: A tribute to Morris Caves
Carlton Morris Caves
2006 May 7

My father, Morris Caves, died last week after a long struggle with lung cancer. He was 82 years old. He is survived by his wife, Mary; three children, Douglas, Carlton, and Linda; and seven grandchildren, three of whom are married.

Three hot spots appeared in Dad's lungs late last summer, and this led to six rounds of chemotherapy last fall. PET scans suggested the cancer had been beaten back, but in January his back began to hurt badly, and new scans showed hot spots all over his lungs, with a tumor pressing against his spine. In mid-February he was given about three months to live. Radiation controlled the big tumor, at the cost of a month of misery, but with the subsequent benefit of six weeks of good mobility and little pain. On the evening of Thursday, April 27, he went into a sudden, mercifully rapid decline, dying in bed at his home in Muskogee, Oklahoma, last Wednesday morning at 2:20 am.

Those six good weeks were a great time for Dad, as he visited with friends and relatives and experienced the renewal of spring for the last time. Spring was his favorite time of year, because it was the time to get his extensive vegetable garden going again, after a winter of thinking about improvements. It was the time to watch trees return to life and to glory in the beauty of daffodils, redbuds, dogwood, and azaleas. Dad would have made a good tree himself, tolerating winter in a semi-dormant state and bursting into activity in the spring. This year he knew he would not plant a new garden, but fortunately some parts of a garden, being mainly a product of past effort, take a long time to shut down. Those parts came through this spring, delighting Dad and others with an abundance of asparagus and strawberries in the last weeks of his life.

Dad grew up on a farm in southwestern Oklahoma, transitioning from childhood to adolescence during the worst years of the Dust Bowl. Although he loved the flat, treeless landscape of his boyhood and maintained an ownership interest in the family farm till he died, he always associated those western plains with worry about too little rain. He wanted green---and more green---and he found it in the lush landscape of eastern Oklahoma, where fear of withering is replaced by the need to whack away at overabundant growth.

Outdoor activities were an essential part of Dad's life. In his boyhood and youth, he was a hunter and fisherman, and he maintained those interests throughout his adult life. Nothing made him happier than getting out in a boat early in the morning. "That's when the fish are biting," he would say. Biting or not, he would have a good time, because the biggest part of the enjoyment was clearly in the getting out. Catching a big one or a lot of them---well, that was sweet, but the whole enterprise would lose its allure if success were too easy. Dad certainly loved gardening, but it was also an excuse to get outdoors every day during the spring, summer, and fall. Even in his final weeks, he took every opportunity to sit in the gazebo he had built in his backyard, enjoying the outdoors and a game of fetch with his beloved cocker spaniel, Domino.

As an adult, Dad added hiking, backpacking, and bird watching to his list of outdoor activities. Here's one quick memory. It's a day in late June 1993, and our party of seven, Dad plus a collection of his kids and grandkids, is toiling out of the depths of the Grand Canyon. We got up at 3:00 am at our campsite just north of the River, broke camp, and started the 9.5-mile, 5,500-foot-vertical trudge along the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. The purpose of the early start was to avoid the intense heat of the day, but now at noon, we're crossing the red furnace of the Hermit Shale, the panting party spread out over several hundred yards of trail. Far in the lead are the 69-year-old patriarch and his six-year-old grandson, my son Jeremy, who skips along beside his grandpa despite a cast on the arm he broke three weeks ago. This was Dad's fourth and last hike to the bottom of the Canyon. His love of the outdoors has been passed on through two generations, the latest example being that same Jeremy's plan to hike the Colorado Trail's 500 miles from Denver to Durango this summer.

Though Dad appreciated the majesty of our western mountains and the stark beauty of the southwestern deserts and canyons, an hour of driving in an arid landscape west of the hundredth meridian invariably produced an acute attack of brown anxiety, evidenced by the comment, "There must be something you could do with all this country." He was happiest when he was at home in the Green Country of eastern Oklahoma.

Dad did not have an outgoing personality. He wasn't the kind of person whose quick wit or store of stories makes him the center of attention at a party. Indeed, I am quite sure that being at a big gathering of people outside his circle of friends and associates made him uncomfortable. Instead, Dad was the kind of person who shone in quiet conversation and shared activities. He grew on you till you wouldn't want to let go of him. His friends would say that you couldn't find a better friend.

For all physical problems, Dad had a universal prescription. "Work it out," he would say---repeatedly. This phrase was used mainly to needle my sister and, especially, my mother---something I can't really criticize since I have done more than my share of teasing them both (and, oh, my poor daughter, but that's a story for another time)---but Dad really believed it. His approach to an ailment was to find out what needed to be done and to focus his efforts on any physical activity that was deemed productive. In a larger sense, however, this trite phrase, which his children heard over and over again, is a neat summary of Dad's approach to life.

Dad was a gentle and loving husband and father, a successful businessman, and a leader in his community and his church. In all these roles, he was both very capable and intensely practical. He spent his life identifying problems, figuring out how to solve them, and getting on with the solution. Work it out.

During his working career, Dad was the plant manager at the family corporation in Muskogee, which manufactures all manner of fans. Dad bought the necessary machinery, designed entire processing units himself, organized the production line, and supervised the entire manufacturing operation. This was the can-do, work-it-out spirit in its most basic form, but it was the part of Dad's life that his children knew least, despite its being his major activity for the 45 years he worked at the company. When Dad retired as Executive Vice President for Manufacturing in 1990, the company employed nearly 500 workers, up from about 25 when he joined the company in 1946.

The lesson Dad transmitted most persistently to his children was that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right. When you're working things out, do them right. This attitude was evident in everything he did, from the most mundane activities of life, to his gardening, his business career, and his participation in his church and in civic organizations. If you're going to do something, he would say, learn how to do it effectively and then commit the time and resources necessary to do it right.

I experienced a mundane example of Dad's do-it-right approach as he lay dying last week. I couldn't carry my Swiss Army knife onto the plane to Tulsa. Since I'm constantly reaching for the knife to do one task or another, I borrowed one from Dad's collection and promptly cut my thumb on one of the blades. Why? Dad's blades are sharp, and mine aren't. Stainless-steel blades are hard to sharpen, but Dad would say that if you have stainless blades, you ought to learn how to sharpen them and then keep them sharp, and he did. I have watched him do it and listened to his instruction, but it's a skill I have never managed to master.

In a time when a latte sets you back three bucks, Dad was still the Depression-era kid who never forgot the value of every penny (and certainly wouldn't devote 300 of those pennies to a latte, whatever that is). In his last weeks, as we shopped for groceries, he was reluctant to stock up on food or to buy the large economy size of anything, because, after all, it might be wasted when he was gone. During his working years, he worked with unrelenting intensity, and he didn't waste a penny of what he earned.

Along with his frugality, however, went an extraordinary generosity, evident throughout his life, but expressed especially after he retired. He liked to see the fruits of his giving in his community and his church. The church needs an elevator for those who can't negotiate the stairs to the upper floors of the education building? "Let's figure out how to do it, and I'll provide the funds." Work it out. The church needs a large van to provide transportation for senior citizens and others? "Figure out what's needed, and I'll buy it." Work it out. Habitat for Humanity is building needed housing in Muskogee? "I'll pay for the houses if the church organizes the personpower to construct them." Work it out.

In his dealings with other people, Dad was honest, trustworthy, and sincere and straightforward to a fault. There wasn't a mean-spirited or devious bone in his body. He treated everyone with the same courtesy, graciousness, and respect. That was his way---he didn't know any other way---and it meant that when he needed help in working things out, he could always draw on the good will, trust, and confidence of his friends and associates.

Dad did not believe in being prescriptive. His style was to encourage and support what he believed in, not to tell other people what to do. If his advice was requested, he would give it, from his store of knowledge and experience, but he did not give gratuitous advice. He lived his life in the way he thought was right, and if others could see that his way was good, he was pleased if they followed in his footsteps. His children knew that his expectations were high, but he allowed each of us to chart his own course. If mistakes were made, he would be there, without even a hint of I-told-you-so, to help work things out.

The world lost a good man early last Wednesday morning. He will be missed. Work it out.

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