Grampa always valued education more than anything else. But he was not an educated man. He wasn’t a stupid man, or an ignorant one. Throughout his life, he was always curious and hungry for knowledge. He read all the time, and above all loved history, both of the country and of the family. We couldn’t go to a new place without Grampa trying to drag us to some battlefield or fort. He learned constantly, and strongly believed that education makes a person. So the fact that I went to Harvard, I think, made him prouder than anything else. He never stopped talking about it.
A lot of people at Harvard also think that education makes the person, but there it can be more sinister and snobbish. Since it’s supposedly the Best College in the World, it’s very self-satisfying for folks to tell themselves that a person only matters if they have a degree from an ancient institution, and everyone else is simply a peasant. Most of them lived all their lives around privilege, and don’t know real struggle; they think two exams on the same day is the toughest challenge in life. Those that don’t come from privilege often forget where they came from, and turn their back on their homes and families as much as they can.
But I never would have been there without my grandfather, both through his generosity, and his example. A geeky little boy with big glasses who wanted to read everything might not have kept up with it without knowing his big fireman grandfather was doing the same thing. And once I got there, I knew that you didn’t need education to make the world a better place. Grampa made the world a better place all the time; it’s practically all he did.
He was born into a very tough world, but instead of looking out for himself, he always tried to make things better for others. His brothers and sisters had little more than each other and their remarkable mother, and Grampa always took the worst of it onto himself. His own family life wasn’t perfect — he had had no one to teach him how to be a father — but he always strove to be the best he could be, never neglecting his family, always making sure they had enough even when times were hard. He made us all as Leblancs better, and this extended family was so important to him. We came close to not doing the Fourth this year, and I thank God that my cousin Rhonda did it anyway, even though her life was busy and hard at the time, and she probably shouldn’t have. That gave his wider family a chance to see him one last time, without knowing it. Most of my friends don’t understand how a family this large and extensive can even know each other, much less get together on a regular basis. But many of his nieces and nephews saw him as a second father, and Uncle Lester and his brothers and sisters kept us together. He made his city better, serving for 15 years as a firefighter, and then as a small businessman in neon signs, real estate, and God knows what else. He was instinctively friendly, and would strike up a conversation without effort wherever he went. He made his country better, serving in the Army in Korea and Germany. We all know his patriotism knew no bounds.
So I could never turn my back on any of that, when I was at Harvard and people there assumed I came from an awful, terrible past simply because I don’t have wealthy ancestors. But I had something better. I had a grandfather and the family he helped create for an example and a support. He may have been proud of me going to Harvard, but I am prouder to be a Leblanc, and to be his grandson. We could all do well to live like him, always making the world a better place. The only time he ever made the world a worse place was when he left it.
Lester Joseph Leblanc Jr, Jan 21, 1931 – July 22, 2009.