Author Archives: colt76foutz

About colt76foutz

Colt Foutz is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. He spent 6 years working for several daily and weekly newspapers before saying to hell with all that and heading back to grad school for writing and teaching. He is the author of one nonfiction book, Building the Green Machine. By day, he manages a team of copywriters for the Search Hub, VivaKi Nerve Center, in downtown Chicago. By night he is chased by his two sons and when he is lucky, his lovely wife. Genealogy and family history are a recent passion, and the subject of his blog, Whispering Across the Campfire.

Five Enduring Foutz Family Mysteries


Jonathan Foutz

Great-Great Grandfather Jonathan Foutz would probably agree with Dory — looking for answers to genealogy questions? Just keep sleuthing!

Genealogy Never Rests

Just keep sleuthing, just keep sleuthing….

Dory from Finding Nemo (and her own eponymous sequel) was really a genealogist at heart. The motto that kept her moving — swimming — kept leading her to families, no matter the leagues between them. First, Nemo’s, then happily, her own.

Aside from occasional bursts of full-contact hereditary rummaging, my genealogical quest has been more of an occasional thing. Some early-a.m. flipping through old newspapers here, some peeks at the burgeoning pile of electronic detritus on Ancestry.com there. Day job, Dad duties, mindless TV — all conspire to slow my family-sleuthing from mad scramble to meandering marathon.

And that’s OK. This blog is a record of where we’ve been before, and an open lane to the depths we’ve yet to discover. And often, the way to latch on to new currents is to back-paddle to places we last left off. Dive around. Pick up the tidal pull again.

What do we do? We sleuth….

Questions to Keep Sleuthing By

My goal for this space the next six months is to share, at least once a week, some tidbit or tale that I’ve kept under glass the last few years, or lately untangled from the historical net. These discoveries spark conversations, which in turn spark connections — people with answers, and questions of their own. Keep ’em coming.

For now, here are five of the biggest, most-enduring mysteries I’d like one day to solve, bringing further clarity to the muddy waters of Foutz, Ley, Weible, Morgan, Fisher, Johnson, Palmer, Zeigler origins.

1. Where did Michael Pfouts come from?

Yeah, we think we know. Württemberg. Along the lower Neckar River region in Germany. Where Foutzes of old farmed, fought, made little Foutzes.

So says John Scott Davenport’s Foutz Newsletter of the 1980s: Michael Pfoutz emigrated to America in 1787, settled in Washington County, Maryland, and by 1810 or so was on his way to Harrison County, Ohio, where multiple records pretty definitively trace the Pfouts-Fouts-Foutz story through the succeeding two centuries.

But: Where exactly did Michael come from in Germany? Why did he cross the ocean, at 18? Did anyone come with him? Where else did those possible brothers and sisters, and father and mother, end up?

As the Davenport newsletters grow yellowed, and the originators of that work pass away, we’ve got to look for new answers, new connections. One I may have found, that I’ll reveal in a post soon (to echo Star Wars’ original trilogy): “a sister(rrrrrrrrr)?”

2. What happened to Rachel Foutz?

As traced in the years since an original summation of Foutz mysteries, we now know what became of every brother and sister of my great-grandfather, Vance Foutz, and even have a pretty good bead on their descendants, save for one sister, Rachel (Foutz) Coleman.

Rachel was one of three older sisters to my great-grandfather. We know what became of Lila and Ida. And it’s through Ida’s son Sherman’s diary — and the useful transcribing of distant cousin Dawn James — that we gain a little color around the facts we know, and a window on life in Dover, Ohio after Rachel and family followed younger brothers Charles, Vance and Mom Rebecca Foutz there in the first decade of the 1900s:

  • Born June 3, 1871 to Jonathan and Rebecca Foutz,in Harrison County, Ohio
  • In 1891, at age 20, Rachel married a war vet, William Coleman, more than 20 years her senior, and became stepmom to at least one living son, Berttie
  • They had at least four kids — Carl, who died of tuberculosis at my great-grandfather’s house in 1915 (same spring as Rebecca Foutz and her oldest son, Sherman); Blanche, Frank and Bessie.
  • Bessie, born in 1906 in Dover, disappears, along with mother Rachel, from the record. No other census, death or burial records have been found.

We later find William living in a veterans’ home in Canton, Ohio. And Frank lives until 1959 in Canton (he has a family I have not further explored – could be connections there). Meanwhile, sister Blanche lives until the ripe old age of 97, passing away in 1994 in Kent, Ohio. A few years back, I spoke to a family who knew her well, and shared photos. Story to come.

But what became of Rachel? There’s a mystery even more vexing for all we’ve assembled about our now-distant Foutz relatives.

Kaiserslautern Coat of Arms

Kaiserslautern Coat of Arms. The Leys emigrated there from The Netherlands sometime in the 1600s.

3. What can we learn of the Netherlands Leys?

According to A Short History of the Ley Family, a pamphlet passed down from our Port Washington, Ohio Ley ancestors, the Ley family originated in the Netherlands and came to Kaiserslautern in Germany, probably in the late 1600s.

We can trace the family back through my fourth-great-grandfather, Karl Ley, coming to America in 1833 and settling first in Shanesville, Ohio, and later, Port Washington, making his career as a saddler. And then further back through his father, Frederick Charles Ley, a minister at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pfalz, Bavaria; and then through his father, John Frederick Ley, also pastor at that parish (succeeding, in fact, his father-in-law, who succeeded his own father).

Neat trick, and probably an amazing place to visit someday for all that family mojo.

But we don’t know much about Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Ley — not his name, date of birth, city of residence, or death — save that he had a large, rural estate and was mayor, for a time, of his unknown city. And that his dad, Great Ley x 8, was first to move from the Netherlands and settle in Kaiserslautern, where he set up a cloth “manufactory.”

What can we learn from detailed German records, which seem to have been maintained through the tenuous political jigsaw puzzle of those centuries, and through war, etc., but weren’t so far recorded by our relatives?

Who were Thomas Johnson’s parents?

We’ve got names, known to my grandma, Erma (Johnson) Foutz, and her sisters. Just not much else. Maybe because his name was so common?

George Johnson was probably born in England, so says family legend, and he married a, well, Mary, and they settled in Guernsey County, Ohio. That’s the sum total of our knowledge about fourth-great-grandfather Johnson.

Admittedly, it doesn’t get too much clearer with Great-Great-Great-Grandfather Thomas, who died at 42 in the Civil War. Though just where in Mississippi, and of what, is a matter of some debate. (Possibly also due to his fairly common name?)

We hear he was a mule skinner in the army — something to do with nabbing available meat from local farms the army passed through and butchering it for the fighting boys. But we don’t even know that much about the wife he left behind, Nancy Valentine, back home in Guernsey, at first, and then, by 1910 in Jackson, Ohio. There’s a tid bit about her maybe not getting his pension — why? We also don’t know her death.

This is odd, because we know all their descendants, and their paths through Harrison and Tuscarawas counties, Ohio. Time to start sleuthing….

5. Where, in Wales, were the Morgans?

Also in the common name department are my second-great-grandparents, Thomas and Jannett (Rees) Morgan. We know their lives after they emigrated from Wales quite well — from their marriage in Philadelphia in 1872, to their settling in western Pennsylvania, and eventually, in Carnegie, where Thomas ran the Hotel Morgan before he died, in 1897.

What is a continued vexation — a problem not cleared up by the terse obituaries of the 19th century — is just who their parents were. When Thomas first came over; when Janet did. What happened to their sisters and brothers (if they had any) and parents. Even how “Reese/Rhys/Rees” is spelled.

We have theories about where they were from in Wales, and family stories of Jannett and her children going back to visit. We’ve gained their photos, and a hunch about Jannett’s Dad’s name, Daniel.

Everything else? Time to get sleuthing.

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Categories: Foutz, Johnson, Ley, newsletter, Weible | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Here’s to the Mothers….


Foutz Dan Colt Mom Jake 1981

Mom Janet Ley Foutz and sons Dan, Colt and Jake, circa 1981. (Robin Williams as Mork, though admired, is not family.)

Family Moms through the Ages

One measly day?

For all the diapers and dandified prom pictures and PSAT prep and running-long recitals. The backyard football blood and the spring Saturday track meet sweat. The night-before science fair reports and the needlessly verbose detention polemics.

The strep throat and fevers and incidental vomiting.

The kisses and flowers and poems. And the blue-ribbon daughters-in-law, too.

The grandchildren.

One measly day? HA. Mothers made us, and hence, for now and for all time, we declare every day, perhaps not tailor-made for them, but still, mothers’ days.

Where would we be without them?

A Family Mothers Slideshow

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Categories: Foutz, Johnson, Knutson, Ley, Milestones, Weible | Tags: | Leave a comment

A Ritual Worth Remembering


Single malt scotch and cigar

Keeping the ritual: single malt scotch and prepped cigar ready for (solitary) porching.

Remembering How To Solve World Problems, One Cigar at a Time

In our most blithe — and, I’d wager, boyish — of justifications, whenever the growing brood of grandkids was (mostly) tucked away in beds, and the ice bucket still newly cold, and the womenfolk hadn’t caught up to us yet, my father-in-law and I called our ritual nightcaps of scotch and cigars “solving world problems.”

Even if we’d forget the solutions the next morning.

(That’s an excuse to solve the problems all over again.)

There was more to it than that, of course. (More than solving world problems? Well, yes.) There was a father-in-law generous with his time, and stories he’d told “six or five” (or a hundred) times, and laughter amid the ashes in the open air of a screened-in porch, as welcome at the end of a journey — his or ours — to see them, for a holiday, or an ordinary day, or goodbye at the end of a heartwarming stay, or the ways we ended up marking time, through 16 years: of engagements, and weddings, and births, baptisms, first houses, and promotions, publications, big moves… and end games, divorces, demotions, departures, funerals.

But that’s getting ahead of the thing. Smoking right to the label before really savoring a puff. Reaching into the ice meltwater for enough of excuse to warrant a last pour.

We had to earn it. In the way of all world-savers.

Or ordinary dads, at the end of another hard-fought day.

I looked forward to the ritual of the thing. Knowing we’d be headed to their place, I’d stock up on some “good stuff” for the trip. A nice Highland Park 12- or 15-year. Maybe a Clynelish, yeah, show off a bit. Or (what came to be) my favorite, Laphroaig 10. Smoky and peaty and climbing right out of the glass. Tangible. Like a good solid fist rap on the table. POW. The good stuff.

Load my portable humidor with a selection palatable to me: some Romeo y Julietas, or Macanudos, or Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey, A. Fuente. As long as it was of “conversation” length. Commitment. We’re talking Robustos, at minimum.

His brand was always Macallan 12-year. And H. Upmann Vintage Cameroons. Churchill length.

And of course, I’m full of shit, in the way of all good stories and the fuzzy (careworn) memories of guys talking guys stuff. Always was whenever it suited us, or eventually what suited us. It didn’t start that way.

I’m proud to have been around a bit early, though not from the beginning.

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Shivering in a Tractor Shed…

For that, so I’m told, you’d have to trek back to the Farm. Always the Farm. Of course.

In days when Grandpa Cornell and Granny Ila ruled the roost, the good stuff was more than likely “Sheep Dip” (finest blend of anywhere from 8 to 21 scotches). The cigars worthy of biting the ends off and spitting them in the weeds somewhere. And always a good farmcat scamper well away from the big house. Maybe even in the tractor shed. If you’re lucky, the space heater might even have been working.

I remember a few nights like that. After my Thanksgiving indoctrination as the (serious) boyfriend. Standing around on the path outside the side door. Nothing more formal than passing around whatever cigars somebody had likely bought in bulk. Not a “guillotine” among us more fancy than incisors, molars. And cups — could have been Dixie, for all we cared — of whatever swill was in the cupboard above the workbench. Aged by proximity to Ford tractors. Call of the coyotes.

Hey, maybe even it was Norway’s elusive import, Aass beer.

But finery is the coat you weave out of your own experience. Or aspirations. What the hell, right? So long as it fits. You get to like it. Get to shimmy a happy little shimmy whenever you shrug into it.

Takes time, though.

Before my wedding, stocking up in Chicago, I bought a bale of discount cigars at the shop a stumble up the road from our first shared apartment in Naperville. Stashed ’em in the trunk of my college Mazda Protege, beside a bottle or a few of my dad’s wine least likely to explode en route to Kansas City for the big day. They ended up wine-soaked. And awful. I heard — since I was too busy glad-handing and 5-minute-guest-visiting as Gary made use of them anyway, smoking up in the parking lot outside our reception at Figlio Tower in Country Club Plaza.

How come the brag-worthy moments aren’t always the ones you plan with an iron grip? And take place even with you on the periphery? Like the noteworthy hookups that weekend, we couldn’t take even a smidge of the credit. But it’s the backdrop of the best times. And you bask in the residual (lighter) glow.

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A Brief History of (Family) Vice

But the best parties are the ones you’re a part of.

And sometimes they’re just a party for 6, when you welcome son- and daughter-in-law, and your son and daughter, and your wife.

But the one-on-one time is always time to savor.

A typical night would begin with the benign. “Is it time?” he’d usually say, on his turf. Or me, on mine. “Sure,” I’d reply. His answer, more honest. With feeling. “Oh, good!”

The ritual: glasses. At his place, from the cupboard next to the fridge. The hooch, too. Usually, Macallan. But sometimes, in a pinch, a Glenlivet. Or Glen Fiddich. Even Johnnie Walker, something blended. “How bad could it be?”

At mine: our regular midget glasses. For juice. Now something stronger. Whatever stuff I’d convince him to try that trip. Eventually, usually, Laphroaig. “Froggy.” After my own early mispronunciation, badly remembering a scotch guide from Esquire, or some tripe. “PHROG” … not. But see? We grew into it.

The bourbons, he didn’t countenance much. Once rode along on a Saturday “honey-do” chore trip to Home Depot; snuck in a side trip to Meijer after. Ostensibly comparison-shopping for the good stuff. He came to tolerate something from his Iowa farmboy roots, Templeton Rye whisky, literally, “the good stuff.” A bargain at less than $40. And goes down smooth.

I don’t know when he bought his “kit.” The little silver-plated suitcase. Stocked with lighter after lighter. Sometimes a fancy butane “torch.” Oftentimes, not. But he swore by his wooden draw-poker contraption. “Want a ream?” he’d ask. I always did. And I swore by my “notch cutter,” instead of the straight guillotine cut. I had a black plastic cutter I’d picked up somewhere, in Chicago. I can still see his chrome metal one, with the wings you’d push on the side. I’d peel mine out of plastic; his came in a cedar sleeve… fancy. Fancier than the guys about to smoke ’em.

You know what they say about anticipation? Sweet anticipation. Sometimes sweeter than the thing itself, once it’s quickly done. (And too soon.)

We’d carry our glasses to the porch. Or, for a time, to my little firepit in the yard in suburban Bolingbrook. Pull up the rocking, swiveling metal deck chairs. Hose out the glass ashtray with the little indentations molded into it for cigars. Bring along the ice bucket — their cork-looking one with the cooler liner and lid; my silver cocktail one. Or else the big, red rubber cocktail cube makers, one of the best Christmas presents ever, from bro-in-law Jonathan. Something nostalgic in the ice bucket though — reaching in, coming out with dripping fingers, knowing that would buy you another 15 minutes, another drink. Who cares, cause you’re on vacation? Solving world problems, natch….

It’s not something I did, at home. Alone. Not regularly, anyway. Bought some cigars when my son was born in ’06. Took ’em to the old place of employment, the paper, Naperville Sun. Talked a few buddies from the newsroom into joining me on the concrete patio outside the cafeteria. First one with a kid. Straight puffing. Nothing to wash it down with. Few problems of the world to solve, and in broad daylight. Tried walking around the neighborhood one night after my book deal was signed; cigar in one hand, young man’s empty fancy in the other. Not the same.

Not the same.

On the porch we might talk about his Army days. How he’d never run, or camp, again. (Good riddance.) How he once had Robert James Waller, yes, of Bridges of Madison County fame, as a grad school economics professor. Sheee-it. Or the first time my wife had gotten gussied up for a middle school (or high school) dance. Or what the interest rates were like the time they bolted Sioux Falls for Kansas City. Or how his dad reacted to his boyhood antics: racing cars along the frozen Shell Rock creek, up beyond the Minnesota-Iowa border and back again, more or less in one piece.

As a young journalist, I talked Chicago garbage strikes and elusive mayors and the time a resident/source commented, “I thought I’d have heard about you buried in a concrete pillar by now.” First mortgage rates. Salary negotiations. Shared association of growing up in small towns. Interviews with unreformed Chicago “street gangs” as I wrote my book. And yeah, eventually, ad agency shenanigans and hirings and firings and the art of the pitch.

Time to relight. From the guttering flame. Take a deep draw. Breath out. Repeat.

Or, we’d bark in time to the neighbors’ “punt dogs.” Wave to the girls on the other side of the sliding glass door, inside. Check the score of KU. Or even fire up the laptop, tune in to a webcast of Ohio State versus Oklahoma. Versus Wisconsin. Wins. The full moon. A breeze getting colder. The dog shivering by the door. One last swallow. Time to head inside.

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Time to Head Inside… in a Little While

It’s gonna be a hard damn week. OK?

Just because we delay these things… you know? You know they eventually catch up to you.

And it’s not all bad. It’s just…. Just, it is. It is what it is. It’s the end of the night, the scotch is nearly gone, the cigar’s about out, and it’s time to bring it all inside and face the next day.

We forget all the problems we solved the night before.

But we have faith we’ll work it all out again.

Today is my father-in-law’s birthday. What would have been his 67th. The first since he passed away, just short of two months ago. The first I’ve gone through the ritual without him. My place. My scotch. My remaining three cigars since we last settled in, with an H. Upmann I was proud to lend him, since he was in short supply, on his way out west into retirement, into the unknown.

I forget if that was one of the times we had Ohio State on my laptop this past fall. The win over Oklahoma. The win over Wisconsin. Probably later. Maybe not. But what does it matter? What matters: the time spent. That last time, shared. The ritual. The things said. Some remembered, some forgotten. But all of it: together.

This week, we grieve. We journey to visit old, cherished friends in Kansas City. In Olathe, proper. To remember. To celebrate. Then, on to Northwood, Iowa. His hometown. To lay him to rest in the embrace of family living and gone onward, ahead of us.

It’s a hard damn week.

It’s his birthday, today. I said that, I think. Sixty-seven years. Such a small number to bargain for. To hope for. To dream of, in the background, of all the conversations over all the sips and puffs and quips and stories. We never know how many lines we have left.

No matter what the ritual, the routine and warm embraces, the family we cling to. The times we count on. We remember. We forge on.

Tonight, I sit alone on a day that is growing late, and colder. Remembering. Ashing out in the glass tray I’d put away in the garage the last time he’d visited, before heading west. The remains of his cigar, from then, and mine.

My cigar’s about gone. The scotch… a few too many refills and almost drained. I’m shivering, typing. The battery meter’s about half gone. I’m rambling. The dog’s looking at me strangely. The motion-sensing porch light’s winking off.

Time to go inside.

Problems of the world? Ha. They go on. As we go on, in the light of morning. Older? Yeah. Wiser? Perhaps. But, and this I hope: fortified by the amazing light of all the people we have known and loved and lived through a time or a thousand with, in whatever minor verse or movement, carrying with us what we’ve learned and laughed through, putting the details to memory, however middling and ritualistic and taken for heavenly granted. We remember.

And that’s gotta be worth something, OK? That we were here. And shared it. And LOVED it. For our time. Right?

We gather up the bottles, and the glasses, and the warmth that’s left inside the nurturing garments we’ve knitted together with careless care, over the years, and we go on.

The world is smaller, the night colder, but we carry it and we go on.

OK.

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Categories: Foutz, Knutson, Milestones | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Heaven is a Porch with No Wind


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Gary Knutson, Twyla Knutson and Colt Foutz at Dublin, Ohio’s Irish Fest, summer 2001.

Lessons and Love from Gary J. Knutson

The first phone conversation I ever had with my wife happened during the opening ceremonies of the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney.

We’d both been working as newspaper reporters at the Sandusky Register since late summer. It was a first job for both of us, and a young office on the whole — we’d pass the time after work, and after the odd late weekend shift, especially, tipping back beers on someone’s porch, or stumbling from one dive to another. Katie and I had barely known each other a month, and we’d be friends for several months before we’d start officially, ahem, dating. But in that first call, we discovered a lot of common points. We talked a lot about our families.

Her dad, like mine, was a salesman. Both moms? Elementary school teachers.

Katie had always figured she’d meet her eventual husband in college, where her parents met Freshman year and married in the summer before their junior years at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. Mine started dating around the exact same time, but as juniors in their smalltown Ohio high school, where I also figured I’d find Miss Right.

By the following summer, Miss Of-the-Moment — but feeling pretty right — was Katie, and by then we’d mapped out a lot of our families’ histories and main characters. We’d been dating a few months when her parents, Gary and Twyla, flew into Cleveland to visit.

My on-the-hot-seat intro at least took place in my own car, though we got off to a bit of an inauspicious beginning as we cruised The Flats for a late-night dinner and I tried — and tried, and tried again — to angle my ’99 Mazda Protege into a parallel spot. But no pressure, no pressure.

We struck out that night — not with the parking, but the nourishment, as chain-brained Fado closed their bar and kitchen early and sent us across the state to Sandusky with… crackers.

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Colt Foutz, left, and Gary Knutson, Kelly’s Island, Ohio, summer 2001

But I soon fell into a comfortable enough rhythm with my eventual in-laws. The next morning, we made our way south to an Irish Festival in Dublin, near Columbus. And later in the weekend, we headed across Lake Erie to Kellys Island. The first joke Gary ever shared with me was as we escaped the girls’ candle and antique browsing and edged up to an island bar.

“How is lite beer like sex on the beach?” he asked. “They’re both (f-ing) near water.”

From the first I got to know Gary, conversation flowed naturally with a beverage. He was confident, at ease. The Dad. But generous with his stories and his humor and his time. He loved nothing better, it seemed, than to dispense with (or squirm quickly through) formalities, get his hands on a “real Budweiser” — as he never tired of specifying to any well-meaning waiter — lean back and settle in for a long session with family. And if you were a friend of Gary’s, you were (f-ing) near family.

The Gary I got to know, and in short order grew privileged to call father-in-law, appealed to me most whenever the innate never-grow-old smartass shone through. Which was often. I identified with that, I guess.

He was the son (and grandson, and great-grandson…) of Iowa farmers, jacks-of-all trades and household economic arithmetic with fix-it caves in the basement and alternatively stern and indulgent hands with their feral farm boys. He reeled off stories of he and brother Tim racing cars on Shell Rock Creek to and from the Minnesota border. Of his dad’s maxim for delegating housework to sons: “one boy is worth one boy; two boys are worth half a boy; three boys are worth none at all.” Of being forced to run Fall cross-country to stay in shape for winter basketball, and then having to run in the Army, and so now he was done with running (not to mention camping) for good.

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Gary Knutson, Northwood High Class of ’68

While running was a running habit of mine, and camping are two of the most blissful syllables to my ears, we were in no way identical in our interests or skillsets as father-in-law and “outlaw” son. But we were comfortable in our ways of talking about our backgrounds, each finding the humor in them, the shared benefit.

When I wrote a book about a rambunctious “street gang” of Chicago boys turned world championship drum corps, Gary found a lot in common with the legends and unrepentant pranks of the Cavaliers. They reminded him of his Zeta fraternity days at Augie.

We had both played trumpet in high school — and I would wager he played better, as I found my forte, instead, with the piano and composing. But our shared love for music meant he could ask me to pick out a Herb Alpert tune for him. Or arrange Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” for his men’s quartet at church — then “dumb it down” for them appropriately.

Love, with Gary, like my own family, was never necessarily pointed or verbal. It was shown every day, in the usual interactions. Early on, I struggled with making things official. Putting a rite-of-passage stamp on it. When I’d proposed to Katie, we invited her parents and mine to celebrate with us in the Chicago suburbs. While my brother and parents checked out the slopes in the ski lodge apartment complex where I lived, I got Gary to myself in the lodge bar and grill. As we munched burgers and sipped beer, I asked him, “well, is there anything you want to talk to me about, anything you want to know about me, or say?” you know, since I was about to marry his only (and favorite) daughter.

Pregnant pause. “Colt,” he said, “this is a good burger.”

OK, then.

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Gary and “favorite” (only) daughter Katie Knutson Foutz.

There was no shame, no disapproval, no “now-do-this-because-I-know-better” lecture. He was on-call for advice menial and momentous. From which oil to put in the snowblower (SAE 5W20), to how to clear out frozen sump pump lines, to reassurance when we made our middle-of-the-recession move from Chicago to Sioux Falls: he and Twyla had done the same thing at about the same ages, going from Sioux Falls to Kansas City, in an age of double-digit interest rates.

That he was proud of our move, and our house, and our kids, and our proximity to alma mater Augie, helped push us through a bit of life gymnastics. Which is what the best parenting is.

If you were struggling with something, or had done something stupid, more likely he’d make a joke out of it, or dryly observe, say, that “your lawn is going to seed.” And then accompany you to the hardware store to help make it right.

As I left the newspaper world and had kids and became more manager and business development guy in advertising than mere “creative,” we swapped stories of clients and hirings and firings and pitches and deals. And though he never overtly said it, I think he was proud and surprised at the turns my journey from poor parallel parking journalist to paternal head took. We grew into our opposing seats at the table on his beloved screened porch in Olathe, Kansas, and the gray in our hair and beards, puffing on cigars, sipping whatever scotch graced the cupboard (“it’s single malt — how bad could it be?”) and “solving world problems” over the course of the hours I most savored whenever we got together. By the next day forgetting the solutions, of course, so we could set out to sip and solve them all over again.

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Siblings Gary, Tim and Sharyl Knutson on Tim’s screened porch on the family farm in Northwood, Ia.

This essay is as wandering as my thoughts have been the last several months. Since early this year, when we learned of Gary’s diagnosis with end-stage pancreatic cancer.

It’s been too sudden, and too cruel: too much like life to send tremors through the truly blessed times we’ve enjoyed as an extended family. A squall freezing shut the way to the porch. A formal silence to sour the ever-flowing pleasure of each other’s company.

He’s too young, at 66. A painful reinforcement, for me, of what was lost when my own grandpa Foutz died of lung cancer at the same age. I was 4, a little older than my youngest son, Caleb. And my dad was 28 — a striking difference from my 40 years. What would a dozen more years have meant to my dad, to me, with grandpa’s knowledge, his memories, more times around the table? Whatever time we’re given, it’s never enough.

So what’s left is to be grateful for the time we’ve had. Maybe it’s the bipolar musician/writer brain I have, but there is an infectious and unforgettable music in Gary’s character — the sayings, the stories. That smartass grin always shining beneath. The almost-cartoon-character “hee-hee-hee-hee” of his laugh when he got over a particularly good one. As snippets to savor they are sparklingly bright, a brief Glossary of Gary:

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  • “Oh, sugar. ” His sanitized way of cursing, usually over a household project.
  • “O’-dark-thirty.” A frequent time of rising, especially for farm chores or hunting expeditions to exterminate prairie dogs.
  • “Hey! What’sa mattah with yas?” Quoting an uncle. Oft-used with popular porch stories.
  • Burping-I-was-burping.” A more amusing use of your vocal cords the next time you burp.
  • “Hello… Feret.” Repurposed from Seinfeld, a way for Gary — and instructed grandsons — to greet choir best bud and porch foil, Jim.
  • “It’s single malt… how bad could it be?” Last words before trying a suspect vintage of scotch.
  • “Smooooooth as Lulu’s thighs.” Borrowed from Feret. Used on the occasion of finding a particularly good scotch to sip.
  • “Not half bad.” Norwegian-to-English translation: pretty damn all right. Bestowed upon (mostly) deserving in-laws.
  • “Outlaws.” See: in-laws.
  • “Pow.” Borrowed from his father, Cornell. Accompanying brief fist tap on dinner table. Indicates a “not half bad” meal.
  • “A real Budweiser.” Instructions for wait staff. When f-ing near water will not do.
  • “The Fun Knutsons.” Gary’s family. In contrast to “the Good Knutsons” — his wife’s, which features no fewer than four pastors. In experience, both can be fun and good (at times). But Gary embodied both.
  • “Six or five times.” Often. As in, the familiar stories you’ve heard over scotch.
  • “Exactamuuuuuuuundo.” Quoted by Katie early on, probably a Dad relic from youth. A lighter touch than, say, “no shit, Sherlock.”
  • “Plumber butt.” Something young grandsons suffer often, remedied with a swift yank on the pants.

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    Gary and grandson, Caleb Foutz, 2016.

  • “nose job.” As in, “need a nose job?” for grandsons with runny noses that need catching.
  • “Swipe dipe.” The perfect remedy for when a nose job is needed. The ever-present burp cloth thrown over the shoulders of new parents.
  • “Punt dog.” Your dog. Exclusive of size, really, but meant for yippity yappity varietals of pooches. Gary and Twyla are cat people who have accepted my family’s golden retriever, Macallan, as a not-half-bad, non-punt dog.
  • “Checking my eyelids for holes.” An artful exit line for escaping to the basement lounger in front of the TV, usually with a Natty Ice — the household substitute for Real Budweiser.

A man of dry wit, Gary loved the one-liners of Steven Wright. Though he also couldn’t get enough of Blazing Saddles. Mongo would often make an appearance whenever he had to go on a household garbage run. With a close sibling being Vacusarous, whenever Gary got to unleash his whole-house central vac. Usually accompanied by Tim-Allen-esque grunting at the manliness of said chores.

William Shatner’s Boston Legal character, Denny Crane, had Gary saying that signature name in the signature way for several years, in time with the talking bobblehead that would sit near the scotch cupboard. And he quoted, for awhile, the flag-waving radio host Earl Pitts and his exclamation to “Wake up, America!” Also handy in many other situations, political and non-.

We fell into the usual, casual sports banter of father- and son-in-law. I had my Ohio teams to root and rave over, and save for a couple memorable (for Kansas) Ohio State-KU basketball matchups, our rivalries were fairly segregated. Gary loved when his Lincoln home office colleagues suffered through a Nebraska loss. And he described the Big 12 conference as “the Big 8 plus those Texas schools.” When Missouri left to join the SEC, he advised any Tigers fans “don’t let the door hit ya” on the way out. And he was quick to call up a phrase he’d once heard a mechanical cowboy utter on his travels across the country: “How about them… Hawkeyes” in invoking anything to do with his home state.

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Gary “checking his eyelids for holes” on one of the mirror screened porches modeled after his original, next to grandson, Ben Foutz.

He was tremendously proud of the screen porch he measured and cut and constructed off of his home for nearly 30 years in Olathe. It became the model for at least a half dozen copies around the neighborhood and country. And staging ground, of course, for our bouts of solving world problems.

In his days as a hard-pranking Zeta in college, Gary would open up memorable Saturday mornings in a local bar, sipping tomato beer and enjoying local delicacy Chislic, served on toothpicks with accompanying saltine crackers. After those joints lost out to Sioux Falls progress, he found new favorite watering holes educated in the Chislic way at Al’s Oasis, halfway across the state to his beloved Black Hills, and in Dakotah Steak House “west river.”

Another boyish habit: his enduring last-ritual-of-the-night making a sandwich on ordinary bread with “cheap yellow mustard,” which he’d eat over the kitchen sink and wash down with chocolate milk.

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Niece Ingrid and big sister Sharyl, with Gary, in the old tractor shed on the farm.

We had to grow into our airs as cigar aficionados. As recently as ’03, standing outside the farmhouse with an Aass imported (Norwegian) beer and biting the ends off whatever cigar was handy was good enough. It took time to add scotch and cocktail ice cubes and weekend kits with official guillotines and reamers and favored H. Upmann Vintage Churchill Cameroons.

I don’t know. I don’t know how to bring this to a close. If you were a friend or family to Gary, you have dozens, hundreds of stories, in all the wonderful points of the compass his wonderful life took him to. This was my little window, and I will never forget the profound example he set as husband and father and grandfather and businessman and church member and friend. There’s anger at the cold shoulder of life. And deep and grasping grief at the time that is lost.

But like a long day that ends in the glow of the lights of home — the warm, familiar smells; the grateful hugs — and moves, as the children head to bed, to the introductory scrape of a chair on the porch, the clink of glass to glass and a welcoming “Skol,” I believe there is a next chapter, with a promise as full of possibility as a night without wind, and a solid 70 on an over-optimistic porch thermometer, with a “commitment”-size cigar and a fresh bottle, and all the time in heaven to ease into the comfort of the old stories, to tell them six or five or fifty times, over and over and without an end.

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Categories: Foutz, Knutson, Milestones | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So, This is 40


Weible Robert Elks Lodge

The dates on my great-grandfather R.O. Weible’s Elks leader portrait probably peg his age accurately — 39 in 1931, right on the cusp of 40.

Family Men at 40: A Rogue’s Gallery

I’ll say this for investing a little time in genealogy as a hobby: the presents you can create for family sure beat the silk off gifting another tie or purse.

As much as genealogy plays into my passions for research and writing, my bouts of document diving and image archiving have generated a few keepsake Christmas and birthday and anniversary and just-because gifts commemorating loved ones lost and living.

What fun would it be, after all, not to share?

Blogging about my Grandpa Foutz’s special 1931 football season led first to a Christmas book collecting both his source scrapbook and my blogs about his exploits, and later to a project to create an authentic reproduction of his 1931 jersey, as well as his actual game-worn uniform.

Before that, I’d taken a first crack at a frame-worthy family tree poster for my parents’ 35th anniversary. Then, a few years ago for my own 10th anniversary, I’d included my wife’s side back to the great-greats in an even bigger piece that hangs in our dining room at home — a record I’ve got to update, anyway, since we added a third little grape to our own family vine, oh, three years or so ago.

I’ve gladly cut my cousins into a trove of photos and newspaper clips I’ve stockpiled for their own efforts at milestone-marking.

And speaking of milestones, some of the less-sleuthworthy but more generically blogworthy posts in this space have focused on monthly birthdays and anniversaries of our ancestors.

This blog site and the notion of Whispering Across the Campfire, of course, is a means of sharing, too — releasing the newfound mysteries and facts so we can revel at them together, or send a beacon to relatives yet unknown in order to make sense of a particularly gnarly nugget.

You can bet I get a lot out of that, too.

So genealogical generosity, evidence indicates, is mostly a zero-sum game. You get what you give.

Well, today, I found my thoughts turning to… myself. Specifically, at about 12:12 a.m., the clock having ticked to a milestone of my own. I found myself, newly 40, pondering… a variety of sleep-evading thoughts, mostly on family. For instance:

  • my inlaws, in their 60s; when we’d first met, sharing beers at a festival tent in Columbus, Ohio, they were barely 50. Is it possible so much time has racked up, and so quickly?
  • my youngest son, turned 3 just 3 days before; when I’m 50 he’ll be 13, still house-bound to us for another 5 years, but also likely to leap in an eyeblink.
  • my oldest, almost 10, will be out of the house by then; his brother, Ben, on the verge of leaving.
  • my own parents, at 40, contending with a 16-year-old me. Seems so recent, but actually….
  • the things I’d hoped for, some lost, some attained — were they me? Another me? Someone else?
  • and the memories which still seem close enough to step into; events and people at 12 and 20 and 9 and 30, how long do we hold them, and for what end?

All right. So at least I’m old enough to know the antidote — a trusty book, kept bedside. Reshuffling my thoughts in the rhythm of narrative. Finding rest.

Mostly, in that interval, I thought of family. And the lessons we grope at — however profound, however fleeting — of the things they’d done, and the ways they’d lived. What it says about us, about all this: there is always someone who came before, always stories to be written after.

Ahem. Well.

OK, so I eventually found sleep. And woke up today with a little nugget of an idea for a milestone blog of sorts. Not about me, really. But a visual reminder of some of the ragged thoughts bumping around in my middle-aged brain.

A few years ago, when my parents turned 60, I put together a little slideshow compiling photos and facts of their own parents and grandparents and great-grandparents: what they looked like and the way they lived in the years they turned 60. A little parallel time capsule, of sorts.

So today I find myself thinking about the men in my family. A few of whom I’m told I resemble. (That’s generous, in some instances, plainly tragic in others. But ah well. Our faces are just the facades we present to the outside.) Without over-narrating, then (having done that already), a slideshow. Of Foutzes and Leys and Weibles, etc., at or around when they turned 40.

Of course, 40 is relative. (Accidental pun, hahaha. Relative.) What would it mean, without a little juxtaposition? So, I’ve thrown that in, too.

Prost! Skol! Cheers!

So this is 40? A Slideshow

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Categories: General Genealogy, Milestones | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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