We’re not supposed to be surprised that Ernest Elbert Midkiff has died, which he did last Wednesday. He was, after all, 99 years old. He would have turned 100 on Veterans Day.
But we should be sad. Those of us who knew him because we’ll not see him any more, and those who didn’t know him because now the opportunity of meeting him is gone and thus their lives are diminished. My overly abundant good fortune included calling Ernie Midkiff a friend. Then again, he was the sort of fellow to whom you were a friend until you gave him a reason not to be, and probably even after that.
“There are a lot of people around here he helped,” said his daughter Connie on Saturday.
I got to know Ernie before and after Mass on Saturdays at Christ the King in Athens. He would be there with his wife, the sweet and demure Mary Catharine, and we’d often talk for a few minutes. She died in 2013 and I wondered how he would do now. I’d never seen one without the other.
A couple of years later I was at an All Souls Day service at St. John the Baptist, the small church in Guysville overlooking a beautiful Ohio valley. There was a seat along the wall next to where Ernie was sitting, so I took it. Fr. Mark Moore, walking past, noticed that Ernie had a brace on his ankle. “That’s new, isn’t it?” he asked.
“No,” Ernie smiled, as always. “Just an old war injury acting up a little bit.” I asked him if he’d tell me more, but all he would say is “somebody didn’t want me riding on a tank.” His story, which it took a little prodding to get him to tell when I asked him about it later, has been told elsewhere in this space, so I won’t rehearse it here.
We’re taught that humility is an important virtue; nowadays is is observed primarily in its flagrant disregard. Ernest Midkiff was a humble man in the best sense of the word. “Did you know he was awarded four bronze stars?” Fr. Donald Horak asked me when we spoke briefly before Ernie’s funeral Saturday. Of course I didn’t. Nor did at least some of his family, who made the discovery only after he had died.
I didn’t know that he had been quite the fiddle and mandolin player, though I should have suspected because he was from here, really from here, and that kind of thing is a tradition. As we sat that November morning at St. John’s (as the church is familiarly called), he took delight in telling me who was related to whom, who had married into which family, and so on, until just about everyone there was accounted for. His people had been in Athens and Meigs Counties for a while then? “They came here a long time ago,” he smiled. He offered a few years later to guide me on a tour of the area, telling me the old stories, but an unreliable car followed by a too-reliable virus kept that from happening and I’ll always regret it.
Let’s hop back to the days before World War II.
“I think they had the greatest love story ever,” said granddaughter Svea Maxwell last week.
“He and his friends had fixed up an old barn so they could play in it,” daughter Connie said, nodding out from the cemetery in a manner that suggested it was someplace close. They held dances there — yes, “barn dances” were a real thing around here. One night, those who came to dance included the pretty young Mary Catharine Howard, then a student at Shade High School. “They didn’t know each other because they were in different school districts.
“Dad saw her, put down his fiddle, and said, ‘boys, you’re going to have to get by without me,’ and they spent the rest of the evening square dancing together.”
Ernie described it to me a few years ago: “I saw her and knew she was the one for me.”
War drew closer. Some of their friends married quickly, but “they decided to wait,” said Connie. They had no idea how long the fighting would last and wars, like pandemics, tend to go on longer than anyone expected. Ernie could have stayed out of it and still held his head high, because he had a heart murmur due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. But he enlisted. “I wanted to go,” he told me.
“So they got married in 1946, and I came along a year later,” laughed Connie. Thus two old and fine southeastern Ohio families, the Midkiffs and the Howards, were joined.
After he got out of the Army and they got married, the new young family lived in Dayton briefly. They soon came back home. Along came two more children, Kenneth and Randy. Ernest was a mailman, as they used to be called, delivering mail door-to-door on foot in Athens even though the doctors told him that due to his war injuries that kind of job would cripple him. Which it sort of did, I guess — after a quarter century he was assigned to a route he could travel by car.
Meanwhile, he helped neighbors in a world of ways. He and a friend built houses in their spare time. He liked to go hunting.
I remember talking with him after I’d made an unexpected tour of eastern Meigs County looking for a picture assignment that I never found. What had struck me, I said, were all the little old houses nestled here and there, now abandoned right down to the once-white picket fences, and how they used to be places of joy and excitement and newness. “I probably know some of those old stories,” he said. That’s when we planned for the tour we never took.
Ernie died last Wednesday, April 14. His health had been declining a bit the last little while. It was eight years before, to the day, April 14, 2013, that Mary Catharine had died. If theirs weren’t lives well lived, we might as well retire the phrase.
“My wife is there,” he told me, pointing to the St. John’s cemetery that All Souls Day morning years ago. “And when the time comes, I’ll be beside her.” There was neither sadness nor eagerness in his voice, just the comfort of knowing.
And now it has come to pass.