Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Funeral I Will Never Forget: Benny Duggan's Story

Benny Duggan's Grave
This past Thursday I experienced one of the saddest events in my thirty years of Christian ministry. I conducted a funeral service and nobody came. Those present for the service were a funeral director, a court appointed attorney, and myself.  It was the first time during my three decades of ministry that this has happened. No family. No friends. Nobody else. The man who died was named Benny Duggan. His will stated his wish that a funeral be conducted at his death, and the courts set aside money in Benny's trust for this purpose.  The attorney, court-appointed by the Department of Human Services, had attempted to find Benny's next of kin. None could be found.  Though I had never met Benny, since I was the one asked to conduct his funeral service, I decided to spend a few hours researching his life. It is amazing what one can accomplish with the Internet, a little patience, and some research skills.  I shared the following story with the funeral director and court-appointed attorney at Benny's funeral. We all got a little emotional about it, so I thought I would share Benny's story with my Internet friends and issue a challenge for all of us to notice the Benny Duggans in our lives--before they die.

As I began my research, I knew just a few things about Benny. I knew he was an only child. I knew he had attended college (Northwestern Oklahoma State), and had been a successful wheat farmer, business investor and "collector of cars." I knew he had been a spend-thrift, saving almost every penny he made, so he was not poor.  I also knew he had been been born August 9, 1921 and died on August 15, 2012. That was about all I knew. Then I began my research.

Benny's Family

The first remarkable and startling discovery I made about Benny is that his grandfather, James Duggan, was born in 1815. That's almost 200 years ago. Benny's grandfather was born when James Madison was President of the United States. The War of 1812 was not yet over at the time of James Duggan's birth. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third Presidents respectively, would not die until Benny's grandfather was almost a teenager. Most of us have twenty to twenty-five years between generations, with grandfathers born fifty years prior to our birth. I have never conducted a service where the dead person's grandfather had been born 200 years earlier.  

Benny last name "Duggan" is Irish. It has sometimes been spelled Dugan or Dugin in the past. I discovered that Benny's forefathers had migrated to America from Ireland during The Irish Famine of (1740-1741). The thousands of Irish families that came to America during what the Irish named "The Great Slaughter" became excellent farmers in the river valleys of Virginia and Ohio.  Benny's grandfather, James Duggan (the one born in 1815), first became a successful farmer in Ohio and then later in Iowa. James Duggan and his wife Delilah had ten children, one of whom was Benny's father, Joseph (Joe) H. Duggan.

Joseph H. Duggan was born July 17, 1857, four years before the start of the Civil War. Joe Duggan attended school until the fourth grade, and then he dropped out to help his father by working full-time on the family farm. In the 1880's, at the age of 30, Joe Duggan struck out on his own and moved west to Colorado where he worked as a farm laborer on the southern slopes of the Rockie's. Then, like many Irish laborers in America with dreams of becoming landowners, dreams expertly portrayed in the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman movie Far and Away, Benny's father came to Oklahoma Territory at--or shortly after--the Great Land Run of 1893.

Joseph H. Duggan settled on a beautiful quarter section (160 acres) of land 12 miles northeast of Enid, Oklahoma. A pre-statehood map of this area has listed Joseph Duggan's name on land located in the southwest quarter of Section 4, Range 23 North and 5 West. This area was was known as Union Township. Joseph Duggan's 160 acres was half timber and half pasture, with beautiful Rock Creek flowing through it. This land was ideal for wheat farming, and that is precisely what the unmarried Joseph Duggan did. He farmed wheat, just like his father had done in Ohio and Iowa. Joe Duggan was excellent at what he did, and he began to prosper as a wheat farmer.

Joseph was not drafted to serve during World War 1 (1914-1918) because his wheat farming was vital to the security of the United States. The government exempted him. After the war, Joseph went to Kingfisher, Oklahoma to visit his brother Theodore Duggin, the only relative who had also migrated to Oklahoma from Iowa. While visiting Theodore, Joe met a young Jewish Russian girl who had been born in Kansas, but whose Russian parents had immigrated to the United States right before her birth. This pretty Jewish girl was visiting relatives who also lived in Kingfisher. Joseph met her and fell in love.  Joseph Duggan was sixty years old at the time, but his age did not scare away this beautiful twenty-eight year old Russian Jew named Elizabeth. Joe and Elizabeth Duggan married, and Joe took his young bride back to his wheat farm northeast of Enid. Five years later the Duggans only child would be born -- Benny F. Duggan.

Benny's Farming

Benny, like his father and grandfather, grew up on a thriving wheat farm. Unlike his father and grandfather, Benny attended school through the twelth grade. Benny's father had been sixty-four years old when Benny was born and eighty-two years old when Benny went off to college in 1939. Benny attended college at the prompting of his father and found himself exempt from the draft for World War II because the government believed Benny could help the nation more by taking over the family farm than by being drafted as a soldier.  Benny Duggan never obtained his degree because his father became ill. Benny came home to take over the farming operation.

On December 17, 1942, Benny Duggan's father died. He was eighty-five years old. Joseph H. Duggan had been an early Oklahoma settler and successful wheat farmer. He left behind his twenty-one year old son, Benny, and a fifty-three year old wife, Elizabeth. Benny loved his mother, and for the next two decades he cared for both the farm and his mom. However, when Benny's mother became physically frail and in need of a warmer winter climate, Benny decided to lease the family farm and move his mother to south Texas. By the time of this move in the mid-1960's, Benny had invested some of his farm earnings in various buildings and property in Enid, Oklahoma.

Not much is known about Ben and his mother Elizabeth during their years in Houston. However, in July of 1971, Elizabeth Duggan died. She was eighty-four. Benny brought his mother back to Kingfisher, Oklahoma where graveside rites were conducted at Kingfisher Cemetery. Elizabeth was buried beside her husband Joseph. After the funeral, Benny came back to Enid to tend to his farm and the various properties he owned. Benny was fifty when his mother died. He had never married,, and unlike his father, he would not marry later in life.  His mom and dad now were gone. He had no siblings. He would possibly have had some distant cousins around the Kingfisher area, but there is no evidence Benny had any contact with them. He lived outside of Enid during the 1970's and 1980's, tending to his farming, and mostly keeping to himself. In the 1990's, when Benny was reaching eighty years of age, he bought a home in Dallas, Texas. He was now too old to farm. He kept ownership of his land, but he leased it to local farmers and then moved to Dallas.

Benny's Frailty

During this past decade, Benny's life spiraled downward. He kept to himself in Dallas. Nobody knew him or where he had come from. He was not in good health during his eighties, and all that the neighbors knew was that he had way too many cars on his property. His front yard was becoming an eyesore. What the neighbors never realized was that Benny was too old to drive in Dallas traffic, but that didn't stop him. He had numerous vehicular accidents, but rather than repair the cars he wrecked, he simply bought a new one. Rather than paying off his car loans with insurance money (Benny had only bare minimum insurance), he simply went to the bank to buy a new car--before he had paid off the wrecked one. The bank would loan Benny the money because his open line of credit was secured by the valuable land and property he owned in Enid. Benny continued to detoriate physically, emotionally and mentally.

In 2009, Benny came to Enid for a visit. He wanted to check on his farm and properties. He was now eighty-eight years old. While in Enid, he fell and broke his pelvis. After several weeks in the hospital, he was ready to be released. However, due to the extent of his injuries, hospital administration would only release Benny to a family member who would come, pick him up, and then care for him. "Who," they asked, "can we call to come get you?" "I don't have anybody," Benny replied. "There's nobody you can call." The hospital was not sure about what to do. After a conference, they decided to release Benny to a nursing home facility in Enid. Benny had a trust fund that could pay for the nursing home care as long as it was needed.

Unfortunately, the nursing home where Benny was admitted had an administrator with a gambling problem. She stole from her patients' trust funds, and when that money was not enough, she turned to armed bank robbery. Benny was one of her victims. Due to the medications Benny was taking to manage his pain, Benny's ability to think rationally became progressively worse, but it didn't keep him from the pain of knowing he was being swindled. More than a few strangers took advantage of him. After the police arrested the nursing home administrator for fraud and bank robbery, they discovered other ways Benny had been taken advantage of by other people. Law enforcement requested that the Department of Human Services step in and move Benny to another nursing home. The court also assigned an attorney to watch over Benny's finances. Though the attorney had Benny's best interest at heart, Benny found it difficult to trust anyone because so many people had abused him the last few years of his life. There had been nobody who served as his advocate.

Benny died suddenly on Wednesday, August 15, 2012, in his nursing home bed. His body was broken and bruised. His emotions spent and his life a testimony to the evil in the hearts of men. He died alone, abused by many who had taken advantage of him. The bank officers that loaned him money for the cars without investigating why he needed so many, the nursing home administrators who had been assigned to care for him but abused him, several of the people who leased his land and property, and the neighbors who lived by him--all of them either abused or abandoned Benny in his time of need.

As I spoke with the funeral director and attorney at Benny's funeral, I felt a renewed commitment to focus on the Benny Duggans in my life. It doesn't take long to get to know people by asking a few questions about their life and becoming interested in their story. Intentional acts of kindness toward senior adults speak volumes about our understanding of the importance and significance of every human life. There are dozens of Benny Duggans in the nursing homes of our communities, and rather than see them as objects to deceive and use for personal gain, we Christians would do well to redouble our efforts in serving the elderly in our community.

Though Benny Duggan's funeral may be the only one I ever officiate that has nobody in attendance, it may go down in my life as the most signficant funeral service I've ever had the privilege of conducting. Benny Duggan reminds me of the importance of getting to know the stories of our senior adults, and reaching out to them in love.

Thanks, Benny. I hope I've honored your life and story in some small way. I just wish more people had known you and your story before you died.


Pege' said...

Wade, You definitely honored this man in your article. I have worked in several nursing homes as an Activity Assistant and Director in Oklahoma, Georgia and Colorado. One of the best places was Green Briar Nursing Home there in Enid. Working for the Hacketts was a joy.
There are so many seniors who have little to no family or the families place them in the home and forget about them. Many times the staff became their family. I have loved many many of these sweet people. There are only so many hours and there is much need of help. In Georgia, I was impressed with the way the Black churches cared for the elders. There was a real sense of family and out reach and care for the seniors. There was honor and respect.It was beautiful to see the love of Christ given to those who could at this point in their lives give nothing back.It was not so with the white folks.Usually around the holidays is when the ministry of their churches was shown and only for a few weeks. I will testify there are many lovely lonely seniors in nursing homes, assisted living centers and in the community that need us all to reach out and care. Thanks for reminding me. And a small note to seniors, do not be prideful or ashamed to receive help and kindness. You spent your whole live giving and serving others, allow others to give the grace back to you.

Julie Anne said...

Thank you, Wade, for the beautiful article. It really touched me.

Wade Burleson said...

Informative comment, Pege. Thanks for adding to my knowledge.

Julie Anne - thanks! I appreciate you taking the time to write and tell me the article touched you.

Pege' said...

Wade, I do need to share a story. In Georgia I had a resident that was in her late 50's. She has been their several years because of serious health issues. When I met her she was on hospice care. She has a niece who came sporadically but other than that no one else but staff. She rarely left her room. My job as the Activity Director was to try and get her out and into the population so she could interact and make friends. She refused day after day. She was a bit of an irritant to the administrator because she was a huge knitter and had rolls and rolls of yarn about her little half of her room. I was given the task of getting her to de-clutter because the state inspectors were coming soon and the home would receive marks against that. I made it a point to visit her every day (the state requires 15 minute in room visits for bed ridden patients 3x a week). I went after work. Got to know her. Joked, laughed, served. She was a real sweet heart. I went out and bought some shelving and containers and together we organized her belongings. She was so happy and so was the administrator. WOO HOO!! One day a mom and her daughter (10) came to talk to me. The mom wanted her daughter to learn to serve others. She wanted to visit some one who had no family or little to no visits. Well, I introduced her to this woman. It was awkward at first but the mom and daughter came 2x a week. A friendship was born. The woman, who was very sick, told me many many times how grateful she was for her new friends. The mom and daughter also came and told me how much they cared for this woman who not too long ago was a stranger. I moved about 2 months after their meeting.2 months after I left her illness took her life.
Praise God for this mom and daughter who gave of them selves to a woman who had nothing to give back. I am so grateful she did not die feeling alone. Ya know it does not take much to reach out. Time and vulnerability to be a friend and share your life. Contact the chaplain or the Activity or Program directors of the facility... they are the folks who know who has this type of need. They are amazing people who need all the help they can get. Their hearts are BIG but their time is small! LET'S GO LOVE!

Victorious said...

Oh my...what a beautiful but oh so sad story. No doubt Benny would be honored that you took the time to research his history as a tribute to his life.

You know, I'm nearing 70 yrs. old myself. I'm in perfect health (so far) not even taking any medication. I've been feeling sorry for myself for the past year or so as I tell the Lord how useless and without purpose I feel.

I may have found a purpose because of this post. I can be a friend to other seniors who are not as healthy as I am and may need some company from time to time.

Thank you, Wade.

Steven Stark said...

Thanks for a wonderful post, Wade.

It reminds me a bit of the Simon and Garfunkel song "A Most Peculiar Man."

You are so right about trying to break out of our comfort zones a little and learn more about our fellow journeymen on the path of life.

Paula said...

Thank you for researching this man's life and honoring him in this way. I have to say,though, reading it broke my heart over my own busy-ness. I'm often "too busy" and don't stop to hear other's stories. Thank you for the reminder to really look at the other image-bearers that God brings to me.

Wade Burleson said...

Steven and Paula,

Thanks for your kind words. Benny Duggan (pronounced "Doo guhn") has accomplished a great deal in death. One of these days, the Lord's grace permitting, I would love to read some of the emails I have received from this post--emails that I believe would be part of the joy of understanding how God works all things for good.

Greg Glendening said...

Thanks for writing this memorial of a fellow who, like all of us, deserves to be remembered. The details of this family's history are really interesting. Thanks for noticing an important story.

Rex Ray said...

I’d think many have been buried the same way without the detailed research you did.

That was very noble, thoughtful, and Christian of you.

Many have had ‘bad’ things happen to them without any fault of their own.

My twin brother (80) is in intensive care today because after a triple heart bypass in May, yesterday, they removed a ‘forgotten’ sponge with an operation that took longer than the first one.

Ken Colson said...

Thanks for sharing Benny's story. There are so many needy people right around

Anonymous said...

thanks for the reminder that WE, too, need to be intentional about connecting with others throughout life. it is healthy for us and for them and people know when we die! :-)

Ed Belding said...

Thank you for learning about Mr. Duggan and sharing his story with us. I was both saddened and convicted by your tribute.


Ed Belding

Eagle said...

Wade, I’ve been busy emailing, calling and thanking people who prayed or had me in my thoughts when I was in the hospital in August for a leg infection and some blood poisoning. I appreciated and want to say thank you to your church for praying for me. I am on the mend, and should be fully on my feet in a couple of weeks. I still have an IV in me but I am getting stronger each day. Several medical professionals told me that I was lucky I didn’t lose my leg. So I have a lot to be grateful for.

Your story reminded me of an experience that happened last month. I was discharged from the hospital into what was supposed to be a rehab center. It was a nursing home. As a man in my 30’s I became the youngest resident for 4 days, in a place where the median age was in the 80’s or 90’s.

Over the four days I was there I saw, and heard a lot of depressing stuff. But one of the saddest events of my life, which I really haven't told a lot of people occurred on Monday morning on August 14, 2012.

I was dealing with a rising fever and would be readmitted into the hospital that evening. But that morning I laid in my bed reading a Vince Flynn book. Outside my door was a man in his 70's, crippled, with a cane, who would stare at me as I walked back to my room. Every time I walked back to my room this guy sitting outside my door on a bench would stare at me. It made me really uncomfortable. The social worker spoke with him that morning while I read my Vince Flynn book in my room. Then I heard this incredible sobbing, and the guy outside my room was crying to the social worker at the nursing home.

He was crying because he was alone, and had no family or friends that would visit him.
He was crying because he was crippled and couldn't walk without a walker
He was crying to the social worker that he was going to likely live out his life in that nursing home
He was crying because his funds were running out and he didn't know what to do.
He was crying over his condition in life, that he was broken, not young like he remembered how he was...

I put down the Vince Flynn book, I couldn't ignore all this as it was right outside my door. I was in shock and stunned. It was the saddest "conversation" I had heard. It was so dark…

Wade Burleson said...

Wow, Eagle,

Thanks for sharing this story. There are people like this man all around us. I hope to be as sensitive as you next time I run into a similar situation. We have been praying for you and I'm thrilled to know you are better.