My lesson from the life of Jack Daniel

Today, my family is celebrating the life of and mourning the loss of Jack Daniel. Uncle Jack (Wendy’s uncle) was a great man that lived an impressive life. As I write this he is being honored with a full military burial at one of our national cemeteries. My prayers and thoughts are with Wendy and her family as they are there with each other during this time.

Jack was a special man. He has a unique life story and leaves a powerful legacy. Today, I want to share with you what I learned from Uncle Jack. In the 13 years since I met Uncle Jack I have gotten to spend some unique moments with him, but not as many as I would have liked. I wish I could have had more moments like the ones that I will share that gave me my insights into the life of Jack Daniel, but they are limited. I will simply share what I had the great privilege of hearing, observing, and learning from him.

I will start by saying that Jack Daniel was a man I greatly respected. By nature and personality I am a leader. I am also a leader by calling and profession. Men like me tend to gravitate toward other leaders that we see great leadership qualities in. Jack was such a man. In the often short but meaningful times I spent with him I always walked away with some observation or story that stuck in my mind.

In observing his life from the lens of his nephew by marriage, I gathered the opinion that this verse in particular would describe his life well. “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13-14)

One of the first personal memories I have about Uncle Jack was at Grandma’s house in Winnfield, LA. It was Memorial Day weekend and some of the family had gathered. I remember sitting outside on the porch and listening to Jack talk about the Vietnam War and his experiences there. This man served bravely in that war along with a lot of great young men in our nation at that time. He rose to rank of Major during the war and would later retire from United States Marine Corps as a Lt. Colonel. The story he shared is one I will not give the details of, but it was a particularly tough day in the war. The day included casualties and loss. I could sense in his telling of the story (which by the way story telling was one of his many gifts) that this memory was one that was still vivid and real in his life. That day he made some decisions (although not wrong ones) that had consequences that were unforeseen. Jack had to live with those types of decisions everyday as a military officer.

I share this to tell you that what I realized about Jack Daniel was that he was a man willing to make the decisions at hand, but he was not a man that lived in the past. His life was shaped by those days in Vietnam but it was not defined by them. Jack was simply not a man that lived in the past, yet he loved the past. He was a history buff especially his own family history. He could retell and recall the smallest details of life in the Daniel family and loved to share that family’s heritage of love and faith with others. Yet I believe he left behind the past and always lived in the present.

I learned this from him on the golf course too. Jack was a prolific golfer. While visiting him this summer – while he was sick and weak from chemo – he and I went to the driving range. Jack, in a weakened condition, consistently hit the ball further and better than I did for the entire time we were out there. He lived a life goal by shooting his age. A goal few golfers accomplish and then not usually till their late 70’s or early 80’s. Jack did it at 69.

He helped me with my golf swing every time we played – mostly because I REALLY need the help – but that was not what I learned from him on the course. Jack had the ability to not allow one bad shot to become two bad shots. He forgot what was behind on the course and focused on what was ahead. That is a difficult thing for a competitive person to do, yet he did every time I golfed with him. He did not push back to where he failed, he pressed forward to where he would succeed.

His military career was quite impressive. This summer I learned – along with some other members of the family – some of the details of his service for our nation. Uncle Jack has a display case with his military medals and honors presented in it. In it was his White House staff badge. I had never known he worked at the White House. I asked about his time there and learned some new and impressive things about Jack.

Uncle Jack served under 3 presidential administrations. He was military debriefer to the President and was a military liaison there at the White House. One of the roles he held during his time there was to carry the “football” – that is the nuclear code brief case often seen in movies. Jack was a man trusted by our nation with one of the codes necessary for launching nuclear war. (I have to admit that when he told me that my “man crush” level increased even more. As did my respect for him.) I did not know what to say to such a neat thing presented in such a nonchalant way, so I said, “You realize they put you in movies. They just have never used the right name.” Then he told me that he was also in charge of the President’s evacuation plan in case of attack and would sit at the desk in the oval office and “play” the part of the president when they would run the drills. How cool is that. And yet he had not really talked about it to that many people. I don’t know why. Maybe some of that was not something he was supposed to talk about at the time, but I think there was more to it than that.

Jack’s life was not defined by such important roles and responsibilities. He did not live his life as a former important person at the White House. He enjoyed that and served faithfully while doing that and then he pressed on. He forgot (without forgetting) what was behind and pushed on toward what lay ahead. He went on to a successful career in a business that carried some military contracts and then started a cabinet business that makes some of the finest cabinets I have ever seen.

His life was full of successes and accomplishments. In sports he was multi-sport letterman in high school, made the varsity basketball team at Arizona State University, played football for the Marine Corps, and won the club championship several years at his home golf course in Virginia. As a marine he was a highly decorated officer. As a business man he was successful. But I don’t think any of those things best describe this man’s life and legacy.

Wendy summed it up well when she said this about her Uncle Jack as I started writing this tribute this past summer. “Whatever he is doing at that moment he is the best at it. If he is playing golf it is golf. If he is a soldier then he is the best soldier. When he is with me, he is the best uncle. He listens and cares and truly interested in my life. When he is dad, he is being the best dad he can be. When he is making cabinets he is making the best cabinets he can make.”

Jack was a man that understood that life, faith, and love are built on past experiences but are lived in present life. That life cannot be lived in what lies behind, it must be lived in what lies ahead. I thank God for great men like Jack Daniel. Our country needs them. Families need them. The world needs them. I think this world is best impacted by those whose stories rarely get told because they do not desire them to be told because they are too busy living them. These types of men and women leave the greatest legacies because they are always living life now.

Jack’s love for God, family, and country was evident in his life and will continue to be evident in his legacy. My prayers are with Aunt Karen and her children, their spouses, and his grandchildren today. My prayers are with his brothers and sisters and family members. Yet in this moment of loss, I am thankful. I am thankful for such a great example of what it looks like to not live in the past and to live a life that grabs hold of what is ahead.

So, learn from yesterday, but don’t stay there. Press on for what lies ahead. You never know where it might take you.

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