In Memoriam: Ralph J. Coleson

My grandpa was 96 years old when he died. He and my grandma had been married for 68 of those years. These two stats alone are extraordinary, and I could almost leave it at that. But I won’t. (You know me too well).

“Four large peanut butter milkshakes, please. No, it’s not a joke,” I said to the young girl at the local DQ the evening before my grandpa’s funeral, after his visitation. It was liquid nostalgia.

It is usual for those left behind to speak well of the dead. It’s our nature to put the best face on the departed, almost in a superstitious way—as though somehow we’ll ensure that people speak well of us when we’re gone if we do the same for others. My grandpa was one of those rare people for whom no exaggeration is needed. The truth, in fact, may well sound like exaggeration to those who didn’t know him. My grandpas and my dad all share this trait.

“I am Nathan, son of Richard, son of Ralph.”

My grandpa never asked my grandma to marry him. He asked her if she’d go to Africa with him. That was what his devotion to God looked like. He knew he liked Olive, but he was called to foreign missions and if she wasn’t as well, then she wasn’t the one for him. They ended up serving in India first, then in Sierra Leone. Because of an injury and complications, they weren’t able to stay on the mission field as they intended. But, as my dad tells it, he never really skipped a beat. He knew God was in control and just continued to follow Him. Wherever they lived was their mission field. Stories of people being touched by God through his life were heard up until the end. He never retired into leisure as many do. His was not a wasted life.

The old porch swing was the favorite spot at grandpa and grandma’s. We would swing and laugh and swing and sing… During the warmer months there were dozens and dozens of potted plants and flowers all along the front porch, along the path of the swing. In the gravel drive there was, for many years, a simple Ford Fairmount. The only thing flashy at all about it was that it was red. On the dash was a big compass, very much like the one I have on my dash now. Early GPS.

From the tribute I read at the funeral, part of a book my dad is writing:

It was in Sierra Leone that my Father’s protector role shown brightest in my memory. We lived on a mission compound—with three missionary homes, a medical dispensary, a print shop, and a school—at the edge of a village named Gbendembu. Behind our bungalow lay the West African jungle, filled with leopards, scorpions, and deadly snakes that slithered into human habitations. In our kerosene refrigerator there was a bottle of anti-venom with a syringe for Dad to use if we were bitten. That prospect was about as frightening as a snakebite. My sister, Dorothy, was bitten by a cobra, but she was fortunate to be at the mission station with a hospital. So she got seven doctor-dispensed shots and did not die of the venom as a local child had a week before. Often someone would come running to our home to ask Dad to come slay a deadly serpent (a service he had also provided while serving in India, where I was born, for five years). Once Dad killed a pair of highly-poisonous mambas, a green and a black, that together measured thirteen feet long. He shot them in a tree that I sometimes climbed, in our own front yard where grass was cut low by machete to discourage snakes from coming there. Another time he shot up a nest of so many writhing black snakes in the fork of a tree that they were hard to count. That time he let me help.

There where jungle met civilization, my Father fulfilled the archetypal knightly role, battling both the physical serpent and what the book of Revelation calls the “great dragon [who] was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray." (Revelation 12:9 NIV)

So many memories. Such an amazing life. He was a humble man of modest means in this life...and never complained about it. He waited a long time for his glorious reward. I am grateful to know that, though we ache from the severing, we are assured of his joy and his peace and can hope towards joining him again one day.

I want to close with special thanks, both to those who’ve blessed our family with kind words and deeds and to those who’ve extended grace to me personally. It is times like this when I am reminded not only of the blessed and unusual heritage I have but also of my wonderful friends and family. Your prayers, encouragement and acts of love are greatly appreciated.


Anonymous said...

That is a beautiful tribute. I too am thankful for the wonderful legacy both grandfather's have left. May our children realize the blessing our family is and follow after God with such passion.
It is very evident in your actions and beliefs that you are the grandson of Ralph Coleson and John McCrory and son of Rich & Linda Coleson. I'm truly blessed to be a part of this family.

Asa said...


What an incredible and rich heritage you have been given. Thank you for sharing that with us. Can't wait to meet him personally.

P. Asa

Anonymous said...

Hi Nate,

It is great to get to know your Grandpa through your pen. It's obvious he was an incredible man of God. Thanks for sharing this tribute with us all.



Mo said...

What an incredible story!

Freddy said...

Thanks for the opportunity of getting a brief snapshot of a current day hero of the faith. Its no surprise to me that you would have such a rich heritage behind you brother, it is very evident in who you are. Pass on the baton with humble pride.

fellow soldier in Christ.

Roger said...

I wonder how much better those PB shakes taste to him now.