by Sydney Bender
Dick was a man who looked like everyone’s grandpa. He was as skinny as a stick and had straw-thick eyebrows that coiled like string. I first met him in 2011, at a mid-July backyard birthday party for Jeff, his grandson, a handsome guy with a friendly face.
Jeff’s party fell on a sunny but gusty afternoon, uncharacteristic of the typical, unbearably sticky days of that summer. Dick was sitting behind the grill in a chair next to his wife. I walked over to him and said hello; he smiled and gestured for me to sit.
There wasn’t a chair. But I pretended there was, and crouched down next to his oxygen tank. Dick’s eyes were the same baby-doll blue as my own grandfather’s, his skin was dove-white with a tinge of vanilla. He held my hand with both of his, didn’t shake it but said nice to meet you. From across the yard my eyes met Jeff’s. He tilted his head and smiled.
Dick had a wry sense of humor that only a handful-and-a-half of people can pull off. His banter was sharp from years at sea as a maritime engineer. A little league umpire on the Island for five decades, his voice was gravelly and gruff like his hands, coarse like sandpaper from years of woodcarving.
But everything else about him was soft, especially his smile. Dick smiled a lot. He volunteered at his church and described the act of washing dishes at community suppers as pure joy. Dick’s favorite part of any meal was dessert and pie at his house was always served with more than one scoop of ice cream.
Dick knew a lot about ice cream. In 1967, he built the original Dairy Queen in Edgartown. He ran the business for 20 years before selling it, but took with him hundreds of stories to share for decades after. Once, when a fallen chimney caused the Old Whaling Church to close for a month, Dick offered the parish his ice cream shop so the congregation could have a place to meet.
His life was a lot like that of the New York City pushcart peddler who invented the ice cream sandwich in 1899: he brought something new to a community and he did so with charisma.
Dick was 97 almost 98 but looked nearly 70 on the last day of his life.
Last December, at his funeral, people stood up inside the Old Whaling Church and shared behind-the-counter stories from the Dairy Queen days. Serving the first cones of the season, the all-you-can-eat-while-you-work ice cream—it was anecdotes like those that shaped the emotions of everyone in the room.
Jeff and I held hands the entire time, two of his holding one of mine. You’re a lot like your grandfather, I told him after the service. I hadn’t realized it before, but that day I noticed, even though Dick was gone, his legacy trailed behind Jeff like a kite.
If Dick had lived for just six more months, he would have been able to watch me walk down the aisle and marry his grandson.
The beginning of my relationship with Jeff came in the form of a red and yellow Dairy Queen paper cup of mint Oreo ice cream. He gave it to me only a few hours after we were introduced—it was undeniably sweet, and absolutely something Dick would have done.