Some folks vie for your attention. Some of these people are called influencers—and if you can get into the racket, it pays. Multi-national corporations will not only give you free stuff, they’ll pay you to show it off on social media channels.
That’s how some people make their living these days, but to be fair about it, they’re only living in the world we’ve all made. People want to be seen, is what we hear, and that’s true, but we’ve also found ways to monetize the attention we receive, and a glare or a look of bewildered disbelief pays as much as considered reflection. You can enjoy a good living if the only thing you ever make is scenes.
But I got a letter the other day about a man I wish I’d known.
His name is James Wallace Chancellor. Everyone knew him as Jay, and as far as I can tell he never tried to get anyone to look at him. He never made much of a digital footprint. He didn’t have a Facebook account. He didn’t tweet. He never chased eyeballs or clicks. If you go scraping around the Internet looking for evidence of him, you’ll only find a few scant scraps.
Most of those were in his obituary.
Jay died Feb. 19, unexpectedly, though he was 87 years old. He was born exactly two months before my father. He was of a generation of men that I know well, born just too late to have served in World War II. Jay was a grownup when I was a little kid, he was married the year before I was born, and he’s survived by his wife of 65 years, Darlene. I’ve known guys like him all my life. As I grew up, most of them grew old.
I think Darlene has a Facebook account, but she’s never posted anything on it, which I take as a sign of character. My best guess is that she never looks at that account, though I tried to contact her through it. A few years ago, I would have picked up the phone and called her, and if this was the kind of column where I was blowing the lid off something you really need to know about, I for sure would have. But it’s not that kind of column. I don’t have to disturb her, so I won’t.
Anyway, I’ve been told about Jay by people who aren’t vying for your attention either—people who wanted you to know about their friend, and the way he lived his life, but didn’t want to call attention to themselves in the process. Not because they’re shy, but because they don’t want their stories to get in the way of the story that Jay never told on himself.
Jay was born in Caney—the one in Hot Springs County, not the one in Independence County or the one in Nevada County or the one in Faulkner County. His family moved to California where he graduated from Gardena High School in Harbor Gateway, part of southern Los Angeles a little north and inland from the port city of San Pedro.
They are some famous people who graduated from this school, including Dock Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher who once threw a no-hitter while on LSD. Butch Patrick, who played Eddie on “The Munsters,” went there. So did comedian D.L. Hughey and Vincent Hichiro Okamoto, an Army Ranger and the most highly decorated Japanese American soldier to serve in Vietnam before becoming a judge and being featured in Ken Burns’ Vietnam war documentary series.
When Jay graduated from high school, he joined the National Guard. He put in his service, married Darlene, came back to Arkansas and began to put his carpentry skills to good use.
He built houses all over Hot Springs County. Good houses, true and tight. A lot of them are still standing, still providing shelter and comfort, still mattering to the folks who live in them even if they couldn’t tell you anything about the man who built them.
A house speaks for itself. It’s meant to outlast the memory of its builder, even as it carries part of that craftsman, the architect, forward into the future. You don’t always think about who laid your foundation, but it’s only the good houses that are taken for granted.
Jay and Darlene had two sons, and both followed their father into the trade. Their youngest had a daughter, Cheryl Ann. She was born in September 1966 with cerebral palsy, contracted bronchopneumonia in March 1969, and died.
Hard things sometimes change people. It can make them bitter. There are times we might want to burn down hospitals, to rage against the people who would console us by insisting it’s all part of some plan devised by something greater than ourselves, by an overarching cosmic intelligence too great for us to imagine.
But faith is a gift that Jay had. He commissioned a tombstone with an engraved lamb—a symbol of innocence—and carried on. He was a lifelong member of Caney Missionary Baptist Church, a deacon who used his construction skills to build churches. He taught Sunday School. He was private, but friendly.
“He never met a stranger,” his obituary writer wrote.
He hunted and fished and played golf and sometimes drove around the county checking on the houses he had built. He liked people.
He didn’t vie for anyone’s attention.
He didn’t have a presence on YouTube or Instagram where he’d unbox the latest hard-to-acquire running shoe. He never gave a thought to his personal brand.
But he was an influencer, nonetheless.
Jay Chancellor would do what needed to be done; he’d drive a little girl to Nashville, Tenn., if her daddy got sick and couldn’t take her. People who would just as soon I not use their names remember how his kindnesses—some small, some not so small—helped shape them into the people they are today: People who create things that the whole world watches or hears, people who run companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars. People who say they wouldn’t be the people they are had it not been for this man they receive as a second father—the great influencer on their lives.
One of the strange things about our world is that while people like Jay Chancellor are remarkable, they are not rare. Like talent, they populate our small towns and rural precincts as well as our coastal cultural capitals. You can miss them because they don’t vie for our attention, but without them, without the foundation they provide, the whole thing collapses.