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Pastor Phil Sheets Shares His Eulogy for Dick Young

The area's greatest known conservationist was laid to rest Thursday.

I’ve known, loved, and deeply respected Dick Young during these years I’ve been here in Oswego – he was always gentle and courteous to me, and I was grateful and proud to have him as a steady presence here in the pews on Sunday mornings — as Linda reminded me on Monday, pretty much every time that Dick entered this sanctuary he would say, It’s beautiful in here.

Or I think how wonderful it was to have him stand next to Marine Josh Horton, just a year ago, by the William Shoger window – Josh cheerfully stiff and straight in his dress uniform and Dick there with his purple heart, won – TWICE–won, actually – at Iwo Jima .… Although my favorite memory of Dick comes from the west side of the Fox, at the sod-roof house.

I was there just once, on a warm day a few years ago, and he took me on a tour through the house that ended, of course, on the roof. I remember his great pride as he pointed across the street and said Pastor, this house has had THIS roof for fifty years – and in that same time, that house over THERE has had to have THREE roofs!

That was the man I knew. And on Monday, I met with three of Dick’s children – Dave was still on his way from Colorado – and learned about the man I had not known: the man who was not just caring and gentle, but a devoted lover of his wife, family, church, community and country; a brave soldier, a skilled, hard-working contractor, and a far-seeing community leader and environmentalist.

Born in Aurora on Oct 27, 1924, Richard N. Young was the third son born to his parents, Dwight and Esther Sprague Young.  Raised along the banks of the Fox River, and back in the years when a car going down the road was a relatively rare sight, Dick developed an instinctive love of nature, which was nourished even more when he became a Boy Scout. Throughout his life, anything Dick chose to do he did full throttle, so as a Scout he of course became an Eagle scout.

When America went to war in 1941, so did Dick. He joined the Marines and fought in the battle of Iwo Jima – as did another local man who later became a good friend, Art DeVol. Dick was part of the company that raised the FIRST flag on Mount Suribachi, an achievement later eclipsed by the famous image of the second flag raising. During the 34 day battle Dick was wounded once, sent back into the fight, and then wounded a second time by a grenade that landed in his foxhole. When he got to the hospital ship it was discovered that his weight had gone from 150 to 97 pounds, due to the hardships and hazards of the battle. He received a hard-won purple heart for his service.

Dick had first met Charlene Schultz when she was in sixth grade and he was in high school – he thought she was nice enough but he took no more notice than that since, at that age, four years difference is like the grand canyon. But when Dick returned from service, and attended North Central College, the four years difference had become just a creek.

Charlene was asked out by Wayne Sanderson, a date from HS, who doubled with Richard and his date – but the evening wasn’t that old when Dick – a seasoned Marine veteran now - pulled Wayne aside and said that they were switching dates. Charlene too began attending North Central and they were married in 1948 at First Presbyterian in Oswego. In the next few years, Dick received a degree in biological science, and the Youngs started attending Good Shepherd where Charlene became the organist for many, many years. The children began making their appearance: David, Carol, Linda and finally Tim. Dick built the family’s first home along the Fox, and then the second one with the sod roof, in 1958.

Dick spent most of his working life as a contractor and stone mason. He helped build a number of homes and structures in the Oswego area, including the Oswego Fire station and the former Traughber Jr high; the Yorkville bank and an addition on the old Dryer clinic bordering our parking lot. In later years he taught son-in-law Keith Johnson how to lay stone, and Dick’s grandson Greg continues in the construction business.

At this point, I want to read directly from the essay that Carol wrote about her father and was kind enough to share with me, in which she gives many details of her father’s service to our area as an environmentalist and community leader.

As his children told me on Monday, there was a prankster side to their father – and sitting in the Johnson kitchen, next to the Fox River that Dick had worked so hard to preserve and protect, we talked about the memorable days over thirty years ago when Dick was frequently assumed to be the Fox, the notorious environmental awareness guerilla.

Dick was not the Fox, but he did work with him. Charlene found Dick’s involvement with the Fox embarrassing and worse, but we forget that in those days environmental protection legislation was nearly non-existent, and it was hard to stop companies from turning the Fox into a sewer. So Dick and the Fox set out with their cans and jars and barrels of toxic waste to give the companies a taste of their own medicine. Or Dick and the Fox would sometimes deliberately clog up the offending pipes – and since the companies denied their dumping, they were hard pressed to take legal action.

On at least one occasion the two of them were going to put a cap on an industrial outlet pipe that that company insisted didn’t exist - but the heavyset Fox fell in, to his armpits, and Dick had to pull him out.

Dick enjoyed these escapades, but his real agenda was to get laws changed so that industry had to respect the river and the environment – an agenda that resulted in a Fox river and numerous forest preserves that we can all be proud of and enjoy.

Dick was a workaholic; if he wasn’t building something, he was always going back to school, or wandering in the woods by himself or with family members. He literally didn’t stay on the beaten path; he would spot a flower or something else interesting off in the woods and make sure that he and whoever was with him at the moment checked it out.  

Tim remembers when Dad was first learning about the plants he would later write about, and if he was driving and saw an interesting flower he’d slam on the brakes, put the car in reverse, and go and examine the plant. He knew the Latin names for plants and birds, especially plants, and if you asked Dick the name of a plant you’d better be sure first that you had time to hear the answer, and be prepared to learn everything there was to know about that plant.

At the same time, Dick DID care about people at least as much as he did about nature. If his kids – and later, this would be true for the grandkids too – if  someone had a concert or track meet he was there. He and Charlene wanted their offspring to be the best they could be, at whatever their pursuit du jour happened to be.

But he was not a slave driver. One Christmas in the early 60’s Dick had made stilts for all four kids – he finished them on Christmas Eve and insisted that the kids stay up late and try them out right then – so Christmas morning came a little later that year. Or another time, when the Forest Preserve had built a sledding hill at the Harris Forest preserve, he took Tim along to try it out. The ascent was an icy one, so Dick said he’d better go first – he laid down on the sled, shoved off, and sure enough the hill was fast, bumpy and dangerous. Within a half minute Dick was a black speck in the distance, calling back to Tim that he was going to have to walk all the way back after all.

And while Dick Young was very focused on his family and community, he had a heart for the larger world as well. For instance, during the 1968 riots in Chicago, Dick and Art DeVol – with the help of a Chicago pastor – made three separate trips in a station wagon full of donated food, first to the outskirts of the riot area, and then after things calmed down, directly into a devastated neighborhood.

Charlene’s death from cancer in 1987 was very hard on all the family, and on Dick most of all. He missed her always these last 24 years, and as a family member said this week, “I had a great sense of peace on Sunday night because I knew that, at long last, Dick and Char were together again – our family was whole again.”

Dick Young was fearless and courageous, not just at Iwo Jima but through all the years that have followed. As was said on Monday, “We were never afraid when we were with our father.” And that was true in the public arena as well. Dick wasn’t afraid to express his opinion – if he felt you were wrong he let you know it. There were people who opposed him, but for the most part people respected his knowledge and what he stood for.

He lived by a code of treating others with respect, but he could laugh at himself as well, a lesson he taught his family – that you have to be able to take it AND dish it out.    

Because Dick loved the environment and held the community and its business interests to task, he was often necessarily out spoken.  But he was also private in many ways and didn’t like being quoted in the paper. He wanted things to change but didn’t need to take the credit for that.

On Monday, our church office sent an e-blast to our congregation alerting them both to Dick Young’s passing and to how they could donate to relief to the victims of the Japanese earthquakes. One of our members commented to me wonderingly how Dick and his comrades had fought with everything they had on Iwo Jima – and now, on the day of his passing, we were soliciting relief for the Japanese people.

How things can change – how amazing that bitter enemies can become friends, how ironic that the companies who would despoil the river can later trumpet their environmental awareness. And at least in our area, Dick Young was a major force in that change – and his monument isn’t just a clean river or rescued woodland, but the legacy of a great heart that made a difference for the better, in every life he touched.

Pat Torrance March 21, 2011 at 02:36 PM
This is such a beautiful article and tribute to a great man. Thank you so much for writing it. I knew Dick Young and knew of some of the wonderful things he was responsible for. But, he was so modest that he never talked about himself. He was one of the finest men we could have the privilege to know. He left a lasting legacy that will benefit all of us and our future generations forever.

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