The first 4-H Wagon Train committee in 1982 had 80 people on 8 subcommittees and George Horner was one of the first Teamsters. Every year he helped to plan the event and participated for an estimated 25 years. My only connection to George is the wagon he drove for all those years is the wagon I’ll be borrowing this year, and I’ve heard a lot of stories about him. George died on January 25, 2017 at 96 years old.
In order to get a better understanding of the 4-H Wagon Train experience and meet others who knew George through wagon train, I semi-crashed George’s memorial service last Saturday. I wasn’t fully crashing because I knew a few Teamsters who were there to honor George. It was still a tiny bit awkward, but by the time the service concluded I felt like I knew him. I wished I’d known him. From the back of a packed church, I listened as a representative from every dimension of George’s life shared poignant memories of a long life, filled with family, friendships, community service, coaching, church and choir and so much more. He was an inspiration to everyone who knew him, across the board, and he was obviously a man who knew how to bring people together and get things done.
When did George have time for all of this? Where did he find the energy? How did he so completely connect with every person in his life? Then I remember, he made things happen before cell phones, texts, emails, and the proliferation of Facebook and all the other social media. When George joined the first committee organized to plan the first 4-H Wagon Train, a long distance call was to the next county, meeting minutes were handwritten and letters were typed – maybe the typewriter was electric – and if you wanted to make a copy you used carbon paper. The way people connected was directly, by spending time together, having face-to-face conversations, in a world that did not measure itself by bandwidth and megabits. Anyone under the age of 45 probably thinks I’m kidding – no cellphone phones!
The last group to speak at George’s service was the “horse people,” who were all seated together, front and center of the church. I see these guys working horses and mules on a fairly regular basis, wearing mostly dirt, so I was immediately moved by their dapper appearances. They also got to the church early, judging from the place they were sitting. They were indeed there to show their greatest respect to George as one of their own.
It was clear from all that was said about George during the service, before Lyle Spiesschaert stepped up to speak for the Teamsters, that George’s passion for horses was known but not well-understood by the non-horse people in attendance. This wasn’t a room full of horse people – we even didn’t make it onto the program for the memorial. But George so thought of himself as a horseman that he penned his own gravestone, “Father, Musician, Horseman.” Of all the connections in the room, the Teamsters were the outsiders. So, when Wayne Beckwith joined Lyle at the pulpit and told the attendees he was going to lead us in singing “The Garbage Song,” I held my breath. Wayne explained that George led the singing of this song every night of the wagon train – George changed the verses to tell the story of all of the adventures on the trail each day and the group faithfully sang the chorus.
Uh oh, I thought, this isn’t going to go well. I wondered how many people actually knew the chorus or would sing it and I thought it would fall flat. Wayne sang the first verses he’d written to honor George… then there was one beat of silence… and then many, many, many voices joined in the chorus,
“Roll on you wagons roll on,
Roll on you wagons roll on,
We’re in this together and we leave at dawn,
Roll on you wagons roll on.”
That was a magical moment for me – proof that George had indeed connected everyone in the room, to himself and to each other, in life and in song. George Horner will live on in the many connections he created, a lesson for me and anyone else who wonders about their place and purpose in this crazy world.
In the early years of 4-H Wagon Train, the trip was a unique opportunity for outdoor appreciation and adventure, but spending time together on the trail was a natural extension of everyday life. Today, particularly in Oregon, outdoor appreciation and adventure is an extension of our everyday lives and the quest for respite from the frenetic pace we set for ourselves. The unique opportunity of the wagon train today is for the connections, and the singing still inspired by George, and that’s definitely something I’m looking forward to on my wagon train journey.
Next Week: Other Pioneers of 4-H Wagon Train