Arthur Lear in 1962, after being named America’s Truck Driver of the Year.

As I left my grandparents’ house on the lake in June 1995, I looked in my rearview mirror to see Papa standing there, solemnly watching me leave, his image dwindling as I drove farther away.

I smiled bittersweetly, happy with the time he and I shared. And sad, because I knew that week, like the image I saw in that mirror, would soon fade into increasingly-distant memory.

Four months later, my parents and I learned that Arthur Lear had two months to live, due to a rapidly-spreading cancer. The night of Jan. 1, 1996, Papa breathed his last, at home in Holden surrounded by family, as Dad and I held each of his hands.

A rare shot of me with my grandfather, circa 1983.

Arthur, born March 29, 1923 in the town where he ultimately died, would be turning 100 about now. His twin sister Arline came out strong, but Arthur was deemed stillborn. His body was placed behind the stove, wrapped in a blanket, as burial options were considered.

Then a cry came from behind that fireplace. Papa’s life had begun.

It wasn’t an easy upbringing. Arthur was a year old when his father left Maine; they never saw each other again. Arline was killed in 1929 when struck by an automobile. An inset of Arthur’s 12-year-old face appeared in the Bangor Daily News in 1935, in front of a photo of his stepfather, shown smoking a cigarette and sporting a bloodied bandage after being shot in the arm during a robbery.


My grandfather “jumped behind a tree as the men fired at his father,” the paper reported.

Arthur married Jane Avery on Halloween 1941, and after helping to build Liberty Ships in Portland at the start of World War II, he joined the Navy. They had three kids.

In the post-war years he drove for the St. Johnsbury Trucking Co. During a lunch break in June 1961, when he pulled up aside the Penobscot River after completing a run in Old Town, he saw a teenager struggling in the current. Arthur dove in and pulled the youth to shore.

The rescue was “just one of those things,” Papa said, according to an Associated Press report published in the June 20, 1962 Lewiston Daily Sun. He neglected to tell many people about the incident, not wanting the swimming area to be closed.

Arthur Lear served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Like his great-grandfather and son — William A. Lear in 1888 and Alan Arthur Lear in 1997 — Arthur had rescued someone from drowning. He was named America’s Truck Driver of the Year in 1962, earning him a trip to New York, photo op with Maine dignitaries like Margaret Chase Smith and Ed Muskie, and spots on TV shows like “To Tell the Truth.”

Maine Trucking News published an eight-page photo spread about the whole experience, titled “I Just Use Common Sense” — a line from Arthur about how he navigated life.


I didn’t know much about this growing up. Papa was a gruff, tough, cigarette-smoking guy. Being shorter in stature, he made up in guts and wiry strength what he lacked in height.

One of my early memories of him was sitting on his knee one Easter, as he bragged of how King Arthur had actually been named after him. I enjoyed hearing him sing “Peter Cottontail.” I bristled when he sat down with me and my coloring books and crayoned Mickey Mouse’s ears yellow.

I used to spend a week each summer with Papa and Goo-Goo on Chemo Pond (pronounced chee-mo), up in Clifton. Unaware in my preteen years the value of being on a lake in Maine’s warmest months, I was sometimes bored. I’d watch Papa sit in a chair by the lake with arms and legs folded, staring out for great lengths of time. I had no idea what could hold his attention for so long.

Arthur Lear poses in 1962 on Capitol Hill with members of Maine’s Congressional delegation. From left are Rep. Clifford McIntire, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Lear and his wife Jane, and Sen. Edmund Muskie.

It was, ironically, something in my grandparents’ outhouse that spurred some interest — Papa’s moldered copies of ’60s-’70s National Geographic magazines. A lifelong history buff, I enjoyed those magazines. Recognizing this, Papa gave me his entire collection — hundreds of copies that for the most part had thankfully lived on bookshelves and not in wooden lavatories.

Missing among this hoard was a 1988 issue sporting a holographic cover that I’d seen around my grandparents’ house. Papa had either lost or given away his copy, but he managed to hunt another down in time for Christmas.

As special as that magazine was, the best part was the card attached. Whereas all birthday and holiday cards had been signed by Goo-Goo, this one was proudly penned by him.


Papa had a few favorite sayings, like “number than a pounded thumb,” “a fool and his money are soon parted” (which he’d deliver each time I returned from the comic book store), “I guess maybe,” and “sit down, you’re making me nervous.”

When we sat down together once, he smiled and jabbed a punch into my arm — which I knew, while it smarted, was Papa’s tough-guy version of love.

Arthur Lear loved being on the water, whether it was fishing, jet-skiing, or snoozing.

One summer, tearing around the lake in our respective jet skis, Papa and I idled up Blackman Stream to the historic Leonard’s Mills. He suggested we pull up on shore and visit, at which I initially balked.

Perhaps the tourists found it strange to see a waterlogged septuagenarian and teenager strolling around with lifejackets on, but Papa didn’t care. Because of that, I could look past my youthful awkwardness and enjoy a special moment.

I was an avid swimmer, which Papa — who himself could move rapidly underwater, which probably helped that day in ’62 — could appreciate. Whenever I’d ask him if I could go swimming, he’d nod, adding playfully, “just don’t get wet.”

I once swam across the lake and back, with Papa accompanying me via jet ski in case I got tired. I appreciated his help, but maybe not the choppy waves and gasoline-infused waters as he protectively drove circles around me.


We bonded during my week there in 1995. I finally had my license and a car, and Papa seemed proud to see me becoming an adult. I no longer watched him sit out there by himself, but went down to join him. I might not have been into hunting and fishing like he was, nor was he into superheroes and existential topics like I was. But somehow we met in the middle, and spoke with a fluidity that belied our age difference. We appreciated each other’s perspectives.

Later that summer, I’d managed to find two copies of a March 1923 National Geographic. I was pleased to place one in Papa’s hands — a way of thanking him for snagging me that 1988 edition.

It was brutal that autumn to learn, after two months of Papa complaining of headaches and ultimately being dragged to the doctor, that he had terminal lung cancer that had spread to his brain.

“What am I going to do for the next 60 days?,” he asked about the time remaining in his life. My parents and I, stunned by having just heard the prognosis, stood around his bed.

I choked back tears. I’d finally gotten to know him, and now I was going to lose him.

My parents shuffled out of the room when it was time to head home. Papa called out, asking me to turn off his bedside lamp.


I did so, then turned toward the door, my heart heavy.

Arthur Lear when I knew him best, circa 1995.

“Alex,” he said. “You’re OK.”

“You are, too,” I whimpered back.

“Now get outta here,” Papa replied, with customary faux gruffness.

I’ve been told “I love you” many times. But that “OK” ranks high on the list.

“He did the best with what he had to work with,” Dad often said of his father, recalling his sometimes chaotic upbringing. But there was a tenderness about Papa that gets me to this day. I never knew anyone who conveyed so much by saying so little.


I often think back to that man in my rearview mirror. It’s a reflection of losing him at 17, when I’m now 44 — many miles from that moment.

But I’m grateful for that final summer I had with him. Blessed for getting to love my grandfather as a friend.

What I’d give for one more jab in the arm.

Alex Lear edits the Sun Journal’s Opinion pages. His 6-year-old daughter Alaina is the fourth in a line of Lears with the initials A.L.

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