"I heard the Fire Chief say your name earlier, and Gladney isn't a common name. Are you by any chance related to the Gladneys who were in construction?"
The preceding quote is from a white-haired gentleman who introduced himself to me last week after an awards ceremony for Champaign firefighters. He'd worked alongside my dad and uncles doing construction work in the community and around Illinois, and asked after a few of them: Lewis, Joe and Paul. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that Joe and Lewis were both deceased, and that uncle Paul wasn't doing too well. He seemed genuinely sorry to hear that.
The aforementioned encounter is one I have more frequently than you might imagine. It occurred again just this past Sunday, at a dinner party. It was one of those occasions where everyone was wearing a name tag and, early on in the evening, an older man walked-up, read my name tag and asked if I happened to know a Gene Gladney (Gene is uncle Paul's actual first name). "Yes," I replied, "He's my uncle." The man smiled and said he knew him from way back when, and asked how he was doing. "Not well," I shrugged. "He's had cancer for awhile, and it's getting the better of him lately."
Early the next morning, my uncle Paul was dead.
Last night, before the start of the council meeting, a member of city staff approached me and offered their condolences regarding Paul's passing. This, along with several other occasions -- including one earlier this year when, upon discovering that I was the nephew of Jim, remarked that, "Any friend of Jim Gladney is a friend of mine" -- is proof of the positive impact and legacy that those who came before me, who bore my surname with pride, had on so many people in the community.
Whenever I'm asked why I ran for, and serve on, Champaign City Council, there are a myriad of reasons I can (and typically do) respond with. One I don't often mention -- perhaps because it is so personal -- is that my Gladney family moved to this area to make a better life for themselves, and worked hard to make their success a reality. They contributed so much blood, sweat, tears, pride and joy to this area that I am honored to carry their name, and feel that it's only right that I do something to contribute, as well.
Uncle Paul was one of those hard-working Gladney men. His home on Kirby Ave. in Champaign was beautiful inside and out, and that was pretty much down to him. His craftsman skills were superb. Construction is something my uncles did well (alas, I did not inherit the gene), and to this day there are roads, buildings and structures in Champaign County that were built with the help of Gladney hands. Paul was also a University of Illinois police officer, and a good, caring family man.
I remember the Gladney Christmas dinners we used to have, first at aunt Charlease's house, then later at Paul and Vilda's abode. They were often jovial, sometimes raucous occasions, with the Gladney brothers holding court about various topics ranging from the origin of the AIDS virus to politics to Ray Charles. If -- if -- there is an afterlife, I imagine that dad, uncle Joe and aunt Odessa have already welcomed their sibling, and are having a laugh about things, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, as they should be.