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Eulogy for Dad, Chuck Plank: 1937-2013

Dad was back at his desk at Plank Equipment briefly during his chemotherapy and radiation treatments in late June or early July.

My dad died July 24 after a bout with cancer and treatment that seemed to strike with the speed of lightning. It was so fast that I'm not sure that I ever fully processed the idea that "Dad is sick." That he's already gone is a little unbelievable.

Dad had a cough, thought to be a persistent cold through the winter. He had pain in his chest, which he thought was perhaps a broken rib from coughing so hard. He had a limp. He was tired and fatigued, which he attributed perhaps to old age and saw as a sign that he needed to slow down. He turned 76 in April and was still at work in the business he started in 1963 at the age of 25. In 2009, Dad sold his farm machine dealership, Plank Implement, but stayed on to manage and continue as salesman. They renamed the business, but because Dad built up such a recognizable and respected brand over nearly half a century, they kept his name and called it Plank Equipment.

Dad loved Plank Implement and I may now only begin to appreciate the time he spent polishing this gem he created and nurtured over the years. He had an innate love of the sale. I don’t think it was about the money, really. He loved the connection he made with the customer, he loved the ability to help a farmer, he would understand their needs and be on the lookout for something for them and call them proactively, to see if what he found might work for them. (I watched him doing this in the time I spent with him in June and July, realizing it was something he had always done, but never until now fully understanding and appreciating what a special touch, what an incredible talent he had.) I’m sure he got a rush from the sale but he got a bigger rush from being able to get the customer what they needed—even if the customer themselves did not even realize they had the need.


My mother called me on Friday, May 17 to tell me some happy news. Dad, she said, was thinking about cutting back on his work a little bit, take a few more days off during the week, maybe not work every Saturday morning. Not retiring exactly, even though he is 76, just scaling back.

I said all the right things to Mom: That sounds good, I said. Glad to hear he is going to take it a little easier.

But this call from Mom was to me probably the most alarming call I received from then to now. Dad cutting back on his work? No, that didn’t sound right. Dad loved what he did and would do it as full-tilt as he could until it was impossible for him. Not to say that Dad didn’t have time for the rest of us. Yes, he loved us all, too, and took time off to see his kids’ families and his grandchildren. But Dad starting a process to pull away from the shop? I couldn’t see it.

And this was when I began to think something was terribly wrong. I told my wife Susan that I was a little afraid to answer the phone from Mom now because I knew for certain that it was going to be about Dad having a heart attack or something.

I didn’t have to wait long for the call I was expecting. It wasn’t a heart attack. But the call came the following Monday, May 20. An X-ray showed a significant mass in Dad’s chest and they were going to Mercy Hospital in Iowa City to get it checked out.

It was cancer. It was lung cancer, the type that non-smokers like Dad got. That was the reason for the persistent cough. That was the reason for the pain in his chest. In subsequent days, we learned the cancer spread widely, including to his bones, which was causing the limp. Yes, they could treat it and treat it aggressively with chemotherapy and radiation, which all sounded like a great idea in early June. But by early July, the assault of treatment took a toll on Dad.

He was ever hopeful he would regain his strength after treatment and almost convinced me that sometimes he was gaining. But eventually, he was so weak he had to move to the nursing home. And even there, he was confident he would regain enough strength to return home. But it was not to be. He died Wednesday, July 24, just over two months from the day I got the call from Mom that Dad was going to cut back on work.

His funeral was Saturday, July 27 in Columbus Junction, Iowa. Here is the eulogy I delivered that day:


My Dad was not a pessimist.

More than that, I am convinced my dad did not know how to be a pessimist.

Here is a man who started a business at the age of 25. Here is a man who in the midst of various farm crises kept this farm machine dealership in business while other shops around him went away. Here is a man who on nights and weekends would rush out to serve a customer, not only without complaint, but gladly.

A pessimist would have too much doubt to start a business so young. A pessimist would have bemoaned their fate at being stuck in a historically difficult economic situation. A pessimist would complain that work was eating into his leisure time. But I never heard Dad do that.

And again, when Dad was diagnosed with cancer in May, he seemed to me to be unable to be pessimistic. Don't get me wrong, he knew it was bad. But the times I've seen him these past couple months, he has been upbeat, positive. I was with him when he learned that the kind of tumors he had were treatable. He smiled. "Good deal," he said. "Real good." It’s kind of the same response he had when he got a good trade-in for an augur he was trying to move.

He planned for tomorrow and beyond every day. A pessimist in his situation might not have. When he was seriously weakened by treatment, he thought: Tomorrow I will be stronger. During his brief stay in the nursing home, he planned to come home tomorrow or the next day. And he was following through with plans to help him get there. When he arranged to have his car in for service this week, he even had a hitch installed—you know, just so he could haul around some “light” machines with his new hybrid car. He had the hitch installed so that it would be ready when he was ready. 

This incident comes very close to the longtime family joke that Dad was so devoted to serving his customers that he would hitch a manure spreader behind the hearse, so he could deliver it to a guy on the way to the cemetery.

Again: He was a realist, he knew what was happening. But he saw no need to be hopeless about it. He was an optimist. Anything can happen, he thought. I’ve run a successful business for 50 years in a sometimes failing, depressed economy. If I can do something that crazy, maybe I can beat this cancer.

It's the attitude of dream big, hitch your wagon to the stars. And of course, you can’t hitch your wagon to the stars unless you get a hitch installed on your wagon. And so Dad did—on the week that he died. Not just optimistic, but totally unable to even see the possibility of being pessimistic.

One Monday morning this summer, I was driving Mom and Dad to Iowa City for Dad's first chemo and radiation treatments. We were all at the house ready to go but did not want to leave too early, so we were just fidgeting, watching time pass. I had my ukulele with me and was noodling around playing nothing in particular and Mom said, "Play something we can all sing!" Well we're not exactly the Von Trapp family, but I obliged and played the first thing that popped into my head. It might seem a little cosmic that I picked this song in the presence of (and in honor of) my ever-positive father and especially before he was about to undergo risky and uncertain treatment. But my song choice is not quite all that cosmic considering it is one of only 10 or 11 songs I know. That morning, the three of us sang along to this song that I now realize sort of defined Dad's outlook. Music by Harold Arlen. Lyrics by Johnny Mercer. It goes like this:


One more thing: Dad, with his inability to be pessimistic—or at least his ability to hide it from me—started Plank Implement in 1963 with his wife (my mother) Connie Plank, his father (my grandfather) Raymond Plank and others. It was a place all three of us kids—Jodie, Andy and I—worked at some point in our lives, whether it was sweeping floors, taking inventory of the parts, painting the exterior, putting together wagons or my favorite, filling the pop machine.

In 2009, when Dad sold the shop and became store manager and salesman, his employees (past and present) and the new owners from Bennett honored him at a party marking the transition. It was great that people who worked with him, respected him and loved him were able to honor Dad that day four years ago.

I will close with this poem I wrote and read for Dad that day:


After nearly fifty years an era now will change

As my dad Chuck has sold his shop and so will now arrange

To cut back on his work some, a feat that I’d expect

To be like saying, “Hey, giraffe, cut back some on your neck!”


Dad opened up Plank Implement when he was 25

I would have liked to see that, but I was not alive

For me, the shop was always there, throughout my childhood

It financed baby shoes and clothes and toys and school and food


I wondered what the dream was that motivated Dad

But his passion never wavered, he always seemed quite glad

To help a farmer broken down in corn or beans or hay

To find the proper part for him, no matter time of day


He put in many hours, from ’63 to now

His pickups traveled graveled miles, often hooked to plows

He bartered, sold, and traded as he talked upon the phone,

“Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm, you bet, bye-bye,” he would intone


On family trips, Dad always slowed way down as we came near

A lot with lots of farm machines. This always gave us fear

’Cause he’d crane his neck, drive off the road, til Mom helped with a shove,

“You know we have the same machines in our back yard, my love.”


I’ve never heard my Dad complain, although he had good reasons:

Farm crises and recessions, dusty droughts and floody seasons

They brought down other dealers, it was an economic blow

And how Dad’s shop survived all that, I really do not know


As a kid, I grew up in the shop, though near the pop machine

Where Grandpa Ray would sometimes sneak a coin to me unseen

And we three kids all took our role in the family works

We built wagons, then we took our separate turns at greasing zerks


I worked there sweeping floors and burning trash and counting parts

(It’s glamorous and I know you all are eating out your hearts.)

Dad also used connections and his influential means

To hook me up with farmers seeking help with walking beans


And though I grew up in the shop, it was a mystery

(And 40-some years later, not a lot has changed, you’ll see)

I didn’t share Dad’s passion for power farm equipment

I preferred the pen to plow and learning what a funny quip meant


Still, I admire what my Dad’s done and what he’s going to do

And though I’m not just like my dad, his DNA comes through

I have an instinct that I’ve fought, though it’s become routine

I must slow down and crane my neck to view lots with farm machines


Thanks, Dad.

And thank you.


Did I really play the ukulele at my Dad’s funeral? Hard for even me to believe that, but I think I did. Yep. I sure did.

And one more thing: Dad was always notoriously hard to buy gifts for. He had no hobbies. If he had a hobby, doing something that he dearly loved, it was selling farm machines and running the farm machine business. Early this year, I knew the 50th anniversary of Dad opening the shop would happen and I wanted to commemorate it—or be a part of the commemoration—in some way.

Throwing a party, doing an open house? Yeah, that could be done and he might like it, but it would interfere with work and he’d probably have to rush off in the middle to deliver an augur to Yarmouth and drop off a ticket in Wyman and circle back over by Ainsworth to pick up a guy’s used hay rake that he thought he could make a deal on. It would only be fitting that such a thing would happen, but it would defeat the purpose of throwing the party.

The 50th anniversary of Dad opening the shop came and went in February and I still didn’t have a good idea. But his birthday was coming in April and I finally had an idea of not only how to mark 50 years but how to get Dad a present he might like.

Here is the photo collage poster we made for Dad to mark 50 years in business. It includes clippings from the 1963 Columbus Gazette. There are also photos from 2009 when Dad sold the business.

When Dad opened the shop in 1963, there were news briefs about it and ads Dad bought in our local newspaper, The Columbus Gazette. I knew this because as a kid, I often looked at these old newspapers our family saved, which even then seemed like pieces of ancient history, though they were only 10 or 15 years old at the time. So in March, I asked Mom where she was keeping those papers. Turns out, they were so worn out and unreadable that they were thrown out when Mom and Dad moved from Columbus City to Columbus Junction back in the early 1990s.

So I made a trip to the Gazette, a place I worked as a reporter in the 1980s, found the bound volumes and found the old news stories and ads. I took photos of the old newspapers and combined them into a collage I made to finally commemorate—a couple of months late—the 50th anniversary of the shop.

Dad’s birthday was April 21. I gave him the wrapped 18x24-inch framed photo collage when he was in Des Moines April 18 to see two of his grandkids play in the Iowa Jazz Championships. “You got me a furnace filter!” he said, as he put the large, flat package in the trunk of his car.

He did manage to retrieve it from the trunk and open it a few days later on his birthday—I thought I might have to remind him to go find it—and was pleased. “I’ll be darned, heckuva deal,” he might have said.

On April 21, when Dad turned 76, we had no idea what the coming months would bring. I didn’t make the collage because we all knew Dad only had three months left. Heck, if I knew Dad only had three months left, I would have found another way to spend the time than making a collage he only had a very little time to enjoy.

Here is the May 1, 2013 front page of the Columbus Gazette, which included the story marking Dad and Mom's 50 years in business.

I’m glad not only that I made the gift for him, but that it made others around him recognize the significance of what Dad did. My high school English teacher, Mary Masonholder Wilson, who helped teach me to write well enough to work for The Columbus Gazette, now has my old job at The Gazette, as reporter. She greeted me with hugs the day I came in March 17 and showed me to the bound volumes. And in April, when I gave that gift to Dad and Mom was showing it around town, Mary found out about Dad’s 50th anniversary and did a front page, above-the-fold story about it and about our gift to him.

So in the end, we did end up making a big deal out of Dad’s 50th anniversary. At any time in his life, I would have been pleased he received this fitting tribute. That he received it in what turned out to be the last months of his life, before it was too late, makes me especially proud of him and happy for him.

I just wish he was still here to hear him on the phone doing what he loved, closing the sale and ending the call, as he did from the time I was a child on our white rotary home phone to the time I was driving him to chemotherapy on his flip cell phone, in the same clipped cadence of his often imitated, yet inimitable style:

“Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm, you bet, bye-bye.”

Larger version of the 50th anniversary photo collage poster.

Direct link to the Columbus Gazette front page (larger).

Dad's obituary from the Muscatine Journal.

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