My Uncle Darrell Ivan Leap recently passed on to glory. Let me set the stage for you: Darrell accomplished much in his 78 years on earth. He was raised, with my father Keith and my uncle Karl, in rural West Virginia, on a small family farm. From humble beginnings he became a well educated world traveler. He served for a time in the US Navy, doing oceanographic mapping of the Persian Gulf. He was an expert in hydrogeology, ground water, and worked on some of the Nevada nuclear weapons test sites,analyzing the effects of blasts on underground water. The Navy never left him, and he loved recounting stories of it. He was a professor emeritus of geology at Purdue University and a consultant to communities on the effects of toxic waste. He sang in Bach Chorales, played the piano, composed and published music and always loved working with tools. Appalachia never left him; so much so that in the end my dear aunt, his wife Myra, helped him take online tours of his hometown and environs. The following is the tribute I wrote for him. I was unable to attend his funeral. (Unfortunately, emergency medicine is job where schedules are difficult to change. More on that in another post.) This was read by the pastor who gave the service.
I remember Uncle Darrell from very early in my childhood. Darrell was a kind of mythic
figure to me. He was always off on an adventure and he always brought interesting things back to show me
at Grandma Leap’s house, on Grapevine Road in Huntington, WV. I still have Maracas and an African letter opener he
gave to me many years ago. I recall a time when he came home and was completely exhausted from travel, but we stayed
up as long as he could keep his eyes open, putting together a model engine in the dim, small kitchen in
Grandma’s house. He represented many things to me as a child: courage, learning, the exotic and the
benefits of hard academic work. ‘Take more math,’ was his endless mantra. Sorry Darrell, it just didn’t
click. More on that later.
One of my favorite things of all was to sit and listen, quietly, while my dad, Keith, Darrell and
Karl (of blessed memory as well) would sit and discuss their memories, or world events. I just wanted
to be like them. Strong and capable, men among men. Menschen, in Yiddish; men of of honor and
integrity. Together they ever inspired to greatness.
Fast forward and I was on summer break after my junior year in high school when Darrell took
me on a field trip with his geology students from Purdue. He brought me to Indiana where we prepped
for the trip. Then, for two wonderful weeks of 16-year-old freedom, I was among college students in
hotels and dorms, wandering alone around the wilds of Montana while they worked on projects and
I tried to avoid rattlesnakes, and ate Vienna Sausages alone on hillsides over rushing streams. Heaven
must look a little like that; at least to a boy.
Life moved on. Darrell married the love of his life, Myra, my treasured Aunt. I found a girl,
Jan, and we were married. Darrell and Myra were always welcoming to Jan as my wife, and to us as a
couple. And when, in due course, children were born to us, they were always excited for our new
additions, always curious and encouraging.
As the children have grown into near adulthood, Darrell remained a figure who loomed large in
their lives. He gave them his collected recollections and genealogical material, with which to anchor
themselves in time, place and history. And he always asked them about their interests, or was leading them
into his. We still have rock hammers and hand lenses he and Myra sent. Darrell’s life, whether as Naval
officer, researcher on nuclear test sites or academic has always inspired my three sons and one
daughter. I recall going over some photos once and our daughter Elysa said: ‘Is there anything else
incredible he did you haven’t told me about?’ In fact, our youngest son, Elijah, has made it his life’s
work to exceed Darrell in mathematics, and has always been terrified that he wouldn’t be able to take
differential equations and thus at least match his great-uncle. Darrell’s status as a professor emeritus
fills Elijah with awe, as an aspiring academic himself. And don’t get me started on the harpsichord
Darrell built, which all of my children find fascinating, but especially our very musical son, Seth. Sam,
Seth, Elijah and Elysa viewed their great-uncle Darrell as an inspiration and a joy, and always looked
forward to visits with him; he was a story teller, like all Appalachians, and he loved sharing them with
Perhaps one of our best memories of Darrell was the time, several years ago, when we met
Myra and him at their cabin in Colorado. It was a brief time of hikes and meals and board games,
when we slept in the cool mountain air after the generator shut off the power and there was perfect
darkness. Maybe he liked to pretend he was a pioneer. We all certainly loved the experience.
Alas, you are here to honor him in has passage. I am not, because my work in the emergency
room will not allow me to leave. I will blame Darrell for encouraging my academic life. (You can
When I told my first-born, Samuel, that Darrell had died, he texted back: ‘Don’t worry Papa,
you’ll see him again.’ Indeed. I am confident that I will see him in glory; but I will have to seek him
out among heavenly mountain rock faces, or in the choirs angelic, or as he walks along with Bach and
discusses music. And he will be vibrant and whole as always. And forever.
Uncle Darrell was a man among men. And he lived life fully; the physical life, the life of the
mind, the life of family, the life of faith, and in his love for Myra, in the life of the heart.
I will miss him. But I will look forward to our reunion. As I hope all of you will.