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Putting in a Good Word

February 1, 2006

I am frequently asked to serve as a reference for people applying for jobs and to write letters of recommendation for applicants to college or to seminary. Often these request come with a comment such as, “Please put in a good word for me.”

We have all heard the adage, “If you can’t think of something good to say about a person, say nothing at all.” The saying is folk wisdom that bears heeding. However, remaining silent when we could say something positive can be condemning. The practice of affirmation, speaking an uplifting word about others, requires deliberate effort. We are so easily tempted to criticize and to yield to gossip. Putting in a good word builds up instead of tearing down another.

            Twenty years ago, I drove to Tennessee with my eighty-year-old great uncle Hugh. Uncle Hugh was my grandfather’s brother. His request was simply put, “Kirk, I’d like to go see my cousins one more time before I die.” Uncle Hugh had three living first cousin, all in their eighties, all older than he. I took a tape recorder on the trip and obtained about six to eight hours of recordings of these four octogenarians talking about their family, remembering their grandfather who was my great, great grandfather. 

My great, great grandfather was Major Hugh Neely.  He was a large man with a full reddish gray beard. When I was young, I fancied him as a hero of the Confederacy, but I  learned from his octogenarian grandchildren that Major was not a military rank. It was his given name. He was a schoolteacher in Christiana, Tennessee, and was postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee.  He lived through the Civil War and tried, on two occasions, to enlist in the Confederate Army. Early in the war he was not allowed to join because he was a schoolteacher.  As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was not accepted as a soldier because he could not see.  He was cross-eyed and could have never have fired a rifle safely. Though he was unable to shot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation in his conversation of being a straight shooter.

As I listened to his elderly grandchildren share their memories, I also learned that though he would have been a Confederate soldier, Major Hugh Neely opposed slavery. After his father, William, died, his mother, Tabitha, remarried a slaveholder named Moses Swan. In his will, Mr. Swan left a slave woman to Hugh Neely. The day the will was probated, my great, great grandfather freed her. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

The grandchildren of Major Hugh Neely all agreed that he had the reputation for always being able to find something good to say about everybody. No matter the person could find something positive to say about the person. 

One night, Joe Foster, the town drunk of Fosterville was staggering down the railroad track when he was hit and killed by the train.  Two of the young men in town decided that they would give my great, great grandfather a challenge.  They said, “Let’s go to the post office and tell Mr. Neely and tell him that old drunken Joe was killed by the train.  Let’s see what he says.”  They found Major Hugh Neely and posed the question.  They were sure that even he would not be able to say anything good about Joe Foster. “Mr. Neely, I guess you heard that old Joe was killed by the train.”

My great, great grandfather listened and thought before he spoke. “No, I had not heard that but I can’t say I’m surprised. Nobody had much good to say about Joe.”  After  pause, he added, “Joe could whistle a tune better than anybody I have ever known. Yep, I think he was the best whistler I ever heard.”  That is quite remarkable to be able to find something good to say about almost anybody.

The world would be a better place if all of us made a habit of putting in a good word for other folks.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, February 2006

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