The Best Listener

Mike McGough
March 2022

His was one of the earliest units mustered into service during the Civil War.  He answered the call to serve in mid-May of 1861, at a group enlistment in what would later be Central Park in Johnstown, Cambria County, Pennsylvania.  He enlisted with both of his best friends.  Like many young men, they were answering President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for 90 days.  Little did anyone know at the time that the Civil War would involve more than 2.5 million Union soldiers in a war that lasted just days shy of four years. 

With his unit, he served in a number of battles during the first two years of the war.  In June of 1863, he was one of an estimated 90,000 troops set in motion toward Pennsylvania, to meet an advancing Confederate force headed for his home state.  His concerns and fears were elevated, because his family, his parents and his five younger sisters, might become involved in what he called, “this terrible struggle.” 

On the second day his unit, the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, also known as the 40th PA Infantry, took part in fighting around the Wheatfield.  The thought that the fighting might involve his family terrified him, adding a new sense of panic to the horrors of war. At Gettysburg his one friend was killed, and the other lost both legs from canon fire.  Although he made it through the battle without physical injury, that fight took its toll on him.   His enlistment was up, so he headed for home.

As a child, he had a lisp that made speaking difficult and embarrassing.  As a young man he had learned to deal with it, but he remained a quiet soul, generally content to listen more than speak.  His years in blue, particularly following Gettysburg, had rendered him all but speechless.

Back in his hometown, he rejoined his family and got a job in the local iron and steel works.  In time he married and started a family of his own.   They lived a modest life in Brownstown, a small community just west of Johnstown.   After a few years, the noise and dangers of life in the mills served as a constant reminder of his war years, which further limited his desire to speak.  In search of a more peaceful and quiet job, he became a tinkerer, or what later came to be known as a handyman.  His patient and kind nature, coupled with his ability to fix and repair most anything, served him well. 

His work brought him in contact was people whose homes he visited to work and with folks who came to the shop.  His shop was in a portion of a stable behind the house.  Although speech came difficult for him, he had no trouble offering a smile, a handshake, a wink, or a somewhat hushed, comment now and again.   

As he went about his days, he grew to really enjoy listening to folks.  It was peaceful and comforting for him.  Little did he know, but it was peaceful and comforting for many of them as well.  On occasions when he felt a conversation warranted his full and undivided attention, he would set aside whatever he was working on and focus on the person speaking to him.  Those who knew him didn’t expect him to say much of anything in reply.  Nevertheless, they just seemed to enjoy sharing with him.  Although no one ever labeled him as such, he became the best listener in town.  Even people who didn’t use his services as a handyman would seek him out to talk.  He was trusted as a friend and a sounding board.

At the age of 91 he returned to Gettysburg for the 75th anniversary celebration in 1938.  He was able to make his way back to the Wheatfield.  He stood silently in front of the monument to his unit.  He removed his well-worn hat and bowed his head.  He stood that way for some time.  It was his time to remember, his time to pay respect, his time to feel some peace, and his time to appreciate the quiet.  Not surprisingly, he did it without uttering a word. 

In 1951, at the age of 105 he passed peacefully and quietly.   His family was overwhelmed by the outpouring from the community.  He had positively affected lives in several generations.  The line in front of the church stretched for several blocks.  There was an above-the-fold, frontpage article in the Tribune, detailing his military service during the Civil War, his years of handyman service to his community, and his devotion to his family.  The article was titled, The Best Listener in Town. 

A wise, compassionate, and empathetic person once said—not very much at all!