What I learned from my father-in-law

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By David Whitlock

They let her know he wasn't her "real" dad when she was a little girl.

It stung, at least for a while. "I always thought I was my daddy's 'real' little girl. I guess I was afraid that might change."

But it didn't. Not even for a moment.

This dad - legally her stepdad until he adopted her - treated her as his own, no different than he did her two younger siblings, his biological children. Like a "real" dad, he made her take out the trash, set the table for dinner, clear it afterwards, clean her room.

And come home on time.

I know because I dated her in high school. Lori, her daddy's real little girl, would later become my wife. And back then, I knew that 11 p.m. meant 11 p.m. to George Wilburn, Lori's father.

He seemed like her real dad to me.

That's because he was and still is.

He was there for Lori whenever she needed him, like the time she needed help finding a part time job for the summer, or when she ran out of gas in her Volkswagen, or couldn't find a ride home after school or when she broke up with her boyfriend.

I respected George back then, just as I do now, because he honored his family, standing by his kids no matter what they did, even when he had to discipline them in the process.

Observing the way he acted toward his own children, I was the fortunate recipient of the wisdom he shared with them.

"People tend to get more work done when they start early," he liked to say. George was usually at the coffee shop by 5 a.m. and at work by 6 a.m.

"You'll be able to count your true friends on one hand." I didn't believe him when he said that, but how true it's proven to be.

"When you take some time for yourself, you'll be more effective at work." For years George was an avid golfer because that was something he enjoyed. The same was true for fishing. It would take a while, but I eventually learned the importance of that proverb.

Now, all these years later, George has lost a step, maybe two, and after two hip replacements, golfing can be painful.

And the shine in his eyes appears at times to have faded to a glimmer. 

And though he's still quicker than I am with his wit, George's retorts may not be as snappy as they once were.

I still smile when I recall the time George was looking for a place to park his motor home after he and Ruth Ann, my mother-in-law, had driven here for Lori's and my wedding. When I mentioned to the owner of the park, who had no idea that George was to become my father-in-law, that I was a preacher, the man teased George, "You never know about preachers." Quick as a flash, George said, "I'd better know about this one. He's marrying my daughter tomorrow."

And George sometimes struggles with short-term memory loss. But then, so do I.

But one thing hasn't changed or slowed down, the constancy and celerity with which he expresses his love for his family. He's still there for them, always and without fail.

When I was in high school, I learned from my future father-in-law how to treat an adopted child, although the lesson would lie dormant for years. After the death of my first wife, I eventually reconnected with Lori. Then we took on the challenge of blending our two families and I adopted her children.

"What would George Wilburn do?" I would sometimes ask aloud when facing a trying situation.  Although I never heard him say it explicitly, the words would often come to my mind: "Treat them like they're your own, because they are."

He had already given me the living life lesson I needed because he had loved Lori just like she was his birth daughter, his "real" little girl.

It's love, not a name on a birth certificate, that makes someone "real."

I later learned after I had asked Lori for that first date that George had checked me out with one my football coaches, Butch Brown.

"This David Whitlock, is he OK?"

Thankfully, Coach gave me a decent enough report, and I did my best not to disappoint.

After all, Lori was George Wilburn's "real" little girl.