By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
Father’s Day is this Sunday, and for many people, that means shopping for a card, a shirt, or perhaps having a picnic in their father’s honor.
But for one lady, a tribute to her dad has been a work in progress for several years now … and the ironic twist is that he passed away nearly twenty years ago and will never be aware of how hard she has worked to bring his dream to fruition. Furthermore, this man that she has called “dad” since she was a small child is really her uncle by marriage!
This might be cause to argue the point if there is a difference between a ‘father’ and a ‘dad’. Some will say both terms identify the same person. Yet others might stipulate that there is a marked difference – believing that ‘father’ is more of a biological term while ‘dad’ denotes a relationship. ‘Dad’, for many, implies the man who raised them and nurtured them and played a distinct role in their lives.
For retired nurse Janice Blanton of Bay Village, Ohio, Harold H. Milton was more than her uncle by marriage; he was her ‘dad’.
Janice’s mother (Nellie Romeo) was born in Gypsy, WV in 1924, one of ten children born to Mary Pell and Basilio Romeo. Janice describes her mother as having been a beautiful woman who moved to Cleveland at the age of 16 and earned a living working in a Greek restaurant. Unfortunately, Nellie died when Janice was only five years old, but her request was for her sister and brother-in-law (Jane and Harold Milton), both whom she held in high regard, to raise her daughter. They fulfilled her request, taking Janice in and raising her as the younger sister to their own daughter Nancy who was four years older than Janice.
Janice’s biological father came around once in a while and she knew him, but as time passed, Jane and Harold Milton became “mom and dad” to her.
The years that followed brought more sadness. Nancy, who had become her ‘sister’ in every sense of the word, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died within three months at the age of 19 in 1970. This left Janice as their only child.
Sixteen years passed and Jane (‘mom’), too, passed away. She says she was 31 years old then, but Harold Milton still assumed the “dad” role and was protective of her even though she was an adult.
Let’s get more familiar now with Harold Milton. Janice describes him as a very devout Christian who knew the Bible well. He was born and raised in Marietta, Ohio and came from very poor beginnings. He was of German stock and she recalls that he often spoke the German language around the house when she was growing up.
Born in 1913 in a log cabin, Harold had four sisters and all of them attended school in a one-room schoolhouse.
“He dropped out of school in the 8th grade to help support the family,” Janice stated. “I remember him telling stories about how he and his father pushed a covered wagon into West Virginia to harvest ginseng and yellow root and slept in the woods. That is how they made a living and survived … and I think it was a special time for him because his father was a very mean man and their ginseng trips served as their only bonding time. His mother, however, was a kind, gentle and spiritual woman, and that is who he most resembled.”
Janice also recalls that her ‘dad’ was always writing. And then he would set up a makeshift desk on the dining room table and type what he had handwritten – the hunt and peck method – so it took him a long time to transcribe his handwritten words!
“He was such a smart man! Knowing that he had quit school in the eighth grade, I was always amazed by the fact that he could answer nearly all the questions on Jeopardy! And one day he pulled out a violin and asked if I’d like to hear him play. He was just full of surprises,” Janice continued. “He worked for White Motor in Cleveland, putting the fabric on seats and was also the Union Steward at the company; he was well thought of.”
Later in life, she encouraged him to get his GED, and he did! At the age of 79, Harold Milton earned his GED and was proud to receive many “thumbs-up” signs from lots of people much younger than he at graduation. With a college nearby, he even made inquiries about taking some college courses!
He lived with Janice for the last 13 years of his life and she says they “took care of one another” until his passing in 1998 of congestive heart failure.
“One thing he always said he’d like to do was to see the Grand Canyon,” she said. “I took him to Vegas when he was 80 years old and saw to it that he at least got to fly over the Grand Canyon.”
Two years after his passing, Janice was cleaning out some things stored under a stairwell and found a box of typewritten stories he had composed throughout four decades of his lifetime. Along with them were packages he had wrapped in brown paper bags and mailed off to publishers. Some of their responses had been kept too. One publisher had suggested that he “bump up his books somewhat with some romance”! Another said that publishing a book would cost in the neighborhood of $5,000, which was out of the question … so they were just packed up and stored away.
“When I found these stories and began reading them, I was surprised once again,” she said. “He was very talented with words and was a great storyteller; his descriptions were so vivid and his characters so interesting. He had spent 12 years writing one of them – on moonshining! I got to know yet another aspect of him through his writing. I regret not having spoken with him more about his writing, but now they are such a gift to me, and I got serious about organizing them and finding a publisher.”
Janice hired someone to help her with editing and putting them together and has spent countless hours and many thousands of dollars to get his books in print. The Conquests of Lonnie Dolan and The Treasure of the Hills went on the market last year. The Appalachian Collection: Remembering The Hill Country has also been published; it is a collection of short stories. They are paperbacks – some available in large print and a couple on Kindle – through Createspace on Amazon.
One of his books centers around ginseng trips with his father in West Virginia. In another, he had taken a publisher’s advice and “bumped things up a notch” in the romance department! Most of his stories are set in the lofty hills of West Virginia, where Milton seems to have fallen in love with the Mountain State’s ridges and woodlands and what he called the “incomparable hospitality” of Mountaineers.
Janice says the next publishing will be of Mountain Dew, which is not quite half edited at this point. And she still wants to publish Water Baptism. She remains committed to realizing her dad’s ambition to become a published author.
“I am tying up loose ends. I couldn’t just let that box of his dreams sit there and become brittle pieces of paper, so I am making his dreams come true. It is just so sad that he will never know what has transpired …. but I will,” she concluded.
Harold Milton spent a good part of his life seeing to it that Janice Blanton had a good upbringing, was loved and had a family. Janice Blanton is so grateful for that and is now paying him back for being her “dad”.