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Adversity breeds empathy

Dan Wise as a boy, pictured top left, and his family in 1949.  Top right, Dan Wise, age 75

By Joe Gschwendtner; photos courtesy of Dan Wise

Neighbor Dan Wise of Happy Canyon made a career in clinical social work and is on the cusp of a Ph.D. I asked how he came to dedicate himself to raising the human spirit and working with broken people. Dan’s answer was “empathy.” He learned to walk in the shoes of others from giants in his own life.

Dan’s Grandpa Mack had but a mule, wagon and good heart when he married Emma in 1900. Mere months after marriage in Alice, Texas, Mack took his mule team in September 1900 to help with the carnage of the Great Galveston Hurricane. (The Great Galveston Hurricane on September 8, 1900 is the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. With winds exceeding 145 mph, it was responsible for up to 12,000 deaths, one-third of the city’s population.) Mack was never the same afterward, having burned scores of swollen, bloated bodies with coal oil if not also stacking them on barges to be buried at sea. In the ruins, he also found Mose Austin, a freed former slave trapped in a tree for two days. (Mose had no last name. He took Mack’s middle name to honor him.) Mose’s wife and family had been swept out to the ocean in the floodwater and lost forever. With his rescue, a bond was forged, and Mose and Mack became lifelong friends.

Mack’s youngest daughter Dorothy married Odis Wise, an oil field roughneck. When World War II sent Odis overseas, Dorothy’s family stayed in Big Spring with her parents. Mack regaled Dan with stories of his and Emma’s early years and the hurricane. Mose shared his history as a “big stripling” slave sold at market in Georgia and the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Freedom, when it came to Mose he said, was simply indescribable. Dan remembers running his hand through the curly hair of Mose, giving him great comfort.

Mack’s Galveston shock (PTSD) was not his last; another travail was to come. His daughter Dorothy died of Lupus while Dan was still young. Mack and Mose, already close to Dan, helped father Odis by taking up the childrearing slack, offering Dan the critical love and attention needed after the death of his mom. While Mose would live to 103, Mack merely made it to 90, celebrating his 72nd year with Emma in 1972 – but not before Dan had learned to cope with Texas hardships through the abundance of love shared by his family.

After high school, time came for Dan to move on, and he chose to become a U.S. Marine. This leatherneck soon faced another life challenge in Korea. While out on night patrol in 1963, Dan slipped and fell under the weight of full combat gear and radio, drowning, unable to free himself from the muck of a rice paddy. Fate intervened once more and his buddy Nate wrenched him out of the predicament, saving his life.

When Dan finally sorted out his future, the exposure to life-crushing events had actually become beneficial. What had not destroyed him and his mentors, made them tougher. Using the GI Bill to further his education, Dan then devoted his life to helping others better cope with despondence, dependencies and life-changing events. In doing so, Dan has greatly honored Mack and Mose who helped build his character, one story at a time.



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