George Hance is dead.
The grizzled, sometimes profane, too-often drunk but never dishonest old man no longer haunts the benches of Pioneer Park or rummages through garbage cans for a newspaper so he can catch up on international news and relax over the daily crossword puzzle.He died March 2 in a local hospital, where he'd been taken after his hip was broken in a fall. Before doctors could operate, the 78-year-old died of causes incident to his age and lifestyle. He was cremated and his remains will be scattered over an "indigent field" unless friends decide to make other arrangements.
"In the big scheme of things, George's death may not matter so much," said Lorena Jackson, a physician's assistant for the Veterans Administration who met Hance - and came to love him - through her work at the homeless shelter clinic.
"But he was special to me. I think that's how most of us are. The people who care are the handful that really know us. George's handful cares a lot."
The stories Hance told friends about his life are strange and sometimes unbelievable. Who's to quibble, though, since Hance believed them.
He was born Oct. 29, 1910, near Wellston, Okla. He told friend and benefactor Bob Whitaker of California that his family's ranch was part of a "pretty wild frontier." When he was an infant, his parents were murdered by a rough 'n'tumble couple who took over the land and let him live so he could "be a slave-child."
"They raised horses," Whitaker related, "buying them cheap and skinny, then fattening them up for sale. George's job was to break them. The people who `adopted' him were illiterate and made him go to school to learn to read the contracts they needed in their business."
At 15, Hance left, beginning more than 60 years of wandering. Except for a stint in the Army around 1943, he became a nomad, living on the rails and roads of America. He never married.
Wherever he went, he worked hard as a farm laborer. Utah became a favorite place because, he told Whitaker, "I could always find farming jobs, it was beautiful and people treated me fair."
Fairness was important to Hance. Distrustful of strangers, he was a true loner, shunning homeless and "homed" alike. He slept outside unless he was ill. (He slept at the shelter in Salt Lake City for a couple of months and "must have been really sick," Jackson said.)
"He wrapped up in blankets he hauled around with him, with a plastic tarp over him. He'd never take handouts," Whitaker said. "He was always comparing himself to animals and liked to say he was a bird, hovering with nowhere to land. He was just impeccably honest, and you had to prove yourself trustworthy or he'd have nothing to do with you."
Whitaker and his wife, Anita, earned Hance's friendship, and one extremely cold night they wooed him into the shelter of their garage. He stayed for three months but would never enter the house, would not eat with the family, refused offers of a pillow or mattress ("I can't sleep on something that's going to slip around," he blustered. "I have to have concrete; good firm ground.").
His life, he said, was backward. "When I was a little child, I was worked like a man. Now I'm older and people want to treat me like a little child."
The one gift Hance accepted was a bus ticket to Salt Lake City. He said he'd used up his luck in California. Jobs were getting scarce. He wasn't as strong as he used to be (and his incredible strength was the thing of which he was most proud).
In fact, at age 69, some younger "transients" he was competing against for day work had beaten him because they didn't think "the old man" should get jobs they wanted. He seemed to have minor brain damage after that. No, he said, it was time to go to Salt Lake City, and in January 1987, he got here.
He never stopped looking for work. "He was happiest when he was working," Whitaker said, "and the man worked like a maniac."
He was a near-parody of the image some carry of a "street person," with his long, white beard and his shabby, scruffy clothing. Whitaker said he had some delusions of grandeur. He was most assuredly a wino, though he bragged about his temperance in younger days. He was decidedly, though not seriously, mentally ill.
"He didn't babble or rant," Whitaker said, "and at times his thinking was obviously very clear. But he was mentally ill. He was sometimes a profane man, but given what he had been dealt in life, he did the best he could."
A memorial service is planned at St. Vincent De Paul Center, Jackson said, but no date or time has been set. "That's not enough. He had a few friends everywhere he went, and he should not just go out without someone marking his passing. Someone should speak for George."