February 08, 2012 - The grand story of America is made up of millions of smaller stories about self-made men who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps in true Horatio Alger fashion.
Heffron (click for larger version)
One of those stories involves a man whose path to success included surviving electrocution by 4,600 volts.
That man was former Oxford resident Norman Geisler (1906-80) and his story is the subject of a fascinating new book entitled "An American Character: The Life and Times Norman A. Geisler."
It was written by his daughter Norma Heffron, a 1963 Oxford High School graduate who now lives in Clermont, Florida.
"My father was a person who didn't give up easily," Heffron said. "I think he persevered through a lot of trials and tribulations. He didn't let anything stop him."
Geisler was once a prominent and respected figure in the Oxford business community. He owned Geisler's Grocery (later Geisler's Super Market) in downtown Oxford from 1936-47. He also founded Oxford's only two trailer parks, both of which are still in existence today.
The first was Parkhurst Mobile Court on M-24, which Geisler owned from 1949-51. The second was Oxford Mobile Manor on Lakeville Rd., operated by Geisler from 1956-68 and known today as the Lake Villa Manufactured Home Community.
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Everything Geisler achieved in life was due to his strong work ethic, self-motivation, creativity and willingness to take a chance – such as opening a business in the midst of the Great Depression – in order to succeed.
Heffron hopes people reading her book will learn from her father's experiences and perhaps apply something to their own lives and endeavors.
"I think it would be encouraging for the younger generation," she said, "They have it pretty easy nowadays and they want everything handed to them. I think his life shows what you can accomplish through hard work and being accountable for your decisions and actions."
Throughout his life, Geisler faced many challenges and obstacles, but the greatest was the struggle for his very life in 1921. At the age of 15, he picked up a downed power line and was electrocuted by 4,600 volts.
"My hat burned off my head, my shirt burned off my chest and the nails in both of my shoes were red hot and smoking," Geisler wrote in a personal account he penned in the 1970s. "My feet would fly up in the air and a blue flame would suck them back down to the ground and then repeat again and again. How long was I on this wire? Some folks that saw me said 5 to 15 minutes. To me it was a lifetime. I could smell my own skin burning and hear the snapping of the current and the people shouting near me, and my thoughts were – I am going to die!"
Fortunately, Geisler survived.
It took eight skin graft procedures, consisting of 238 tiny pieces of skin from 38 donors, to replace the burned, dead flesh on Geisler's damaged body.
He lost a finger, a thumb and a potential future as a major league baseball pitcher, but he was lucky to be alive.
In 1979, an account of this amazing story was read on the national radio program "The American Character," hosted by Norman Vincent Peale, a famous minister, author and progenitor of the theory of positive thinking.
"Four-thousand-six-hundred volts couldn't stop this man from Oxford, Michigan. For his spirit came from even greater power – the power of The American Character," Peale told his audience.
Heffron's book is part biography, part genealogy, part local history and part tribute to the man who raised her.
"It's a combination of things," she explained. "I thought my dad was a very interesting person and I should write about him."
She started her research in 2007, but didn't get serious about the project until 2010.
"I started thinking about it years ago and finally decided to do it," Heffron said. "It took me a while to figure out how to do it because I've never done anything like this in my life. It was a whole new adventure for me."
The experience actually made her feel even closer to her late father because she discovered so much about him.
"Many of the things I learned about my own father I didn't know until after he was gone," Heffron said. "When you're a kid, you don't sit down and say, 'Tell me about your life, Daddy.' We never asked questions and we never really looked into anything in depth. I didn't know half of the things until he died and I went through all of his papers."
For instance, she never knew Geisler was a "barnstormer" in his youth and actually owned a biplane.
Barnstorming was a popular form of entertainment in the 1920s. It involved stunt pilots performing tricks – such as loop-the-loops and flying upside down – with airplanes, either individually or in groups known as flying circuses.
Heffron didn't know her father flew until she found black-and-white photos of him leaning against a biplane, wearing an aviator's suit and goggles. She also found some scribbled notes containing some sketchy details of his flying days.
"I learned more about my father (writing this book) than I knew about him as his daughter," Heffron said. "It was a powerful learning experience for me. It helped me understand who he was, why he thought the way he thought, why he did the things he did."
Heffron hopes her book will encourage others to commit their family histories to paper.
"Our roots are important and we can learn an awful lot from the lives of our family members," she said. "I encourage people to think about the lives their parents and grandparents lived and ask questions. I wish I would have asked him more questions."
"Everybody has a story to tell. I just want to encourage people to tell their stories and tell the stories of other people. It's another way, a different way to learn history. I think I learned more about history doing this (book) than I did when I was in school."
Those wishing to obtain a copy of "An American Character: The Life and Times of Norman A. Geisler" can do so by e-mailing Heffron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Northeast Oakland Historical Museum, located at 1 N. Washington St. in downtown Oxford, plans to sell copies as well.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.