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My Grandfather, A Remarkable Man

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

I am really into genealogy. Since I discovered my love for it in college, I have collected thousands of names in my family tree. I can’t explain just how beautiful and exciting it is for me to  uncover my past and learn about my ancestors. So, from time to time, I’ll share some of my findings. Tonight, here’s to you, Grandpa.


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I love my grandfather. From my earliest memory, he made me proud to be a Sanford. He taught me about science and nature. He made me ruthless at card games. He held me down and tickled me until I couldn’t breathe. And even though he was far from the perfect man, I have always admired and respected his journey through life, finding great inspiration in his many triumphs.


Grandpa Sanford

Byron Sanford was born to meager circumstances. His father, Byron J. Sanford, vacated his life at an early age. We thought for years the man had died; recent findings indicate that land fraud had sent him to prison. Mary Burns, the single mother who raised him, worked as a ranch cook and moved him from place to place. During his childhood, she contracted tuberculosis and since relatives had shunned them over religious matters (he and his mother had converted to Seventh-Day Adventism through an evangelistic series), he spent the duration of her illness in an orphanage. He described his bitter experiences there with no fondness at all, recounting his memory of watching the staff sit down to a full holiday spread while the children received their usual meal–stewed prunes and tea. To his dying day, my grandfather refused to drink it again.


When he finished high school, Byron put the few dollars he had in his pocket and hitched a ride with friends to La Sierra College in Riverside, CA. His skills quickly landed him a job in the school’s metal shop, where he began the journey of working his way through college and earning his nursing degree. In the process, he met and married Henrietta Schmidt, a fellow nursing student. The man who initially harbored dreams of becoming a professional football player, then a pastor (a college mentor shrewdly advised him against pursuing the goal), went on to Loma Linda Medical School and acquired his M.D.


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Despite personal successes, tensions with family remained high. My grandfather rarely spoke of his mother, but when he did, the quality of their relationship became clear. He described her mental state by retelling an example of her frequent whims. One day, she decided she wanted peanut butter, so she sat down and consumed an entire jar. He said that she had made deals with God and when He did not grant her what she wanted, she turned her back on Him. During his time in medical school, she urged him to take his two children and leave his wife. When he refused, she cut off all communication and returned the invitation to his medical school graduation unopened with the words “not interested” penned on the front. Sadly, their relationship was never mended and upon her death, she was buried in an unmarked grave.


Byron Sanford went on to father four boys with Henrietta: Ken, Harold, Bob, and Ray. The couple settled in Benicia, CA, where he set up his family medical practice and worked until his retirement in 1983. Stories of his patients and surgeries have always held a legendary quality for me–car accidents, cancer patients, triplet births, and murder victims. It seems like doctors of his day did it all. My father used to fondly tell the story of a patient my grandfather once operated on. When he opened the man up, he saw that cancer had spread throughout the man’s entire body. He knew that nothing could be done at that point, so he simply prayed over the man before closing him. Miraculously, the patient survived and made a full recovery. In December of 1968, Byron was called to the scene of a horrendous crime and pronounced the two murdered teenagers dead on arrival. Though no one realized it at the time, this would become the first in the Zodiac killer’s string of serial murders that terrorized Northern California.


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In his retirement years, Byron stayed active as a church leader, avid gardener, and everlasting learner. He and my grandmother caught the travel bug and saw the world together. Their hiking group took them on many more adventures, as well. I have so many wonderful memories from those years–Rook tournaments, walks to the bay, tables full of home-grown persimmons. A child’s glimpse of a truly great man.


Looking back on my grandfather’s life, I see strength and meaning. He made mistakes that I don’t admire. He didn’t always have the gentlest bedside manner. But he rose from circumstances that normally give birth to excuses, and prevailed against them. A neglected child, the abandoned son of a felon, the man who fainted at the first surgery he saw, became so much so that we, our family, could grow and do the same. For this, I am forever grateful. Without his hard work and tenacity, none of us would exist.


Thank you, Grandpa. I love you. I miss you. I look forward to our Rook games in heaven. But I will no longer be ticklish, so don’t even try.

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