You have probably never heard of the man pictured above, but I’ll tell you one thing: he was the best damn storyteller. When he told a story, you listened, because his voice was full of honesty, and he leaned in as if it were a secret just for you. His tales were usually short, but they were intense, interesting, funny, heartbreaking, uplifting. He had a story for any occasion, and he loved telling them. From sneaking out of a German prisoner of war camp in World War II to having a pet raccoon that he fed peanuts to, he had a story for everyone of every age.
On September 15, 1926, John L. Shoupe – often called “J. L.” – was born. He grew up in Kentucky and could shoot basketball with the best of them. He met the woman who would later become his wife at a football game, and he was immediately enamored with her. Whenever he would visit Mildred’s house to court her, her mother would send their small white dog to nip at the heels of his army boots, yelling, “Sic ‘im, Snowball!” J.L. and Mildred were married in secret at a courthouse, and when asked if they had a witness, J.L. pulled a drunk homeless man off the street outside and gave him a beer for his trouble.
J.L. was a basketball star at his high school. When a van of young basketball players pulled up to the park where J. L. and his friends were shooting hoops, they decided to have a friendly match. J.L.’s team won, making them one of only a handful of teams to ever defeat the world famous Harlem Globetrotters. J.L. claims that they got the ball-under-the-shirt trick from when he used it against them in that game.
J.L. was offered a full ride to the University of Kentucky on a basketball scholarship but turned it down to join the army and fight in World War II. He was sent to Germany and parachuted out of a plane. A lover of animals, he couldn’t help but adopt two German Shepherds over the course of his deployment and feed them scraps of his rations. When his troop decided to hole up in an abandoned barn one night, his dog began to pace and whimper, refusing to go anywhere near the structure. The soldiers decided to inspect the barn and found bombs hidden throughout the building. Thanks to the dog, no one was hurt.
It wasn’t the only time one of J.L.’s dogs saved the camp. When approached by a group of Allies, the soldier’s dog began growling and snarling whenever he came near the newcomers. The U.S. soldiers became suspicious, asked some more questions, and discovered it was actually a group of German soldiers in disguise.
J.L. wasn’t a novice at saving lives. Once, he and his best friend Richie were hiding out on the top floor of an empty house in Germany when they heard German soldiers enter downstairs. Richie began to panic, as there was no escape and nowhere to hide in the attic. The only thing they had was a mattress they’d been leaning on.
Acting on instinct, J.L. clocked his best friend in the face and knocked him out cold so he wouldn’t make any noise. After taking Richie’s gun and hiding him behind the mattress, J.L. kept both guns at the ready and loosed a storm of bullets through the wall into the stairway. The Nazis panicked, and the few that weren’t wounded by the surprise barrage fled. J.L. chased them out the building, still firing, and scaled an eight-foot fence to keep up with them until they were all taken out.
When J.L. returned from the war, he and Mildred were able to settle down and start their family. J.L. worked a few different jobs over the years, and one of those was working in a coal mine. The last time he was down there, the mine collapsed, trapping him and several co-workers beneath the earth. While everyone else panicked, J.L. worked to find a way out, and eventually lead his co-workers to an exit in the far back of the mine, where they had to swing from a live wire to safety.
One day, J.L. heard on the party line that some guys in the neighborhood were planning to jump his brother. He, his brother, and J.L.’s son (who was about five) went down to the bar where the guys stayed. Shoving his son beneath a pool table, he said, “Don’t move until I come back to get you.” He then went to the front door of the bar, locked it, and put the key in his pocket. He stood at one end of the room, his brother at the other. Fresh from the war, the two were able to wipe the tables with the group of guys, no problem. None of the neighbors ever tried to mess with them again.
J.L. was a badass. No one can argue that. But he was also sweet and caring. He loved his family more than anything in the world and adored animals. Over the years, he had many pets: dogs, horses, raccoons, owls. He had a groundhog that would curl up at his feet to sleep and follow him on his heels like a dog. When he went to the ice cream parlor, the critter would jump right up on the stool, take an ice cream cone between his paws, and eat it. He would also sneak away at night to eat the neighbor’s garden, though this involved sneaking away from J.L., opening the backdoor, eating, then returning, shutting the door behind him, and getting back to sleeping J.L.’s feet without being seen. It wasn’t until a neighbor came screaming at him about “that damned groundhog” eating his garden that J.L. learned his pet was so smart.
These are just a handful of the stories that J.L. told over his 86 years. Were some of them embellished? Completely made-up? Completely true? Perhaps. But one thing can’t be denied: John L. Shoupe was a damn good storyteller. He was funny, he was charming, and he was endearing. He treasured his family and loved his wife to the moon and back. He was a man of his word and left none of his promises unfulfilled.
On August 19, 2013, five years to the day of the loss of his wife, the world lost one of its greatest men. I’ll miss my great grandfather terribly. He taught me what it means to stand by your word. He taught me what it means to love your family. He and grandma showed me what true love and devotion looks like. He showed me how to tell a good story. His impact on me, his family, and his community cannot be stressed enough. Though he may have passed from this life, he will continue to live on in our hearts, our memories, and the heartfelt, earnest stories that he passed down.