My Grandfather Dawless died in 1959. I was only 4, but I remember him. A few photos show that he was mighty proud of his seven little grandchildren.

My Grandfather Cullen was another matter. He and my grandmother divorced in 1928. He stayed in Louisville, Ky.; my grandmother and my dad, then age 5, moved to Danville to live with her family.

Grandpa Cullen wasn’t much of a husband, a father, or a grandfather.

Still, last week my wife and I visited his grave in Calvary Cemetery, Louisville. He lies there, with no relatives near. To me, it’s emblematic of a life and happiness thrown away.

My grandmother was 15, and Frank Cullen was 17, when they met at a dance in 1914. “I took one look at that cute little Irishman, and that was it,” my grandmother used to say, wistfully.

She and her family moved to Danville from Louisville in 1916, when her dad was named manager of the Rhodes-Burford Furniture Store. Helen Clifford was a beautiful, vivacious girl, and she had several beaux. But Frank Cullen was always the one.

Grandpa Cullen was a rolling stone, footloose and fancy free. For years, he was a merchant seaman, sailing the Seven Seas on cargo vessels. Letters and visits, however, kept romance alive with Miss Clifford.

In 1922 she quit her job in the business office at the Commercial-News to marry the love of her life. They tied the knot in Dayton, Ohio, where Grandpa Cullen had a job in a Ford plant.

Within a few months, my grandmother was expecting a baby, and they moved in with my grandfather’s parents back in Louisville. After Dad was born, they had their own apartment.

When I asked her about it, my grandmother said that returning to Louisville was the biggest mistake of her life. There, Grandpa returned to his old, irresponsible ways – out every night, gambling and eventually working as a bookie – taking bets on horse races, baseball games, boxing matches, whatever. That left his young wife at home, alone, with the baby.

In 1928, she divorced him. From everything I ever heard, she thought that would shock Grandpa Cullen into settling down and being a respectable husband and father. That didn’t happen.

This all happened long ago, but the ramifications were profound. My father grew up without a father. My grandmother grew old and died without a husband. My sister, my brother and I never knew our Grandpa Cullen, who died of a heart attack in 1963.

He never traveled the 200 miles to Danville to see us. My dad and grandmother didn’t go to his funeral, either.

Although he had a son, two sisters and a brother, Frank Cullen lay in an unmarked grave for years. I didn’t know that until 1993. I bought the gray headstone.

I stood beside it last week, thinking of what could have been.

Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at

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