Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Best Man I've Ever Known

Yes, yes. . .  I've posted this same item the past two Father's Days.  But today is the first Father's Day since my dad died last August, as well as being his 90th birthday, had he lived to see today.  So, you would be very kind to indulge me. . .


In honor of Fathers Day, I'd like to tell you about my dad. My father has been, in many ways, the rock of my life. Mothers have come and gone for me, over the years (strange as that is to say, and I really don't mean it in any way to denigrate any of them); my family has moved from town to town, and from house to house even when we stayed in the same town; I have changed schools; friends have come and gone. But from the time I was adopted around my first birthday, until he died last summer, my dad was one of the very few utter, rock-solid, take-it-to-the-bank constants in my life.


Dad was born and raised on a farm in central Michigan, the oldest of five children - three boys, two girls. He attended a rural one-room schoolhouse (to which, of course, he walked five miles through the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways). Those were the days before Rural Electrification; chores were done, and so was schoolwork, by kerosene-lantern-light. Electricity didn't come to my grandpa's farm until Dad was in his teens.

By a combination of genetic endowment and abundant hard work, Dad grew into a large man - 6'-4" tall. When he was young, he was rail-thin - about 180 pounds or so (by the time I came into his life, he was a fair bit bigger than that) - but his 'Popeye-esque' forearms bespoke many cows milked, and a good deal more physical strength than might first meet the eye. When I was in high school, and doing weight training for football, I got pretty proud of how strong I was becoming, and so I challenged my dad to arm-wrestle. The fruit of all my training was that I could then 'hold him off' for a second or two before he slammed me. Up to the day he died, I didn't want to arm-wrestle him; I don't think my ego could have taken getting slammed by an 89-year-old man.

Dad was one of those 'Greatest Generation' guys, whose lives, well into their 20s, were defined by the Great Depression and World War II. As a boy growing up, my grandpa always had the farm, but there were significant stretches of time during which the family lived in a larger city about an hour away, where grandpa ran a gas station, when farming wasn't so lucrative. Eventually, even that bit of provision went away, and they returned to the farm. My aunt recalls her dad saying that, as long as they had the farm, they wouldn't go hungry.

Dad graduated from high school in 1940, part of a graduating class of eight. He went to college 20 miles from his dad's farm. He wasn't the first of his family to go to college - both his parents had attended college, although neither of them had earned a degree. After two years, he transferred down to the larger school which I later attended, to study Chemical Engineering.

He only completed one semester there before he was drafted, and became the lucky recipient of an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, courtesy of the US Army. He was in an artillery unit, which was probably fortunate for him, in that he generally stayed 15-20 miles behind the front lines, and so, besides firing his own big guns, he was not often being shot at in anger. He doesn't tell many 'war stories', but he has a few about being strafed, and diving for his foxhole. And during the Battle of the Bulge, the front lines got considerably closer to his position than was usual, or comfortable.

Dad survived the war (obviously), and even stayed on after the war for two years, working for the US State Department in the post-war reconstruction. During that time, he met and married my 'first mother', returning stateside in late 1947. He finished college on the GI Bill, earning his BS degree in Chemical Engineering in 1949. I have his college yearbook, and I was amused to find among his fellow-graduates a future head basketball coach at our mutual alma mater, and a future governor of Hawaii.  He also shared his time on campus with a future Hall of Fame baseball player.


The one huge, overriding lesson that my dad taught me, by example much more than by anything he ever said, was a commitment to duty, and the deep connection of duty to love. Dad always - ALWAYS - did his duty, and I came to understand that 'duty' was how my dad expressed love. He was not the most outgoing of people (although he could be 'social' when he had to be), and I often longed to just sit down and engage in a relaxed, flowing conversation with him. With few exceptions, though, Dad just didn't do 'relaxed flowing conversation'. But he showed his love to me hundreds of times over, often as not without saying a word.

He and my 'first mother' were married for nine-plus childless years before they adopted me. I had a conversation with my aunt - Dad's sister - not long before she died, and she told me that adopting hadn't been his idea - that his wife had dearly wanted children, but he'd been ambivalent about adopting. But, out of care and concern for his wife, he'd signed on for it, and I came into their life. A year or so later, they adopted my brother. All of which became almost bizarrely ironic after Christmas of 1964, when my mother left him, and, in the process, my brother and me. I have no idea exactly why she left him, or exactly what her grievances were. I will say that, as I got to know my dad over the years, he was not always the easiest of men to live with. But, even so, he was, at one and the same time, the best man I've ever known.

So anyway, my dad, who'd been ambivalent about adopting in the first place, was suddenly a single father to two boys. We moved out of our house on Lake Huron (which, while we'd lived there, had been a pretty good working model of heaven), to a house in town where my brother and I could look after ourselves a bit easier. For a year, we ate a lot of mac-n-cheese, and I got introduced to kippered herring; Dad was not exactly a gourmet chef.

In the finest fashion of doing his duty for us, he quickly set about finding a new mother for us (and not incidentally, I'm sure, a new wife for himself), and by the following fall, he was engaged to the woman who would be his second wife, and my-brother's-and-my 'new mother'. She was a divorcee herself, with three kids, two girls and a boy. So when they were married in 1966 (just before my tenth birthday), Dad was suddenly the father (step or otherwise) of five children, spanning less than three years in age. Which was pretty intense right from the start, as we were all trying to figure out how to live together. To say nothing of what it was like when all five of us were teenagers at the same time.

In the next five years, Dad and Mom had two more boys together, so my dad, who might have been content to be a childless husband in the mid-50s, was, by the end of 1970, a father of seven. Without going into brutal detail, I'll just say that blended families have a unique set of challenges all their own, and Dad, in the course of doing his duty to his new family, endured more grief than he deserved, for trying to do right by his new wife, and seven kids. It is a testimony to his and Mom's love and perseverance that today our family is  still intact and strong.


Dad was my baseball coach for much of my youthful 'career'. Not because he was so deeply versed in the subtleties of baseball; he wasn't, and the 'baseball guys' in our town tended to regard him with a degree of mild contempt (but come on, he wasn't as dumb as they took him for, either). But, as our dad, he knew instinctively that he wanted to have his hand on our lives, and coaching our Little League teams was just obviously a really good way to do that.

He was also very solicitous of our schooling; one of my enduring memories, especially of my young childhood, was that I had all the books I ever wanted, and maybe even a few more besides. It wouldn't surprise me, though, to find out that he got into the whole baseball thing when he started thinking I was becoming too much of a sedentary nerd. . .


As my own family has grown, and I have endured the trials that come along with raising my own kids, I have come to understand and appreciate my dad in new ways. As I've coped with my own kids' troubles, it has occurred to me, many times, that Dad had endured similar stuff, and at the hands of kids who weren't even 'the fruit of his own loins'. And he did it without complaining. Honestly, I can't remember ever hearing him whine about the latest outrage that one of his kids had perpetrated, or the latest of their messes that he'd had to clean up after. I am sure that he grew from the experience, and became a kinder, gentler man than he started out being.


As I said above, my dad is still the best man I've ever known - by far. His quiet strength, his patient endurance, his utter faithfulness to his duty, no matter how unpleasant, taught me volumes. I know that I am not, nor will I ever be, even half the man he was, but if I can even get close to being half the man my dad was, I'll have done well, indeed.

Being his son is one of the very best things that has ever happened to me.  I miss him still, but at the same time, I am utterly grateful for all that he has meant, and will continue to mean, for my life.

Thank you, Dad, and Requiescat In Pace; it has been a privilege. . .


  1. Happy Father's Day, Craig. Again, so sorry for your loss and what it means to you today.

  2. Thanks, Bijoux. On both counts.

  3. i'd imagine this father's dad was a bit bittersweet for you. he may have had his warts but i am glad you had a fine example to guide you. may he indeed rest in peace.

  4. Lime - You know, I was really mostly OK, except at Mass in the morning; we had 'signed up' to have the mass said for him, and our family 'presented the gifts' for communion ('Catholic stuff'; it would take too long to explain). Of all things, that was when I got choked up. And Dad wasn't even Catholic. . . ;)

    An' you know, I got warts; heck, you got warts (altho, really - I have no need to see them). All God's chilluns got warts. Warts is just warts.


    He was still (say it with me now) The Best Man I've Ever Known. . .