My dad was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. He sported an SAT above 1400 and combined a quick wit with wisdom and integrity. He grew up poor and never forgot what that felt like. He lived in a house that wasn’t always loving, and he never forgot that, either.
He served his country in a war that was deeply complicated, and few people welcomed him home upon his return. For most of his career, he didn’t care too much for his job, but he clocked in and supported his family in spite of that. During my adolescence, his struggles with alcoholism peaked and tore at our family, and he found sobriety at just the right time. During the last 25 years of his life, he dedicated himself fully to service, making amends many times over by caring for his family and community.
As an English teacher, I see his life in many of the books and characters I’ve taught. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, he could be too smart for his own good and was a bit lost at times in his youth. Like Huckleberry Finn, he was abandoned in some ways by his father but found his moral compass just the same, with help from two peers who became his lifelong best friends. Like Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried, he was haunted by the shadows of Vietnam long past his service time.
Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, he stuck with a career even though it didn’t give him as much as he gave to it. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, he was observant, reluctant to judge others in public, but quietly judgmental in private. Like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, he always remembered to look at things from another person’s point of view. And like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, he grew throughout his life in taking action to support his neighborhood, community and society as a whole.
It’s not possible to fully express a man’s life in one blog post; that’s not what this is about. I’ve been grieving my father’s death since he passed a few days ago (a stroke took him from us suddenly, at 78 and full of activity – house projects, travel plans and volunteer work, not to mention serving as my mom’s caregiver). I’ll keep grieving in the ways that fit the often-complex nature of father-son relationships in late-20th and early-21st-century America. My dad had incredibly positive and negative impacts on me at different times in his life; he made up for it more than I can ever express; I forgave him completely; and I continue to assess which parts of him I am proud to exhibit in my personality, and which parts I’d like to work on shedding.
I’m a school administrator now, and in that role I find myself often reaching for the most impressive part of my dad’s character – his ability to stay cool under pressure. So many things happen in a school every day, and administrators strive to remain calm, reassuring and present-minded as the crises mount. My dad, who was never able to stop sweating the small stuff, was actually always capable of handling the big stuff. In that way, he reminded me of a character from one of the first movies we saw together – Han Solo in Star Wars. I was just six years old, but I can remember talking with him the whole ride home about how great that movie was. And in his best moments, my dad could manage the moment with the grace and wit of Han.
One of the most frequent crises I see as an administrator is the constant pressure students feel to reach the highest levels of excellence between ages 14-18. Secondary education has become all about preparing oneself for the college application process, with both students and parents fretting over what each high school class and experience will mean to the arbiters of admission, who will supposedly alter each student’s life with either acceptance or rejection.
My dad, like a lot of people I know, did not peak in high school. Nor did he peak in college. He didn’t even peak in his 20s, 30s or 40s. I’d say he had a heckuva run in his 50s, 60s and 70s, and found more of his potential during that time period than ever before. To me, that makes more sense – you develop your character and work ethic early on, then figure the rest out as you go along. There is nothing my dad did or failed to do at age 16 that defined his life; it was a collection of decisions over 78 years that did so. High school and college were just a sliver of it all, and honestly the best things he did during that time were paying attention in class, keeping his head up amid struggle, and meeting his best friends and my mother.
We carry many role models in our lives, for a variety of reasons and purposes. If we’re lucky, our parents’ presence remains with us beyond their lives and serves to guide us forward. I am raising two teenage daughters who have made it clear that I was not the only adolescent to feel angst toward my father; they’ve got plenty of that at this very moment. But I know that they’ve also got a lot of love as well. And I hope that the pieces of my father that made me a better man are somewhere inside those girls, adding some rays of light to their life’s journey.