|Dad in college--1930s|
I thought I'd share today the remarks I made upon the occasion of his retirement from Drake University. He had just turned 65--five years younger than I am now ... I was teaching at Harmon Middle School at the time (and we were just weeks away from going on strike; I had already accepted a position at Lake Forest College for the fall of 1978); Joyce was teaching some courses at KSU. We had both just recently completed our Ph.D.'s. I flew out to Des Moines (surprising Dad), carrying with me letters from my two brothers, letters of tribute that I read aloud at the banquet that night. I'll post them another time--maybe Father's Day.
I have not changed a word of this (though I probably should have) ... just as I read it that wonderful evening ... I was 33 years old ...
April 26, 1978
My father always thought my brothers and I were a bit curious. And I think I know why. First, there was Richard, who hated football, loved opera, threw operatic tantrums, and thought nothing of pounding out “The Great Gate of Kiev” on our little brown spinet until its tuning pegs slipped into submission, the “Great Gate” then sounding more like the sticky wicket.
Then there was I, still dressing as Robin Hood in the eighth grade, aiming broad clothyard shafts at my startled neighborhood friends, chopping stout oaken staffs from our neighbor’s stand of maple trees, and giving all Mom’s underthings a slight cast of Lincoln green when I thoughtfully washed them with my costume. Howard Pyle would have been proud, if a bit puzzled.
But I had other problems as well. My elementary school report cards, though marred by my repeated failures to “keep hands and materials away from mouth,” had generally been the kind that Mom would allow to lie around on the coffee table for the wandering eyes of guests to explore and admire. My junior high and high school report cards, however, though reflecting an increasing control of oral urges, showed a sudden decline in what were called the “solid subjects.” Well, Sherwood Forest was no place to bring up a kid.
Then there was Dave. He couldn’t hit a high inside fastball, played the piano inappropriately, sang with, well, enthusiasm, got A’s, wore glasses long before the rest of us had to, mastered golf, Ten-Q, and getting to use the car even though Richard and I had asked for it first. In fact, the night of my college prom (I’m older than I look), I came home expecting to pick up the big Buick Wildcat that I had been occasionally allowed to touch, and found instead that I had been assigned the old blue Ford Falcon, the one whose exterior looked like Joe Frazier’ s face, the one that did zero to fifty in 4.7 years. Dave had the Wildcat. Something about going swimming with a pimply friend.
I’m pretty sure Dad even thought Mom acted a bit strangely at times—”Boys, your mother is tired” was how he put it. In those days I guess I could see his point. After all, no other faculty wives were driving 100 miles to night classes in Pittsburgh twice a week; they stayed right around Hiram, and their molded salads were quite a bit better than Mom's. She displayed other strange behaviors, especially around April 12 or 13. It was then that she did … the INCOME TAX, locking herself up in the study for a weekend, emerging only to yell about the piano pounding, turn down the TV, shut off the dryer buzzer, or grab another fistful of Oreos.
I guess you can see why Dad might have thought we were a strange bunch. He probably figured that while he had been away during the War that radio, comic books, and heaping bowls of Sugar Crisp had corrupted our minds-- or at least tenderized them. Maybe he even thought that Mom’s years alone with us during the War had first formed the vague idea in her head that there had to more to life than Her Three Sons.
But I have news for you. We were strange because of Dad. And just let me cite a few typical examples of the eccentricities of his that have unalterably modified our notions of how human beings behave.
First of all, my father arises at 5:30 a.m. Summer. Fall. Winter. Spring. “As you get older, boys,” he would say, “you find you don’t sleep as much.” I have found that to be totally untrue. Sleeping ‘til noon, a skill I formed in childhood, honed in college, and now practice professionally on Saturdays, is a sacred rite/right. When awake, my brothers agree. But, alas, I find my father’s influence in this area, far from disappearing in subsequent generations, has leapt to life in my own five-year-old son. I hear him at 5:30 every morning (our house still has the light switches you can hear next door), awake, his flapping through the pages of Star Wars comic or coloring books sounding like the final agonies of a wounded pigeon. And a couple of weeks ago when Dad came to visit for a weekend, I heard him and his grandson up at the crack, delightfully squealing together at the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour.
Let me hasten along by listing a few of my father’s other minor quirks.
(1) taking two-hour naps in a living room chair—”Just resting my eyes for a few minutes,” he calls it;
(2) flicking on the turn signal after the turn has been completed—I can only infer that he wants to let the other drivers know what he ‘s just done;
(3) refusing to go down to open Christmas presents until he's shaved ;
(4) using a four-wood on a 125-yard hole--and landing pin-high on the green;
(5) eating an ear of corn in a single, savage, synchronized stroke (I must say that though he may have mastered the speed of ear-eating, he has not found the secret of neatness: flecks of yellow sequin his cheeks and lips, and the difference in appearance between his cobs and my mom’s illustrates the distinction between an assault and a manicure) :
(6) drinking beer in opaque mugs so Grandma won’t know;
(7) clapping his hands at starlings to keep them off the bird feeder in the questionable belief that the cardinals know he doesn’t mean them;
(8) watching 67-12 football games to the final gun, stoutly maintaining that “anything can happen”;
(9) cooking oatmeal so long that when cooled one could stretch it and wear it as a raincoat;
(10) teaching our family dog not to sit up, shake hands, or speak, but to grin.
And it is this last that best encapsulates my father’s influence on my life and I think upon the lives of many of those who have known him over the years. I know there are many qualities my father has that I wish were mine—patience, even temper, tireless dedication, the ability to make people feel comfortable. But the one ability he did manage to implant in me is the same one he knew even a family dog needed—the ability to grin. Tonight I’d. like to thank my father for all he has given to me to grin about over the years—memories, stories, moments. But I’d like to thank him as well for keeping alive in me the feeling of the importance of the family, not because it is an intellectually attractive idea in these times of instability, but because it makes me feel good. Every day.
I know that those of you who know my father have been touched by him in many ways. I trust you know how much his quiet strength has contributed to Drake University. But, most of all, I hope he has taught some of you how to grin.