| Tribute to a Great Man
Several years ago, the passing of Johnny Carson gave me pause. He touched many people, and the outpouring of affection from fans and friends was incredible, but it’s a shame that he wasn’t around to receive it. It made me realize that we often say great things about great people when it’s too late for them to hear it, and that’s what is really sad. It also made me realize that I have a chance to say great things about a great man who’s still very much alive, my dad.
My dad is a man of humble beginnings, a man whose own father died at a young age. Born in Tennessee, he moved north to New Jersey as a teenager. Even after sixty-some years, he still has a tinge of a Tennessee twang. When World War II struck, he was drafted into the army during his high school junior year. He never went back. His army service did, however, give him an opportunity to either go to college or learn a trade, and he chose the latter.
He and my mom reared six kids, three boys and three girls. We each had our quirks, and each posed a challenge for our parents. I was second oldest, so my older brother had broken the ice for me. Then again, I think he broke the ice on me. We bickered a lot as kids, but that changed as we grew older. My mom's desperate refrain, "Just wait 'til your father gets home!" made us all a dad-fearing bunch.
My dad was a small residential building contractor as I was growing up. I remember going to work with him, helping when I could, but mostly just watching. My older brother got to help with the more complex stuff, like operating power tools and doing trim work. I was the guy with the shovel or the broom most of the time, but when we were installing subfloors or sheathing, my dad entrusted me with a hammer and nails. More than once, I heard him say, “Bob, you hammer like lightnin’ – never strike twice in the same place!”
When I was in high school, my dad acquired an in-ground swimming pool franchise, and we became pool builders. All my years of experience with a shovel paid off, as we had a lot of digging to do. We poured a lot of concrete in those days, and built a few cabanas along the way.
As I was growing up, my dad spoke with some disdain about engineers. Since he was a bright guy with a lot of practical experience, most engineers couldn’t match his pragmatism and simplicity. So, of course, when I decided to go to college, I went into engineering. It wasn’t until well after I graduated that I realized he was proud of my achievement, and really didn’t think that engineers were useless.
I recall in high school and college, thinking about how different my dad and I were. That was then, this is now. Now I realize how similar we really are. Some of it is genetic, but some is from the example he set. Many things he taught and I learned with neither of us realizing it. He taught me responsibility and independence, integrity and tenacity. And he taught me the building trades.
We never had the father/son talk, but by his example, he showed me what to look for in a wife: a woman with charm, intelligence, strength and warmth. My parents have been married for over 55 years and care for each other deeply, although at times they see things differently. They've always been good together.
My dad taught me loyalty and humility, and showed me that while they don’t always produce the best results, they always matter. He's hit a few bumps along the way, but he's always taken the high road, where the bumps are there to give you a better view. He’s always been there for me, and I’ll always be there for him, a sort of in loco parentis quid pro quo.
He’s a creature of habit, some more endearing than others. We used to get a kick out of his annual trek to Florida to visit family. He always stopped at the same hotel in Dunn, North Carolina. And for the longest time, we could always predict what he would order at a restaurant: prime rib, end cut. Until recently, he awoke in the wee hours of the morning, and went to bed in the late afternoon. And for the past fifty years or so, he’s always had an Oldsmobile. Now that they’re no longer made, he’s vowed to keep his ’89 running as long as he does.
He has a wry sense of humor, and a quiet demeanor. He generally keeps his opinions to himself, but every now and then, makes a thoughtful and profound observation. Of course, having been raised in the era of the Depression and the Second World War, he harbors a few prejudices and occasionally says things that just aren’t politically correct. Nevertheless, he treats people with dignity, and appreciates the goodness in them.
Over the past few years, my dad has had more than his share of medical problems. He’s scored a hat trick against cancer, surviving skin, prostate and lung cancers. After the first two encounters, he still had enough gumption to, almost singlehandedly, reroof the house he built almost 50 years ago. The house was a great home to all of us growing up, and surely it will be his home for the rest of his life.
Nowadays, with all he's been through, he feels that he’s not half the man he used to be. Oddly enough, he’s still twice the man I am.