In three days, my dad would have turned 80 years old. He died eight years ago. I cannot conceive of him as 80. Even in his dying year, eight years ago, he seemed frail but still too young to die. I’ve written about him often, and I still think about him all the time. He was a very wise and intelligent person: a writer of poetry, a mathematician, an engineer, a teacher, a patent-creator, a visionary, a down-to-earth guy, a friend, a husband, a father, a grandfather, an uncle, a brother. And so much more. Though my dad was religious, he didn’t succumb to stereotypes. He raised us with an open-mind, with an understanding that science was real, that we should love everyone regardless of skin color, beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, age. Trust me, in the very conservative towns I was raised, this thinking was not common and was a breath of fresh air. He was a family man, and his family always came first, despite his professional career. Here are some memories I have (this post is mostly for family). Above all, he was a very funny person. He made everyone laugh all the time.
When Dad died on February 27, 2009, us four children each wrote our own speeches. I was so devastated that I decided to spice up the funeral with a little humor, like Dad would have wanted, so that I would hopefully chuckle a little instead of cry when giving the speech. Here is what I said, in front of a church full of people, at his funeral, over eight years ago:
I have written a lot about my dad in the past two years or so, one complete tribute that Dad was even able to read and truly appreciate a couple years ago. I think it’s no surprise or news that I loved my father very much and was completely admirable and awestruck by his life and his great gifts to me and others in his life.
In this tribute, I would like to share some points of interest about him – 25 things about my father, which I think collectively exemplify the great and interestingly rich, funny, loving, and smart man he was to many:
- All of our lives he took us to Turkey Run State Park to hike and admire nature. He made up a strange ‘call’ that went something like “woop woop” – but imagine that a lot louder and with increasing inflection. We still do this call when the family gets together, and we get a lot of strange looks.
- Dad loved Whitecastle hamburgers and puppy dogs.
- He did not like chicken wings from the time he was a little boy.
- Dad remembered listening to the radio show “The War of the Worlds” with his Aunt Bea, who had popped popcorn for the event. This occurred when Dad was just a little over a year old, on October 30, 1938.
- Once Dad force fed me carrots when I was a baby, even though Mom warned him not to. I threw up all over Dad’s clean white shirt.
- Years later I fed Dad carrots and felt it was bittersweet. Luckily, Dad did not throw up on me.
- Dad grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and played basketball at the Cabbage Patch Center when he was a little boy.
- In 2007, he sat down at my computer to look at Google Earth, and remembered the addresses of all his childhood homes. It was remarkable to me that he remembered these specific addresses; his memory was not good anymore. We looked them up, and Dad – a lover of new technology – was stunned at this 3-D mapping program showing the neighborhoods of his youth.
- When I was a little girl, Dad would sometimes act like an ape by tromping around the house with an ape-like facial expression and a lot of ape noises to accompany that. He was silly, a trait he may have gotten from his Uncle Earl, who he said was the life of the party in the family – always having everyone rolling on the floor with laughter.
- When Dad’s health was declining a couple summers ago, he tried to give my brother’s dog some left-over wrapper from an ice cream bar at Dairy Queen. When Mom said he couldn’t give that to Jade (the dog), Dad said, “Who are you to tell me what to do? I am the Master! I can do anything!”
- This reminds me of the young days that Dad would claim to be the King of the Castle in our house
- Even in Dad’s last months, when he was tired and in pain almost constantly, he loved to go out after a meal and feel the sunshine and the warm breezes in the beautiful garden and pavilion area outside the nursing home. Though Dad could barely focus or talk, he would occasionally smile broadly and say how pleasant this weather was. Once he spoke specifically about the “brilliant yellow” and “deep crimson” of the day.
- Dad believed in science and in God, and tried always to have an open mind and be tolerant of different faiths.
- Dad believed in building people up, not cutting them down. He went out of his way time and time again to help others.
- He had genuine love and understanding of the world, life, and people in it.
- Dad loved popcorn and desserts, probably more than any kid does.
- Dad was obsessed with sports, and he got away with hogging the television by saying “but it’s the game of the year”! About every game…
- Dad loved Jack Nicholson movies, and Meryl Streep. He liked the southern classics like Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes.
- I think Dad’s favorite cake was German chocolate cake.
- In junior high, Dad kept a scrapbook of daily news about the Korean War. This interest stemmed from his grandmother CC, a newshound. His father had served in the navy in New Guinea and his Uncle Earl in the army in the South Pacific.
- After only 3 years of high school, Dad was given a Ford Foundation Scholarship to attend the University of Louisville, which he attended for one year before transferring to Eastern Kentucky State University, where he graduated with a BA in English.
- Dad later taught math, and preached, and became a computer programmer. He was a believer in the fact that you could do anything if you put your mind to it.
- One of the last times I saw Dad alive he was mostly declining in health and non-communicative. But one day after a meal, and wheeling him out to the pavilion afterward, it began to rain. I half-ran with him back inside. Mom said, “Did you enjoy that, Jerry?” He smiled largely, raised his hand, and said loudly, “Yay!” I believe this was the last time my dad was able to express himself like that.
- Dad’s first sermon was at age 16.
- Dad lived a bigger-than-big life, was loving, kind, and full of passion about things and people. His life touched everyone else’s in some way. What a great privilege to have had this man as a father.
Note that after Dad died, someone he had taught math to was Googling him (keep in mind, this was decades later) and contacted me and said that he just wanted to know how Dad’s life turned out because Dad was such an inspiration to his student. That was a huge testament to his life, I thought.
Anyway, happy birthday on October 9, Papa. There are so many who hold you dear who are still alive. We will never forget you, and you are still completely alive within our hearts.
Very moving, Mary. Though I never knew him, I care about him because you do. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks so much, Jess. Means a lot!