It has been 31 years since he passed away and not a day goes by that I don’t miss him, especially on Father’s Day.
He was a man with a limited education — he only made it through the seventh grade — but the wisest man I ever knew. He was also the hardest working. For 49 years and four months, he toiled for the Railway Express Agency. Most of that time was spent working outside in all kinds of weather, including his last day on the job. In all those years, he missed three weeks of work.
That was because of an emergency appendectomy in a time when hospital stays were a lot longer than they are today.
His childhood had not been a particularly happy one, although he rarely talked about it. His mother died when he was 4. His father was a bit of a bully and his stepmother was clearly partial to her own children, not the ones the marriage brought into the family. There wasn’t a lot of love there.
I have heard horror stories about parents treating their children as they were treated in their own childhood. Not in our house. He loved his family more than anything.
But don’t imagine for a moment that he was touchy-feely. He was a disciplinarian. He never raised a hand or his voice to my brother or to me, but he didn’t have to. Neither of us dared challenge him. Today’s psychologists would flunk him because secretly we feared him. He was never our pal. He was our father and the rules were his. We avoided a lot of potential trouble because we were afraid of the consequences and we loved him too much to disappoint him. That is a rare combination. He was a rare man.
As he and I grew older, we also grew closer. The grandchildren worshipped him and still do after all these years. A trip to the grandparents’ house on Saturday evening for a cookout is a treasured memory. While the kids played, he and I would sit in the backyard and feel no need to engage in a lot of idle conversation. We just enjoyed being in each other’s company. In our case, silence was golden.
There was not much gray area in his world. It was right or it was wrong. Period. That included his maddening habit of obeying the speed limit. If 35 mph was the posted limit, then it was 35 mph. Not 40. Not 36. And stay in the right-hand lane. I used to slink down in the seat to avoid the dirty looks of drivers when they were able to finally pass him on the two-lane roads. He was oblivious, basking in the fact that he had never gotten a ticket. (When he died, his record was intact. No parking tickets. No speeding tickets.)
He was not a wealthy man. He and my mother had a modest home in East Point, a small life insurance policy and just enough money in the bank to pay their bills promptly. But his legacy cannot be measured by money. It is the example he set for my brother and me.
This simple man with a simple view of the world left us with valuable lessons that I still try to apply today. I learned that there are no shortcuts in life. I learned to work hard and to be a man of my word. I learned that rationalizing something meant that it was probably a bad idea that I was trying to talk myself into being a good one. I learned to never miss a vote, no matter how inconsequential it seemed to be. I learned the importance of loyalty — loyalty to my country, loyalty to the organization that paid me, loyalty to my friends.
I learned a lot about love from him, too, although I never heard him say “I love you.” He didn’t have to say it. He just did it. I remember the beam on his face when one of his boys did something to make him proud or when he looked at our mother. He knew how to love.
I have attempted to emulate his example in my own role as a father, but he is a tough act to follow. Try as hard as I may, I will never be the man my father was. And I am proud of that fact.
God bless his memory and happy Father’s Day.