Today is the birthday of the one man I loved and respected more than anyone else. My father would have been 95.
One of nine children born to a truck farmer, he dropped out of high school during the second half of his senior year to work full-time on a farm. The principal of the school tried to pull him back in and they finally came to an agreement that he would attend school one day every two weeks and he would be allowed to graduate. I have pictures of him working a field behind a horse and plow and of him driving a wagon load of manure. By the time he married my mother, be had become a partner in the farm; we lived in one half of the farmhouse.
He also loved carpentry. In 1949, he built a house on spec in his spare time. It sold. He built another and another and another. Soon he had a small crew for his part-time business and had a reputation for quality work. In 1955, his partner in the farm retired and my father went full-time as a building contractor, specializing in custom built homes. He was a likeable bear of a man. He gave a no-questions-asked one year guarantee on his work -- something unheard of in our area. He stayed loyal to his crew, buying houses to renovate and sell on spec during slow times; often spending his personal funds for salaries, rather than laying people off during those slow cash flow days. He never bothered with a contract -- every deal was sealed with a handshake. His hand was his bond. In over thirty years of business, only one client tried to take advantage of that.
He was one of those people who seemed to be born to do good. When a brother-in-law died suddenly and when a nephew passed away in an accident, he became a surrogate parent to their children. After one of his brothers died, he paid the taxes yearly on the house so his sister-in-law could remain living there. When his younger brother had a chance to move out of bad part of the city, he loaned him money for his new house.
It didn't stop with family either. After his death, we learned of some of his many kindnesses. He helped a young couple buy their first home. He helped another person go to medical school. He sold a car to another young man for one dollar so he could afford to travel cross country to a new job. He bought decent instruments for a local musician so he could begin his professional career. He became "best buddies" with a four-year old child with leukemia. He donated materials to the local Boys' Club for their woodworking program. I spent one Sunday with him repairing a roof for an old lady who had been friends with his parents; he refused any payment and finally settled for a homemade cake, the type he remembered the woman making when he was a child -- a better cake you've never tasted.
He was active in the community. He was a Park Commissioner for years. He was active in Rotary and in the Freemasons. One year when the local Rotary club spent most of its energy buying and equipping an ambulance for a rural part of India to the expense of some local programs, he resigned from the club, explaining he could not support abandoning some of their local obligations; he also sent them a large check. They cashed the check, but refused to accept his resignation -- he was too important to the club. He remained a Rotarian until he died.
He was a strong man in spirit and in body. One of my friends remembers a day when my father was working on a foundation. Someone had stopped to ask for directions. My father pointed the directions while holding a 16" concrete block from the thumb of the same hand. His arm never wavered, never shook.
In our small New England town, the local Unitarian church that overlooked the town common had a large clock tower. The clock itself was owned by the town and the tower by the church. When the tower was in need of repairs, my father went to inspect it, along with a representative from the church (a lady in her eighties) and a member of the Board of Selectmen (who had recently recovered from a stroke) -- both were good friends with my family. (Hey, it was a small town.) The clock tower hung over the granite steps to the front of the church and the stairs going up the tower were covered with bird poop and were dangerous. (The man assigned by the town to wind the clock on a regular basis hated going up those stairs and kept trying to get me to do the job for him.) Anyway, the trio had almost made it to the top when my father vanished, the victim of those slippery stairs. He fell down the height of the tower, crashed through the overhang, and landed on the granite steps. The impact tore one kidney loose from his body.
At the hospital, he underwent hours of surgery, bottoming out several times, but always coming back. The damage was extensive, but so was his strength. Over the coming weeks, nearly every major part of his body failed but he stilled roused himself. It was a nightmare but even nightmares can have their beneficial side. We -- family and friends -- had a chance to tell him how much we loved him. Up until his last few hours he had a chance of recovery, but his strength finally gave out and he died exactly ten weeks from the day of his accident. When he died he was the same age I am now.
My father taught me honesty, fairness, responsibility, the importance of a kind heart, the meaning of friendship, the gift of compassion, and so much more. I have tried to live a life that would make him proud. And I still miss him every day.