My dad has the coolest birthday ever—March 17. This is particularly appropriate because he is a quarter Irish. As kids, my sisters and I loved celebrating dad’s special day because it always involved the extra zing of St. Patrick’s Day. There would be a chocolate cake piled with green frosting, a few beers for the adults and, often times, at least one or two of my parents’ friends joining in the fun.
Like his birthday, my dad has always had that extra-special something about him. He is a study in contrasts: hilariously funny but deeply serious, sensitive inside but tough-seeming outside, a man who both rebels against the “establishment,” yet usually follows the rules. He can be sociable and the life of the party, and he can be a loner, content to read a novel in the bedroom for hours at a time.
Dad is and always has been a writer and is probably the main inspiration for my own literary pursuits. As a young man, he wrote for good-quality newspapers when newspapers were in their heyday—The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Minneapolis Tribune, Louisville Times and, later, the Sunday Louisville Courier- Journal, among others. He loved reporting and was good at it. Eventually he turned his communications skills toward teaching journalism, then directing media relations for Western Washington University and later handling press relations for the Butte-based Montana Power Company. When my parents moved to Wisconsin, he did development and fund-raising work at Northland College in Ashland, WI. As you can see, we moved around a lot. Restlessness is another key hallmark of my dad.
His last “real” job was director of development for a beautiful and bucolic monastery outside of Eau Claire. Since then he has more or less retired, although he stays active by volunteering as a literacy tutor and continues a regular shift at a local hospital in Eau Claire, where my parents live, as well as other projects.
I have often urged my dad to write a book. The man reads more voraciously than anyone I’ve ever known and retains much of what he reads. This combined with his already-prodigious gift for writing would make him a natural author, or so his family says. Dad will usually joke that he doesn’t have anything new to say but we know better.
My dad grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio as the youngest son of three children. His father was a WWI veteran who had a serious problem with alcohol. Because of this, I don’t think dad got the fathering he deserved. But in spite of that, he had a happy childhood under his loving mother’s guidance and with his many boyhood friends. I relished listening to dad’s stories of mayhem and mischief when kids ran freer than they do today. He would tell about going out in the woods behind their home with a BB gun and the whole day ahead of him. Inevitably, the story would end with him and his buddies running away from someone or falling off a roof and just barely escaping punishment from some humorless authority figure.
He joined the Army in 1957 and attended the Army Language School at the Presidio of Monterey in California. His Army adventures even took him right here to Fort Hood where he got involved in “special services,” basically playing sports for the Army as a full-time job. He also worked in a message center in Korea as well as a variety of other jobs, including battalion mail clerk (a position I smile at because to this day, he loves receiving mail).
His favorite sports memory was struggling to score against Green Bay Packer Ray Nitzke in a basketball game.
After he and mother got engaged and he had already left the service, he was recalled for the Berlin Crisis in 1961. At that time he was trying to finish his bachelor’s degree at Miami University and the interruption—as well as the unexpected separation from my Mom—devastated him. But luckily, the redeployment was short-lived and my folks were married in 1962.
My father had a unique parenting style. When my sisters and I were young, he was sometimes gruff and impatient with us—he would jokingly call us “men” and use Army terminology and lots of humor to get his points across. I can still recite colorful “limericks” (not printable here) dad would share with us, while my mom would mock-gasp and try to shush him. Although he was by no means the kind of father who called his girls “princesses,” we never doubted his love for us or his protectiveness. He made us laugh and instilled the importance of reading, critical thinking and problem-solving. I recall being at the dinner table and waiting for him to abruptly ask: “Learn anything?” to which my sister and I would struggle to come up with some interesting nugget from our school-day.
Dad has had a long love-affair with standard poodles. Currently he and my mom are on poodle number five, a black, rambunctious and thoroughly loveable 1-year-old named “Pete.” Before that was Dusty, Buff, Mandy and Della—each unique and wonderful in their own ways. At times, I think my father has related better to his dogs than to humans. (A phenomenon that I can truly understand, now that we have our dog Murphy).
Trying to pin my dad down in any particular way has always been difficult. He is a study in contrasts and as mercurial as the weather here in Texas. He is complex and he is simple. He is like nobody else's dad I know and I’m grateful for that...and love him dearly. Happy (belated) Birthday Dad!