Dad in his study, late 1960s
On January 21 of this year my father died suddenly and unexpectedly. This past Saturday would have been his 78th Birthday. This is the eulogy that I wrote and delivered at his funeral:
From an early age (something like 10 or 11) my Dad made it clear to me that being his first-born son and the oldest of his four children came with some specific responsibilities:
1. Look out for your brother and sisters and ‘stick up for them’ when necessary.
2. Help Mom carry out the smooth running of the household whenever he himself was traveling on business. And-
3. When the time came, deliver his eulogy.
He said that to help remind me of my role and its attendant responsibilities, he had given me his name, just as his father had done for him. This, he said, was ‘tradition’, and ‘tradition’ was the thing that made manifest ‘the natural order of things.’ It was a genuine article of faith with Dad that a firm grasp of these two interrelated concepts- ‘tradition’ and ‘the natural order of things’- constituted a tool with which a man could differentiate between the important and the trivial.
This conversation took place at the kitchen table at 23 Palmer Road, entirely within earshot of my mother. Mum was frankly horrified by the bluntness with which Dad had spelled all this out for me and, as each of you can well imagine, she made her feelings on the matter perfectly clear. “Tom!” she said, “He’s just a kid!”
I assured them both know that I understood perfectly the efficacy of the principles that Dad was articulating (I’m sure I used those exact words), and had for some time been intuiting their broad outlines on my own. It was thus more a positive affirmation than a destabilizing shock to actually have this hierarchical structure spelled out for me.
I think what Dad hadn’t anticipated in spelling out these responsibilities for me was the fact that, along with his fundamental grasp of the rational dimension of life, I had also inherited some version of my mother’s formidable creative and intuitive antennae, and these (to his fortunately not-quite-eternal consternation) were the faculties by which I put his expectations into action.
Thus, we had a tendency to regard each other with curiosity, but also with a certain amount of wariness. After all, in terms of our respective familial roles, we were each doing something that we were brand new at, and, I now realize (somewhat abashedly) that neither of us wanted the other catching on to that fact.
Dad’s strategy seemed to center around saying as little as possible, while simultaneously showing much by example. ‘Si-mul-ta-ne-ous-ly’- I actually remember him showing (not ‘explaining’) the meaning of this word to me by having us, on the count of three, shut the passenger and driver side doors of our ’65 Fairlane while parked in the driveway one morning.
I have honestly come to believe that Dad apprehended the world with the mind of a born scientist, and a formidable mind it was. One Christmas Dad presented the four of us kids with a single-volume encyclopedia entitled “The Way Things Work”. He was very fond of such books. This one explained, in a single volume and in kid-friendly terms, everything from why an amplifier makes sound louder to what, precisely, keeps a commercial jetliner airborne.
Eventually, a big part of growing up in our household was the dawning awareness among us kids that Dad himself often played a significant role in advancing the cause of “The Way Things Work” and that he did this in places far beyond the cozy confines of 23 Palmer Road: Places like Holland, Germany and Saudi Arabia among many others.
Still, throughout our childhood, Dad spoke very little about the specifics (and nothing of the politics) of his work life. Nevertheless, the early tools of his trade- the slide rules, T-squares and machine templates that hung on pegs in his study- seemed to hint at something both demanding and complicated. As his mounting professional successes paralleled the maturation of his children, Dad took it upon himself to reminded us, on more than one occasion, that a great deal of what he had learned had NOT come to him quickly or easily.
He said to me, “At RPI I realized very quickly that, for me to be in the top 5% of my peer group, I had to study twice as long and twice as hard as the smartest guys in my class. My strength was my willingness and my ability to put in that extra time. RPI is where I learned: always play from strength.”
If there is a single life lesson from Dad that I live by to this day, that I think about every day and that I share with anyone who seeks advice from me, it is those three words: Play. From. Strength. Taken together they represent both a practical challenge to oneself and a moral imperative to be executed in the service of those who depend on you. It’s an incitement not just to know oneself, not only to accept oneself, but to do both in the service of bettering all concerned.
Play. From. Strength. It’s like the kind of three-note motive out of which Beethoven could construct a universe. From which Brubeck can spin a profound meditation out of what, in lesser hands, would merely be a banal sequence of notes. They’re like three strands of counterpoint from one of the Gabrielli Canzoni for antiphonal brass that Dad so loved to listen to the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra’s young players rehearse on Saturday mornings, at an hour that had most GBYSO parents running for a quiet corner in which to catch a little more sleep.
Dad was a hot-tempered guy who liked cool things: Brubeck, Beethoven and anything involving Brass Instruments to name just three. The combination could be as charming as it was instructive.
Sometime in the mid-70s Dad said to me, “When you’re an adult, every household will have its own small computer. Because of this, a significant portion of the population won’t need to travel to a central location to work anymore. The computer in your house will be able to connect to the computers of the people that you work with- the same way telephones work now. The term for this will be ‘Cottage Industry’”
Clearly, Big Daddy knew how to “Think Big.” But, with Dad, “thinking big” was not the manifestation of a grandiose ego, any more than “playing from strength” was a lazy, self-serving call to complacency. It was, in fact, the natural state of a highly focused, highly original mind. This is something that it took me quite a while to realize, most likely because Dad himself never once actually told me to “think big.”
Dad, in the manner of a man who understood well the true relationship between space and time (that they are, in fact, the same thing) had managed to wed a very long journey to a very small distance. This, to my way of thinking, was an act both creative and original. It speaks to that which was essential in the man.
As Dad got older, we all had the pleasure of watching him, as the cliché goes, “mellow out.” He took profound pleasure in the successes of each of his children and the new relationships with friends, spouses and colleagues thereby engendered. Finally, and most importantly, it was with the arrival of his grandchildren that he assumed the job title that I know he treasured above all others: Grammpy Da.
In retirement, as his own wide-ranging interests began to blossom, some of the conclusions he drew from them surprised me greatly. For example, it was amazing to me that a guy from the Old Harbor Housing Project in South Boston, a man who would go on to oversee the successful construction of one of the largest and most sophisticated waste water treatment plants on earth, could be persuaded that a man from Shakespeare’s humble beginnings could not possibly have written Henry V and Romeo & Juliet.
“Look Tom,” he’d say to me from his eternal place at the head of our dining room table, “A man from Shakespeare’s time and social class would only have had a vocabulary of around 8,000 words. The complete plays alone exhibit a total vocabulary of at least 24,000 words.”
“OK, Dad”, I’d respond- by now almost by rote- “but that’s still around 6,800 more words than you used between 1967 and 1988, and look what you’ve accomplished!” This response invariably elicited the same response from Dad: a reflexive swirling of the wine glass, a bemused raising of the eyebrows and a slight down-turning at the corners of the mouth- a look that, despite its intensity, still managed to look like a smile, probably because these two gestures, combined ‘Si-mul-ta-ne-ous-ly’, made his eyes twinkle.
Dad- you gave strength to everyone who took the trouble to get to know you. And it could, indeed, be a trouble to get to know you. But that was the work. And it is through the work that we earn the strength.
Let’s all make a promise- to each other- here today. And a promise to Big Daddy: a promise that, when we walk out of this church, when we all go back out into the BIG world, that WE will: Play. From. Strength. The strength that HE knew each of us possessed. The strength to stick up for our brothers and sisters. The strength to help out our mothers. The strength to instill in our children an unflinching eye for not only that which is beautiful in this life, but for that which demands redress. And, of course, the strength to create a space in our lives for that which is spiritual. For that which is, in a word I know he loved, but didn’t use that much: soulful.