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Father's Day is for honoring Bernard

If you see a tan, fit 83-year-old with an impressive head of dark hair on the tennis courts at Delta Woods Park, if he's lobbing and dinking and calling every close shot "out" — there's a good chance it's my father-in-law, Bernard Booth.

The chances are better if, after the match, you see his younger, highly frustrated opponent break into laughter once the older man meets him at the net and tells him a joke.

If you're a fan of Save-A-Lot and 99-cent breakfast places, and hear a female cashier or waitress tittering helplessly at a remark delivered in an English accent — well, that's a Bernard trademark. It's almost certainly him.

So, consider this a public service, me giving a name to somebody who you may have seen around — he's been here 30 years, after all — and, if so, probably like. People who know him tell me all the time my father-in-law is great, he's funny, he's amazing.

And, really, they have no idea. His wife of 64 years, Doreen, who died Friday afternoon, hadn't been well for several years. Bernard did all of the cleaning, shopping and cooking, made sure Doreen took her medications, spent half his days driving her to doctor's appointments — almost always with that cheerful, pudgy-cheeked Bernard smile.

Shortly before she slipped away Friday, he bent over to give her a kiss. "I've loved you a long time, Doreen," he said. He sure did.

Whenever I hear someone described as a wonderful grandfather, I inwardly scoff because I know, and everyone in my family knows, that no grandfather can hold a candle to Bernard.

When he took a break from caring for Doreen, it was usually to watch one of my younger son's basketball games or tennis matches, sometimes even his practices. Or to take my older son to movies. The King's Speech is one they especially liked, with Bernard able to tell his memories of the real event, the radio address that launched England into World War II.

When my boys were younger, they spent almost as much time with their grandparents as they did with my wife and me, and more quality time — in canoes, on soccer fields, at parks, beaches and old-time Florida attractions such as Weeki Wachee Springs and Cypress Gardens.

Bernard is more amazing, still, if you know his background, which wasn't poor by the standards of Depression-era England, but now seems pretty tough.

His mother worked in the cotton mills, and his father was a bus conductor. Their house was tiny and, even when my wife, Laura, was a child, they heated bath water on a stove and bathed in front of the fireplace.

Bernard won a scholarship to train as a missionary for the Catholic Brothers of Charity, where he learned to do sums faster on a scratch pad than most people can do them with a calculator. Any time you bring up a test of intellect, chess or maths (as English people call it), he'll say — not boastfully, just matter-of-factly — "I won a prize for that in school."

His big athletic successes, recounted in the same tone, came after school. In the Royal Air Force, which he joined after he met good-looking, feisty, red-headed Doreen and decided he wasn't cut out for the life of a monk, his outfit was ordered to run 10 miles at top speed. He beat everybody but "a professional footballer for Everton."

He also played football (soccer) for a semiprofessional team sponsored by Leyland Motors. Well into his 40s, he was one of the best batsmen on a cricket team representing his home village of Eccleston. And a few weeks ago, on the ping-pong table in our basement, he put on the most impressive display of hand-eye coordination by a senior citizen I've ever witnessed, crushing my son the self-described great athlete.

Bernard, luckily, found a career that placed importance on jokes, the old-fashioned kind that were traded, memorized and shared with the clients on his sales route. Eventually, he became a sales training director for a major home products company, which meant scores of trainees had to hear the one about the three-legged chicken.

Away from work, he did more work, which he calls "a job or two around the house."

When my wife was young, that meant, for example, building a stall for her horse or completely remodeling the house, whether it needed it or not. He's put so many layers of sealant on the roof of his house in High Point that I worry it's going to collapse under the accumulated weight. Confronted by a broken-down dryer or lawn mower, his first response, still, is to get his tool kit and say, "Let's have a look." (Pronounced luke.)

But he will sit still to watch a televised soccer game — or two, or three — and don't even think about arguing that, say, Pele, was the greatest player ever. It was Tom Finney, star of the great Preston North End teams of the 1950s. Nobody else was even close.

I never saw Finney play. Haven't even been to the Preston grounds; really don't even care that much about soccer. But I've heard about it enough over glasses of "Bernard whiskey," as my wife and I call the stuff he buys in plastic bottles. (The Glenlivet we give him every Christmas and birthday isn't really for him. It's for us.)

And if he didn't raise me, he did bring up my beautiful wife and gets about half the credit for my sons. He set a sterling — no, heroic — example of how to be a good husband. So, even though this is officially Father's Day and not father-in-law's day, the way I feel is: Really, what's the difference?

Father's Day is for honoring Bernard 06/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 18, 2011 1:36pm]
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