He died way too young. Just 53. Or put another way, my father has been dead for well more than twice my own life. My mother often notes that she has been a widow longer than she was a wife. Too young.
And yet …
This is supposed to be a day in honor of fatherhood. And to be sure there are many attributes to being a good dad. Many of you no doubt have strong, fond memories of your own father. Good times, good times indeed.
My father was not Ward Cleaver. He didn't camp. He didn't fish. I have zero memory of ever playing catch with him. He didn't attend my football games or track meets. Although he did show up when I had the lead in my high school musical and was probably shocked to discover to his own tone-deaf ears that his son could carry a tune.
But he was also there in so many other ways.
What my father did was work. And he worked hard to provide for his family. He had his own business designing large industrial heating and air-conditioning systems. Not very sexy. But very demanding. And so he often wasn't around much for the mundane family events of everyday life.
He could be gruff and opinionated. He was almost always fun — unless he had to be told I had tossed my less-than-stellar report card into the sewer. Not a good idea.
But as I grew older, I learned more about him. This was a guy who paid another man's mortgage when he had fallen on hard times. This was a man who was only a phone call away when help was needed. This was a father who adhered to that old-fashioned view that a handshake was truly as good as your bond.
Not a bad role model.
I suppose there are all manner of benchmarks to sum up what defines a quality fatherhood. Here's mine.
My father died more than 35 years ago. I am now 62. And I am still trying not to disappoint him. Throughout my life when confronted with a problem or a decision, I asked myself he would have done. Almost four decades in the grave, and he's still a powerful influence.
I came late to fatherhood. I was in my early 40s when I married the Bombshell of the Balkans. It was a package deal that came with two small boys.
I had no idea what to do, how to be a father. So I relied heavily on the tombstone down in Naples.
He was strict, so I was strict. And I learned that sometimes he was wrong. And sometimes I was wrong. After all, if I often rebelled against the iron hand, why wasn't I surprised when my boys did the same thing?
Unlike my own parents, we never spanked or physically disciplined the boys. Instead we made them write essays: "Why my room is a pig sty," "Why I treated my mother with disrespect," "Why I have yet to learn to flush a toilet" — an especially fine topic. They hated it. But both grew into young men who are very good writers.
I think my father would approve.
He has been in that plot since 1977. I rarely visit. Why should I when he's right there looking over my shoulder?
He was pretty good at advice. So much to draw upon, but my favorite counsel was the tidbit he offered as I prepared to go off to college in 1968.
"I want you to study hard and do well and make something of yourself," he said. Yes, sir.
"But also remember to have fun." Yes, sir. And I did.
I hope he would have approved.