My Father and Mother apparently celebrated in a spirited way as the Phoenix of 1947 first poked its head through the ashes of 1946. I inhaled the first breath of fresh 1947 air on September 30 – nine months deep into 1947. At 40 and 36 respectively, my Dad and Mom must have wondered what they had gotten themselves into with a new baby. From their experience in raising my brother, 17, and my sister 6, I benefited from being the youngest child. No doubt my Father in particular tried to imagine being nearly 60 when this child graduated from high school. As he did with everything in life, he stepped up to the challenge with a commitment to excellence, to my enduring benefit.
My Mother often noted as I was growing up that Dad had a drinking problem years prior to my birth, but never touched alcohol again after. I never once saw my Father touch alcohol, nor did I ever see him yield to a temptation to do anything other than the Right Thing. He came from a hardscrabble pure German family along an immigration line that originated in the mid-19th century. True to his origins, my Father was exemplary in his commitment to excellence in every area of life that I could see. Expected to leave school after 8th grade to help sustain his family, he embarked on a path that led to marrying my Mother at an early age and heading to New York City to seek his fortune in the presence of family there. Later they returned to Oil City, PA where I was born, and launched the adventure of raising three children.
Today and every day I am thankful for this heritage and seek in this writing to share some of it.
Thirty years after my Father’s passing, and more than 70 years after my birth, it has become obvious that Dad planted in my mind a vast reliquary of values, ideals, and affections woven artfully into the fabric of who I am. Some of these sacred artifacts may have been accidental, but most I feel sure are incidental to his life and others intentional as part of his ideas of parenting. Today and every day I am thankful for this heritage and seek in this writing to share some of it.
In true German style, Dad was ever-present to meet needs, but was always busy and did not invest heavily in overt relationship building with his young son. His work expertise was coremaking at the local Imperial Steel Works, which was acquired by US Steel, an extension of his keen mind which had design and engineering features albeit no formal technical training. He took me with him to Steel Workers Union meetings, where he functioned as a Steward. But most of our relationship formed around working together as a team. Dad did not think of it as a team, but it was an organized collective process by which training got done on-the-job while meaningful tasks were completed. We cut the family lawn together, did maintenance tasks at our church, and occasional minor work on the family car. I saw and felt his commitment to doing things right to the highest of standards. So unwittingly, Dad was modeling behaviors that I have adopted without argument and hold to even to this day.
I vividly recall one day doing outside work at our church, and my Father saying, “Joe let’s go to Rudy’s and get a Coke.” Rudy’s Quaker State gas station was nearby, and I recall with fondness those moments sitting quietly with my Dad, drinking a bottle of Coke that he had bought for me as a soft reward for my work. That was my Dad – setting elevated expectations punctuated with acts of kindness that registered with me during the grade-school years. I still follow the mantra that as you are doing your work, there is a reward when it is done, however great or small the reward may be.
A key point is that I never felt anything but acceptance from Dad, even though I fell short of his expectations on more than one occasion. While he never expressed it, I have since figured out that his personality was more about accepting and affirming, and much less about chiding or punishing. I feel lucky to have been allowed to become myself without the effects of an overbearing father wanting me to fill his dream.
I recall one evening when I arrived home from hours of vigorous playing outdoors with my friends until well past the time I was expected to be home. In the only serious discipline behavior my Father ever exhibited, he waited until I had prepared for the evening bath and brought leather to hide in a memorable manner. Once again teaching, in this case, the relationship between missing expectations and consequences. One time – I got the message. Today such an act borders on a notion of abuse but in my case, it did nothing if not endear me to a Father who believed in rules and enforced them. He was wise enough to know my personality which includes challenging rules and pushing to their limits. Without leather persuasion, I might have gone in a different moral/ethical direction.
Dad was almost always the serious, hardworking German father in matters of having fun. Work was always first, and work was the source really of pride, commitment, achievement, and happiness. But he knew how to joke, tease, and laugh. Every summer we went to Lake Erie for a “day at the beach.” We all took swim clothes and spent the day swimming and cooking in the sun. I do not recall Dad ever swimming, except one time under the duress of family urging, he jumped into the lake with his clothes on! This created a memory for me and all my family as it was so exceptional to see our Father do something both “crazy” and spontaneous. Even at grade school age, it registered that my Father still had a bit of boy in him that at least once he was willing to share!
Dad was not the type to philosophize or opine on what his young son should do. But he was the master of cryptic phrases fraught with meaning. For example, he would often say “You are never satisfied.” Well, I did not see anything wrong with that at the time, but his words have lingered in my mind since Dad was not one to waste words. So, he saw something in me that needed pruning, and it was this matter of finding a way to be satisfied with what you have. He was right, I have found this to be a reality in my life. It has led to noteworthy engagement in the idea of continuous improvement. It is also an area of my life that must be managed carefully to stay balanced between sensible contentment and unbridled aspiration. By the time I reached my teen years, I had heard the same observations from others, with a twist from my aunt who accused me of being “as persistent as a horsefly.”
My Father often would say to me “You can’t have your cake and eat it.” That made no sense to me as a boy – I knew you had to have cake to eat it. Eventually, it became clear that this phrase was another cap Dad was trying to put on unbridled ambitions. What he meant of course was once you get the cake, and eat it, you no longer have cake until you earn another piece. With a few words, and a life that modeled them, Dad was the master of saying a lot with little. I am still working at that kind of mastery.
While my memories and life impression about my Father hold him in a near-perfect stature, I recall one task he put upon me that may not have been ideal. There was a musty odor detectable to customers at a prominent local bank. Dad committed to correcting this problem. After completing my summer college intern work during the day, one evening Dad asked me to help him with this chore. After explaining the source was dampness under the lobby floor and giving me a 50-pound bag of lime, he kindly asked me to spread the lime over the damp soil. Crawling belly-to-dirt I managed to get the job done, spreading the lime by handfuls while wondering if I could continue to breathe and what creatures might be entertaining entrance to my pant legs. I never felt resentment being asked to do this and believe to this day being challenged with an undesirable job was one of many experiences that taught me how to marry grit with imagination to solve untenable problems. This attribute, a product of nature and nurture, has become an enduring part of my life.
Meeting college expenses was a major challenge for me and my parents. For me, that meant working to earn every chance I got – during summer and during the college season as a lab assistant in my major field – chemistry. I really do not know what sacrifices my parents made to help me with tuition, car expenses, and boarding. When I came home for a weekend, it was nice to “sleep in” a bit on Saturday morning, even while I knew Dad got up and worked Saturday morning. I remember feeling twinges of guilt as I heard him leave the house. In that context, it still brings tears as I recall once in a while he would hand me some money and say something like “I know you can use it.” I realized that this was what little funny money my Dad had then and understood the beginnings of what I needed to know to be a giving Dad myself. What a great model of selfless acts in the spirit of unconditional love.
How fortunate to grow up and become a man, at least reach twenty-one, having a father that planted over 20 years of sacred values in the reliquary of my mind through subtle actions and words that have unwoven themselves over many years to serve me well in the journey to adulthood and beyond.
It is a very different world than when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, parenting challenges have arguably increased with modern complexities. This does not make me any less appreciative of a Father who I think did his best both to care for and shape me to be successful in life and an able father of my own children. If I have fallen short, it is not for lack of a father who worked harder at shaping me than indulging me. I am forever grateful!
In tribute to my Father, Hollis Klinehamer:
By Joe Klinehamer, his proud son