My father died last year, on April 1st. He’s the sort of guy who would’ve had something funny to say about that. Something along the lines of “Well, folks, I guess the joke’s on me,” or “Hey, quit crying! It’s April Fool’s Day!”
At the cusp of another year, as we all earnestly posit our resolutions and fortify our resolve to achieve them, this would be Dad’s first piece of advice:
Maintain a sense of humor
Pragmatic as the day is long and exceptionally loyal, Dad was what they call a “lifer” – a career banker who worked at the same institution for 36 years straight. He was hired as a teller, retired the CEO, and marked each day in between with expediency, reliability, selflessness, and good sense. What’s more, he enjoyed himself in the process.
During his last week with us, Dad shared a story about when he first became President. He recalled his mother (my grandmother) asking him, “What do you know about running a bank?”
“Not much,” he said. “But I know about people.”
It seemed to comfort him to reflect on the challenges he faced as a leader, and how he had gone about addressing them. “You have this group of people in front of you,” he explained, “and you have to ask yourself, ‘What can these people, with their particular strengths and weaknesses, accomplish?’”
This struck me as an uncommonly attentive approach to being a boss. I think what it came down to for Dad was a belief in the human potential to achieve great things. Whenever I’ve lost my way or doubted myself over the years, he’d simply say:
Do what you love, and do it well
My father believed, unequivocally, in his children. A no-nonsense numbers man, he raised three artists: a musician, a painter, and a writer.
There’s no doubt that our creative exertions and eccentricities kept him up at night every once in a while. Yet Dad never questioned or belittled our passions. On the contrary, he respected us, as people, as artists, and later, as parents.
What incredible good fortune for any child to grow up certain, not only of a parent’s love, but of a parent’s belief in his or her potential to offer something good and beautiful to the world. As a father and mentor, this was his motto:
Believe in people, and they will believe in themselves
Writing Dad’s obituary was like cataloging insects in the Amazon basin. He never kept any of his plaques, certificates, medals, or awards, so my mother, two brothers, and I had to sift back through the years using only our collective memory as a reference. Wishing we could ply him with questions about every last detail, we did manage to write one sentence that sums up his career nicely:
“Admired by everyone he worked with, David exemplified the highest standards of personal and professional integrity, always putting the interests and well-being of his employees, his company, and the community before his own.”
That’s Dad in a nutshell. He always tried to do the right thing, and he took care of everyone – his immediate family, his extended family, his friends, and his employees.
He also took care of countless homeless families, single mothers, and disadvantaged children through decades of volunteer work with the United Way, the Rotary Club, and the Emmaus House in Haverhill, MA, which he believed should offer affordable housing and job training in addition to emergency shelter and food.
Dad’s matter-of-fact response to newspaper articles touting him as “a spearhead of civic pride”:
When you have something to offer, you should offer it
Dad made sure his kids understood that “money doesn’t grow on trees.” He also helped us appreciate how incredibly fortunate we were, and are, in the grand scheme of things. “You and I get to count our blessings,” he said to me once. “Some people are just glad to be alive in the morning.”
As many of us tighten our belts during the post-holiday pinch and reel at the thought of tax season looming around the corner, Dad might have offered this perspective:
Live within your means, they’re all you need
At the height of his career, the University of Massachusetts, Lowell invited my father to be their commencement speaker and, while on campus, to visit a classroom of aspiring business and finance tycoons.
The students peppered him with questions about how to get the best jobs, how to get promoted, how to cut deals, how to generate exponential growth, how to merge with big banks and absorb the small ones. They dug and they dug for a secret treasure box of boundless riches and unmitigated success.
Much to their frustration, Dad’s reply to nearly every question was one of the following:
Learn how to communicate well
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Likewise, his commencement address centered on themes of humility, compassion, and service. He read it aloud for practice in the living room, and I remember feeling surprised, and also very proud, that it ended with the word “love.”
“I might not get asked back,” he chuckled as he told me about it afterwards, “but eventually they’ll realize I’m right.”
Dad’s bullshit detector was Pentagon-grade. It picked up frequencies you didn’t even realize you were emitting. Swiftly, he’d quash any attempts to pull one over on him with a cutting glance and three brusque words: “Not buyin’ it.” Or four words, if he was in the mood to softball it: “Not buyin’ it, kid.”
In this post-logical Twilight Zone of fake news, deleterious political infighting, and indiscriminate intolerance, Dad might have said a number of things. First, “What a crock of shit.” Then he might have alluded to someone like César Chávez, saying, “History will be the judge,” or maybe riff off Winston Churchill: “History is not kind to crooks.”
But of course, he would conclude with some words to really live by:
Winning or losing matters less than how you do it
Now, if Dad were sitting here next to me reading this, I guarantee he’d question my bias and give me a hell of a time about all this high praise. “At least I fooled someone!” he’d tease, which is funny because it’s ironic. He had a reputation for being the straightest shooter in town.
As a father, meanwhile, he was an unusual mashup of consummate trickster and exacting stickler. He kept us on our toes.
If you said, “Excuse me” when getting up from the dinner table, he’d say flatly yet somehow playfully, “There is no excuse for you.” When a point he’d been trying to make finally sunk in, he’d exclaim in amazement, “Light dawns on Marble Head!” If I asked, “Dad, can I stay overnight at Cara’s?” he’d quip, “Well, I don’t know, Jill. Can you?”
In the wake of November 8, 2016, as fear and confusion welled up around me, I wondered what Dad would think of it all. What would he say? What would he do?
For starters, I think he would have thought through a good many things privately to himself while sitting quietly in his chair. (Whenever he did this, you could almost see the gears clicking away in his mind.) Eventually, he would have cleared his throat and opened with an amiable “Well, kids…” Then, setting panic aside in favor of sheer sensibility, he might have said:
We’ve got brains, time to use ’em
Family was central to my father’s identity. Even with his extensive work commitments, Dad always made sure he was around for the important stuff – family dinners, bedtime stories, board games, weekend projects, holidays, concerts, dance recitals, plays, epic summer camping excursions, graduations, hospital stays, first meetings of future fiancées.
Dad understood his priorities, and he kept them in order until the very last. This came through as his grandchildren visited with him, one at a time, while he was still alert and not in too much pain. Knowing them all well, he found the perfect thing to say or do for each child – a tender hug, a joke to lighten the mood, a quip about a new haircut, a firm pat on the back.
Somehow, as he was dying, Dad made everything okay.
What advice would he give to my family now as we forge ahead into this fragile world, uncertain of what’s to come? Undoubtedly and with the utmost confidence: