Sunday, June 19, 2016

Remembering Daddy

Marvin Luther Hale
August 22, 1922-January 20, 2008
(These are edited comments I offered at my father's funeral.)

When I think of Daddy, I recall the many memories that defined my childhood, as well as my siblings' and even some of my cousins'. He was a prankster and tease with my mother, and a strong disciplinarian with his kids, but he had a soft side, too, which had already weathered a few storms by the time he became a father. For starters, he was raised by a single mom who divorced his dad when Daddy was two years old. She went on to graduate from law school and become an attorney. After World War II, when Daddy returned from his service as a Marine on Navy ships in the South Pacific, his mom died in a car crash. He and my pregnant mother survived the crash, as did my maternal grandparents, but Mother suffered two fractures to her pelvis and was ordered on bed rest until my sister was born, six weeks early at three pounds, fifteen ounces. Daddy's father, whom he called Luther, ran a successful bookie business, upstairs in his popular Sycamore Cafe near Churchill Downs. As a youngster growing up in Louisville, Daddy stopped by the cafe after school to visit his dad, and traveled with him to French Lick, Indiana a couple of times to spend the night at a resort where Luther had spa treatments. My father's early life experiences involved some bumps in the road, which gave him a sense of compassion and tolerance for less fortunate people he would encounter throughout his life. It was easy to miss this sense of justice in our dad during the early years of fatherhood when he stood out as a bigger-than-life character and strict parent. But later on, when he marched to the beat of a slower drum, and I'd had some life experiences, myself, I came to appreciate even more the father I already loved and admired.

As four kids born in a span of eight yearswe reveled in the colorful stories our dad told at the dinner table. He painted a picture of himself as a child escape artist with babysitters while his mother worked at the downtown courthouse. We wouldn't have dreamed of climbing out of a bathroom window to jump on a bike and take off for the rest of the day, like he did, but we laughed every time the master storyteller entertained us with his pranks. We considered him our very own grownup “little rascal,” like Spanky or Alfalfa, on the “Our Gang” TV series.

Always athletic, he prodded us to follow in those footsteps. When we spent an afternoon at  Lighthouse Lake, Daddy was the one who swam in the chilly quarry water with three little kids clinging to his back. When we were older, during family camping trips to Dale Hollow in Tennessee, he yelled instructions to us from the back of a buzzing speedboat as we bobbed in the water, a crossbar in our hands and water skis on our feet. And it wasn't unusual for him to rouse us up on a Saturday morning for calisthenics in the living room -- USMC style. We knew how to "ride a bike" on our backs, and jump in time for "spread eagles" until we were out of breath. He was the coach, MVP, and referee for baseball, basketball, and badminton games during warm summer weekends. With his enthusiastic example, we didn't need President Kennedy's advice about physical fitness. We played hard and loved it, hanging on as long as we could, our faces beet red.   

Daddy was a self-made man. During high school, if I woke in the middle of the night, I might catch the glow of a light still on downstairs. On more than one occasion, I spotted him in the wood rocking chair (he sneaked it into the house as a surprise Christmas gift for Mother one year) reading one of our textbooks. Ever curious, he yearned for what he’d missed because he left school after ninth grade. In 1946, when his mom died, Daddy used the inheritance from selling his mother's apartment building to buy a dry cleaning business. A few years later, he studied for a real estate license so he could contract and sell houses, and eventually he hung his own shingle as a broker. Full of energy and ambition, he learned from his cousin, Irvin, how to design and build houses. On many occasions, he worked through the night in his home office to draw blueprints for the houses he'd build and sell.

The stories of Daddy as a landlord are legendary. In many ways, he was more of a real estate guy with a minor in social work. Sometimes, to close a sale, he'd accept low-rent property as full or partial commission. And sometimes, when a tenant couldn’t pay the rent, he'd buy and deliver groceries to them. In at least one case, he bailed an irresponsible young tenant out of jail because of a run-in with the law. But more than anything, Daddy loved turning a tenant into an owner through his infamous lease option (to buy) deals. He had his own rules, but roughly, the tenant signed a lease that allowed a certain percentage of the rent to be applied toward a down payment for purchase of the property.

Some of the best memories were in the kitchen with Daddy. As long as you ignored his non-housekeeping practices, you could enjoy a fabulous breakfast that left the entire house smelling like bacon, or a lunch or dinner of homemade vegetable soup or chili, courtesy of the chef. As he grew older and made fewer trips to the basement office, the kitchen table served as his desk. From it, he made regular donations to worthy causes, including everything from the World Wildlife Fund to the American Veterans, to the Democratic Party or whatever list he was on. He sent a couple of dollars to each to cover postage, and regretted he couldn't afford more. Calendars, recycle bags, and personalized return address labels from nonprofit groups were stacked high on kitchen chairs.  

Daddy was never one to plan travel beyond his business trips around the Louisville vicinity. When he visited us in California, we bought and sent the airplane ticket to ensure he didn’t back out. The times Dan and I spent with him were a total treat because he always enjoyed himself once he arrived, and we loved having him around.  
·               In 1986 in Manhattan Beach, he and his WWII buddy, Warner, met up for a long overdue reunion that included both my mother and Warner's wife. For two nights in our family room, Daddy and Warner reminisced and filed through old scrapbooks to recall the life-shaping events they shared as Marines, members of “the greatest generation.” Afterwards, the two couples when out to dinner for a few drinks, extended conversation, and more updates about their families and lives since WWII. 
·               In New Mexico, Daddy joined me for a work event and took in tourist sites with us. He beamed with pride as I welcomed reporters to a University of New Mexico press conference, to announce the launch of a state pedestrian safety campaign on the July 4th weekend. He hiked trails at Bandelier National Monument near Santa Fe where Native Americans lived in cliff dwellings, and he scaled the ladders to peek into the unusual homes carved out of solid rock walls. At Acoma pueblo, where Native Americans lived in a small town on a high plateau, Daddy posed with a tribal elder in front of an ancient adobe home. Always a dog lover, he heaped tons of attention on the scruffy canine population at the pueblo. The last stop before he flew home was a tailgate dinner and champagne party for the opening of the Santa Fe Opera season. His take on it? “A little bit of opera goes a long way!” 
·               In Atlanta, Daddy hiked along the Chattahoochee River with us, and for a Christmas holiday in San Diego, he stayed in a timeshare that overlooked the ocean and hosted sunset cocktails on his deck.
·               In 2006, we bought an RV coach near Nashville and drove it straight to Daddy’s house in Louisville where we parked it in his yard. He was 84 by then, but eager to help us stock it for the journey home. We were surprised the next morning when he knocked on the door and offered to assist Dan to put air in the tires for the trip. A habitual night owl, his usual wakeup time was around noon. 
·               In 2007, we made another RV trip to Kentucky and spent an entire week visiting family. One night we invited him to join us for dinner at Captain's Quarters, a popular spot on the river he and Mother enjoyed during the houseboat years and beyond. Since he wasn't known for being on time, we got to his house early and were shocked to see him ready and waiting when we pulled into his driveway. Weeks later, I wondered if he knew his time was near and he might not see us again. 

I'm grateful that my daughters and grandsons got to know my parents. Betsy and Amy visited Mother and Daddy when they were young, and both went back with me for Kentucky Derby trips when they were older. Several years after Mother died, all of us, including my three grandsons, returned to Louisville for a family wedding. It was touching to see Dane, Westin, and Riley line up in chairs to talk to Great Popa, who held court in his Lazy Boy lounger as his dog, Duke, kept a watchful eye on the strangers in the house. The boys wanted to know about Daddy's role in World War II. They were fascinated by his stories, especially Riley, whose middle name is my maiden name.

I’ll always be grateful for Daddy’s example, compassion, and thirst for knowledge. In my last conversation with him, the week before the 2008 Super Bowl, I told him I was working as a consultant to develop an educational campaign about stem cells. He read the newspaper daily, front to back, and seldom missed an evening news broadcast, so he responded immediately with information about the latest advance in stem cell research announced just that week. He said he hoped it would help my aunt, his sister-in-law, who suffered from lung cancer. He didn't mention his own battles with arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes, which led to his death a week later. It was always fun talking to him, but it was also frustrating when I tried to get him to do all the right things for his health and safety. When I suggested assisted living, he told me, "Vicki, I'm gonna die in my boots." I have to admit he always did it his way. As a result, Daddy's life had more than a little bit of opera. It was a sweet thing to behold, and we were so lucky that it really did go a long, long way.