My father died two days before Christmas, after spending most of December in the hospital and two weeks of that on a ventilator. He had pneumocystis pneumonia, not Covid, not that what the death certificate says matters to me at all. My writing of late has been very limited. I still have a book coming out in April, but my new writing has consisted mainly of my father's eulogy.
It was some of the hardest writing I've ever done. How do you sum up a person--one that you loved, one who loved you, one who made you who you are--in a single ten-minute speech? You can't. But I tried. I will share with you a slightly revised version of what I said at his funeral on January 2, 2022. It is long, but nowhere near long enough to capture what he meant to me, to my family, and to the thousands of students he taught.
Here it is:
Dad was a teacher. He taught, essentially, communication with words. Boiled down, he taught writing and public speaking. I learned one of these much better than the other, so please bear with me as I read what I have written.
Before he died, Dad wrote some directions as to what he wanted to happen after. He said he’d leave the decision as to whether to have this service at all to us. He described himself as a loner, and he said he couldn’t imagine more than a handful of people would come to his funeral. He clearly implied that he did not expect many people to care that he was gone.
He was wrong about that. So wrong. Few people leave behind so very many who care that we are gone.
Dad spent the Christmas season in the hospital. It’s the time when our family lines up on our sofa to watch the same holiday movies year after year. One of our favorites has always been It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 classic in which the protagonist, George Bailey, ends up living a quiet family life very different from the big dreams of travel and fame he had as a young man. When he experiences a financial crisis, he wishes he’d never been born. His guardian angel arrives to show him just how much different—and worse—everything would have been if he’d never lived.
My dad was like that. He would have told you—seriously—that he wasn’t special. That in his life he’d never done anything important. He was self-deprecating and modest. He never ran away with the circus to tame the elephants he loved as a child. He never became the great architect whose soaring structures would grace magazines that he dreamed of being as a teenager.
But, oh, what a difference he made.
His life sounds fairly ordinary when described a certain way. He grew up in Iowa, with his sister and brother, went to a teachers’ college, became a journalism and English teacher, and taught high school students first in Iowa, and then in Michigan for three decades. Then he moved to Virginia, to work for the Virginia High School League for another decade. In retirement, he volunteered his time at this theater, doing whatever was needed. He married my mom and they had me and my brother. We added our spouses and three grandchildren to the family. He loved theater and game shows and music and coffee and Christmas and the newspaper in the morning. It was a quiet life. That’s the newspaper obituary version.
But it’s not the story.
You see, Dad wasn’t just a high school teacher. He was the kind of teacher every teenager dreams of, the kind they make Dead Poets Society-type movies about. We have been absolutely stunned by the number of former high school journalism students who have contacted us to tell us what he meant to them. There was a full-page Detroit Free Press article commemorating him. One of his former students wrote to him before he died: “To call you a favorite teacher would be a gross understatement. You were so much more than that. You were a mentor, you were a friend, you were a catalyst and an influence.”
And he changed their lives, so many of those students’ lives. I calculate he taught at least 120 kids, every year, from 1962 until he retired from teaching in 1994. He also taught workshops in the summers to college students and other teachers. Dad has former students at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, USA Today, at NPR, in television journalism, on the bookstore shelves, even one with a long stretch on General Hospital.
He advised the school newspaper, and that school paper wasn’t just a school paper. It came out weekly. It was eight pages. It was professional-class, and it won awards. So many awards. Our house was full of all the awards. He’s been inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame—the first teacher ever. He was named the National Journalism Teacher of the Year. He was so famous as a teacher that I became a lawyer rather than try to fill those shoes, even though I secretly wanted to be just like him. And I still do.
My brother and I went to the high school where he taught. People ask whether it was awful to go to high school with your father—and it wasn’t awful at all. Quite the opposite. Dad was so beloved that his popularity made us popular, too. When I was in school, he drove a 1987 red Pontiac Firebird and wore his loud green plaid pants a bit too often (just to embarrass me, I have long suspected). He rode tricycles at student assemblies and once or twice, a donkey in a fundraiser basketball game. Students hung out after school in the classroom he allowed them to decorate. My high school was like a second home to me, because he was there, too.
At the VHSL, he was in charge of academic, non-sports high school activities statewide, including high school newspapers, theater, yearbooks, forensics, and debate. During his long hospital stay, I took breaks to dash ninety minutes home to watch my boys compete in Scholastic Bowl meets. Only afterwards did we find out that without Dad, none of us would have been there. Neither would any of the coaches, judges, or other kids from the other high schools. Dad was the one who made Scholastic Bowl a VHSL event, statewide, in 1998.
He leaves a big hole in our lives. As a grandfather, he made long trips in pre-dawn darkness to babysit. He tossed toddlers in the air way past the age when most of us start feeling it in the lumbar area. My niece, as a toddler, fell asleep on his lap—her parents will tell you it wasn’t just anyone who could make her feel safe enough to do that. He listened and got indignant on my younger son's behalf when his teachers were too demanding—not because they were demanding, but because the assigned work wasn't teaching him enough. As recently as last April, he delightedly trekked five miles around the UVA grounds to watch my sons' reactions as they toured the school they both wanted to attend. My older son got the news he’d been admitted to UVA’s class of 2026 in the hallway outside Dad’s hospital room just three weeks ago, and rushed in to tell "Papa," by then on the ventilator. He got a hand squeeze in return. We know he heard, and was proud.
As a father, Dad was very nearly perfect. Yes, he insisted on watching the evening news every night, back at a time when that meant that our one color television couldn’t stay on The Brady Bunch. Yes, he got really mad when I skipped school for Senior Skip Day and when another teacher personally dragged my misbehaving brother to my dad's classroom during a school day.
But he taught us how to care about people’s stories. How to love the English language and to use it to express ourselves. How to listen, not to assume things, to be interested in everything, and to be informed before tossing out half-baked opinions. He taught us to love theater, love music, to revere education. He taught my brother what fatherhood should look like. We learned how to serve others, how to put them before ourselves, how to think about family first, always, every single day, from him.
As a husband, he was truly amazing, especially recently. Mom has almost as many bionic joints as Steve Austin, and Dad was her only caretaker right up until the day he went to the hospital for the last time. He loaded her walker in the back of his Nissan, pushed her wheelchair, shopped for groceries, refilled her meds, all while cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, and taking care of the yard. He only stopped cutting his grass with a push mower in July. They were married for 53 and a half years after dating only five months. Truly a match made in heaven.
At the end, we all knew—Dad included--that he might not beat the pneumonia making it hard to breathe. We had the time and the knowledge before he was intubated to tell him everything I’ve just told you. He knew he was loved beyond measure, and we know we were loved in return. And really, isn’t that what life is about?
He gave his retirement time to this theater he loved. There are empty chairs here, and that’s okay. This service is being streamed and I think there are a fair number of people watching. It’s still the holiday season and there is Covid and many of the people who owe him so much are exactly where he would be, if he could—with their families.
But if every single person whose life he changed were here, we’d need the UVA basketball arena, hot and sweating in the crowd. We’d be crammed in with thousands of the journalism students he taught, and the subjects of all the stories they went on to break, the teachers he mentored and all their students, the administrators across Virginia he worked with, the current Virginia high school students like my sons participating in extracurricular activities he oversaw, the theater folks he volunteered with, and the friends and family he loved galore.
Dad had a wonderful life. Ours, because he was here, are wonderful now, too.
the darkest web:
The Darkest Flower:
Lying Beneath the Oaks: