A sailing blog is an odd place for a eulogy, but a tribute is in order.
My dad died yesterday. He was only 70. He was diagnosed with lung cancer last year. He had a large tumor removed from his lung and was given the ‘all clear’ by his medical team, but it had unfortunately spread undetected to other parts of his body. He succumbed after a brief illness and was fortunately comfortable at the end.
He was born in Ossian, Iowa in 1943. This was a small farming community where folks could be seen making their way to town by horse and buggy into the ’50’s The depression didn’t hit there as hard as it did in many parts of the country. The crops grew and while folks had their struggles, most managed to hang onto their land and put food on the table. Tom’s dad was the postmaster in town. His mother stayed home and raised several children.
He was blessed with a formidable intellect. The boredom with the lack of challenge his schooling and making a priority of chasing the local farmer’s daughters rather than his studies found him graduating third from the bottom of his class.
Back in 1961, a young man with this kind of an academic record coming from a family of modest means wasn’t really college material. So, he decided that the only course of action for him was to join the military. Each branch of the service had an office in his town, so he chose one at random and wound up joining the navy. His dad handed him two bucks, shook his hand, and sent him off to make his way in the world.
As soon as he got into the navy, he realized that he had absolutely no desire to go to sea. It hadn’t occurred to him that being in the navy would most likely end up involving being cooped up on a ship with a bunch of guys. Obviously, this had not been thought through properly back in Ossian.
Fortunately for him, that big brain found him acing all of his aptitude tests, so it was decided that his talents would be better developed in intelligence. So, he spent his time intercepting Soviet morse code transmissions. He was stationed in Germany and Turkey during this time.
He also met my mother in Germany, and they began a family.
He got out of the Navy in ’65, and moved to the Chicago area, getting a job lugging barrels of gelatin in a very nasty factory. The president of this company saw a young man with tremendous potential, and became a mentor to him. This set his life on an entirely new course. Shortly after starting the job at the factory, he was encouraged to instead go into the real estate business. He worked for a few years as a broker for a firm, and then opened his own office in his late 20’s. He made this office into an almost instant success. I was born during this period.
After several years of selling houses, it occurred to him that building them and selling them would be even better. He hired our next-door neighbor’s wife to pretend to be his personal assistant, bought himself a new suit, and managed to secure financing for a large development project. How the hell he pulled this off is beyond me. This also went well.
In 1980, economic conditions and sky-high interest rates made seeking financing for more projects impractical. Always one for adventure, the opportunity to go in an entirely different direction presented itself. My grandmother in Germany got word of a ‘Gastaette’ for sale (this is a bar and grill, essentially). With nothing else on his plate at the time, we all packed up and headed across the Atlantic. We kids were quickly enrolled in German schools, and mom and dad set to work at the business. It was an uneven time for us all. The cultural experience was enriching for everybody, but my parents drifted apart, and the German experiment ended in divorce, with three of us heading back to IL, and my mom staying in Germany.
Now a single dad, with 2 kids (10 and 16) to provide for, life was suddenly different. Stinging financially from the divorce, these were lean times for us. Dad handled it all with aplomb, of course. He worked nights and weekends as a mortgage banker, putting in 80 hours some weeks. During all this time, he always made time for the kids.
In 1989, after several successful years, he decided that it was time for a break. With Tina in college, he offered me an offshore sailing trip as my college education. I think that he suspected that I probably wouldn’t have been a good student (we are very alike in this way), so some real world education would probably serve me better. We had always had sailboats when I was growing up, and I at this point already had a keen interest in all things nautical. So, I enthusiastically embraced the idea. So, just out of high school, the old man and I set of on what for us was the adventure of a lifetime. It also helped set the course for my life. I was immediately at home at sea, and have made going to sea both my profession and my passion. 25 years at sea, some of it on the Bering, some in the tropics have made for an extraordinary life. Thanks to him for that! The broken down old Taiwanese boat that we did our cruising on was also an invaluable education. My mechanical aptitude increased tremendously over those 14 months! It was very nice to be able to negotiate the inevitable learning curve for offshore sailing with him there doing it with me. We became best of friends during this time.
After our return to IL, I got handed my own two bucks and a bus ticket (well, with inflation, it was more than two bucks, but you get the idea), and was sent to make my own way in the world. While this might seem a bit heartless, it was a real service that he did for me. It was time to become an adult. I had the good fortune to find my way to Alaska, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He finished out his career as a VP for one of the nation’s largest mortgage banks. Quite an achievement for a guy with a high school education who was initially lugging barrels of gelatin around. He retired to Iowa in his early 50’s and had some exceptionally rewarding years there with his wife, Karen. I haven’t seen many people thrive in retirement the way he did. He was active in the community, made lots of friends, and stayed active on his little hobby farm. Watching him ride around on his 1950’s era Ford tractor always brought me a smile.
He also found the time to join me for occasional sailing trips, once from PV to Zihuatenejo aboard Star Path, and another time from the BVI’s to Trinidad on Western Explorer. This is also the trip where I met Jenny. Dad fell utterly in love with her from the moment he saw her, and told me that I would be an utter fool for not hanging on to this one. Good call, dad.
In his last years, he joined us frequently in PV. He loved the culture there, taking frequent walks around the malecon and the churches downtown. He even enrolled in a couple of Spanish schools, just to keep the brain active. We’re really grateful for this time that we had with him. In fact, he was able to join us after his initial surgery, and he was doing really well. That’s how we’ll remember him.
With all this said, I’ll remember him fondly forever. He was a man of unshakable honesty and integrity, and always there to council me in whatever I had on my mind. It’s not my way to heap this kind of praise on anybody lightly. He was one very special man.
Rest in peace, dad.