My Dad, Ron, is the reason I became a journalist. He never told me to become one. But, perhaps, without even realizing it, Dad created the desire in me. My Dad used to be a staunch Democrat. He worked at the union hall on Saturday mornings after spending the week loading stoves onto train cars.
When he got laid off and his plant closed, Dad lost faith in Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Dad became one of those “Reagan Democrats” and supported Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidential bid. I don’t know if he ever voted for a Democrat again.
But it wasn’t Dad’s politics that convinced me to become a reporter. It was the conversations we had about politics. They started in the morning between his sips of coffee and drags off his cigarettes while he read the morning paper at breakfast.
And they continued at night during the commercial breaks during the evening news. He didn’t like a lot of questions during the news stories. “How am I supposed to know what they’re talking about?” Dad would say.
Dad would get ticked off at politicians who would regurgitate their talking points that some consultant told them to say. He would get tired of them going on and on about how they knew what it was like to be “working class”. Dad knew what it was really like to be working class. He never made a lot of money. When he lost his job during the recession, he wasn’t really making ANY money.
Dad could have given up after he lost his job back then. Unemployment was high. Optimism wasn’t. He could have easily given up. There weren’t many jobs around the St. Louis area for which he was qualified in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Dad got frustrated. But he persevered. He made sure he could support us four kids. Dad earned his G.E.D., hoping a better education would lead to a better life. While he never said it, I’m pretty sure that’s why he pushed us in school as hard as he did.
When he was just a teenager, Dad had dropped out of high school to take care of his family when his own dad took off. Life wasn’t easy.
I think that’s why Dad stuck with school later in life with another family to support. He enrolled in a community college and earned a college degree. I remember my Mom telling me to grab my trumpet and my brother, Jim, to grab his clarinet. We played the graduation song as Dad walked into the house following graduation. He wasn’t much for saying much. But his face beamed as we played our musical tribute to him. And that’s saying something, because I doubt my brother and I were all that good at the time. I don’t think Dad cared how that music sounded, though. He had made it. He had overcome a life-changing challenge.
Last weekend, Dad’s fight finally left him. It was the challenge he couldn’t beat. Dad had battled lung cancer for 1 and 1/2 years. That was twice as long as he was expected to live. Dad didn’t blame others. He knew 60 years of smoking had caught up with him. That’s another reason why he never wanted any of us to take up his habit.
Cancer is a brutal thing to watch. As a kid I remembered Dad used to have bulging forearms from loading those heavy stoves into the trains. In his final days, those muscles were long gone, as was half his body weight, and all of his appetite and strength. The last month of his life was unfair.
But I never heard him complain. I think he knew it was his time. At one point, he had improved enough so he could see his grandchildren one last time. I will never forgot those few days.
I know of no greater joy Dad ever had than when he could be with Hayden and Maddy. The way he smiled at them. The way he joked with him. The way he would slip them dollar bills for their piggy banks. He only gave my siblings and me pennies and nickels, by the way. Yes, he loved his grandkids.
My Dad left me with a challenge from our early years of conversations and our final days together when we feared ever leaving his bedside. For our political leaders, Dad wants me to, “Tell them to cut out the B.S. Make them give you straight answers.”
Challenge accepted, Dad. Those politicians are lucky they never had to wear a microphone with Dad asking the questions. Especially if any question involves the future of Dad’s beloved grandchildren.