He was man of average build with calloused and greased-stained hands and a weathered face. I feared his anger with a respect that needed no explanation. When he smiled, his eyes smiled first. He was a self-taught carpenter and electrician and car mechanic and small appliance repairman and construction foreman and a steel laborer – simultaneously. He was bilingual, conversing easily in German and English. He didn’t go to college. He didn’t graduate high school. But he taught me everything I know about life and how to live it. On Father’s Day, here are five tips from Dad.
#1 – Good enough is not good enough. Dad was a perfectionist of sorts who frequently complained about lackluster workmanship done by others. He built our house. And when it was done there was not one single thing that was left to finish – no unfinished floors, or half painted windows or pieces of trim were left to be done later.
#2 – You catch more bees with honey. Dad frequently reminded us that it served no purpose to be rude in return to someone we thought didn’t like us or who was rude to us. During one summer college break my brother, Steve, held a job at a nursing home where he swabbed floors and cleaned toilets. This was the 1970s; and my brother’s hair, just brushing his shirt collar, was considered long and “hippy-like” at the time. One of the other custodians was frequently snide with Steve. Steve would complain at home that this man was making his life miserable. Dad would say, “nevermind – you just keep being nice to him.” Steve listened. By the end of the summer, Steve’s custodian colleage was a firm supporter and friend.
#3 – It’s okay to stand up for what you believe in – even if it causes disruption. My older brother Jim marched in a peace demonstration during college. A newspaper photographer caught Jim in his lens and Jim’s photograph, protesting the Vietnam war, was front and center in our local newspaper. This was the 1970s, remember. The neighbors were all abuzz quickly jumping to criticism about my brother. I think it’s fair to say that Mom and Dad were somewhat embarrassed. There may have been some words about my brother’s behavior protesting our government – although I do not recall the exact context. What I do know is that when Dad died in 1993 we found that newspaper photograph safely hidden in my father’s important papers drawer. All along, he was secretly smiling at my brother’s will to be heard.
#4 – Nothing, No One is Disposable. At my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, my brother Jim gave a toast that summed up their marriage like this: Mom and Dad threw NOTHING away. Dad would repair anything, would save pieces of broken electrical cords for re-use and had a garage stuffed with left over wood, nails, screws and car parts – enough to build or rebuild nearly anything. We never ran out and bought something new. He fixed it. This, as my brother noted, was a good metaphor for marriage. Through unexpected births and steel layoffs and strikes, through raising five children and putting them through college, Dad never gave up. And today I cringe at the items I dispose – thinking that Dad would try to fix them.
#5 – What makes us different makes life and work special. My dad worked in the melting pot of the Bethlehem Steel beam yard. His coworkers were from every country, every region of Pennsylvania, every ethnic background. He spoke of them in stories and jokes that were filled with respect and fondness for each of them. He saw the differences – including his own – as interesting, sometimes amusing and, in general, something that made the workday worthwhile. As a child, I don’t recall ever hearing a racial slur at home. Later, when my brothers would bring home their college friends — whom other parents of the time might regard as pot-smoking, too-free-spirited hippies — Dad and Mom would sit in the kitchen and talk with them. And although they both heard things they never thought they would hear in their house (about sex and birth control and how these young people intended to live), they never flinched, they never made anyone feel unwelcome. In fact, they taught me – the impressionable younger sister — to be accepting of all.
Ignatius Joseph Hoffman. He was born in the U.S. in 1919, grew up thru the Depression, made his own way teaching himself to design and build and create and labor, and became my Dad. Thanks Dad, for the best lessons in life.
*Dan Fogelberg wrote the song “Leader of the Band” for his father. In 2003 he said of the song, “If I would have been able to write only one song in my life, it would have been this one.”