Patti and I just returned from Homosassa, Florida, where my in-laws, Andy and Virginia, live. As some of you may know, my father-in-law was diagnosed with esophageal cancer the same day I got my diagnosis. He is 85. I call him Pop.


I have known Pop almost as long as I knew my father. My father, JD, died of a heart attack when I was 30 — so most of the time I got to spend with my dad was as a child. Consequently, since I was barely an adult at 30, I feel that I have had two fathers — a father for my childhood and a father for my adult days.

When I was a child my mother used to drag my sister and me to Methodist church every Sunday. I can still hear her say, “You go to church on Sunday and you’ll feel good the rest of the week.”  As a child, I used to believe that if I played baseball anytime during the week and I won, I’d feel good the rest of the week. That was my world.

On a rare occasion, my dad would join us in church. Rare occasion. My lasting memory of my dad in a church was when I was around 9-10ish, standing in a pew right next to my dad and the congregation was singing “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The expression on my dad’s face was one of sheer pain, as if someone was under the pew in front of us ramming a bamboo shoot under his big toe with every syllable of the song he sang. He stared straight ahead and ground his teeth together every time he had to sing, “we will come rejoicing bringing in the sheaves.” But he could throw a mean curve ball and he had great stories of Rogers Hornsby.

On the other hand, Pop is from Massachusetts, of tensile-strong New England principles, raised a Seventh-Day Adventist. You honor the seventh day by resting from sundown Friday through sundown the Sabbath (Saturday). Go to church on Sabbath (Saturday). I first learned about Adventists through Patti’s brother, Jim, who was a good friend and roommate of mine in South Texas.  We worked together on the construction of a nuclear power plant there. Jim is a civil engineer, and I was doing public relations for the owners and the builders.

Then, when I met Patti, and we began to date, I got to know Pop better. During World War II, he was a medic, working in Panama. After the war, he had the opportunity to join GE, but chose to begin teaching and settled in Maryland. He and Virginia had three kids. Life was good.

Sounds like I may be simplifying a life story, but that is not the case. Most of the content and texture of our lives lies between the major events.

Pop likes the New York Yankees (I will forgive him for that), loves to play golf (you should ask him to keep score because you’ll shoot a 69), has a twinkle in both eyes that reminds me of the old Coca Cola illustrations of Santa. His love of history and breadth of stories is truly remarkable. On occasion, he would take Patti and me and the kids through Gettysburg. The way he would recount the battle had us all believing we were about to come under a shelling any moment. He has a love of the sea that came from his grandfather who was a sailing captain, traveling around the world several times.

His gift of gab is perhaps what most folks who know Pop would say is his greatest strength. At his church, he tells the stories for the children’s portion of the service. And every Sabbath, he usually has a pocketful of sweets (jelly beans or some other candy) that he gives out to the kids who know him as a soft touch. Whenever Patti and I are visiting with Mom and Pop, conversations very quickly begin to revolve around relatives and friends, most of whom I can barely recall, if at all.

I believe the greatest teaching any of us can have is by rubbing shoulders with others whom we respect and admire, not necessarily sitting in a classroom. I have walked with Pop through the woods, sat with him on a patio, stared at the sunrise and sunset at beaches with him, attended ball games with him, helped him find lost golf balls (his and mine), shared a love of dogs with him, strolled through book stores with him, spent time afloat with him and attended church with him. Along with Patti, he has helped to loosen a deeply buried faith that I thought I had lost.

And, somewhere along the line, it appears that I may have had an opportunity to rub off on him. Occasionally, I will hear him say something like this, “I remember when your mother and I went to see soandso …” I am sure I look confused to him when he says such things because I immediately know that he and my mother never did anything together. But that’s the way Pop is; in his eyes he has six children, not three.

Over the years, when I meet people, I occasionally compare them to major characters of books that I have read and loved. I know a Daisy Buchanan; I’m all too familiar with a few Jay Gatsbys; had some wonderful encounters with some Huck Finns; and had perhaps more than my share of beers with a Jakes Barnes or two. Pop is my stage manager from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. He may not be the protagonist of every action, but he is the connecting fibre of every character in Our Town. Just like the play, people are drawn to him and he comforts them in bad times and shares joy with them in good times. The stage manager is a favorite and lingering character I think of often. And he is Pop.

These days, Pop is working to regain his strength. Starting in January, he has undergone 6-8 weeks of radiation and chemotherapy to treat his esophageal cancer. At last report, his tumor had shrunk 60 percent. Last week, while visiting with him in Florida, we got to watch some golf, talk about some books, share some opinions about the latest news, soak up the Florida sun and go for a ride or two in the car.

I pray the hardest part is behind him and he can begin to gain his strength back. He is truly the very best man I know.