Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A QUIET HERO

Today is my dad's birthday.

He was born on this day 97 years ago.

I lost him in 2007, at age 88.

Born the tiny coal-mining town of Girardville, Pennsylvania, he was the son of Irish parents, and the eldest of nine children.

The Great Depression was a difficult time for most Americans. Picking up a few dollars here and there wasn't easy, so my dad and his friend, Ed Tonitis, aka 'Kid Lightning,' would travel to local towns to do a little boxing. Ironically, Ed Tonitis' son, Brian and I began running together in 1978, and we train together to this day.

A steady job came my dad's way in 1941, when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, where he served in London during the German Blitzkrieg of  World War II.

Discharged from the Army at the end of the war, he married my mother. They were together for 61 years.

A rabid sports fan, he loved to watch boxing, college football (especially his beloved Notre Dame), and baseball. He wasn't a big NFL fan, as he was convinced the game was, in his words, "fixed."

For 38 years he managed the office of a company that repaired equipment for coal companies. A people person, he was lost in retirement, so, for another 13 years, he managed an athletic shoe business I started.

When I began to run road races competitively in 1976, my dad was my biggest supporter and frequent travel mate. It was impossible for my father to be in the orbit of another human being without drawing them into a conversation. He was fiercely proud of my brother and I, and this quiet hero would NEVER talk about himself. He would, however, employ a great deal of Irish exaggeration when it came to bragging about his family.

At the Prevention Marathon, near Allentown, Pennsylvania, in the late 70s, he stunned his audience near the finish line by telling them about his brave son who was running a marathon, despite suffering from a heart murmur. The crowd probably expected the ambulance and the EMT's to circle the finish line as I finished. My dad omitted the fact that my heart murmur had disappeared by the time I was three years old.

My friends were his friends, and when we would get together to discuss our training for the week, my dad, then in his early 80s, would always join the conversation by telling us that, "My wife and I walked three miles, to the end of town and back, three times this week."

Whether we attended races in small Pennsylvania towns, or at the New York City Marathon, my dad was comfortable and gregarious with whomever he met. On several occasions, in a political setting, he met former Pennsylvania Governor and the first Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge. During his first campaign for governor, Mr. Ridge and I ran together through the streets of Pottsville prior to a fundraising event. My father never forgot that, and he and the former governor engaged in several intimate chats over the years.

At age 38, my dad suffered a heart attack. Although he had several  close-calls with death, diet, exercise, and a passionate love for his family kept him alive to age 88. His last couple of years were rough, as dementia gripped him, but he had about 85 years of a very good life. He had outlived most of his contemporaries, so at his funeral service, many runners came by to pay their respects.

My dad was my best friend, my confidante, my hero.

He was a prototype member of the Greatest Generation, a quiet hero who provided for, and was proud and fiercely loyal to his family.

I think about him often. I want to tell him stories, and I want to hear his stories.

Slainte dad!