PREFACE–I wrote the following piece a couple of years ago, mostly as a way to document and remember my Father and some things he taught me. Since then, I have posted it every Father’s Day weekend. This year I post it with special love and affection for my niece Maddy White. She just graduated from high school with more honors than I can begin to count, and has been–will be–a credit to all her “Grandaddy” believed and wanted for ALL his children and grandchildren. I could be a better Uncle, and I have been at a loss just what to say to Maddy upon her recent milestone. While I do have something on the way to her of a material fashion, no present can ever measure what she means to us all, and how much she is truly loved. Sweet Maddy, this might be the best gift I can give you. To remind you that you come from the strongest stock, and some of the strongest women in the world. I love you and I sit in awe of you, your intellect, and your ability to love and be loved. I hope you enjoy this. I am SO proud of you!
My Father: A Political Journey
My Father was not in politics, but he was an avid student of the political wars, and passed it on to me. So, I suppose it’s all his fault that I’m writing this. He was born in a small West Virginia town, but was fiercely proud of his heritage. A small village nestled in the Allegheny Mountains was his place of origin, and also the place we laid him to rest not all that long ago. While I was floating along a river over the Mother’s Day weekend, I found my thoughts travelling to him.
My Dad was a War Baby as he called himself. Born in 1940, his earliest political memories were of Franklin Roosevelt and how much West Virginians loved FDR. All of them except my Great Grandfather who called him Rosenfelt. He never liked FDR for some reason, but I digress. Dad was a good student and ended up at Berea College for a short time, but came back to West Virginia to do what he really loved.
My Dad was a pattern maker in the foundry business by trade. He built wooden patterns for iron moulds. In other words, if a company made glass ashtrays, there has to be an iron mould for it. But, before the mould can be built, there must be a hand-built wooden pattern. That’s what my Dad was good at, and he came up the hard way. Not as a master of his trade, but as an apprentice. Wood patterns became obsolete years ago, but my Dad still loved working with wood. Examples of his furniture building are legendary. Professionally, he realized he needed to expand his knowledge and he did, by learing the foundry business inside and out. Eventually, he became a respected figure in his chosen field.
Politically however, it was a longer, more convoluted journey. From the FDR of his childhood, he progressed–or regressed some say–to voting for Barry Goldwater. I was only three, and my sister was born the very day LBJ hammered the Man From Arizona, but when I found this out later in my life, I never let him off the hook. Why? Because in just eight short years my Dad went from political neophyte to progressive liberal. He voted for George McGovern, and was proud to proclaim it loudly. I was eleven when Nixon trounced McGovern, and I thought it was the greatest thing in the world! What did I know? I was convinced keeping Nixon was what was normal, and right. This contributed greatly to my feelings of betrayal and scorn when Nixon’s later issues forced him out. Mention Nixon to me now, and you will not get pleasant conversation from me.
My Dad meanwhile, moved to Wisconsin. Close enough to Madison for the liberal politics to not only rub-off, but get totally under his skin. My first time visiting, I recall his stories of Paul Soglin. Soglin was a UW Grad student who ran for Mayor of Madison, and won. Not just once, but several terms. In fact, Soglin is Mayor of Madison right now. His third stint in office, so Dad was onto something and he knew it. The fatal bombing of Sterling Hall on the UW campus was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and liberalism was rampant wherever Dad turned. He watched, he listened, and he passed it on to me. Not in any overt ways, but just by exposing me to what he saw and knew. He drove me around the UW campus, and I saw Sterling Hall. I also saw Mifflin Street where the infamous student activist block parties were held in 1968. He educated himself in these matters, and as a result, taught them to me. He also taught me another valuable lesson. Wherever you are, learn about that place. It makes you understand the people, and places you inhabit, and you are forever enriched.
Dad was a vocal and proud supporter of Jimmy Carter. He felt like Carter was the fresh face Washington needed, I agreed and was by that time old enough to understand and appreciate the politics of the country. Sadly Carter did not live up to our ideals, but was certainly one of the most decent men to ever hold the office. When Carter ran for re-election, I was old enough to vote at last, but could not bring myself to cast a ballot for him or Reagan. I wrote-in Senator John Anderson, and have never once been ashamed of that. Dad? Well he voted for Dick Gregory! Who got quite a kick out of hearing that from me 27 years later.
As I went through my adult life, I voted in every election. I voted for candidates of all parties. One thing Dad instilled in me was to vote for the person, not the party. When I began covering politics full time, he seemed to get quite a boot out of it. I can recall several times on the phone with him driving home after a long day in Frankfort. He wanted to hear every detail. I like to think I made him proud. But I have to thank him for my political life. He gave me the interest, and the insights to make my own choices. I was able to have good relationships with both Democrats and Republicans in Frankfort. That’s all because of what he taught me.
My Dad had a tough last few years. Wracked by illness, and pain, he never seemed to lose the zest for politics. Sadly, he just couldn’t keep up with it as well in his later years. Every press conference I attended. Every candidate I interviewed. Every rally I attended. Every story I filed. All I could think was, “I wish he could see me now.” I admit a bit of hubris on my part, and he was easily able to wring that out of me. In 2007, part of my head appeared on the New York Times web site in a picture. I could not wait to tell him, and his response was less than charitable. Something along the lines of when I got a story in the Times, I should be excited. I deserved it and I knew it!
I guess my whole reason for this piece, is to show that people can work together, and voters can vote for the best people. Not an ideal or philosophy. Not only can we do it, we should celebrate that idea. Dad managed to come full circle in his life. When we laid his ashes to rest, it was within a half-mile of the building where he was born. I think his political journey was a pretty good trip too. A great example for all of us on how to listen, absorb, and evolve.