Twenty-two years ago today, on April 11, 1999, we had Sunday brunch with my Dad at the Denny’s in Vernon Hills. We drove up there after church and met him outside.
It was a long walk from the parking lot into the restaurant and we walked very slowly because Dad had an unspecified neurological disorder that left one side of his body almost as if it had been paralyzed. He had consulted with doctors from the University of Chicago, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins. No one was able to figure what the problem was – except that there was a problem. He walked with a cane and should have used a walker, but he was NOT a fan of that idea.
When we finally walked through the doors at Denny’s, Dad was greeted like royalty. He was a regular. He chatted with all the waitresses and busboys as the hostess led us to Dad’s favorite table in the back. He was happy showing off his three little grandchildren to the Denny’s folks. We had a lovely visit over brunch. Dad had his usual – Egg Beaters with sausage and a side of steamed broccoli.
Afterwards, we made the agonizingly slow walk back out to the parking lot. We kissed and hugged Dad good-bye and he settled into his car and then with a toot of the horn and a wave out the window, he sailed out of the parking lot as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
The next evening, Monday, April 12th, my brother called me at home from Seattle. We had been out at some activity for one of the kids and had just arrived back home. This was before cellphones and we had been out of touch for a few hours. Don asked if I had talked to our sister Susie. I said, “No, why?” He muttered, “Oh boy,” and then told me that Dad had died.
Dad had a heart attack and died while eating dinner at Baker’s Square in Libertyville.
In the days that followed, we planned Dad’s wake and funeral. Dad was nominally Methodist and my sister Susie and her husband Pat belonged to the local Methodist church at the time so that’s where the funeral was held. Dad greatly admired our priest, Jack Wall, so we asked him to preside at the service. Ecumenism at its finest.
We created photo collages for display at the wake and we gathered some mementos from Dad’s life including the two Purple Heart medals he was awarded during World War II. As we were setting up everything at the funeral home, floral arrangements arrived including one from the staff at Denny’s.
Relatives from New York, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia came. Dad’s friends from the neighborhood and retired colleagues came. Our family and friends came. The Denny’s folks came.
We were incredibly touched by the thoughtfulness of the folks from Denny’s. They sent flowers, they came to the wake, they came to the funeral. Dad obviously made an impression on them.
I imagine that impression came from Dad’s interactions with them. As I was beginning my work career, Dad made it clear that I should treat everyone with respect. He felt that you could learn more about a workplace from secretaries and custodians than you could from middle management and corporate bigwigs. He did not put on airs.
We all were grateful that Dad died at Baker’s Square and not at Denny’s. We felt that the Denny’s folks would have been beyond heartbroken if Dad had died on their watch.
None of the people Dad had worked with for decades knew that he had a Purple Heart – let alone two. They told us time and again at the wake how surprised they were to learn of his wartime experience.
I guess you could say that even though Dad tooted his horn as he drove out of the parking lot on that Sunday before he died, he didn’t generally toot his own horn. He was a humble guy. But I’ll toot the horn for him.
After Dad retired, he began going to army reunions. One of those reunions took place near my sister Marianne’s house in Maryland. She invited several of Dad’s reunion buddies and their wives to a meal at her home. During that gathering Marianne and her husband David learned more about Dad’s wartime experience than they ever did directly from Dad.
Willis Farley, one of the reunion guests, told Marianne that he had been Dad’s driver in France. Dad was a forward observer and during one mission, Dad and Willis were hit by German artillery. Willis was badly injured. Dad carried him to an abandoned building where they sheltered until help arrived. Willis credited Dad with saving his life.
We had dinner at Dad’s house after the funeral. We sat around the dining room table my parents bought when they were first married. We told old stories and shared stories from the wake and funeral. We laughed and shed a few more tears. We remembered then, as we remember now, our dear ol’ Dad (which is how he often referred to himself). He was a devoted Dad, an honorable man, and a humble hero.
We will raise a glass in his memory tonight – and tomorrow too.