Posts Tagged ‘Iowa’

Lessons from My Father

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Father’s Day 2012, A Man for All Seasons

Written by Tony Mussari
Edited by Kitch Loftus-Mussari
Copyright 2012
All rights reserved
Mussari-Loftus Associates
The Face of America Project

He didn’t tell me how to live; he lived and let me watch him do it. Clarence Budington Kelland

A Father’s Gifts

Most of what I know about being a father and a grandfather, I learned by watching my dad. He was a happy man, a thoughtful man, an industrious man, a loving man, an honorable man, and a generous man.

When he was just a boy, he learned how tough the world can be. He was a breaker boy. For those who do not know the term, breaker boys sat on coal shoots and they separated coal from other rocks and minerals. It was a tortuous job. If they made a mistake or they gave in to childhood distractions, a stick man would hit them with his stick, and he would abuse them with obscene words of condemnation.

Breaker boys worked 8 to 10 hours a day six days a week. The work was dangerous. They were not permitted to wear gloves. At the end of the day their hands and fingers were cut and bleeding. My father was one of the fortunate ones. He did not lose a finger or a hand to the machinery in the breaker. He was not pulled into the rushing coal and crushed to death. He did not get asthma or black lung disease from the coal dust in the breaker.

My father graduated from the breaker to a job that paid him to drive new cars from Detroit to car dealers in Lackawanna County. He earned his advanced degree when he was hired by the Delaware and Hudson Railroad. A work related accident put him and his broken leg in a room in Mercy Hospital. There, he met a young student nurse. They enjoyed one another’s company. They dated, and eventually they married. That partnership gave my father the opportunity to work overtime and literally sacrifice everything to raise three children.

My dad was a good spirited man. I never heard him complain about anything except my childhood indiscretions like getting out of my seat and walking up the aisle during mass, my tendency to play with matches, and my unsuccessful attempting to push a spool of wire rope at the loading dock of the Hazard Company on my way home from school. This adventure ended when I was pinned beneath the spool of wire rope. There are other examples, but I think you get then point. My brother and sister were no match for my ability to get into trouble.

Every morning at 5 a.m., the smell of freshly brewed Eight O’clock Coffee filled our home. Prepared by my mother for my dad’s breakfast and the thermos bottle in his lunch pail, it was one of my dad’s greatest pleasures in life, that and my mother’s home-made apple pie.

My father idolized my mother, and he had a very special place in his heart for my sister. Watching him interact with them, I learned to respect women. One of the cardinal rules in our home, Ken and I never hit, or shoved my mother or my sister. We were not permitted to use abusive or obscene language in their presence.

Another cardinal rule involved responsibility. My father worked on the railroad by day, and he was on call for emergencies at night. If a signal or other device did not work, he got the call. The overtime he earned from these jobs was saved and used to pay for our education. Like so many fathers of his generation, he went without so that his children could get the best education available.

Watching him work at school activities, I learned the importance of volunteering. He collected tickets at our basketball games. He painted the rooms at the CYC. He was a member of the Holy Name Society. He volunteered to umpire our pick up baseball games. Going with him to vote on election day, I learned the obligations of citizenship.

My dad was a certified sweet tooth. He loved to surprise us with Dixi Cup ice cream. The three ounce cups of vanilla or chocolate ice cream or a mix of the two and the small wooden spoons were part of the culture of our childhood.

My father was a genuine Mr-Fix-It. He could fix almost anything, and he loved to tinker with broken appliances and radios.

When his grandchildren came to visit, he had a magical presence.

When I look back at my childhood years and the legacy of my father, these are the most lasting lessons he taught me, not with words, but with quiet deeds:

1. The power of kindness;

2. The gift of responsibility;

3. The beauty of self sacrifice;

4. The meaning of love;

5. The emancipation of honesty;

6. The benefit of hard work;

7. The joy of laughter;

8. The importance of innocence;

9. The warmth of humility;

10. The importance of education.

The most memorable moment I had with my father, happened in September 1967. He and my mother came to visit me in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was the longest trip they took during their married life. I had just passed one of the candidacy exams required for my Ph.D. After a visit to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, my father said these words to my mother:

“Jane, you know I never went to high school, but with Ken and Tony, I believe I have a college degree.”

In less than a month after that wonderful visit, my father died from the cancer he most likely got from the PCB’s in the railroad yards where he worked. He was 62 years old.

The most beautiful tribute to my dad came from the heart of one of my former teachers. “The saddest thing about your father’s death is the loss of his beautiful smile.”

I see that smile every day. It is recorded in a picture I took of my father while I was in college and living at home.

When I visit my father’s grave, the small, unpretentious tombstone doesn’t say hero. It doesn’t say successful. It doesn’t say prominent. It simply says Mussari. Many years ago a scholar told me that my dad’s family name in Italy was most likely Mussar, and it means loving kindness.

That is the who, what, when where and why of my father and his life. It is the standard he set for his three children, and it is his legacy to his children and grandchildren.

There are fathers like my dad all over the country. Kitch and I were privileged to meet some of them during our Face of America journey and during our years in the classroom. On this Father’s Day, I will be thinking about my father and giving thanks for all that he did for me to honor you.

William Wordsworth said what I am feeling with these ten words:

Father! – to God himself we cannot give a holier name.

Thank you dad

Happy Father’s Day

(Pictures of breaker boys, Library of Congress digital collection)

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