Friday, June 01, 2012

Fifty years later

June 1, 1962. Almost the beginning of the summer break. Big summer plans were on the top of my mind...that is after finals that were beginning the next week. I was ending my junior year at Penn State and had been accepted as an intern with the Cooperative Extension Service. I was going to be an Assistant County Agent in Indiana County...just eighty miles form home and of course eighty miles from my new girl friend, Aleene. But first there was the issue of finals. There were six of them coming up.

It was a Friday afternoon, about two o'clock and I was lounging around the DTS house when I was called to the phone. "Tom, this is Deb Jolley calling, (our pastor in New Castle)...I am sorry to tell you your dad died about noon today in his office. There is a car on the way to pick you up. Can you be ready to come home in about three hours?"

Well, I was shocked of course. I went back to the room where I had been talking to some of the guys. As I revealed to them what the call was about they began to come up with strategies to handle my dilemma...finals. The best advice I got was to call the dean's office and explain the situation. I did call and just that quickly Dr. Pasto (a former instructor of mine and now acting dean) assured me that my exams would be deferred. All I need do was show up after some time at home. He would personally call the profs and that would be that. He also offered to dispatch a university car to take me the 180 miles to home. How nice, but I already had a ride on the way.

The ride home was tense. Two of my brother Jim's friends were driving his car and they tried to make conversation, but as I recall it was the beginning of a new normal for me...dealing without the dad I had always depended on. After all, I was just 20. Death is so final, we all know that, but until the reality hits you from life's experience, a "reality check" we would call it today, well it is a life lesson that we all have to learn. I had lost a grandpa when I was six and a grandma when I was ten, but they were was to be expected. Dad was just 67...and he died in his office, between suddenly and unexpected. I was stunned.

We had a viewing which went on forever, or so it seemed...all of us lined up near the casket as person after person filed through...old friends, patients, former scouts, Dental Association members, acquaintances from all over town most of whom I did not know. But interspersed within the group was a small (in stature) eight-teen year old girl with her parents. We hugged and I did not want to let go; it meant so much to me to see her there. We had been dating a year, from the distance of our two campuses, but we were beginning to forge a bond. I see it plainly now, and I thought so then, but we were so young.

The morning I was to head back to Penn State to finish my final exams broke clear and warm. It was June 8. I was packed and prepared to move out as the sound of horse hooves coming down the road to our house got closer and closer. It was Suzanne Winter, a neighbor and classmate. On the horse with her was her toddler-age daughter. I had not seen her since graduation three years before. It was a reunion, the image of which has lasted through the years. We were not "special" friends, but friends none-the-less. I was moved.

I drove back to State College and to an empty fraternity house...unlocked, big, wide open, and lonely. It would be my residence for the next several days as I made contact with my instructors and scheduled meetings and exams. Two told me to forget the tests if I was ok with taking the grade that I had accumulated so far. I jumped at that chance. My Entomology prof was a great guy and told me I could only increase my grade if I took the test and he would not let it lower my grade. I loved the class and was sure I could "ace" the test...and I did. The remaining instructor, Doc Barr, spent an hour or so with me talking about life without a parent and finally said that I had done enough for him to give me an A. Yes. Another life lesson learned. A similar situation, in reverse, occurred when I was adjunct staff at Davenport University. A young woman's mother died and her final was deferred. She called me to make arrangements and I remembered Doc Barr and told her that she had done enough. Is that called paying forward? It felt good when I did it.

Finals were over and I proceeded to Indiana to start my new job. The summer went well, but I was lonely and grieving. I was not aware of it at the time, but as I look back this was a tough time. My grief spilled over into my attitude toward my relationship with Aleene. It took the rest of the year for me to get my mind clear, but in the end her patience with me prevailed. By the end of 1962 and early 1963 our relationship was firm and growing.

 Fifty years have passed. There has not been a year that I have not replayed the lessons of life that Dad taught me in life and finally in death. He was a giant in my life and in my memory. And just he frequently reminded me: "Pretty is as pretty does."

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