Father’s Day 2011 marks something of a personal milestone for me. It will mark the first Father’s Day in my lifetime I won’t make a Father’s Day phone call. My Dad, Joel Don Lawrence, passed away late in the night on May 12 at the Veteran’s facility in Huntsville, Ala. While I wasn’t at his bedside, my sister, Linda, in my home town of Hartselle, Ala., was.
By all accounts, he passed the way he lived. In a quiet, gentle, and peaceful manner he tendered his resignation from this life and had his passport stamped to enter a better place. That last night, when I called, she placed the phone up to his ear and I was able to say “goodbye” about ten minutes before he met his reward for a life well lived and as we in the South say “a man in full” of 86 years.
Some knew him as “J.D.,” some knew him as “Joel” or “Don.” Dozens knew him as “Uncle Don.” Dozens more grandchildren and great-grandchildren knew him as “Paw Paw.” Three of us had the high honor and distinct privilege to know his as “Dad.”
Like many of those in the brotherhood of what has come to be known as the Greatest Generation, my Dad was a man of few words. In fact, it was only about five years ago, I learned he earned several service medals for his service to our country in World War II. My sister discovered it while going through some material and records with respect to his veteran benefits eligibility requirements. Even more amazing, one of the medals included a Silver Star award for a particular campaign. He never talked about his time in that war. I’m not exactly sure why, but it seems to be a common thread among many veterans I’ve met who served during that period of conflict. They tend to be men of action; not words.
A couple of years ago I asked him why he never mentioned those medals before the discovery Linda made. He responded “I’m no hero. I didn’t do anything special. I just did what they asked me to.”
Wow, can you imagine? I note he said what they “asked” me to do, not what they “required” me to do. I think my Dad used that specific phrase with purpose. To him doing only what was required was a chore, simply doing what was asked was a calling for which responding was simply a duty.
To my knowledge, he never sought nor found any kind of notoriety for anything. No bold type headlines, no white hot spotlight. He didn’t fish, hunt or play golf. He wasn’t president of any organization. He simply paid his bills on time, went to work every day, never complained, loved his wife and family, and met life full-bore every day.
Once, after I had attended some trendy management seminar where “establishing goals” was the fashionable buzzword, I asked him if he ever had in goals in life. He said “Sure… My goal in life was to do whatever necessary to ensure that life for my children would be better for them than it had been for me.”
I was stunned by the simplicity and awed by the sincerity of that response. It was an indication to me he considered this calling of making life better for his children a duty, just as challenging as his country’s call to duty at a time of war. Who among us doesn’t want the exact same thing, but never articulate or engage the action needed to accomplish the task? There is something about saying it aloud or writing it down that makes it more measurable and accountable. It was an accountability he didn’t shun and a notoriety of simple resolve. It was who he was.
I can tell you the thing that I will remember most about him more than anything. He was a World Class Champion at patience and coping. In my entire life, I can recall seeing him get angry in the context most of us know as “madder than hell” on only a few occasions. Frankly, those occasions had as much to do with me being a hellion as it anything else. Apparently, if my family members are to be believed, I was somewhat rebellious for a large portion of my adolescent life, but from his perspective it was never about me, or him, for that matter. It was about “us;” all of us in the family. If anyone, including the most rebellious member, endangered the well-being of the family as a unit, you were going to have to answer to him. His patience and flexibility may have given some the impression he could be taken advantage of, but that would prove to be a drastic mistake in judgment.
He was flexible, patient and knew how to cope. After all, when I left to go to Tuscaloosa, he was a Bama fan. When my brother Brian, left to go to that “other college” in Alabama, he became a Barner. How much more flexible could one person be? He was patient enough to tolerate the rancor of a rebellious adolescent. And he could cope as well as the Biblical hero Job. If they gave out Lombardi Trophies or National Champion Crystal Trophies for steadfast application of patience, his trophy case would have been larger than the simple house he called “home.”
The only thing he couldn’t cope with was Alzheimer’s. But even as that demon plotted its eventual deadly choke-hold on his mind and spirit, he was resolute in his body and soul, and even in his mind: he wanted to go home. I’m pleased to say, and hope you join me in rejoicing, that like the rest of his goals in life, he has accomplished that goal now. He’s “home” and at peace.
Years ago, legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was in a television studio filming a commercial for the Regional Bell phone company then known as Bell South. His script called for him to say something like: “Have you called your mother today? I tell our players to call home at least once a week to check in with their mommas.” The story goes they had attempted multiple unsuccessful takes of the commercial when, for reasons he later said even he couldn’t explain, the next time the cameras rolled, he ad-libbed: “Have you called your momma today? I sure wish I could call mine.”
Cameras stopped, silence ensued, throats knotted, and tears formed in the eyes of some bystanders. Finally the director of the commercial said “We’re done here.” The commercial aired with the single take of that ad-lib and went on to be touted as the most recognizable commercials in the Southeastern United States for many years after.
So, Happy Father’s Day to all you Dads out there; including my two sons, Kevin and Joel and my son-in-law, Richard, fathers to our seven grandchildren. To them and all of you, try to make life better for your children than you’ve had it for yourself. Do that and you’ll be an “accomplished man” with great reward for goals accomplished.
And, to all of you, if you’re lucky enough to have a father to call today, and for which that call won’t be a final “good-bye” call, do it. I get it now, coach.
I sure wish I could call mine.