by Doug Magill
You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. Robert Frost
Father’s Day precedes my birthday by a week. The juxtaposition of the two is a solemn reminder of what I owe to those that I call Father: God for the birth and death of his Son, and to Dad, for all that he has given me.
This last April he would have been 104, and it is hard to imagine Dad as that old, both because it is not the memory I have of him, nor is it the image. As I grow older, the image seems to loom larger. My own mortality seems to be growing larger behind me, and I have deeper thoughts these days about what I have been given, and what I have in turn bequeathed to those who follow me.
My oldest son and his wife are recent parents. It is an amazing thing to become a grandfather, and its place among the hallowed moments of life is a blessing, and a clarion call to look at what has been provided and shared.
My father wasn’t big on gifts, though he did surprise me upon occasion with something special, and thoughtful. As I write this there is a cabinet in my office he unexpectedly gave me to house the radio and music equipment I was either building or repairing in my nerd days when I was young. He loved that I could do things with electronics that he couldn’t fathom. It reminds me of him every day.
Yet, the most important gifts are those that have no place, but yet an enormous presence in our lives.
Dad grew up poor, in the outlands of Indiana. One of those places those along our coasts fly over regularly without a thought of who those sturdy, hard-working and essential people are. His parents went broke in the Great Depression and he had to live with relatives. An embarrassment that stung him till his last days. If one could guess where his drive, ambition to succeed and pragmatism came from it is that place and that searing shame.
He worked his way through college and then law school. It is astonishing to think that he believed that a poor man’s son from Indiana could go to, and thrive at Harvard Law School. Yet, he believed, and though he had to borrow money to make it work he graduated with honors and a belief that he could make a difference. In those days there were not a lot of young men from Indiana at such places.
My father found employment at a bank and felt that would provide him a secure future. World War II intervened, and he felt the call of duty to his country. He knew so little about the Navy, having never been in anything larger than a rowboat, that he went to a recruiter hoping to be a petty officer. The recruiter was astonished and convinced him that with a law degree the Navy could use him as an officer. So, without training and little more than the Bluejacket’s Manual he was sent to Hawaii to serve in Naval Intelligence.
He later served in combat as Director of Fighter Operations aboard an aircraft carrier, learning to become Officer of the Deck during sea operations. Something that amused him greatly given his lack of any previous maritime experience.
His career took him to a bank, then the Treasury department and eventually to General Motors. He was a liberal then, I suppose, as he wasn’t sure he wanted to work for a corporation and be told what kind of car to drive. As he rose in the hierarchy of GM he learned about politics and government, and became more conservative as he was exposed to the often corrupt connections between unions, government and the hypocrisy of politicians who espoused sympathy and altruism while mainly benefiting themselves.
Somewhere early in his life he learned to be objective and steely-eyed about people, and developed an ability to work with those around him, no matter who they might be. He never made racial jokes and believed, as perhaps only a failed farmer’s son could, that most people wanted to work and thrive, and the rest didn’t matter much.
He was tasked with forming the first organization in any major corporation focused on dealing with the ever -increasing power and regulation of government. He called it Industry-Government Relations and it is common today, though many companies now follow practices he first established.
As his responsibilities grew, so did his department. He hired a young executive to manage urban affairs – the relationship between GM and city and local governments. This young man also happened to be black and was one of the first minority executives in the auto industry.
In those days the GM building was across the street from the Fisher Building, and through an underground tunnel most GM execs would walk to lunch at an exclusive club in that building. They would also hold events there and used it for special meetings.
Unfortunately that club didn’t allow minority members. My father was astonished, annoyed and then angry. He went – without authorization – to the board of the club and demanded that they admit his young executive or he would withdraw all GM business from the club. GM was the majority of its customers, and they knew that they would be out of business if they didn’t have GM members. They relented, and my father’s protege became the first minority member of that club, and indeed of just about any club in Detroit in those days.
Dad didn’t often talk about his role in things, or why this moment was so important. He believed with every fiber of his being that a black man trying to make his way in business deserved the same consideration as any other young man.
Attitude and actions, he would tell me, are what really defines you as a man, and as a leader. He didn’t preach about equality, or about minorities or about any career issues related to race or any of the other identity-politics buzzwords popular today. His view was simple and direct: if you wanted to work hard, learn and grow, you deserved an opportunity.
My family grew up with that. It was so much more effective than preaching and histrionics and fake anger that my siblings and I inculcated it without thinking or worrying about it.
That gift of seeing people as they are, without labels and adjectives and the panoply of mystic prisms that we are being told these days to evaluate people by is a gift. A priceless one, and the source of great pride and honor among friends.
It has always been with me – this ability to see people for who they are. I learned it well. There are many examples, but I recall one young manager who worked for me being dumbfounded that, after working for me for years, I didn’t realize he was Jewish.
More recently, I was blessed to be on a radio show with several friends: two gifted young men and a young woman. I was the DOWG – the Designated Old White Guy – who didn’t know much about current musical trends and taste. My proclamations, questions and confusion made for much hilarity among my partners on air, yet it made for good radio.
I am especially proud that we would occasionally get calls from middle-aged black people talking about that “cool white dude” and how he was the only non-racist Republican they knew.
There are many things that I know and respect about my on-air partners. Darvio is big, impressive, hard-working, smart, knowledgeable, loyal, bombastic, thoughtful……there are more. Oh yeah, he’s black.
Andre is charismatic, creative, clever, funny, deep and eloquent – despite the Dali-esque things he does on top of his head with his hair. Yep, he’s black too.
Friends don’t have labels. And that is the most important part.
When I think of these two incredible young men I think of them as friends. Not as black friends. I suspect they think of me without adjectives too, though they might describe me in some interesting ways at times.
But I know this – if I needed their help or for them to have my back they would be there instantly, without question, and with the immediate loyalty of long-time friends. That’s who they are, and it matters a lot more than an adjective that has little meaning other than an indication of appearance. Not who they are.
We don’t often deserve the gifts that we receive. Certainly the gift that Christ gave us with his death is beyond comprehension, and we are all humbled by the majesty of that sacrifice.
The gifts that my father gave me are humbling as well. I am better for them, and I hope that some day, some way, that my children will be blessed by them as well.
Today I honor my father for who he was, and what he has left me. When I think of my children and their children, I pray that what they feel they have received from me is equally important. And, what I will be remembered for.
Doug Magill is a former city councilman, a voice-over talent, freelance writer, and a former IT executive and consultant on organizational change and communications. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org