The lessons from my father were never actually lessons. That is what has stayed with me so strongly over all of these many years. They were life lessons that I learned, by osmosis, from this incredibly strong man of character and integrity, who had a stiff backbone in standing up for what he believed, and in doing “the right thing.”
He spent his too short lifetime spending monstrous numbers of hours working for activist causes, being involved in Democrat polities, and being a strong supporter of civil rights. And yet he never told my brother or me that either of us should do any of that. He simply led his life being 100% true to his principles and set of ethics, and we both watched him and learned from his actions. Yes, he would tell us why he was supporting certain causes or working so hard for certain Democratic candidates or treating friends and family in a certain way, but he would never teach it as any sort of lesson.
Watching and observing as a sponge — yes, as I grew older I realized that’s what had occurred. There are so many life lessons that I learned from him, but here are two that I think about fondly, and almost reverently. One was during one of two summers that my family belonged to a swim club, and my mother would take my brother and I there daily during those summers, as it was her summer time off from teaching. It was a wonderful world for a 12 and then 13 year old boy–filled with tons of other families and kids around my age. My father would work all day at the office and seeing his accounting clients, and then would make the long, half hour drive out to the country to relax at the pol and have dinner with us. One of those early evenings my dad and I were in the locker room changing back from swim suits to shorts and tops, and there were probably about six to eight other kids in the room, plus a couple other fathers. One of those was a large, ponderous man who was speaking very loudly, and clearly, to me, had had too much to drink. He was speaking to another man, and was relaying his anger about how black people were “becoming uppity,” and the “n” word was in the midst of his sentence. My father turned to him, and said: “Please–there are young people here, and it is totally inappropriate for you to use language like that.” The man continued without missing a beat, and then my dad, very quietly, but sternly, made a similar request again. The man stared at my dad in disbelief, and then swelled up with more bombast and anger,and responded: “I’ll speak about those porch monkeys any way I want what are you, Al, a “n-lover?”! My father then dropped him, with one punch. Yes, dropped him. And I had never, ever, seen my father physically respond to anyone like that. And rather than any sort of fear, or embarrassment, I felt a great sense of pride, to see my dad stand up for what he believed in.
My father was a CPA, and he loved having his own office, in which he “did the books” for over 200 small independently owned mama/papa businesses. He never enjoyed “pushing a pencil,” as he always called it, but loved being the free business counselor to his clients, as they would ask him all types of business questions related to their dress shop, or drug store, or small restaurant, etc. And during tax season when I was in high school I would always come in to work for him on Saturdays and some days after school, and I would see these clients come in to their office with their briefcases and boxes of papers. But there also was a stream of other men who would come to the office toting shopping bags of papers and receipts — I grew to learn that these were all people he grew up with in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and they were all struggling to make ends meet. I so often heard them say: “Al, make me a tax return.” And I also learned that their prior years’ returns were all kept in two bottom drawers of one of the file cabinets. As my father’s business would go up and down over the years, based on generally him hiring two many accounting clerks because he didn’t want to “push a pencil,” I would hear my parents arguing in the evenings and on weekends regarding money struggles at home. And one of the sore subjects that always came up was my mother’s upset over why my dad would be doing all of these free annual tax returns, while he was neglecting to complete work for some of his most prosperous clients. And he would always say: “because we were friends growing up, and they need help; if I don’t help them, who will? And why should my most prosperous clients get preferential treatment, just because they’ve become self important? It can’t always be about money, Anne, as there is no person too small to not be able to get by.”
And again, this wasn’t a lesson taught to me by my pop. But it was a lesson learned that I have thought about, and acted upon, so many times throughout my life.