Learning from My Father

A "Last Lecture" at the Athenaeum

March 7, 1989

by John J. Pitney, Jr.


Iíll start by telling you what this lecture is not. It wonít be an examination of contemporary politics; in fact, Iím not going to talk about politics at allówhich may please some of you and distress others.


Hereís why:


By the time I actually give my last lectureówell into the 21st century, I hopeótodayís issues and personalities will be long gone. By then, doing a Reagan imitation will be like doing a Millard Fillmore imitation. In years to come, Iíll have a new repertoire of imitations, perhaps based on CMC students who go on to high office.
 

The other thing Iím not going to do is talk about grand abstractions. Now, abstractions are important. If I didnít believe that, I wouldnít be a college professor. But I always think of what Thomas Jefferson said: ďState a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.Ē By the way, thatís a handy quotation to have, if ever you disagree with one of your professors.
 

Tonight I want to talk about what really matters in this life. I want to talk about things that you donít need a PhD to know or to teach. I want to pass along some lessons I learned from a man who never had a chance to go to college, much less earn a PhD. I want to talk about my father and what I learned from him.
By using the word lessons, I donít mean that he gave me lectures. Dad never aspired to be Ward Cleaver. He was not the kind of man to say, ďWell, Jack, this is what weíre going to learn today.Ē


No, my father didnít teach me that way. He taught by exampleóby the way he lived, and finally by the way he died.


John J. Pitney. Sr. was born on September 14, 1922. He grew up on his fatherís farm in Saratoga Springs, New York. At the age of two, he contracted rheumatic fever. Thatís a disease that some of you may not have heard of; todayís doctors can stop it with antibiotics. But there were no antibiotics in 1924; penicillin was still four years in the future. And so the illness caused severe heart damage, which would have consequences for him in the future.

He didnít go to college. Opportunities were limited in rural upstate New York. Besides, his father wanted him to keep working on the farm.  In 1941, when he was 19 years old, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Like many young Americans, he tried to enlist. But because of his heart condition, he was 4-F.  During the Vietnam War, a lot of people would have seen such an exemption as cause to celebrate. But in 1941, with America under attack by the Axis, people gave stern looks to young men who didnít go to war. My father was a proud man, so it was hard on him.
 

He stayed at home and worked on his fatherís farm. From there he started a milk route, and he spent most of his life as a milkman. Thatís a tough life. Some of us may have romantic images of a milkman as a figure out of a bygone day. Well, I helped him on the milk truck when I was a teenager, and, believe me, there was nothing romantic about it. Most mornings he would get up at 1:30 a.m. He put in 60 to 70 hours of work each week. Thatís not 60 to 70 hours sitting down in an office. Thatís 60 to 70 hours driving a milk truck, rain or shine, sick or well. The job meant hard physical labor. Ever try to lift a case of milk cartons? My dad would carry four at a time. He kept on with that work well into his fifties.
 

Today itís hard to imagine people living that way. Itís almost something out of Dickens. But thatís the life my father had: seven days a week, 365 days a year, no breaks, no vacations, no days off ó not even Christmas. A lot of times on Christmas Eve, our family would gather to celebrate, and then a call would come.
The restaurant down the road wanted a milk delivery. He wanted to stay home with us, but he was devoted to doing his job. And so heíd go.


In 1976 his heart got worse, and he had to give up his milk route. Later that year he had open heart surgery, which would give him eleven more years of life.
Meanwhile, he had taken a job at the local water filtration plant, where he often had to work the night shift. Thatís okay if youíre in your twenties, but itís not so good if youíre in your fifties and have a heart condition.


Whatís more, he had always worked for himself and valued independence. Now he not only had to take a sharp pay cut, but he had to answer to people half his age. He never complainedóeven when he was temporarily laid off and had to go to the unemployment office.


In the autumn of 1986, eight days before he was going to retire, he suffered a heart attack. He was bedridden for months and gradually declined. On June 13, 1987, he died.
 

I go through all this not to tell you the sad story of one manís lifeó and, as Iíll explain, I think it is ultimately not a sad story. I talk about my dadís life because it teaches some lessons.


The first lesson is suggested by something that Harry Truman once said: ďA lot of people in this world spend their time doing work they donít much care for.Ē As usual, Truman was right. The lesson is to remember how lucky we are: lucky to be here at college, lucky to enjoy the choices we have. Often, when Iím consumed with the worries of academic life and think I have it really tough, I look back at my fatherís life, and my troubles donít seem so bad.


I reflected on that lesson this past weekend when I was interviewing some prospective students with Ric Quinones. We asked them, ďWhat really bothers you in life?Ē Some mentioned such problems as prejudice, poverty, and war. But one fellow said, ďIt really bothers me that my sister gets to drive the Maserati, and I have to drive the beat-up, old Subaru.Ē


Somehow I donít think that my father would have considered that a compelling problem.


The second lesson is this: When talking about luck and advantage, remember that much of our luck involves the parents we have. Despite his hard times, my father had a hope: that my two sisters and I would have a better life than he had, that we would have the opportunities that he and my mother had been denied. They wanted us to go to college, to have freedom, to have choice.


Their emphasis on personal freedom was something special. Parents often push children into certain professions just for the sake of making money. My mother and father never did that. In their eyes the most important thing they could do was to make sure we could do what we really wanted.


They succeeded.  The three of us got the educations we sought. One of my sisters is a registered nurse. The other has a masterís in educational psychology. And as for me, the proudest moment of my life so far came in 1985, when my parents could see me get a PhD from Yale.


My sisters and I got through school because our parents sacrificed. And through their sacrifice, they inspired us to work, to study, to make something of ourselves. Not everybody has that advantage. I recognized that at an early age. When I was in high school, the family next door to us was on welfare. Their children didnít do well because their parents did not inspire them and show them a good example.


That, not poverty, was their real disadvantage.


And Iím not talking about a problem that only afflicts poor people. You can just as easily see the same pathology among people who are well off. Think about the people you know in college. Many of them come from affluent families, but some have parents who donít give a damn about them. It doesnít matter how many nice cars youíve got; if youíve got parents who donít care about you, youíre lacking something important.

Thatís why this milkmanís son considers himself more advantaged than many of the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers.

The third lesson: my parentís sacrifices were acts of love. Now, my dad never went around hugging us or saying ďI love you.Ē He just wasnít that kind of person. He was reserved in showing his emotion. The Leo Buscaglias of this world might say thatís a bad thing, because they claim that you need to show your love with embraces and kisses and warm language. I think that such an attitude contains dangerous nonsense. Itís dangerous because it puts too much emphasis on trivial expressions of affection. If you worry about whether a person hugs you or says ďI love you,Ē you might ignore that personís true acts of love. Dad didnít hug us, but he got up at 1:30 every morning to provide for us. That was an act of love.


Thereís a quotation that puts it best. Itís by Mario Cuomo. As many of you know, I donít agree with Governor Cuomoís politics, but he and I both come from working-class, Catholic backgrounds, and we see a lot of things the same way. One time he described his father in words that apply to mine:

 

"I know him only as a person who worked 24 hours a day.... He never took me for a walk. He never had a man-to-man talk with me. ... I think of him as being very affectionate, but I donít remember him putting his arm around me. You always had the sense that he had great feeling for you. You saw him providing for you, at enormous pain to himself. You saw him doing nothing for himself.... So the overwhelming impression we got was that this man was offering us his life; he didnít have to put his arm around you."

That was my father.


And here is the last and hardest lesson that I learned from his life: The books donít balance in this world. Good people can suffer while bad people live in comfort. Look at my dad. He was a good man. He believed in God, prayed, went to church. And yet he led a Dickensian life and was struck down just before he retired. In his last weeks sometimes he would slip into delirium. He would try to get up from bed, thinking that he was still working on the milk truck. I was with him. I would try to tell him that he had to stay in bed, but the hard years were so deeply imprinted on his mind that he kept saying, ďI have to go to work.Ē So, even at the end, he didnít have the rest that he had earned.


There are some television preachers who say that if we pray their way, we will get material rewards in the here and now. Thatís an evil teaching. When people try it and find that the rewards donít come in this life, they have no faith to fall back on. At the close of day, you canít expect justice from this world. Rewards in this life are not the reason to do good. We should do good because thatís what God meant us to do.


Several months before my fatherís final illness began, I started going to church again. For years I had stayed away, thinking that I was above all that, because I had things all figured out. Then in early 1986 I just had a feeling that I did need faith. So I went back, and Iím glad I did. Itís tough to lose a parent. It would be even tougher without God.


I donít want to end this by talking about death. My father was not a morbid man. Though he was shy about showing his feelings, he could be cheerful and funny.
One time I happened to be holding my camera in the garage, and he started clowning around with a hatchet. I shot his pose, and the picture now hangs in my office over the caption: ďWE PITNEYS ARE HATCHET-MN.Ē


So I think not only of the sad parts of his life, but the good times. I also hope that my Sisters and I provided him with some consolation that his sacrifices had not been in vain.


Thatís looking back. Now I want to look aheadóto my own wedding, just eleven weeks away. The lessons Iíve just sketched for you are the lessons that Iíll try to pass on to the children that Lisa and I will have. I want to pass them on not just by preaching them, but by living them. If I can be half the man my father was, I will have had a well-spent life.


I mourn my fatherís passing, but in a sense he is not gone. He is with me and every member of my family.


So on May 27, when I take my wedding vows, Dad will be there.

 

 

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