NOTE: Usually I post only light-hearted stuff, but today is Father's Day, so I'm doing something a little different. It has been 7 years since my dad died. The following is what I wrote that appeared on the op/ed page of Charleston's Post and Courier on my first Father's Day without Dad:
This is my first Father’s Day ever without a father.
He was “Dad” for 52 years and now he’s gone, but memories will cause him to live on forever, and what wonderful memories they are.
Today, on a bittersweet day, I celebrate his life – the person he was, the father he was, the qualities he shared and the principles for which he stood.
Dad was adopted as an infant and then lost his adoptive father before he started school. At the age of 6, he was the “man of the house,” with the chore of plowing the field each day. He used to tell us stories about starting his day staring at the back end of a mule.
At the 10th-grade level, Dad quit school and went to work in Charleston as an apprentice pipe fitter. In 1942, he joined the Navy, saw action in the New Guinea, Borneo, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands and Saipan campaigns and in the liberation of the Philippines. He survived the sinking of the USS Hugh L. Scott and a gunshot wound to the neck before receiving an honorable discharge on Jan. 6, 1947. I remember being in the back seat of our car when he was driving, looking at the scar left by a bullet on the back of his neck.
Although he earned his high school diploma while in the Navy, he returned to Batesburg-Leesville High School to “brush up: for college. It was there that he had a math teacher named Elsie Elizabeth Porth. One day, instead of turning in his assignment, he wrote a note to the teacher, asking her for a date. On June 15, 1947, she became his wife.
In the early 1950s, he became a candidate for the S.C. House of Representatives; he had never been in politics, had no relatives or friends in politics and had never been inside the Statehouse. He won, and went on to win more.
The first election he ever lost was after he was offered $50,000 to change his vote on an issue or otherwise have the $50,000 spent against him. Dad didn’t budge; he lost that election by only nine votes – and he didn’t request a recount.
Frequently referred to as a maverick, he was unconventional in his approach to numerous issues. When other committee members studying the navigability of the river system from Columbia to the Charleston harbor decided to go by boat between the two cities, Dad stayed behind – literally: He made the 180-mile trip on skis and repeated the trip later. The same journey was made in the late 1990s by his two sons (my brothers), Rod and Shawn; Dad was inside the boat for this trip.
During his 24 years in the Legislature, he became identified with several issues, most recently with the lottery. He was the first public official in modern history to promote a lottery referendum. Starting the early 1980s, he introduced lottery legislation every year until he retired in 1992. Dad traveled the state, laying the groundwork for lottery support and answering critics. [Interestingly, he was an adamant non-gambler himself.] He also held the best legislative attendance record – never missing a day – and best roll-call vote record for 23 years.
As a House member, he held a long-time filibuster record when he opposed price-fixing legislation; a notable filibuster in the Senate was his 27-hour diatribe on the accommodations tax.
Over the years he worked as a farmer, clerk, laborer, salesman, teacher, businessman and, for several years, was a professional boxer known as the “Blond Tiger.”
To me, he was Dad. What a family man he was. He and Mom had been married almost 54 years when he died in March. The five children never heard Dad say anything negative about Mom; he treated her like a queen. He had a glass of juice waiting for her at her bedside every morning for many years. He gave up the practice of law, which he loved, when her promotion necessitated an out-of-state move [to Tennessee from SC], and he became a real-life “Mr. Mom.”
At night, he read to all five children when we were young – and since the age span runs 52 to 32, that adds up to a lot of reading. And he continued to set an example as he spent hours and hours just reading to learn.
He taught himself to play the piano, banjo, guitar, accordion, ukulele and mandolin and encouraged us in musical fields.
He taught me how to use a sling-shot but forgot to impress upon me the direction in which to use it, so I successfully shot a rock straight back into my face. He made us swings with bushel baskets from a farm.
Dad didn’t place many restrictions and boundaries on us: There were a few basics that he expected. We knew he expected those things, not because he said so, but because that’s what he demanded of himself.
He and Mom also taught us the importance of laughter. We laughed about things we could not change – like the time he built us a three-room cement block house to live in. This was his first effort as a “builder.” He installed what we called roll-out or Florida windows – but he put them in backward. Every time it rained, we had to run outside to roll the windows shut. They were cemented in place, so there was nothing left to do but laugh.
First diagnosed with cancer late in 1974, he was almost like a cat with nine lives. In addition to surviving the sinking of his ship, the gunshot wound and his boxing career, he later was diagnosed with three kinds of cancer, suffered a light stroke, suffered with arthritis and had three pacemakers. When he received his first pacemaker, the doctor advised him to go home and not use his left arm for a while. Instead, Dad drove to the golf course and played a round of one-handed golf.
Up until a few months ago, he played golf often, learned to use a computer and kept reading. The garage is full of stuff that he “almost invented “ – a/k/a contraptions. And then, in March, he slipped away, finally at peace and out of pain. But before he left us, he wrote “good-bye” notes to each of the five children and a final note to Mom, his high school math teacher and wife.
After he died, someone described him as a “character with character.” Indeed, he was a character; and, indeed, he had character.
Just before he died, he asked for watermelon and a small bottled Coke. After a frantic search, I returned to the hospital with those items. He slowly ate three pieces of watermelon and took three sips of that small bottled Coke. These were the last things he had.
Such simple requests – but so very typical of him. He never asked for much for himself in life; he was a giver.
Oh, Dad, I miss you.
Happy Father’s Day.
Copyright Sherry Martschink