Last night inspired me to write a long overdue blog post. It was my dad’s retirement party, thrown by the Pathology Department at Columbia University where he was a Director for the past 16 years. When I heard they were planning to roast him, I laughed and wondered what in the world was “roastable” about my dad. He’s just a normal guy. There’s nothing particularly quirky about him, unless you have the inside scoop after living with him for 20-something years of your life. ;-)
I was proven wrong. Not about the “nothing particularly quirky about him” thing. No, there’s plenty of that. What I was wrong about is the “he’s just a normal guy” part. Perhaps because my siblings and I grew up in the presence of greatness of the quiet variety, we took that greatness for granted. There’s actually nothing normal about my dad. Hearing how his boss came to hire him, a guy with none of the credentials for a job in pathology, made me realize just how bizarre and extraordinary his journey has been.
At nineteen years old, amidst the protests of both of their families, my dad and mom married. They had lived next door to each other since they were thirteen. Exactly a year later, I was born. My dad drove a Wonder Bread truck to make ends meet. He ate a lot of doughnuts en route to diners in the middle of the night, and saw his share of roaches scatter when he turned on the lights to refill the bread boxes.
When I was almost four, he decided he needed something a bit more stable and became a New York City Police Officer. He worked in Canarsie, which was very close to our home in Ozone Park. When he was on the 8-4 shift, we were eating dinner by 4:30. Very stable (and good practice for the early-bird specials he’ll be eating as a newly retired person). Several years into his police career, he was injured and placed at a desk job in the Audits and Accounts division at Police Headquarters. As he was growing in his administrative skills, he returned to college at night and managed to get a degree in Sociology, despite the craziness of raising three rug rats in a very small home. Eventually, he became a sergeant and lieutenant.
Then, something happened that changed the course of his life. He applied, via a program in the NYPD, to Harvard for a Master in Public Administration. Future Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had been the candidate accepted a few years before. Dad went off to Harvard as I returned to my senior year at Washington University in St. Louis. Since he had never attended sleep-away college, I counseled him about the temptations and distractions he would face, namely excessive partying, drinking, middle-of-the-night fast-food runs, the freshman 15, sleeping through morning classes, and cramming the night before exams. I told him I knew he had a good head on his shoulders and he’d do just fine. I sent him off with a pat on the back, happy that I could share my extensive knowledge with him for a change. At the end of the year, my parents came to the Midwest for my graduation and I went back East for his.
He returned to the Police Department and became the Quartermaster. After 22 years on the job, he retired at the tender age of 46. In his next career, he was the Associate Executive Director for EMS at Health and Hospitals Corporation. Six and a half years later, they merged with the Fire Department and he decided to leave. But he was only 51, and mom wasn’t quite ready for him to be retired, as the story goes. So, she started sending out résumés to jobs listed in the New York Times and was pleased to announce someone had contacted him for an interview at the Pathology Department at Columbia University. By his own admission, his big qualification for that environment was knowing there was a difference between blood and urine. Lucky for us he wasn’t colorblind.
As dad’s boss related the story last night, they had been interviewing people for weeks when the department’s fax machine spit out a final résumé. He took one look at it and thought it was suspicious—New York City Police Officer with a Master’s from Harvard—but he was intrigued enough to offer him an interview. Thanks to intellectual curiosity, the rest is history.
To hear the regard that people have for my dad and the many things he achieved was very moving. He has never been one to talk about himself or his achievements and is the most humble person I know. So, it was a rare gift to hear the stories, told with such feeling, by the people who have worked with him the past 16 years.
My hat’s off to you, dad. You are a man who has worn many hats literally and figuratively…and worn them well.
[This amazing event was held at Bouley Test Kitchen. The food and the space were magnificent. For those of you who know me well, if I eat in a place this good and manage to write an entire blog post without mentioning any of the culinary details, you know how powerful the non-culinary portion of the evening had to be. It truly was. With that said, “Damn, that place rocked.” Click here to take a peek.]