A Night to Remember

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.

Looks just like every other New York cop in the 1970s.

Graduation Day at Harvard

From our cross-country camping days

With the grandchildren born, I’m pretty sure this hat was worn for their benefit and not my mom’s.

Notice the color-coordinated headband.

[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.]



  1. November 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    What a lovely tribute you’ve written to your father. I think it’s so important for children to see-really see-their parents through others eyes. We think we know our parents, and our kids think they know us, but we often forget the lifetime lived before kids ever entered the picture. Thanks for the reminder! Lovely.

    • November 28, 2012 at 11:49 pm

      As I was telling my son about the evening, he was listening with a big smile on his face. He got to hear about another side of his grandfather, which was great. Then, when I showed him this post tonight, he commented how papa looked just like Inspector Clouseau when he was a police officer. Cracked me up!

  2. November 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Beautifully lived, beautifully told. This reminds me to take a moment (hell, I’m taking more than that!) to celebrate the incredible people in my own life as well.

    You are fortunate indeed. And so is he, since you didn’t tell any of the “dirt” you surely have on him! 😉

  3. Betty & Don Hamilton said,

    November 28, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    What a wonderful tribute to you Dad. We are fortunate to call him our friend.
    Betty & Don

  4. Huffygirl said,

    November 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    Margaret – it’s about time, REALLY. 🙂 What a great story about your dad and his round-about career. Congratulations to him and his wonderful life. I enjoyed reading about him.

    • November 28, 2012 at 11:52 pm

      Bless me Huffy for I have sinned. It’s been four months since my last blog post. 😉

      Thanks for popping in.

  5. Doug Markott said,

    November 29, 2012 at 11:38 am

    I work with Carl, and he told us about the event and what a good time he had. I just got this link to the blog, and I’m so glad I read it. . .As a fairly new father like Carl is, I can only hope and dream that my 4 year old will one day write something so touching about me. . . Very nicely done.

    • November 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm

      Doug, thank you so much for your kind comment.

      When I read that you’re “a fairly new father like Carl is,” I hoped it was my brother Carl you work with and not my father Carl, or Dad’s gonna have a lot of explaining to do. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by to read and comment.

  6. November 29, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    This is indeed a lovely, inspiring (and funny, particularly the bit about who was sending out resumes!) tribute to read. I actually just finished reading a book called The Grace of Silence in which the author encourages readers to start asking family members questions and listening. Reading this, it occurred to me there are a lot of personal stories I want to know better.

    • November 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm

      That book sounds interesting. I’ve always been interested in family stories. I am the keeper of our genealogy records and I never tire of the stories my older relatives tell around the holiday table.

  7. Linda Yacobellis said,

    November 29, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    What a beautiful gift with words you have. I felt I was there to hear the accolades myself. Once again a job well done Ms. Bourne.

    • November 29, 2012 at 5:29 pm

      Hey, Linda. Thanks so much. You know, I still have that gift tag on my desk to remind myself where it all began. 😉 Love you.

  8. bronxboy55 said,

    December 4, 2012 at 9:01 am

    It’s so easy to forget that other people have full lives — separate from the ways they happen to affect us. I think we’re especially prone to this kind of narrow vision when it comes to our own parents. But your post helped me realize that I do the same thing with people from all walks of life, including police officers. It’s beautifully written, Margaret. And what a great example of how to live. I hope your Dad reads this.

    But can’t you at least tell us what you had for dessert?

    • December 4, 2012 at 11:25 am

      Thank you, Charles. There were three dessert “courses” and a tray of chocolates. The first was not listed on the menu so I can only tell you it was a mini creme brulee with an unidentifiable fruitiness, which was very good. The next was listed as wild baby blueberry and hibiscus sorbet with bulgar wheat gelato. However, the waiter said that night it was strawberry and rhubarb. The final dessert was hot Valrhona chocolate soufflé with a white coffee cloud and chocolate sorbet. Decadent.

  9. Ray Colon said,

    December 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Hi Margaret,

    What a delightful post. Your Dad did wear many hats. The diversity of his accomplishments is inspiring. Pathology. Who would a thunk it?

    We never know what will capture an interviewer’s attention. For my last job, where I spent 6 1/2 years, the person who hired me, I later learned, was a snob about college. I witnessed him discounting many applicants over the years who did not attend “the right school” in his opinion. This struck me because the college I attended was definitely not of the Harvard variety, but he hired me anyway. It must have been my sparkling personality that cinched it. 🙂

    I laughed as I read about the role reversal that occurred when you sent him off to college. You did a good job in preparing him, judging by the results.

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