snapshots of my dad
It’s been a long and hard while. We lost my dad in December.
And the earth tilted.
Despite his general decline the idea that he might actually not be here didn’t really occur to any of us. And, in truth, probably not to him either. He used to talk about adhering to his Live Forever Diet (which mostly consisted of all things chocolate) and I think he thought it was working.
A uniquely tough and gentle soul, he built a rolick-ing, loving, competitive, sprawling-slash-enmeshed family. The sibling ages span 26 years. Granddaughters and daughters are best friends. He lived and loved ferociously.
And he also helped change history.
Which is pretty amazing when you think about his trajectory. He was a sickly kid whose asthma kept him home a lot. (It also left him keenly aware of the well-being of others.) But he was also a musical prodigy, so his many hours on the side-lines were actually spent riding a piano bench. While still in elementary school he played with the Milwaukee Symphony and at 16 he left Wisconsin to attend Julliard in New York.
There he studied with the great Rosina Lhevinne.
(Funny aside: Dad used to tell stories about the renowned teacher which I may not have paid close enough attention to. One year I decided to go for the Best Offspring Award and tracked down a documentary about her — which I then presented with great fanfare at Dad’s birthday celebration. As soon as I put the disc in the DVD player he blanched to the color of sheet music. He had a flashback. Apparently Ms. Lhevinne used to scare the hell out of him.)
Dad had perfect pitch which not only meant that he could (annoyingly) whistle back identical notes made by elevators and honking cars, it also meant that he experienced the world as a call and response of distinct and equal instruments.
This belief served him well when he went on to public service. He found the light in –and songs of– every person he met.
While still in his twenties he became an advisor to President Kennedy working on issues like disarmament. Dad’s strong liberal stances earned him the tag of the administration’s conscience. It also got him reassigned. Apparently suggesting unilateral disarmament (you know– to like save humanity) and de-escalating the war in Vietnam wasn’t appreciated.
Eventually he couldn’t stand being complicit any longer and with Richard Barnet left the White House to found the Institute for Policy Studies, the (still-thriving) DC think tank devoted to issues of social, economic and racial justice. Since first opening its doors in 1963 many of the world’s greatest thought leaders and activists have called it home.
In the ’60s Dad helped to marry the civil rights and anti-war movements.
For his efforts, he was indicted and faced jail along with Dr. Spock, Mitch Goodman, Michael Ferber and the Rev. William Sloan Coffin as part of the Boston Five. The only one initially acquitted, Dad said he thought he might ask for a retrial in support of the other four.
(An already anxious eight year-old, I wasn’t amused. Nor was I pleased to learn that he again put himself at risk by assisting in the release of the Pentagon Papers.)
In the pre-gentrified Adams-Morgan neighborhood where we lived, Dad helped start community programs. He rented a store front for a drop-in science center and one for the Music Carry Out, where free lessons and practice instruments were provided.
Not having inherited the music gene, I spent more time at the Sonic Boom doing experiments. We hatched chicken eggs in an incubator. Woody, a bantam rooster, lived in my bedroom for a very long time.
Dad would hold moot court at the dinner table, giving us cases that we had to argue. (One I remember: Mr. Jones sold a cow to Mr. Smith. Neither knew the cow was pregnant at the time. Who does the calf belong to?) He also instructed us on legal definitions, teaching us about latches (not asserting one’s claim to something.) We could call dibs on the radio station in the car–but if we didn’t actually sing along, somebody else could change it.
My friends adored him.
When my pal, Mike, kept getting bounced from different schools, Dad started a new one for him. The Forum Free School (which after some serious tantrum-like behavior, I got to attend) was unstructured and democratic and seriously fun. We were taught the usual things but also volunteered at various places including anti-war and welfare rights organizations. We spent time at a commune and had our own dark room and went on camping trips. Some of us got arrested together protesting the war, long before we got our licenses.
An avid movie fan (his tastes ran from the highbrow to Wedding Crashers), Dad always attended screenings at the Circle Theater. One time, as was his wont, he went to a matinee and was (terribly) dismayed to find that the projectionists were on strike. Never one to cross a picket line, he offered to help negotiate for them. He went inside the small cinema and brokered a mutually beneficial deal. (The owners were so happy they gave him an annual free pass to what would become one of the largest theater chains in town.)
Another time, when I was studying at Columbia, he gave a speech there about human rights. A right-leaning student in the audience heckled him. I cringed (contorted) in my seat but Dad –who always believed in a ‘free and frank exchange of ideas’ invited the kid up to the stage. My father literally gave the (obnoxious) guy a seat at the table to express his views.
And I exhaled.
At our regular (and mandatory) family brunches where he would tell dirty jokes to the delight of his grandchildren, Dad would inevitably peel off to play the piano.
I’m pretty sure that’s what he’s doing now.
Please consider making a donation in his honor to the Institute where others continue to work for decency. Although he is no longer physically with us, his commitment to democracy (and against Trump’s burgeoning fascism) goes on. Help keep the music playing. For everyone.