Today is Father’s Day. It’s been more than six years since my father, Dick Otte, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 69, on Sunday, April 30, 2006. I can’t say I dislike Father’s Day, but it’s still not easy. What complicates things further is that yesterday would have been my father’s birthday. As a young girl, this time of year was always a time of great anticipation: the last day of school, Flag Day, my father’s birthday, and Father’s Day always fell within a few days of each other. And of course, these events also meant that vacation was near…a new adventure was about to begin.
I hesitated as to whether I should be writing about my father in this genealogical blog, wondering if it really fit into my original intent of “communing with the ancestors”… but, as he is the person responsible for half of my ancestry, I decided I could be self-indulgent.
Last night I attended a production of Annie, because my dear friend Jenny was playing the part of Miss Hannigan. She was a fabulously funny, drunk, bitch…which was all the more enjoyable because her true nature—a generous, loving, tea-totaler—is so extremely different from the character she portrayed. Having seen Annie on more occasions then I can even recall, I was struck last night by its message of a father’s love. Perhaps because my father was on my mind…and certainly heightened by the fact that the adult male characters (none of whom were professional actors) were played by the fathers of the young girls in the cast… I couldn’t help but think about those girls on the stage…and how, years from now, each one will remember her father on that night. And of course, Daddy Warbucks was ready to do anything for Annie, even if it meant losing her.
Even in death, my father continues to both challenge me and provide me the insight to meet those challenges. One of the reasons I actually started my genealogical journey (and this blog) was my father…as it germinated from the research I started doing for a book I plan to write, the basis of which stems from my father’s childhood stories. I don’t find it a coincidence that my mother suddenly discovered a previously unknown cache of family photos and notes (left behind by my father) now that I am writing this blog. Those of you who regularly follow my posts are aware of the information contained in those particular photos because it opened doors and led to my “Es ist Gemütlich” post.
And when my father died and we were planning his memorial service, I would face one of the biggest challenges in my life. My father had many, many friends and acquaintances; including a fair number who had been part of his life for more years than I had. In the days before and after his service, my father was honored as a “Pioneer” for his work in rescue tools and safety in both the fire and motor sports industries; Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon had a flag flown over the Capitol Building in Washington DC in his honor and Deputy US Fire Administrator Charlie Dickinson (of the Department of Homeland Security) wrote a heartful tribute. These were all lovely and much appreciated gestures. But who would talk about my father as the family man? Could I really stand up in front of a hundred or so people and eulogize my father? The answer was yes. And in the end, it was a gift to stand witness to the man who had given so much to so many.
Following is the Eulogy I gave on Wednesday, May 17, 2006 at a service held in the Red Clay Room of Kennett Fire Company #1, on Dalmatian Street in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (with photos added in):
In the hours after my father died, my mother and I found ourselves gingerly rummaging through my father’s belongings—those few things he had taken along with him to the FDIC conference in Indianapolis [the world’s largest firefighter training conference, an event he had attended every year]. I don’t think we were searching for anything in particular, but what we found said quite a lot about who he was. His wallet contained a $2 bill. The same one carried by his father on the day he was killed in a car accident. [Was this a reminder of his father? A good luck token?] His date book contained, along with detailed notations of every fire conference for the year 2006, some vintage photos—including one of my sister at age three riding a rocking horse. We found his well-used pocket-sized road atlas featuring a center-fold of the United States. He also carried a small notebook full of collected notations—little affirmations and poems that caught his fancy. There were several that, viewed in retrospect, nicely describe his philosophy on life:
“People who build walls and not bridges will be lonely”
“Imagination is more important than knowledge”
“You may be on the right track, but don’t just sit there or you’ll be run over”
“Progress in life is not measured by security, but by growth; and growth means taking occasional risks, you’ll never get anywhere interesting by always doing the safe thing.”
There were a few others that should have been in his notebook- I’d like to propose four affirmations to add to his collection to further illustrate his particular philosophy on life [which will also provide some clarity as to why he chose to fill his pockets with the items I mentioned]:
1. Marry Your Best Friend
My father seemed to understand at a relatively early age that having the perfect partner in crime was a really good start to an adventure. When he met my mother, there was no question—she was the one he wanted to marry. They left Nebraska and spent the next 49 years criss-crossing the country.
As children, it seemed to my sister and me that our father was always in the center of the action…working on fire suppression systems for the rockets traveling to the moon, rescuing race car drivers in the heat of a crash, working on the set of our favorite television show—Emergency—teaching Randolph Mantooth how to use the Jaws of Life. Even in recent years—making sure needed rescue equipment got to the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9-11.
Where our father was magical, our mother was practical… for no matter where my father roamed or what state he moved the family… our mother created our home—our soft place to fall. She created the space where we were a family—just the four of us. And even now, with the addition of one grandson and one son-in-law—home for all of us is where our mother is… even if it is in a town we’ve never been to before.
What I witnessed through the years was a deep respect between my parents. They were two complete individuals on their own, each with very different interests and neither needing the other for survival. But at the end of the day, both enjoyed nothing more than each other’s company. They shared many adventures together- and they remained each other’s best friend.
My mother said that she knew my dad was the guy for her on one of their first dates. My dad took her to the movies to see Old Yeller… and he cried. This brings us to our second affirmation:
- Don’t be afraid to show your sentimental side
My father didn’t just cry when a dog died… he would cry during a Hallmark commercial… the first, second, and third time he watched it.
One of the best illustrations of this sentimentality was his love of parades. He loved a parade… any parade… once he even took my sister and me to see some low-riders parading their cars in downtown LA. A holiday wasn’t complete without going to a parade… the Hollywood Christmas Parade, the Rose parade, the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco… several years back we all went to the historic Fourth of July parade in Bristol, Rhode Island… one particular family favorite was the Fourth of July parade we attended in Lynchburg Tennessee. There were so many townspeople in the parade, there were very few people left to watch. We all loved that parade. And we can’t forget one of his perennial favorites… the Main Street Electric Parade at Disneyland.
There was one bit of Disney-sentimental pop he loved even more than their parades however… at the end of the day… we always had one last stop before heading to the car- we would go to the theater in the round to see “America the Beautiful.” To this day, my sister and I have this movie memorized… flying in a plane over the Grand Canyon, traveling by wagon through a covered bridge. We watched those images… the crowd sang along to America the Beautiful and inevitably, my father had a tear in his eye… because there’s nothing he loved more than his own country.
Which brings me to our third affirmation:
- Get in the car and drive!
My father would drive anywhere… at any time. Period. He loved to drive and he loved to explore. It was rarely about the destination… it was really all about the journey. I swear he didn’t care if he even got out of the car once we got to where we were going.
Family vacations always involved driving someplace- as a family we have driven cross-country more times than any of us can remember. But each trip held some great new discovery. My father always knew where to go in any town… exactly what mile-marker the gas station was… where there would be none… and which motels to stop at. I say motel… because he loved a good motel… one where you could drive your car right up to your front door… it took him years to give in and stop at a place where you had to actually walk through a lobby to get to your room.
In the state of Washington I remember the smell of freshly cut timber and seeing a color green I never knew existed, the absolute beauty of the high-desert in New Mexico covered by a dusting of snow, watching the Taos Indians dance their sacred bear dance on Christmas day, witnessing the infamous duck-crossing at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, touring the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the entire year of 1976 when dad decided we would visit every historic site from Monticello and Mount Vernon up through the Old North Church in Boston, … really, anytime in the car with my father was a happy time… which leads us to our fourth and final affirmation…
- Live your passion- (do what makes you happy)
My father never worked a day in his life. Rather, he figured out how to combine the things he loved… traveling cross-country, with his family in tow, driving to a race track where he’d soon be providing fire safety services- might just have been his definition of perfection. All things he loved in one place, at one time.
Throughout my life I’d go to my dad and say “Dad, I need some advice- what should I do?” He’d say- “well- you need to get out your paper, make two columns, then list all the pros in one column and all the cons in the other.”
I would dutifully make my columns… and still not know what to do…“But dad,” I’d plead… “what should I do?”
“Do what makes you happy,” he’d always say.
“But what if I don’t know what will make me happy?”
“Then you’d better go figure it out. If you don’t know, how is anyone else going to know?”
It was as simple as that. I was the key to my own happiness. With that knowledge he gave me the greatest gift anyone could. He wouldn’t give me the answers. He challenged me-he challenged me to figure out what makes me happy… he taught me to know myself, to trust myself, and to be myself. It is only then that you can truly live your passion.
The truth of the matter is, my father was a relatively uncomplicated man with simple pleasures. Give him a box of popcorn, a comfortable bench on a warm afternoon… and he was content- he was content just to be in the moment and watch the people pass by.
Another of the poems found in my father’s little notebook was one by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition: to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
NOTE: would you like to learn more about my dad’s work bringing the Jaws of Life to the masses? Go HERE