Friday, April 18, 2008

The Perfect Father

That's what I called my Dad back on May 10, 2003. I was elected to serve as the Graduate Student speaker for the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications' commencement ceremony at Syracuse University.

I knew right from the start what absolutely had to be said. I figured it might be my one chance to tell such a distinguished and large audience about my hero.

My father.

Next Tuesday, he'll turn 62 years old. His body is aging, but his soul and mind remain spry.

I easily recall that speech. I practiced it over and over. I wanted to get it right. I rambled for a while, telling 'Cuse-related jokes. I told the crowd the television world didn't need another overweight white guy. I was right.

After introducing my family and speaking about each one, I ended with my old man. Dad was sitting to my mother's left, their arms intertwined.

He gently smiled at me.

I told him that he was my Ted Williams, my Martin Luther King Junior and my J.F.K. all rolled into one. I told the masses at the Carrier Dome that not many people ever had the chance to meet their hero, let alone be related to them...but I did.

"Dad, you were never afraid to admit when you made a mistake. That you weren't a perfect man. But that's what makes you the perfect father. And I love you."

As I tried to gather myself at that podium, one which Bill Clinton would use the next day, my classmates laughed with innocent glee among a sea of robes, seated in lined rows far away to my right. They had all bet I would cry. I didn't. But I don't know how.

Anyone that has known me for anything more than a handshake and a hello knows just what my family, and most significantly my Dad, means to me. He's the person I've wanted to be my entire life. I always wanted to be by his side.

I remember living in Medford, Massachusetts as a boy. One day the snowflakes fell pretty hard. I must have been four or five-years old. We had breakfast together and Dad was running a bit late (which he never does) for work. He said goodbye, but I begged him to stay. He kissed my forehead and gently smiled. I watched him walk down our wooden porch steps and head for his car. I watched as he waved, then drove slowly down the road. I prayed to God that Dad would come right back.

Ten minutes later, Dad pulled back into the driveway. The snow had made the roads too perilous. Dad came home. And honestly, as odd as it may sound, my firm belief in God probably began with a moment as simple as that. I prayed, God answered. My Dad's presence was all that I wanted. As he walked through the door, he saw me standing by the window, looking both shocked and elated.

He gently smiled.

Growing up, Dad was always a tangible but incredibly awesome figure. At six-feet tall, he has a barrel chest and big muscular arms. He walks with his own gait and grin. He's been called a 'Holy Hell's Angel.'

You know what you are getting with Ken Halliday. Over his life, he first peered through thick frames, then bifocals, now trifocals. But his muttonchops and thick red suspenders were ever-present throughout. As was his laugh, his wit and his generosity.

When we were out camping my fellow Scouts called him "OI," an homage to the way he got your attention when it was necessary. I still remember him in the woods, helping us build fires. We would work in teams of six or more to move these monstrous logs; then Dad would stride over and effortlessly lift them with one hand, or snap them with one stomp. No one messed with OI. He was a real live Paul Bunyan.

Ever since I can remember, I've had perfect strangers accost me after hearing my last name. They've grabbed my hand and said, "You're Ken's son! It's nice to finally meet you. Your Dad is a great man, and he talks about you and your sister all the time."

"What a guy your Dad. Hell of a guy."

"We sure love your Dad."

"There aren't a lot of guys like your Dad left anymore."

And from some of my fellow Scouts and friends, words that have always stuck with me. "I wish my Dad was more like yours."

He is an important figure in so many people's lives, and I got to eat dinner with him every night. And watch Steelers, Penguins, Bruins, Red Sox, Pirates and Celtics games with him. And go to Scout meetings and camping trips. And talk. Just talk. I learned so much from him...but he learned from me as well. He always let his kids know how important they were...he listened.

He always told us he loved us. All the time. Constantly. No amount of false machismo was going to hold him back from hugging his son or daughter. His willingness to display his love made him a real man.

Dad was a four-sport athlete in high school, and he was a near-perfect student. He played football and baseball at Northeastern University before signing up to fight in Vietnam. No one was going to draft my Dad; he made the rules.

He was awarded four Purple Hearts. He's a legitimate war hero. He saved lives when he wasn't protecting his own. But all war veterans are heroes. My Dad knows that. He's never attempted to meaninglessly glorify his time in the Army because he respects his fellow veterans. Dad knows his tale is no different from theirs; so he takes no satisfaction from telling his stories. And he's hardly shared them, good or bad, with his children. As a kid, I desperately wanted to inwardly build my father's legend by asking him about his time as a soldier. As I grew older, I learned the lesson he was trying to teach. A man is judged by his daily actions. War stories were fine, but his constant effort to better himself was more important.

We moved from Medford to Pittsburgh when I was six. Dad actually moved to Pennsylvania six months ahead of us to make sure the job was worth it. Those six months were hard on us all, especially my Mom. Two kids under the age of six, all alone in our big house on Touro Avenue near the Mystic River. A dilapidating neighborhood at the time. We were all happy to be reunited when we moved west, even if it meant leaving our beloved and extended family in Massachusetts.

The original goal was to live in Pittsburgh for about six months or so. Dad bought a house so that we'd feel at home. It's the same one my parents live in today, 24 years later. I'm glad we didn't leave, if simply for the reason that Dad was able to help so many people there.

Just before I finished Cub Scouts, Dad took over as Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 198 in Moon Township. From the day he turned 18 in 1964, he has been an active Scoutmaster or Assistant Scoutmaster on the troop level. He stayed on at Troop 198 until last year; that's 43 straight years of voluntary service to the Boy Scouting program. He still works for the council as Camping Committee Chairman.

On the 5th of this month, our new troop leadership honored my Dad's service with a surprise party. During his time at 198, he oversaw 37 young men earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Since roughly 1 out of every 100 scouts earn that rank, that's a significant number. Eighteen of those young men were on hand to personally thank him just two Saturdays ago. I knew so many of them as boys, now men. All of them carry a piece of my Dad with them...and they came back to show their gratitude.

After the awards were handed out, Dad said thanks and spoke of my mother's influence. A true man recognizing the sacrifice of a wonderful woman. He spoke eloquently without pause, but the emotion was in his eyes.

I stood to thank the crowd. Despite all of the professional training and experience I've gathered, I couldn't get through two sentences. Seeing my Dad look back at his only son was too much. I quickly sat down and stared at the floor, trying to keep my tearful joy inside.

All the while, Dad gently smiled at me.

Last October, our son was born with cancer. Huge tumor. Life-threatening. Mom and Dad dropped everything to be with us in Farmville. The boy was born, and it became a waiting game. We had to sit and wait six days before his surgery. No one spent more time with my son than my father, not even me. Only two were allowed to stay with him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at any time, so Dad would enter with me. Then I would leave and Dad would stay with my wife...he wanted to help us.

He sat in the rocking chair, gently smiling and kissing his grandson.

Those days were not easy for any of us. Dad prayed with me. He put his hands on my shoulders as I stood over my son's crib, looking at the tubes and needles criss-crossing my boy's face, arms and legs. I needed my Dad to stand with me...and whenever I've needed him, he's been there. We took a lot of pictures that week. I wondered how many more opportunities we would have with my son, so I took some more. Hour after hour holding him, reading to him...hoping for good news.

And we got it. Our son survived the surgery and the cancer has not returned to date. But the boy is without a right kidney. He spent the first month of life staring at blinking lights, stuffed with breathing tubes and circled by kind, but strange faces. You would think that sort of experience would traumatize an infant. However, my son spends his days in joy.

Gently smiling at those who meet his beautiful, blue-eyed gaze.

He looks like his Grandad.

For nearly 30 years, I've been guided through life by such amazing and powerful people. My mother is truly fantastic, a strong and independent woman who continues to impress me. My sister and now her husband, along with their soon-to-be three sons, have always made me think fondly of family. And my friends. People that have seen me through rough patches and brilliant moments. And now my super wife Susan and our own little family...daughter and son in tow. My perfect circle.

And Dad has always been there, leading us all.

He once told me I had the gift of being able to surround myself with good people, no matter the circumstances. But that gift comes from those who provided me with a place to grow and develop.

For a boy, the first place to look in times of trouble or concern is in his father's eyes. Fathers represent strength and values. Fathers represent honor and work ethic. Fathers represent love.

I am still a boy looking to my father. I'll always be. Just as my son will hopefully always look to me.

Our son, Kenneth Edward Halliday IV. Named for the greatest man I have ever known. The greatest man I will ever know.

And these simple words are for him.

I love my hero, my friend, my father.

Happy Birthday Dad. May God continue to bless your presence in, and influence on, the lives of those around you. You will forever be appreciated. And may those who read this never underestimate the importance of fatherhood.

My father and daughter, gently smiling...

1 comment:

Kerri said...

Eight a.m. is way too early to be crying. A very moving tribute. Happy Birthday Uncle Ken!