Saturday, November 13, 2010

Remembering Dad

(Remarks for a Celebration of the Life of Thomas W. Smoot at First Presbyterian of Church, Valdosta, GA, November 13, 2010)

For me, Tom Smoot was father.

For him, that meant, first of all, to be a provider.   To support his family, he did work that took him away for long periods of time, to uncharted Canada, to Nevada, to Brazil during a military coup, a couple times to Japan.  During those years, his family wanted for nothing, except for him.

When he became his own boss, he could settle down – though he drove himself long hours to grow his business.

More than material things, a father provides guidance.  Dad left schooling mostly to the teachers – thankfully, because he was way ahead of our textbooks – and he left discipline to Mom.  But he taught us in the way he approached the world.

One lesson begins, “You can be suspicious of everyone.”  He told me how a client was probably ripping him off. He said, “You can be suspicious of everyone, but you don’t want to live that way.”

Another time, Dad said, “When someone accuses you, you've got to respond – or you’ll lose respect for yourself.”

There were other lessons I picked up from observation:

Sing.   Sing in the kitchen, in the car, in your factory working with your son very late on a hot summer night.  Sing at the top of your voice; with or without a ukulele, guitar, or Simon and Garfunkel.  When he joined the choir of this church, he said he wished he hadn’t waited fifty years.

Another lesson: When you get an idea, go with it.  For instance, he got the notion that a surprise birthday party with a couple hundred guests at the top of a skyscraper might ease Mom’s transition to her sixties.  He sent out invitations right away – even though, at the time, she was only fifty-five.

Another lesson is a phrase that he learned from his close friend and mentor Alfredo Berato, “Bon appetito.”  For Dad, it meant that eating nutritiously is good for your body, but sharing food and drink with friends is good for your soul. 

Another lesson: When the going gets tough, take along a dog.  No one could stay mad when Dad brought Frosty or KC to a meeting.  Dad told me once, if there’s such a thing as reincarnation, then he wanted to come back as a Smoot dog.

Stay young by seeking out new places, new ideas, new challenges.  And if you’ve already run enough miles to go around the world once, try it again – but go the other way.

His most important lesson was so much a part of his being a father that I never appreciated it until I was grown up and long gone.  That’s when Mom told me how she married before she understood what love really means.  Dad taught her how to love, and I can see now that what a loving father provides, along with material support and moral encouragement, is room to grow.

Mom didn’t have room to grow when three little children were crowding her life, so Dad made sure to be home on Saturdays, giving Mom time away to do whatever she wanted.  He encouraged her to renew her teaching career, and then to get advanced degrees to become an administrator – even though it meant staying up late to write Mom's research papers.

He took interest in anything his children did.  Whatever struck our fancies at the moment, he took us to museums or shops or theatres or playing fields to learn more, bought us books about it, and then stepped back to see what happened.  He delighted even more in lavishing the same kind of attention on his grandchildren.

So his children have grown to be totally different people.  What we do have in common are the shared memories of meals, games and trips – and Dad's driving sense of responsibility for others.

Speaking here, just for myself, I am grateful that he gave me room to grow through my stage of adolescent insolence – which, in my case, outlasted three Presidential administrations.

When I would come back to see how his company had grown, I came to appreciate how Dad saw himself as a provider for the families of the men and women who worked for him.  For them, too, it wasn’t just a job that he provided, but career guidance, education, and opportunities to build their careers.  Sometimes, he provided bail -- and a second chance in life.

There was one lesson that Dad got from me.  Just last Spring, he called with a theological question.  Between the Sunday school of his boyhood and his joining this church, he hadn’t thought much about religion.  He wanted to know, What exactly is meant by the word “grace?”  Is it forgiveness?   Is it Heaven?    To him, it seemed to mean different things in different contexts.

With some theological training behind me, I told him how Scripture implies that the Holy Spirit works in us and through us, long before we believe.  It's through the working of the Spirit that we come to know God, and that’s what we call “grace.”   Grace helps us to see how God the Father has provided us care and guidance throughout our lives. Looking back, we can give proper thanks to our Father.

Dad liked that idea.