Thursday, December 13, 2007

Special Posting: Happy Birthday Dad

Today would have been my father's 82nd birthday, and I can't think of a more fitting way to celebrate it than to speak a little bit in celebration of his life. Now I'm not sure that doing so would entirely meet with my father's approval, as he was never much of a one to have any fuss made over him and normally dismissed such efforts with a wave and a growl; but I'm going to go ahead and chance it.

The unpretentious and unflappable exterior of George Higgins was something that he wore like a comfortable suit of clothes, but was quite frankly, a facade. His love and affection for his wife of 57 years was readily apparent and was often a source of friendly kidding by family and friends. He and his bride more often called each other by pet names throughout their marriage, and the use of their actual names usually denoted a level of temporary tension in the air. He was also a soft touch for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Eben the charade of a tough exterior melted away in their presence, especially around the second and third generations; and he would readily accede to their every request.

Perhaps the real key to understanding the man however might be to recognize what a fiercely ethical person he was and that he possessed a moral compass that always pointed true. He always felt that his word was his bond in all things and that any paperwork required to formalize that bond was simply superfluous. He held the rest of the world to that same rigid standard, and had no respect for anyone who felt or acted differently. This quiet sense of honor was the rock on which he was built; and was something that anyone who knew him felt, respected, and often commented on out of his presence. 

He was also fiercely independent, though he would be the first to tell you that he would never had made it without my mother. He had little respect for any authority that attempted to get in the way of that independence, and was infamous for getting into difficulty years ago during a hospital visit for slinging an IV bottle over one arm in order to use the bathroom instead of a bedpan. When confronted with these episodes, he responded with the wave and growl that ended the discussion, and proved at least in his case that it was easier to get forgiveness than permission.

His career and industry was a big part of his life, and an endless source of interest to him, even long after he retired. It was with a great deal of respect and fear that I attempted to follow him in his chosen profession, a task so daunting that even after over 30 years of effort I have barely made a dent in the process. For 28 years, he worked as a saddle-stitch machine operator (machines that put magazines together with staples) and a supervisor, becoming a recognized expert at what was then the largest printing company in the world, R R Donnelley and Sons. 

He was often asked to travel abroad to solve problems that no one else seemed to be able to solve and he never left a job undone. And it was during this period of his life that he began creating technology to improve his chosen industry. Though not an engineer by education or special training, his designs were patented both during that time at Donnelley, and later in his career. 

When Life magazine closed (the first time), he went to work for one of the equipment manufacturers, re-inventing himself as a sales representative. Again his success was incredible, not only in winning sales awards; but also continuing the process of design improvements and industry consultation that were becoming part of his legacy. This success on multiple levels led that organization to promote him to the level of Vice President and allowed him to perform what may have been his most difficult selling opportunity, that of convincing his employer to let his son replace him in his sales territory. No one who has never worked with or for their father can understand the joy and pain of such an experience. 

First in the field of production, and later in sales, no more difficult a taskmaster ever existed; but no better training or inspiration could have been given. As someone who accepted being known as "George's kid" for much of his early career, the mixed blessing of following someone you so admire and who has set the bar so high makes the task so much harder, but the goals so much more desirable. All achievement is measured to an impossible standard, and ultimately no degree of success or industry recognition can equal his approbation. 

But just so you don't think that I am putting the man up for sainthood, he did have his weaknesses. J and B Scotch whiskey was one of them for many years, and the man was well known for being able to put a serious dent in the level of a bottle from time to time. Later in life, he found equal satisfaction in a glass of wine or two, and wasn't particularly interested in its pedigree. Towards the end however, he favored a Bloody Mary (or two), right up until the day the day he left us. The legendary capacity may have diminished over the years, but never his ability to talk the world into allowing him one more adult beverage before the end of the evening. 

He also smoked like a chimney for most of his life, and was known for many years of his career as "the human nightlight". Those who shared a room with him at business conferences often commented on waking up in the middle of the night, only to find him sitting up in bed smoking a cigarette. It was also jokingly commented that he would never win a company marathon, as the time that he would lose while stopping to light cigarettes would easily cost him the race. 

He was a lovable contradiction of a man, with a sometimes guff exterior balanced by passions for fishing and growing roses. His favorite times as we were growing up were the family fishing trips to Wisconsin and Minnesota. He especially loved being able to be out on a lake with his wife, attempting to bring bass, walleye, northern pike, and crappie to the table from early morning fishing trips; with evenings being taken up with the hunt for bullheads. This should not be considered unusual, as my parents honeymoon was in fact a fishing trip to Superior National Forest. 

As for the roses, these were planted at every house that they ever lived at, though he was especially proud of climbing roses that he had at an earlier home in Kansas City. They were 15 ft high if they were an inch, and trained onto trellises that he specifically built for them. This wall of blooms received special love, care, and attention every weekend; even when he traveled the other 5 days of almost every week. 

A giant of a man in his family eyes, he was far from physically imposing. In fact he was considered undersized when trying to enter the Marine Corp, and had to convince them to even take him. This stature led to the nickname "Shorty" or "Short", which was used only by his family in Iowa, often leading to considerable confusion amongst the rest of us. In fact, when my mother was brought up to meet his family, she was asked if she was with "Shorty"; to which she replied, "No, I'm with George". 

But enough. As I said earlier, my father had no time for anyone making a fuss over him and I respect the man enough to bow to his wishes even now. I will simply add Happy Birthday Dad. We love you and miss you, but will carry you with us as long as we are here. 

For those of you who interested in a bit more insight into an incredible individual, one of my siblings (yes blogging appears to be a family thing) has put together something well worth the effort of reading. Keep the tissues handy though, as it is highly likely that this one will get to you. It does me every time.


1 comment:

theirishtwin said...

Well said! I hope he is cracking open a bottle of his vitamin Js and Bs as I write this, since up there, it doesn't have to be 5:00 anywhere!
Happy Birthday Dad!