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On My Dad’s 90th Birthday, an Appreciation of a Life Well-Lived

When someone has been around as long as my father, it’s possible to forget some of the extraordinary things he did and was a part of in his 90 years of life. 

Especially if you’re the baby in the family, and far too young to remember much of that distant past stuff first hand.  So I enlisted the help of my much older sibling Marguerite to flesh out some of the sketchy details.

Margie has always considered herself something of the family historian. For instance, she never misses the opportunity to tell me how cute it was when, as a four-year-old, they would dress me for church in ridiculously silly outfits with short pants, high black socks, a bow tie and a beanie. I’m sure the congregation all had quite a laugh at my expense back in those early days. And, like all great historians, Margie remembers it vividly.

So, as we planned to celebrate my father’s 90th birthday, I asked Margie to put together a chronological look back at his life.

Dad was born on June 29th, 1924 in Philadelphia to Anna B. and Edward J.

His father died when he was four years old.

My father was raised with his first cousin Nancy, whose parents had died early in her life. It was the Great Depression and times were tough for a single mother with two kids. So, at age 7, even though it broke her heart, my grand-mom enrolled my father in Girard College, a boarding school for fatherless boys in Philadelphia.

My father loved Girard College and still speaks fondly of that time in his life.  There were colorful characters like his teachers “Redsie” and “Greensie”,  sisters who always wore those colors.  And great friendships were made at Girard, like with his lifetime pal Jack McMearty.

My father was smart and good in school and skipped at least one grade, graduating  from Girard College at age 16.

In the couple of years that followed, Dad sold war bonds and typed financial reports for a man named Austin Jenkins, for whom he later worked with for many years as an accountant.

But first there was a war to fight, and my father was drafted into the Army at age 19, and served from 1943 to 1945.

Dad told me recently, he thinks he rose quickly in Army rank because his superiors were so impressed with his typing skills, they thought he had a college degree. But my sister heard a different account of dad’s typing abilities in the Army. During basic training, an officer asked his squad if anyone could handle a typewriter and my father was one of the few who put their hands up. The officer said, “okay,  I need you to move that pile of typewriters from over here to over there”.

After a stint at Camp Meade, Maryland, my father was off to Europe with the First Army Headquarters Company, arriving about 2 months after D-Day.

He traveled through much of Europe during the war, including Scotland, England, France, Belgium and Germany.

In my sister’s notes, she says that Dad’s job during the war was handling the supply system for replacement soldiers to various Army divisions. Margie also points out something I did not know.  Dad received a Bronze Star medal for his service during the war, but he never talks about it, only saying he doesn’t remember why he got it.  That’s Dad.  Never boastful, never a braggart.

He returned to Philadelphia after the war and went to work for his old business mentor, Austin Jenkins, in the accounting firm of Jenkins,Fetterolf, while attending Penn’s Wharton School of Business in the evening. He became a partner at Jenkins, Fetterolf in 1955.

He met his first wife, Marguerite Elizabeth, and they were married in 1946.

They had three girls, my sisters Beth Anne in 1948, Margie in 1951 and Eileen in 1953.

Then Marguerite died a year later,  leaving Dad as a single parent, who, with help from his mom, raised the girls for the next several years.

In 1958, my father wooed and married my mother, Catherine, and the new family moved to Childs Avenue in Drexel Hill, our home for the next 40 years.  I was born the next year and that started a turbulent time for the family that still reverberates today.

Even in my earliest memories, Dad was always a dedicated and passionate businessman, driven by his love for his work and the charities and causes his work introduced him to.

He was instrumental in moving American Onlologic Hospital from West Philadelphia to Fox Chase, Pennsylvania, where he’s served as a board member and, for a long time, the chairman of the board,  for the renowned Fox Chase Cancer Hospital for more than 50 years.

Dad was or still is on the board of directors at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, the West Laurel Cemetery, the Catholic Archdioceses of Philadelphia,  and Immaculata College. I’m sure we’re forgetting at least a few other things.

By the late 1970′s Dad’s company had merged with the accounting firm, Main, Hurdman, and my father was named managing partner. He left the firm in 1981 and went to work with PNC’s Fund Department, where he spent the next 30 years.

Sadly, my mother died of cancer in 1980.

By that time, I was old enough to realize something about my father.  He knows what he likes, and what he likes is being married.

Early in 1981, Dad married Margaret “Peachy” Johnson, and they traveled the world together and had a wonderful 20 years of marriage, until Margaret suddenly became ill and died in 2000.

Dad was single again and drifting like a rudderless ship.  I know it was a sad and a lonesome time for him.

But, as I said, Dad knows what he likes, and what he likes is being married.  In 2004, I was honored to be best man for my father as he married his 4th wife Mary, and they are still going strong.

This is a man who a “ladies man” in the truest sense of the word.  He loves women and they love him.  He is a complete gentleman and a loving, caring husband who has made four women very happy in his lifetime.

That may be his accomplishment of which I am most fond.

Of course, all of those life events involved a great deal of loss, none greater than the deaths of our sisters Eileen in 1993 and Beth Anne earlier this year.

But in those tough times and in all of life’s other situations, Dad taught us how to live by his example. That’s my father’s style. I always liked that he allowed us to live our own lives, to be independent thinkers, to make our own mistakes and then try to figure things out. And boy, did we make some mistakes!  Dad would always be there to bail us out when we did.  In my case, literally.

But If you watched how my father lived, you saw how to do it the right way.  Dad quietly taught us lessons about responsibility, moderation, charity, modesty, honor, and, most of all, about faith and dedication to his religion. If the church ever wanted to point to a life well-lived by a Catholic man, they need only look at my father’s life. He would never say that, but I’m not nearly as modest as him.

Dad continues to teach those lessons, now to a second and third generation of his family, many of whom aren’t old enough yet to understand what a truly great grandfather and great-grandfather they have. But, when they get a little older, they’ll realize how special he is and what a proud legacy he gives us.

And the way things are going, he will still be here when his great grand-kids are grown, to show them those lessons in person,  and nothing would make me happier.

Happy birthday, Dad.

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