Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Man From Jersey City

When a man has done his best, has given his all, and in the process supplied the needs of his family and his society, that man has made a habit of succeeding.-Mack R. Douglas
My father was born in Jersey City in 1929, three months before the stock market crashed. “Dad was born and the world went into a Great Depression,” I have often quipped. Twenty years earlier, his father, alone and only nineteen years old, left Denmark for the United States in search of work and economic security. My grandfather spoke no English when he arrived on the shores of Ellis Island, but through perseverance and the will to succeed, he found work as a carpenter, formed a family and created an American life. A quiet, kind-hearted man, with gentle mannerisms that contradicted his strong, calloused hands, I know little else about my grandfather. He died before I was born and my father has never told me much about him; his father rarely discussed his European roots and early struggles with his youngest son, which may explain why I have never possessed a strong ethnic identity even though that part of me is a second-generation American.

It was from my father, however, that I developed an interest in history – listening to his stories of growing up in a Jersey City row house during the Depression; of playing stick ball in the street and rooting for the New York Giants when they played in the Polo Grounds; of working at a pencil factory in the 1940’s when his two older brothers went off to war, one never to return. “You remind me of your Uncle Ted,” he has told me on occasion, with a sad look in his eyes, pained by thoughts of what might have been. “Everybody loved and respected Ted,” my mother would add.

My father was the first in his family to attend college, and it was a scary moment when the skinny 17 year-old kid from Lincoln High School first boarded a train for a southern Ohio town, having never ventured further than New York City. Arriving at Wittenberg University in 1947, its lush, green lawns and tree-filled campus amidst stone buildings and walkways, it was unlike anything from his prior citified existence. Over the next few years, he befriended returning vets studying under the GI Bill and divided his time between studies, part-time work, and fraternity life. In what may have been his most impressive move, at Wittenberg he met and proposed to my mom. It was my dad’s good fortune to have married up, much to the chagrin of his future father-in-law. A life-long love affair secured, he went on to three years of seminary education and, in 1953, became an ordained Lutheran minister, his professional calling.

The ministry was an odd mixture of success and disappointment for my father. He faithfully served four congregations in New Jersey, New England, and Virginia. He preached to and counseled professors and students, farmers and business executives, millworkers and janitors, Congressmen and even a Supreme Court justice, treating each as equal members of God’s family. He was elected Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod in the early 1970’s, a volatile time in our nation’s history and in church-state relations, when the Church was embroiled in issues of racism and civil rights, gender equality, war and peace, the sexual revolution, drugs and poverty – the same issues then enveloping the country. He helped young men conscientiously opposed to the Vietnam War develop alternative service options. He helped pastors struggling with personal and family problems, and mentored seminary students and young ministers who privately doubted their chosen paths. He confronted and overcame challenges posed by the growing alienation of our youth, rising divorce rates, changing social mores, growing secularism and a heightened skepticism of all things religious. He fought against the rising tide of Christian fundamentalism, a battle he continues to fight today in the Bible-Belt South. And he encouraged congregational leaders and choir directors to experiment with liturgy, music and worship styles to ensure that the Church remained relevant and connected to modern humanity.

Despite reaching the top of his chosen profession, I have always detected a sense of frustration deep within him; that somehow his labors were not fully appreciated and that, especially in retirement, his talents were not fully utilized. “The ministry is a very misunderstood profession,” he warned my brother when Steve first considered following my father’s example. “No one appreciates how much work and effort is involved. Most people think you work one day a week. People rarely praise you and they can be very critical.” For my dad and many of his contemporaries, the desire to preach prophetically and to act boldly in the face of social and economic injustice was under constant attack by existing power structures from within and outside of the Church.

When I was younger, my friends found it hard to believe my dad was a minister. Possessed of a lively sense of humor, his language occasionally reflected his Jersey City roots; it was . . . shall we say . . . salty, a bit impure, with an emphasis on his secular side. A sea of calm during times of crises and periods of great stress, he possessed an explosive temper that erupted only over trivial matters, such as when he misplaced his keys or broke his shoestring. Now in his twilight years, he has mellowed some, his body tired, his soul more contemplative. (“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I can hear my mom saying right now.)

But anyone familiar with my dad also knows of his enormous sense of compassion, empathy, and profound understanding for the sufferers among us, for those who are sick, or poor, or have lost a loved one. He is a great listener, a trait that has served him well in counseling and comforting people in need. Like my mom, he is compelled to serve. Even in retirement, a status he embraced only reluctantly, Dad was the president of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity and, subsequently, president of Mainstay, a shelter for battered women in western North Carolina. He served as the interim pastor of three different congregations and, with my mom, continues to volunteer each week at the local soup kitchen.

I often wonder why he sometimes doubted his decision six decades ago to enter the ministry. Had he gone into business or banking, he likely would have become CEO and made a lot of money; had he become a teacher, he would have risen to principal or school superintendent. I believe he could have done most anything he wanted, given his straightforward determination and hard-driven work ethic developed in his formative Depression-ridden years.

A city boy who grew to despise cities, Dad chose to retire with Mom and their dog in a small country town in rural North Carolina, away from the congestion of metropolitan living. The son of an immigrant with little interest in his family’s heritage, he extends sincere interest to the backgrounds and stories of others. A man who has committed his entire life to the Church and to serving others, he refuses to let others serve him, and he becomes frustrated with the Church’s unresponsiveness to social ills and injustice. A tendency to focus on the negative, always moving in the opposite direction of his roots, my father is at times an enigma. He has been vaguely discontented with his life’s accomplishments, never realizing how much the people whose lives he has touched along the way respected and admired him.

But of all my dad’s career and life accomplishments, his most lasting legacy is the love and support he provided, along with my mom, to his three children. No matter how busy he was, regardless of his many late night meetings, he always made the time to join us for dinner and to ask about our days. He went out of his way to watch my brother and I play in our countless baseball and basketball games and other sporting events, which seemed to consume 365 days a year through high school. Along the way, he prodded but never pushed, nudging us in directions he thought we should go. Although I did not always appreciate it then, upon reflection I know now that my dad possesses a level of judgment and wisdom exceeding most mortal souls, gained from years of insight into the mistakes and milestones of the many families he has counseled and consoled along the way. He gave each of his three children the freedom to choose our own paths, to make our own mistakes, secure in the knowledge that, whatever we did, however we succeeded or failed along the way, we could always come home to the embrace of unconditional love. As award winning photographer Anne Geddes once said, “Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad.”


  1. I am so grateful to have your dad (and mom) in my life. We are both extremely lucky to have the most special of the special dads. And what a great picture of him! It should be a publicity shot from a Frank Capra movie.

    In the curious coincidence department, I should add that your dad and mine have compared notes on the unexpected intersections of their lives as well -- my dad and Uncle Ted were stationed in the same European combat units during WWII, overlapping for a time. Thankfully, my dad was able to return. Later, your dad and mine took graduate courses at Temple in the same program and, I think, were even in the same class at one point. At the time, your family was living in New Jersey and ours in Philadelphia -- what are the odds?!

    Our parents are the epitome of “the Greatest Generation.” There never is a doubt of their love and devotion to their families and they remain always there for us when we need them (which has been, as it turned out, more often than we had imagined when we were young). Although we can never repay them for everything they have given us, that they are satisfied with our love for them is, perhaps, the greatest gift of all.

  2. Go Grandpa! We love you! You are the best Papa in the world!!!