Saturday, June 18, 2016

Lessons From Rare Photos of Dad

In the '60s
Dad was usually behind the camera in family photos, so I have few photos of him by himself. That's...

Lesson one: Above all, be of service to others.

It led to a better life for Dad, who – when photographed – was happily upstaged by his dark-haired, fashionable wife, blond and always-smiling daughter, and moody and chubby son.

Because he devoted his life to his family, I can tell you that even though this weekend will be the 10th Father’s Day since he died, he has been remembered every day since by his wife and children and grandchildren. His life will have impact on his grandchildren’s future children.

Lesson two: Work hard.

Overlooking Bryant Park
Here’s a photo of Dad behind his desk at New York Telephone at 1095 Ave. of the Americas near Bryant Park, at a time in New York’s history when Bryant Park wasn’t very clean or safe.

You may think, by his Don Draper good looks and jacket, that Dad was an advertising executive. He was creative enough to be one. But no, he was head of the customer service department… the executive appeals branch… in charge of handling all the especially tough complaints.

Dad was, for all his great qualities, possibly the most impatient man in the world. So you’d think this would be a horrible job for him. The last thing any sane person, his son included, would ever want to do would be complain to my father.

But instead of channeling his impatience at customers, he channeled it at silly processes and ineffective management… and he had a long and successful career.

I work for a successor company to Dad’s, and we share the same first name. For many years after he retired I’d get calls where as soon as I’d identify myself, I’d hear a pause on the other line. Then the person would exclaim, “You’re not Bob Varettoni”-- a constant reminder of my existential failings.

Lesson three: Love is made manifest by self-discipline and loyalty.

Captain Varettoni
No one was ever a more loyal friend than my father. When he died, I heard this from many of his friends dating back to high school and, especially, from his service in the Navy.

After active duty, Dad served in the reserves, eventually attaining the rank of Captain in the Intelligence division. Dad valued the discipline he found in the Navy – which probably accounts for why he was so good at his day job at the phone company.

In his whole life, just like Superman, there was only one thing he was defenseless against.

Dad’s kryptonite was a pack of Kent cigarettes. Until his 60s, he could never give up his three-pack-a-day smoking habit. I saw him try to quit, and fail, several times while I was growing up. Never did he look so defeated than when he’d relapse and start smoking again.

Yet after a second heart attack, after his doctor warned him that he would never live to see my youngest daughter grow up unless he stopped smoking, Dad quit that very day and never smoked again. I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must have been.

Today, my youngest daughter has years of great memories of my Dad. The two of them were thick as thieves, and no matter where my daughter has lived there are always cherished photos on her nightstand of my Dad and her together.

His loyalty to me was incredible.

One day early in my career, I thought I had made a mistake that would get me fired. I knew how proud he was that I worked at the same company, so I let him know right away. He listened and said, “Son, that wasn’t your fault.” Believe me, he would have let me know if it was. “They’d be fools to fire you,” he added. “Your bosses hung you out to dry.” And I believe that, behind the scenes, my bosses were made aware of this too.

As a teen, after I wrecked the family car (my dad loved cars as much as I love electronic gadgets), my first call was to Dad at his office. I’ll never forget that his only concern was whether I had been injured in any way. When I initially decided to attend a college other than Notre Dame (Dad’s lifelong dream for me), his reply was simply, “Whatever you think is best for you.” And then I decided to go to Notre Dame anyway. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

Dad didn’t know everything, though...

On Father’s Day in 2000, he spent the afternoon at my house. After I had come in from playing in the backyard with my young daughters, he said, “I like to watch you with your kids. You’re always laughing. You’re a better father than me. We never laughed together like that.”

True, I have had a different relationship with my children than Dad had with me. I’ve found fatherhood to be immensely joyous, though sometimes heart-breaking. But I haven’t been a better father than Dad. In the grand scheme, I merely tried to follow in his footsteps. It was never important to me to be a friend to my children; it has always more important to me to try to be as selfless and devoted to my family as Dad was.

Father and son
Just moments after Dad and I spoke on the back porch, my wife took this blurry, unguarded photo of us.

It was just a split second, more than 15 years ago, but I treasure this photo most of all. It proves, unquestionably, that Dad wasn’t always right:

We did too laugh together, and those moments were all the more precious because they were indeed so rare.


Here's something I previously posted about my Dad.
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