The Lesson in a Life Well Lived
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Gandhi
In 1962, my father was high school principal at St. Mary’s boys school in Manhasset, NY. It is an interesting job choice, high school principal. He wasn’t really your typical administrator and he didn’t love rules. He hated meetings. I wouldn’t call him a strong disciplinarian. He was more of a free spirit with a great sense of humor. But at the time, he was a Marist Brother which was like being in the military. You go where they send you.
His stories from his tenure with St. Mary’s were pure entertainment. My father thought any act of rebellion executed with intelligence was time well spent. The only thing he had no time for was stupidity. And just imagine the pranks that went on at an all-boys high school. He had the best stories because he thought the gags the boys pulled were hysterical.
On one occasion, 4 boys decided they needed an afternoon off. So each boy went to a bathroom on each of the four floors of the high school armed with a cherry bomb. The bathrooms were right above one another, so with perfect timing the boys each lit their firework and then dropped it in the toilet. The sound was so incredibly loud that everyone thought the building was exploding and fled for their lives. God he laughed telling that one.
He had identical twins attending the school, separated into separate classrooms. Each boy would wear a different color blazer. When it came time for final exams, he saw them switching blazers in the hallway. One boy would go take the Physics final and then they would switch jackets and go take the same test again. I always asked, if you were principal, why didn’t you tell the teacher? His response? If the teacher is too stupid to figure it out then the boys don’t deserve to get caught.
And he was always connected to the community. His ability to pull off the most incredible accomplishments came from his great relationships with people. As principal, he had to find a band to play at the school dance. My dad knew nothing and cared nothing for current music and would have no idea where to begin. He called a close friend in Manhattan who was a high-powered attorney looking for some advice. He was hooked up with a band called The Pendletones and scheduled them to play. Just weeks before the dance, my dad got a call from the band manager that they regretably would not be able to appear. The band had a hit song debuting on Billboard, Surfin Safari. Yup, the Beach Boys were no longer able to play a high school dance on Long Island due to their new found fame. The outcome didn’t really matter. He was a hero to the boys for having booked The Beach Boys at all.
The thing that always made me admire him was his approach to his students. He refused to expel any students, no matter what they did, under any circumstances. He always said, no mistake you make should ever deprive you of your right to an education. But that was not to say there were no consequences. Instead of expulsion, he would make the offender walk the cafeteria with him at lunch time, just talking. It made the kid look like he was best friends with the principal, not a good look for the self-professed troublemaker.
One thing was always guaranteed, my father was the smartest guy in the room. He was a highly educated, extremely well-read college professor. But the word I would associate with him is clever. You couldn’t outsmart him. He was a Fulbright Scholar with masters degrees and a PhD. He wrote questions for the SAT. He translated countless texts. He completed the New York Times crossword puzzle in black felt pen religiously every Sunday. He had to finish in the morning because the phone would ring all afternoon with questions like, what was 29 down? It is driving me crazy!
But he would never let on that he was brilliant. But he was. It was the kind of intelligence that came with a quiet confidence. He had razor sharp wit with the sensibility of a Buddhist monk. His calm demeanor was ever present. He never got upset about anything.
If you saw him in the college environment, he was as likely to be talking to his great friend on the janitorial staff than to another professor. His greatest lessons were about friendship. He only had one requirement in that regard, that it be real.
As a father, he was far from what you would expect. There was never much discipline. Any correction he made to my behavior was more of a philosophical discussion. He took me along on his world travels, always wanting to explore. Each day was an adventure. No plan and no requirements. Just the ease of exploring a place and willing to let the experience go where it would take us. We spent summers living in American schools abroad, just to have the freedom to travel.
Mallorca, Barcelona, and Madrid were amongst his favorite places in the world. We explored Mexico, the Caribbean, France and the United Kingdom. But nearly every trip ended with a stop in Ireland. Our family there always welcomed us with open arms. There is something about the simplicity of the countryside that always felt like home to him.
Every year on my birthday, he would give me a card and it was always roughly the same. He would tell the story of the day I was born as if it were the greatest miracle known to man. I recently found a stash of old birthday cards, one after another, sent from around the world with the same beautiful message. Dear Colleen, I remember the cold afternoon in December when you came into this world. It was December 19th, just 6 days before Christmas at 3:11pm. It was like experiencing a miracle. One minute, it was myself, your mother and the doctor and the next minute a new life was there. You are beautiful and brilliant and I could never have hoped for a more accomplished young woman as my daughter. Love, Dad. He loved celebrating my birthday, I think because it is the day he became something completely new in this world at the age of 46…a father.
He passed away in 2006 at 78 years old. My brother gave a beautiful eulogy. It was loving and funny and true to my dad’s life. I remember laughing through my tears, which my father would have loved.
I believe the people we love are never really gone. Somewhere deep inside me I can feel him with me and hear his voice in my head. And almost every day a very strange thing happens. I always see a clock, a watch or my iPhone at precisely 12:19pm, the same numbers as my birthdate. It feels like his little message to me, just saying hello.
If I could have one wish, it would be that we could have more time. One more conversation. A bit of life advice from the man I so completely trusted. I wish he could have known my children and my nieces and nephew and watch them grow up. I wish that he could see that I have become what he always wanted me to be…a writer.