My Dad was a straight talker. One of his favourite sayings was “Bullshit Baffles Brains.” If he were here today he would have said “keep it short and sweet” so I hope to speak as honestly and briefly as I can.
My Dad also loved to lean in and sort of point to himself and say “What You See Is What You Get” which was and wasn’t true. And he knew that. He was a simple man in that he had his work, he had his family, he had his faith, and he had his friends — but those four things all overlapped in amazing, complicated ways.
My dad was not a big preacher, I don’t think I ever heard him speak from the pulpit of this church beyond the occasional parish announcement. He was a man of understated faith, but faith that he held deeply. You never met a gentile who knew more or cared more about the holocaust. Every year or two he’d say “Get me this or that book” and it was about a survivor of Birkenau or Treblinka — my father honestly couldn’t wrap his head around human beings doing such evil to others and it fascinated him. Even before Fr. Maximillian Kolbe – the Polish Franciscan priest for whom this facility was founded — had been sainted by Rome, my Dad had sainted him in his heart. Not a lot of things made my dad cry, but talking about Fr. Kolbe stepping out of the safety of a Gestapo line up and volunteering his life in place of a man who cried out “My wife, my family!” — it was the most Christ-like thing imaginable, and it moved my dad deeply because he would have given his life for us too.
My dad was a street guy. At the age when I was in high school whining about not fitting in and not having friends, he had already dropped out. His father Benny worked hard, brutal work on the killing floor at Canada Packers, but my father decided at some point he wasn’t ever going to have a boss. (At least, not until he married my mother.) He shined shoes, he sold fruit from a truck, he watched and listened and taught himself how to get by. He drove deliveries up and down the east coast. He knew the side routes and two-lanes and kept taking them even when the interstates were there. He has probably been to more useless places than anyone here.
He was a voracious reader despite his lack of formal education – business biographies, books about the war, all sorts of histories of Poland and Canada, and every day you would see all three Toronto papers strewn across his desk. He might ask me “What does this word mean?” but not very often. He wasn’t impressed by how many letters you had after your name. When he was invited on a trade tour to Cuba in the 80’s he came back ranting about the “idiot intellectuals” who acted like everything was fine and everyone was happy. They wanted to keep him in front of the whiteboard at the resort, looking at “facts” and figures and abstractions. Dad wanted to meet the packers, the drivers, the growers. After that eye-opener and especially after a later visit to communist Poland, he had little time for utopian academics. Dad would say shit like “Ph.D piled higher and deeper” and I imagine what he thought about me going to university for english and fine art, not business or medicine or law though he never said a word. But I’ll tell you, I never saw a prouder man the day I wore my cap and gown.
He worked so hard to build this church and cultural center. My father helped establish this parish in temporary space at Holy Name of Mary School, and I can still smell the incense as an altar boy in that first Christmas pageant there, and dad beaming with pride as I sang with the choir. He and his friends busted their dupas to transform that gymnasium into the beautiful church and facility that stands around us today. As the plans and ambitions of the founders expanded, I remember him politely telling Father Bak that we didn’t need such a big temple. I’m not sure he could foresee the size of his faith community, or even the cultural community from where he stood 30 years ago, but my god he was ever proud to have been a part of giving it a place and a home. When I was going through his things looking for memories to share today, I realized he had saved every membership card, every “Kolbe 100 Fundraiser” pledge pin. He didn’t boast about it — well, maybe after a shot of spiritus with his buddies — but he was so proud to give the suburban Poles a grounding place like the St. Stan’s or St. Casimir’s of his childhood.
Dad grew up in a different Toronto, where the Poles were treated as second class citizens by the waspy old guard, but that bigotry seldom manifested itself in how he treated others. He worked hard and built up from a single truck to a thriving business honestly and ethically, not to impress anyone or show off, but as if to prove he already deserved their respect. And he treated everyone as if they deserved HIS time and respect… at least until they proved themselves unworthy. The greatest compliment Dad would bestow upon you is that you were “solid.” I won’t share some of the words that meant you weren’t solid.
It didn’t matter if you were the head chef or the dishwasher, the boss or the truck driver, Wally would shake your hand and ask what you did, how you were, how was your family. He was a true people person and he loved to shoot the breeze with anyone. Last night I swear half the visitors came up to me and said “I just had lunch with your father last month” – he was always “alright, when are we going to go to lunch?” I might have been the musician in the family, by my father worked that telephone like a musical instrument. My father could start a conversation with anyone, any time, any culture, hell any language. He would find the shared interest, he saw the good in everyone.
And if, god forbid, you did fall short of being a good person in my dad’s eyes… you’d get the Wally Eye. Some of you know it. My brother and I knew it well, growing up, and it was a disapproval that you didn’t want. With not much more than that funny look, he would warn us about our friends and business partners. And most of the time he was right. But privately, he was as tough on himself as anyone else.
For all my dad’s business savvy, he could be a real soft touch. If someone came to him with a story of injustice, a streak of bad luck they could turn around with a little help — in my case maybe a totalled car — he was there with an open pocketbook, a billy club, the name and number of a guy who could help, or even just an open mind, a handshake and some solid advice. When he said he wouldn’t let you down, he meant it.
His relationship with my mother could be tempestuous, a ten dollar word he probably wouldn’t care for, but at the heart of their relationship was a deep-seated love that transcended all the things they could throw at each other. Sometimes literally. My parents both grew up in stormy marriages, but they were of the first era where you could walk away and start over without a lot of judgment — an option their parents never had — but they stuck it out, partly because of their faith, but mostly because they loved and needed each other, and because my brother and I were always their first priority, and they believed that a family needed to stay together. They helped each other through good times and bad, and their strengths generally complimented each others weaknesses.
It’s a testament to my dad’s strength that he was one of the most high-functioning raging alcoholics I have ever known. He could be gregarious and generous after a few beers, the life of the party, and that was part of the joyous spirit we all love to remember. I believe that he inherited his affliction, and though that disease tried to twist itself around his and our lives over the years, in the last two decades, with a lot of pushing from my mom and help from his friends, he fought it fairly successfully, and took much better care of both himself and his family. I’m sad that my Henry didn’t see more of my dad in his youthful glory, but I am heartened that the last two nights, everyone keeps telling me all he could talk about was his grandson – apparently all the time.
My cousins and friends and I are different kind of men than our fathers. We talk to our wives about our and their feelings, we change diapers, we clean and vacuum our homes (though our wives would probably say less frequently than we think we do) and most of all, we are always communicating with our children. Being involved in their education and play. Make sure they understand what we expect of them, and making sure their concerns are heard. Being there for them. A lot.
My Dad, not so much. It was hard to talk to him, slightly easier after a few drinks. He provided, he worked hard, he let us know when we were out of line, he bailed us out of trouble, he protected us. He could drive a Lincoln town car 24 hours down the I-75 straight on to Florida with a pack of Salem Lights, a 2-inch crack in the driver’s side window, and a backseat full of noisy kids. And if there was a problem on the interstate, he knew those state roads backwards and forwards from the cab of his truck.
Back in the roaring eighties, when my dad was at the height of his business success, he owned racehorses with one of his customers, and also I believe with his life-long friends Gordy and my godfather Rocky. He wasn’t much of a gambler — he preferred to cut deals — but I know he really enjoyed himself and mostly he loved the community, he loved talking with all the guys at the track. His favourite horse was named “Amazing Dan” and when that horse won (and sadly, was claimed) he brought home the photo finish and gave it to me, beaming with pride. He also lost a shit-load of money in that world, and later he would tell me “son, horse racing is the sport of kings… and your father… he is not a king!”
And I just want to finish by saying no dad, you were a king. You were an inspiration to anyone who knew you well, and a good man to those who knew you a little. I can only pray you knew how much I loved and admired you, and how much all of us here will miss you.