Thursday, March 6, 2014

Eulogy for an engineer

March 1

My father would have been 91 today, and there’s nothing he would have liked better than your coming to celebrate his birthday. So thank you for coming today and thank you for all your support over the past few years. 

When my brother and sister-in-law told me my father was dying, I was in New York. While I waited by the phone for their updates, I went through all the letters my father had sent me over the years, my journal entries, even old bills, trying to make sense of his life. I put together some thoughts, and I’d like to share them with you. 

As many of you know, my father was an engineer. And he approached everything as an engineering problem. Not just building projects but life itself. He researched, assessed, catalogued—and invented all manner of solutions. No project was too grand or too small. 

When my daughter C was 5, she wanted a bunk bed for her dollhouse. He spent days helping her design it. And together they cut the little tiny wood parts to the precise specifications, glued them and painted the result hot pink. The dollhouse is long gone, and the furniture too, but the memory of her grandfather, on the floor with her, for hours on end, will last her her whole life. 

Much more rarely, my father came up with a seat-of-the-pants solution. Like when my son J was a little boy, and my father took him to a baseball game and promised him an autograph for his baseball. But the players left before J got to the head of the line. So my dad autographed the baseball himself. 

But unplanned solutions were the exception rather than the rule. 

He even planned a memorial service for himself, though what he had in mind was a living memorial, so he could enjoy it with you. This is what he was planning. He wanted to invite 100 friends. He was going to write some remarks, print them out and put them on a table for people to take if they wanted to. Next to his own remarks, he wanted to have a box labeled “Second Opinions,” with paper and pencils, so people could write their own assessments. He didn’t wanted people to glorify him. He wanted them to tell the truth. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have his remarks, but we’re hoping that you’ll take a moment to jot down some memories and second opinions. And please be honest about his failures. Because he valued the truth and he valued his failures. 

He spent a lot of time thinking about his failures. In fact he sent me a list of them. And I’d like to share a few with you. 

1) When he was in basic training in the Army, he went AWOL to look for gold in the desert. That wasn’t the failure. The failure was that he didn’t find any gold.

2) This is a failure he was happy about: When he was sent to the front in World War II, he was ordered to shoot an enemy soldier, and he missed. Later the soldier was captured, and my father found out that he was just 14 years old. Seventy years after the fact, my father was still relieved about this failure.

3) After he got his engineering degree, he failed the state structural test on his first try—but he passed it the second time. And it was comforting to me that you could fail at something and get it right later.

4) When he was in his 40s, he ran for state senate on a peace ticket and lost. Personally, I don’t consider that a failure. I’m proud that he ran. And even prouder that he was a peace candidate.

The funny thing about my father’s fascination with failure was that by every objective measure, he was a success. He co-founded one of the finest engineering firms in the country, and he was a leader in his community.

But in his view, failure was what engineering was all about. For instance, after an earthquake or other disaster, engineers from all over the country would rush to the site to look over the damage and figure out what went wrong—so they could get it right. 

Examining failures was an essential step to succeeding. My father loved putting the whole puzzle together. And that passion to get to the truth and understand it and make the pieces fit was one of the most endearing qualities of my lovely father. 

He had a penchant for organizing and labeling, and it extended to people. He invented something called the Marja Award. Marja is an Arabic word meaning “one who should be emulated,” and he bestowed the award on people he felt were moral leaders. These included his wife M, Unitarians like DP and TS and LS and the late WC. Respected colleagues like MS and BH. And he also awarded the Marja to famous activists like Jesus and Rosa Parks. The list of Marja winners is quite long, and I can’t name them all, but I’m sure there are others in this room. 

The Marja Awards might seem to contradict one of my father’s favorite sayings, which was “There are no heroes.” But I think what he meant was that human beings are flawed, but your flaws don’t prevent you from doing heroic things. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, my father was a hero—and a Marja.

Lately, one of my father’s other favorite sayings has been “Have fun!” He ended every conversation with those words. And my father did have fun—lots of fun, all over the world, in all kinds of circumstances. I think the reason he was able to live with such gusto was that he wasn’t afraid of failure. He enjoyed the ups and the downs and the runarounds—all of it. And he regretted nothing.

My sister-in-law tells me that the night before my father died, he muttered incoherently for hours. Suddenly, he shouted with total clarity, “Take care, and have fun!”

Thank you.

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