Eulogy for My Father

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I delivered this eulogy for my father, John Sokolowski, who passed away on September 19, 2016.

I have been thinking of where to start for some time now and I am still a bit stumped. Not for lack of things to say, but because there are too many. Everyone in this room was deeply affected by my father’s presence on this earth. I think first of my mom. I know how much my mother and father loved each other, as husband and wife. In our extended family we are blessed: long and happy marriages are not some sort of romantic dream, but a living reality. But still . . .  just close your eyes for a minute and imagine 61 years. How do you do that? Well, first of all, in addition to being the loves of each others lives, they were also best friends. Dad was mom’s “buddy”—and she was his. In the 51 years I have borne witness, never once did I see disrespect. I saw balance, and partnership, and love.

I could not have wished for more from a father. He supported each of his children on each of our diverse paths. He also cherished his grand-daughters, in-laws, nieces and nephews, cousins, friends, neighbors, the four midshipmen who called my parents’ house their second home, and his numerous colleagues and business associates. I don’t know what it was like to work for my dad, but I know that if I ever needed a course-correction, he could deliver that with great delicacy. When I worked on the cruise ship, there was small labor dispute that arose between the staff and “management.” Ironically, my dad was part of “management.” I was, naturally, outraged by some grave injustice and became the ship’s very own Norma Rae, putting my dad in a difficult position. I forget what that perceived injustice was. What I will never forget is how my father came to me and spoke to me personally and professionally about the situation. He did not chastise me, criticize me or order me around. He asked me, respectfully, if I would be willing to take a step back from playing a central role in the dispute. And I did. My father was the only person I knew who could successfully talk me out of rabble rousing once my mind was made up.

I think the most important thing my dad ever did for me was to to imbue me with a terrific sense of adventure, play, and curiosity. I remember my parents coming to visit me when I lived in California.  We drove down the coast—one of many memorable traveling experiences with dad—and at some point he decided to take a small road over the mountains and come into Los Angeles from the I-5. He made this decision despite the fact that the gas station attendant warned him that the road ahead closed occasionally and without warning due to military training exercises. We could get all the way into the mountains only to be turned away. My dad’s response was typical: “Let’s try it.”

That drive was one of the most harrowing rides of my life. (I mean, besides Space Mountain, the Rock n’ Rollercoaster and the Tower of Terror). The so-called “ road” became more and more narrow as we climbed up among the canyons and cypresses. The drops at some point were sudden and sheer. The S-curves seemed endless. My mom and I worried out loud, but dad remained confident and calm.  After we crested the peak, we paused to take in the astonishing view. There was no one else around except us. And thankfully, no military training that day. We descended on the eastern side, away from the Pacific Ocean.. My dad and I watched in astonishment as the thermometer rose. Like giddy schoolchildren we called out:  65!75! 85! 95! When the temperature reached 105, Dad pulled the car over and asked if I ever felt 105 degrees. I hadn’t. So he jumped out of the car and waved me out. We started taking laps around the car, laughing and trying to convince my mom to join us. She preferred the air conditioning, but she laughed, a lot, at the two of us, running around a car on the side of the rode in the middle of the desert somewhere north of Los Angeles. My dad was nearing retirement age at that point and he was showing no signs of letting up on the shenanigans.

I was reminded of another one of many small but hilarious moments with my dad recently when I was watching Frasier. It’s a masterpiece of family humor, and every now and then Martin Crane reminds me of dad. Two nights ago, I looked up to see that the next episode was called “Three Days of the Condo.” This might not mean a lot to some of you sitting here today, but to others, it will remind you of a particularly memorable game of charades played one Christmas holiday. My dad, who loved suspense and spy thrillers quite a lot—I seem to remember there always being a Robert Ludlum book laying around—had to get us all to guess the name of the movie “Three Days of the Condor” (a great 1975 espionage film starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway)  Now, you might think the spectacle of my father acting out the movements of a the largest flying bird in the Western Hemisphere would be pretty funny. But we didn’t even get to the condor. My dad spent his entire allotment of charades time acting out the word “Days” by stumbling and reeling around and pretending to knock himself on the head. He was admittedly a bit frustrated at our failure to recognize the obvious—DAZED—but he took it in stride, began to laugh about it himself, and began, as usual, to be able to laugh at himself.

My father’s laughter, sense of humor and love of life are probably well-known among all of us here today. But I bet some of you may not know just how patient he could be. When Dad taught me to drive, before I even put the key in the ignition, he said: Now wait a second. First thing: put on your seatbelt. He also taught me to untangle hopelessly messy balls of strings—both literal and metaphoric—take my time on the putting green, and not make every single ski run into a ski race. Dad taught me to work hard and to be kind and generous. He taught me about loyalty; he modeled how to be gracious in both victory and defeat. 

Somewhere, somehow, my dad is still engaged in shenanigans. I imagine he will guide us all for the rest of our lives, whether we are skiing, swimming, driving, eating, or laughing. He will also guide us in how to be decent, respectful and loving human beings. One of the sympathy cards that my mom received said: “We are all better people for having known him.” I cannot put it better except to say that in my not-so-humble opinion, John Sokolowski was the greatest man I have ever met.

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