With Fathers’ Day fast approaching, I thought I’d take the time to record my impressions of my Dad.
William Henry Seward Leeds was born in 1891. He was named after his own father, who died in 1895. Thus, the “Jr.” was dropped at an early age. In 1928 he became the father of twin boys, and the oldest was given the “Jr'”. My brother would later have a son of his own; to this day, my nephew has a “III” following his name.
Prior to the birth of the twins, Dad became the father to two girls. That was in the early 1920’s. One of the girls was not his, but none of us ever knew it; he treated that girl just as he treated the rest of us – with love and compassion. It wasn’t until she turned 65 and applied for social security that we learned she had been unofficially adopted. Our only guess is the potential shame that might have been brought on the family was too great to make such a public announcement. Dad simply, and quietly, accepted a little girl as his own.
One other son was born in 1942, and I came along in 1944. If you were quick with your math, you guessed that Dad was 53 when I was born. That’s very close. I was born in August. Dad turned 53 later in the year.
During The Great War (which didn’t become known as World War I until sometime during World War II), Dad followed his patriotic heart and tried to enlist… in the army, the navy, the marines, and various Canadian outfits. They all turned him down. Somehow (perhaps to help a recruiter meet his quota?) Dad was inducted into the National Guard.
If you look closely at the above photos you’ll see that Dad wore glasses. I have a picture of Dad when he was in grade school; he was wearing glasses even then. Nineteen days after Dad’s induction, someone saw fit to give him an eye test. A few days later they gave him an honorary discharge.
This is all to say that when I was born, my father was an older man with very poor eyesight. If it hadn’t been for the twins, who were sixteen years older than me, (and in many ways filled the gap I felt) I might have resented Dad more than I did. Most of my friends had fathers who were much younger and most of them came outside and played games with us. As a young boy, it’s easy to ignore the fact that your father is working six days a week and doing all he can to keep a roof over your head and food in your belly.
Because of my late arrival, Dad had to continue working until he was almost seventy years old. He retired just as I was graduating from high school. I never thanked him for that; I certainly should have.
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Mark Twain said those words, but they certainly fit the way I looked at my father.
Dad had dropped out of school after the 7th grade. As you recall, his father had died when he was four years old. His mother was doing her best to raise three children. Thus, Dad and his brother had to quit school and go to work as soon as they were able.
What I failed to realize was two-fold. First, a 7th grade education in the early twentieth century was more thorough in the basics than today’s high school graduates receive. Second, and more importantly, Dad never stopped studying. As poor as his eyesight was, he read everything he could get his hands on. When his eyesight failed him almost completely, he signed up for “Talking Books” and continued to read for most of his life.
My first rude awakening occurred when I returned home from my first semester in college. I had just missed making the “good” Dean’s list and was feeling rather smug. When Dad asked me what I had learned, I spouted off a few facts and found myself aghast when Dad started filling in the gaps of what I’d said. He knew far more about those subjects than I did. From then on, I had a much deeper respect for the “ignorant old man”.
When I graduated from college, Dad once again asked my what I had learned. My answer at that time was, “How little I know.”
Because of Dad’s lack of formal education, he always worked at jobs that were far below his capabilities, but he always worked. Throughout the Great Depression, Dad managed to keep working when many other men were standing in bread lines. Dad didn’t make a lot of money, but it was enough to take care of his wife and four children.
At one point, he even bought a bunch of baby chicks and raised them in a pen he built under the back porch of their home. He sold some and cooked some.
One of my memories from my teen years was the Strout Realty catalogs that were delivered to our house on a regular basis. Mom and Dad would study them from cover to cover. Their dream was to sell our house (as soon as I was out on my own) and buy a small farm where they could raise chickens. I guess their experience during the Great Depression convinced them they could handle such chores in their retirement years.
They almost made it.
Mom died during my senior year in college. And their dream died with her.
Dad lived another eight years. I think he was proud of his children. By then, we were all married and had families of our own. In fact, Dad had about sixteen grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren by the time he passed in 1974.
In the intervening years, Dad meant a lot to me. I could always go to him for advice… but he never said a word unless he was asked. That’s something all parents can learn from. He knew when we turned eighteen, his job was basically done. From that point on, it was up to us.
I mentioned earlier that I resented my father not being able to play with me when I was young. That’s one of the main reasons I got married and had my children while I was young enough to do things with them. I know I’m far less than perfect in their eyes, but I hope they remember all the fun we had when they were young.