The most compassionate person I ever met was my own Father.
No doubt Mother Theresa had him beat, but then, I never met her. And some would think Dad an unlikely candidate for the award. After all, Dad was a Goldwater-and-Reagan Republican, and religiously he cheerily described himself as a Fundamentalist Christian.
And he was everybody’s friend.
It didn’t matter who people were or where they came from, Dad was always first in line to help out. He’d pick-up a hitch-hiker and find the guy was a despondent unemployed father with five kids wondering where the next meal was coming from, and that same evening I’d be at Van’s Supermarket with Mom and Dad stacking two grocery carts of food into the station wagon and running it out across twenty miles of ice-covered roads to a shack of a house in Fennville. One of my earliest memories is of that man’s family running out to the car, barefoot through the snow, to lug the groceries in.
And everybody was welcome at our house.
My poor Mom. She was a very private person who enjoyed her space and her quiet, but Dad kept inviting the whole world to our house. Despite the fact that we lived in a county that was 99% white, we had visitors from Africa and Asia and countries that weren’t even in the World Almanac come and break bread at our table. He was incurably curious, especially about people unlike himself. If there had been native peoples of Antarctica who walked upside-down on their hands, we would have had upended Antarcticans at our table.
He’d go out of his way to spend time with Hank Overway and Al Vander Bush just because, in Western Michigan, they were the rarest thing among the area’s human population, —actual Democrats. There weren’t many Catholics in our town but Dad knew most of them. There were even fewer Jews, but Dad knew them all. There was one Arab, Al the Syrian electrician. We knew him, too.
As a devoted Goldwaterite, “big government” was an especially disturbing concept for Dad, one that just spurred him on all the more to seize responsibility for his own neighborhood. When someone in the community donated 11 acres for a park, but the local government had no money to develop it, he went door-to-door recruiting the citizenry to donate materials and money. Within weeks the stubbled field was graced with a full set of playground equipment, a long string of scrawny maples and a baseball diamond with what seemed to us the world’s largest backstop, built with salvaged telephone poles from the local utilities.
No education was no problem.
Dad acquired an 8th grade education in a one-room schoolhouse on the Dakota prairie and as a 14-year-old, cried himself to sleep every night because his parents wouldn’t let him go to high school. But even as an old-timer, he could produce line upon line, stanza after stanza of English and American poetry. He particularly enjoyed showing off his Tennyson.
So when controversy erupted in the local school district and major restructuring was called for, Dad jumped in, with his 8th-grade diploma firmly in hand, and got himself nominated and then elected to the local school board. He managed to push through a merger of the Maplewood District into the Holland District, which meant we kids all got to go to a better high school.
He taught Sunday school, served as GOP precinct captain, and took hispanic kids camping with the Holland City Mission. With a tiny handful of men, he built Camp Kaskitowa, a youth camp in the Allegan Forest. He sang in the church choir, his photography won first prize in the Holland Camera Club, he took me to college or high school basketball every weekend and went to prayer meeting every Wednesday night. He read the newspaper and Time and Bill Buckley’s National Review cover-to-cover, and donated to every good cause anybody ever came up with, all while working 60 hours a week in his plumbing business for what must have amounted to about eight bucks an hour.
And now I’m supposed to keep up with that.
Ridiculous. Greatly Ridiculous.