Thursday, April 10, 2014

Today is the fourth anniversary...

...of my father's death. Here's a piece I wrote about him at the time:

My father passed away yesterday at the age of 90. A resident of Edina, Minnesota, he died of natural causes, following a fall in his home two weeks ago. Survivors include his wife Nancy (nee Crawford) Tracy; a daughter, Joanne (Ed) Marsh, of Naperville, Illinois; four sons, Jim (Mary) of Newton, Massachusetts; Peter, also of Edina; Tom (Louise) of Bloomington, Minnesota; and me, Michael (Julie), of Glenview, Illinois; twelve grandchildren (one of which, David Marsh, preceded him in death) and two great-grandchildren.

My father underwent emergency brain surgery on the night of March 24; he never regained consciousness. He died after spending almost a week in a hospice. A funeral mass will be said on Tuesday morning.

James Francis Tracy was born on August 21, 1919, in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in nearby Oak Park, the second child of Charles and Anna (nee Coughlin) Tracy. His older brother Chuck and younger siblings Virginia and Ed also survive him.

My dad was a graduate of Ascension Catholic School and Fenwick High School (class of 1937), both of Oak Park, and St. Benedict's College (class of '41) in Atchison, Kansas. A lifelong sports fan, he was an All-Conference guard in basketball at Fenwick and went on to play for the Ravens in college. I'd be willing to bet that if he had one regret at the end of his life it was that he didn't live long enough to see a game in the Twins' new stadium. (Don't feel too bad, though; he saw the inside of a lot of stadiums. One time we were on vacation in Florida and wandered onto the field in the Orange Bowl--don't ask me how. "So this is what artificial turf looks like...")

On December 27, 1943, my father married his high school sweetheart, Nancy Crawford, when he was on leave from the army. (He was married in his uniform.) Shortly after, the newlyweds traveled to Apalachicola, Florida, where my father was stationed before he was shipped overseas to fight in the Pacific Theater of Operations (the "Japs"). While in Apalachicola, my mother took a short-lived job as a file clerk in a VD clinic--until she found out what VD was. She also drank Coca-Cola out of a bottle for the first time in Florida. (What will they think of next, Coke in a can?) What an exotic place the "Redneck Riviera" must have seemed to an Irish Catholic girl from the West Side of Chicago.

My father saw some pretty serious "action" in the Far East and was resigned to never coming home again. I've been thinking about him a lot while watching the HBO series, "The Pacific." That must have been terrifying! One thing I remember him telling me was that the Australian soldiers, in particular, were nuts. They were all about 6' 5", 275 pounds, drank beer by the gallon, and thought wearing a helmet into battle was strictly for wimps.

I asked him once what he thought of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan.

"Great! I was scheduled to be in the seventh wave of the invasion of the home islands. We would have all been slaughtered."

I had never thought of it like that before.

But my father did survive the war, somehow, and returned to my mom and his job at Montgomery Ward, the retail giant. The young couple rented an apartment in Oak Park and my mother promptly gave birth to my sister, Joanne, in 1947, and my brother, Jim, in 1948. My father once told me that he decided then to "cool it," and practice the only acceptable Catholic method of birth control at the time, "I turned over." Not for long, however, as Peter was born in 1953, Tom in 1955, and me, the baby, in 1958. (My mother once confided to me that when she was having me at age 39 she looked around at all the other twenty-somethings in the maternity ward and said to herself, "I'm done!" I wonder how long it took my dad to figure that out.)

Shortly after returning from the war, my dad moved over to rival Sears, Roebuck, and remained there until 1974. He was the quintessential "company man" of the 1950s and '60s, moving his family to Philadelphia, back to Chicago, and on to New Jersey. He made one last move in 1974, to Minneapolis, and remained there for the rest of his life.

My father was not a complicated man. His persona was the sum of his Irish heritage, his strong Catholic faith, his love for sports (or should I say LOVE for sports), and his devotion to his wife and family. (If nothing else can be said with any certainty in this life, my father loved my mother.)

While he didn't talk much about being Irish (unlike some of the Professional Irish that can be found in places like Chicago), his heritage was a big part of his identity. I remember looking at the program my parents brought home from my eighth grade graduation. I asked my mother why there were check marks next to some of the names. "Oh, your father was just counting all the Irish names while we were waiting for it to begin."

My father's father used to get a big kick out of sitting me on his knee and asking me if I thought I "would ever go back." I always found this puzzling.

"Go back where, Grampa?" Everyone would laugh at my expense.

One time I turned the tables on him.

"Grampa, do you think you'll ever go back?"

"If they build a bridge." Again everyone laughed. What on earth is he talking about? It wasn't until I was much older that I realized he was talking about the Old Sod (not that he'd ever set foot outside of Illinois).

As for my dad's Catholicism, well, I guess sometimes I wish I could be as certain of something as he was of the One True Faith. He was a true Pillar of the Church, wherever we lived. For years he was proud to recount that he was among that hardy band at Divine Infant in Westchester: "We built that church!"

Sports was a lifelong passion for my dad. He followed baseball, football, and basketball mostly, but people may forget how much he liked boxing, too. I remember him watching "the fights" on our black-and-white TV on Friday nights when I was very young. He also went to the first Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden in the early '70s, which was a very big deal at the time.

But probably his biggest thrill in sports was watching his oldest son play in the City Championship football game in Soldier Field in Chicago in 1965. My brother always seemed a little embarrassed when we brought it up (which was as often as possible), but it was a big deal, too (especially since they won).

Although my father took me to three All-Star games and a World Series game (courtesy of Gillette), I think my fondest sports memory that involved him was when I actually got to run with the ball in a grade school football game. It was a sweep or a reverse or something (probably a broken play), but I just remember feeling so proud when he told me afterward that I "turned that corner and ran like a deer." (I always wondered why I never got to carry the ball again. After all, Irish kids are known for their speed.)

Lastly, my dad was hopelessly in love with my mother. He pretty much adored her all the days they were together. He was definitely one of those guys who thought he had "married up."

This is hardly a complete picture of my dad. I guess it's impossible to sum up a person's life in a blog post. Even a good New York Times obit wouldn't be sufficient. But this is what bloggers do; we blog. If journalism is the first draft of history, then maybe a blog post like this is the first draft of memoir.

In the days and weeks to come, I'm sure I'll remember more about my father. I'll try to share His Life with you in this space.

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