Sunday, June 15, 2008

Remembering Dad

The first thing on my mind this morning was my father. Sadly, he passed over 10 years ago and I miss him madly. I've written just a few of my memories of dad.. and I've included a few scrapbook pages I'm putting together for my brother. (If you have any comments, or memories of my dad or your dad, I'd love to read them.)

Dad had so many names! Corkie, Gordon, Russ! He was called Corkie as a toddler when he put his pants on backwards. That name stuck with him most of his life! It was at his work at Ampex that he picked up the nickname Russ.

My dad was always the kid of guy who let my mom do most of the talking. I'd call and he'd say "Hi Honey, let me get your mother"... When my mom passed in 1988 my dad began to talk. And talk, and talk.... I loved hearing his stories about growing up in Wisconsin. Or about how he learned carpentry from watching builders construct houses in Millbrae where he would watch on his lunch hour. He was delivering milk for Borden's then. I remember wrestling on the living room floor, him carrying me and my little brother and sister on his shoulders.... he was really buffed from all the lifting and carrying milk.

Dad was born in Richland Center Wisconsin and was raised by his grandmother Mamie. I was lucky that he took us on yearly train trips to visit. Grandma Mamie canned everything, had a fabulous dark cellar full of jars, and she made home made donuts! After Grandma Mamie passed away, the trips were fewer. But dad had a wonderful time on his 50th class reunion. Aunt Janice had a huge billboard put up to say "Welcome Home Gordon"... he couldn't believe it was for him!

Dad enlisted (right out of high school) in the Navy during WWII and served in Midway, working on submarines. It was on leave in San Francisco that he met my mom at the USO dance. That's when their letter writing began. Dad and mom left letters and notes to each other their entire marriage. One of my most cherished belongings is the letter dad wrote to mom when she was in the hospital at my birth... writing about how much he loved his girls.

After the war, dad came home to my mom, they married withing the week and settled in San Francisco. On their honeymoon trip he took mom to Wisconsin.

Jobs were scarce so he took a job with the Muni (municipal transportation), then an opportunity opened at Bordens Milk. He moved us from the city to the "country", San Mateo, in the early 1950's and began his study of electronics by home course. On the side he opened a TV repair business. Then a huge opening for him came when Ampex hired him. Dad loved his job at Ampex and everyone loved him! Both my brother and I were fortunate to have also worked at Ampex where my dad's reputation for being a great guy was shared through the years.

They called my dad "Mr Perfect"... if something was broken, my dad could fix it.... the right way. He was a perfectionist about doing things "the right way" the first time. He had a wonderful shop, full of repaired tools. After his retirement he was known as the "garage sale" guy. He'd buy broken down tools or garden equipment (mowers, shredders, clippers, etc.)... and yearly he'd have a sale of his own. He had quite a following of guys who looked forward to his sales! I helped him at his last few sales... the men loved him and would hang around all day just to chat (or find out how to fix things!).

Dad either walked or rode his bike all around Menlo Park and his neighbors loved him. Oh... another funny thing. After my mom passed dad began collecting.... wood ducks, clocks, and of course there were hundreds of antique tools.

And whistling! I'll never forget the sound of his whistle to "White Christmas"... he could do that trill thing.... just amazing. They used to say he looked like Frank Sinatra back in the 1940's. And he sang like Bing Crosby. Dad loved his music.... the "real" music before rock and roll. And he loved to dance.... he was known for his jitterbug. Dad and Mom were always singing.... besides "You are my Sunshine", one of my favorites was "My little red rooster".
I love my rooster, my rooster loves me
My little red rooster, by the old oak tree
My little red rooster, goes cock a doodle doo
Ah doodle lee doodle lee, doodle lee, doodle lee dooo.

Funny little song... feels so happy, so simple. Little did I know it would stay with me for years and years!

Dad was a convert.... raised Baptist, inspired by my mom, he came to the Catholic faith while he was in the Navy. I still have the recommendation and character reference from his Baptist pastor that was required for conversion at that time. And I have his daily Missle. Dad was devout throughout his whole life. He even kept a rosary in his car. Every week after my mom passed, Dad would go to Holy Cross Cemetary and say a rosary at her grave. (He kept a lawn chair in the back of his car so he could be comfortable)... and he even became friends with other widowers who followed the same routine.

In his last hour, Dad had been in a deep sleep, the priest was called, and we all were around his bed saying the rosary.... from that deep sleep, he opened his eyes and looked far off, like he was looking at my mom... and recited the rosary with us. A short time later he was gone.

But really only gone in the physical form. I feel my dad's presence around me constantly. I talk to him, or rather he talks to me, usually reminding me to "do it the right way" and "don't wait till later, do it now"... AND HIS HUMOR!!

A few months after he died, my friend Toni spent the night and in the morning said she heard a rooster crowing about 2:00am! I told her she was nuts. Later, when we moved to this house and set up my computer room, now in the middle of the house, we heard a rooster crow at 2am!! Dad had a little clock he kept at his computer that would crow.... don't ask me why at 2am! Well, we reset the clock, and now (still, 10 years later) every morning at 9:00 am, a little electronic roosters crows "cock a doodle doo"... and I hear my dad "Ah doodle lee doodle lee doodle lee doooo".

I love you dad, and I miss you. Thank you so much for touching my life.


  1. Thank you ,Chris, for sharing your special memories of your dad . What a perfect reflection for Father's Day . Your dad was such a special man and will always be in our hearts . Much love -Christa

  2. What a great reflection on your father, Chris. Corkie, although I usually called him Russ, was one of the kindest men I ever knew. He welcomed me into his family when I was on the outs with my own.
    Of course we shared the Navy experience, but what we never shared was his wonderful, uncanny ability to fix anything. I can’t remember any chore, broken faucet, paint job, vehicle repair, household emergency that he wasn’t able to handle.
    From him, I learned to at least try to do-it-myself, but I have (not even to this day) been as adept at repairing and engineering things as Russ. I guess the real accomplishment in that is that he was self taught and yet very successful. He worked at a high tech company – Ampex – at the infancy of the new technology. As far as I could tell he was an inventor as well as a fixer and I was always impressed with that.
    This past weekend I was in Buffalo, NY, attending to the needs of my current father-in-law, also a World War II veteran who was also a self-made man. I thought of Russ, even before I read your blog entry.
    Tim Russert, a Buffalo native died Friday, and all the talk in Buffalo was about Tim Russert, but Buffalo men are the kind of guys that Russ would identify with. They were independent, confident and resourceful men who put their families first. Russ would have fit right in in Buffalo.
    If anyone has read Russert’s book, “Big Russ and Me,” the Russ Tim Russert describes as his father, could have just as easily been Corkie Russell.
    Corkie was part of the “Greatest Generation” that Tom Brokaw wrote about. The men, who in today’s world, would have had every excuse for crawling in a hole and whimpering about how unfair life had been. So many men of their generation were put to work early because of the depression and missed out on college for a variety of reasons.
    These were the guys who dropped everything and went off to war, putting their ambitions and dreams on hold to serve their country. When they came home, got married and had children, they again put those dreams on hold to raise families and hold down a job.
    We are indebted to them in a way that could never be repaid. In today’s self-absorbed world, we will not likely see their kind again.
    There is no doubt that had Russ had the opportunity he could have been anything he wanted to be. In the end what he wanted to be, what he became, was the best provider he could be for a family he deeply loved. Like many men of that generation, that was enough for him.
    Russ had those great Midwestern values and the few times I saw him get mad, he always had good reason, but he was better at controlling his temper and emotions than any man I’ve met.
    My favorite picture of Russ was the one in his white sailor hat, the one where the hat is pushed back on his head and he has a big wide smile. Oh, that big wide smile. He had a smile that started with his eyes and ended in the points of his mouth. No one smiled like Russ. He had an infectious laugh, that started deep in his soul and oozed out.
    He was good at cards, but had patience for a poor Euchre partner. I remember the trips to Lake Berryessa and the wonderful trailer he had on the lake. We would take the boat out in the morning and go fishing. Like everything else where there was a comparison, he always caught more fish than me, even though I tried to do everything exactly as he did.
    It is one of my great regrets in life that I didn’t stay in touch with him after you and I parted company. He was a tremendous person, one with an abiding and terrific faith someone we should all want to be like. He was a great husband, a wonderful father and just a terrific human being. I do not have any bad memories of Russ.
    I’m sure that in heaven when something gets broken the good Lord looks to Russ to grab his tools (all kept in good order) and fix them.
    If I was in some small way responsible for you taking stock in Russ’s life, I’m very humbled to have done so.

  3. What a wonderful tribute to dad. I too miss him and mom. Those pictures sure bring back memories. I feel they are still a part of our lives. When I make a critical decision I feel it is easier to make because of our upbringing, you just know the right thing to do. Other people were not as fortunate. Thank you so much for the compilation I really appreciate it, especially the pictures. Looking forward to the wedding, I will fill you in about the kitchen remodel.
    Love you,

  4. Dear Chris, What a fabulous tribute to your Dad! You are so lucky to have heard him say how proud he was of you! He felt so loved by you and he loved you back!

    You know I fell in love with him! It sounds like many people did! He was such a wonderful combination of the men I've loved in my life: my Dad, both my grandfathers, my favorite uncle, even a little like my brother!

    There was something so soothing about being with him. It was energizing, yet so peaceful. We were on the couch one afternoon and he fell asleep holding my hand. That was such an honor! He teased about "if only I was ten, twenty, well, maybe thirty years younger..."

    Visiting him, lunch with him and just BEING together was a blessing and I'm so grateful that you were willing to share him with me! I lived so much closer to him and it was always a treat to spend time with him. I miss him too. There have been a few precious men in my life, and your Dad is definitely one of them!

    Thanks for sharing your memories and album with me.

    Love ya!

    Rev. Barbara Smailey, PHD


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Sweet Blessings and Big Love to you