Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

John Waldo Russell -- Born 100 Year Ago Today

John Waldo Russell
1906 Aug. 3 – 1960 Jan. 20

My father, John Waldo Russell, was born 100 years ago today. Thruout his life he was known as Waldo, Lick (short for lickety split – he was apparently quite the runner as a boy), Jack, Mr. Russell (to his barbering students), Daddy (to my mom and sister), and Pop (to me).

He died young, at age 53. The ostensible cause of death was complications of atherosclerosis, but I chalk it up to the fact that he drank too much, smoked too much, ate too much, and exercised too little. His DNA was probably OK; his own father, Richard Kemper Russell (1873 June 22 –1965 Nov. 15) outlived him.

Occasions like this always give one the opportunity to reflect on one’s own mortality. As Garrison Keillor put it about his own father’s death, the buffer between you and the Grim Reaper is gone.

I grew up during the Eisenhower Era, when kids were supposed to be seen and not heard; women were supposed to keep house; and men were supposed to work all day, come home at night, read the paper, and be inscrutable. We did our part.

I think my folks weren’t quite sure what to make of me, their geek kid. “He’s always got his nose in a book!”, they’d apologize to visitors. But, to their credit, they didn’t push me to, say, take up the violin or go out for football. After awhile, they kind of let me search out my own path (as long as the lawn was mowed and the sidewalk was shoveled).

Consequently, I didn’t have many chances to learn much from my father. “Always clean your tools when the job is done.” is one that’s stuck with me. And “Always leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.”, which is the out-the-door advice I got as he shipped me off on a Boy Scout camping expedition. (After 4 years in Boy Scout Troop 89, I found out he’d been on the parent board the entire time, but didn’t think to tell me about it.)

Altho I don’t consciously remember his ever telling me that a union is a working man’s best friend, his union activism must have somehow rubbed off on me (tho even after all these years I find it odd that barbers — the quintessential independent businessmen — had their own union). I heard 2nd-hand stories of how he’d been active in the Madison Federation of Labor before he married my mom and moved to Eau Claire, and apparently he was chosen to introduce Franklin Delano Roosevelt when his campaign train arrived in Madison, probably in 1932. I have no idea whether this is true or just family folklore.

Every Sunday afternoon Pop would turn on the radio to hear “Hello, Wisconsin! This is William T. Evjue, editor and publisher of The Capital Times in Madison” and then listen to 15 minutes of Evjue railing against the evils of Joe McCarthy and “the one-party press”. (Hint: He wasn’t talking about the so-called “liberal media”.) This was followed by the Green Bay Packer game, but that was my mom’s thing, not my dad’s. (Her nephew Dan Orlich played defensive end for the Packers from 1947 to 1949, and everybody on that side of the family, including me, became a Packer fan for life as a result.)

The main lessons I learned from Pop were the negative ones: DON’T drink, DON’T smoke, DON’T overeat, and DO exercise. In case there was any glimmer of reservation about this course of action, it didn’t survive the early 1990s when 4 of my co-workers at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction — George Kolb, Amza Vail, Roy Richgels, and Don Russell (no relation) — all died within a couple of years (one way or the other) of retiring.

Keeling over in the traces, or even shortly after being put out to pasture, didn’t strike me as a good idea. I myself retired in 2000, at age 55, and have not regretted it. Serious financial advisors talk about the 3-legged stool of retirement: your pension, Social Security, and “other income” (by which they mean investments, rental property, your kids, odd jobs, and so on). The 3rd leg of my stool has been lowered expectations. As a working person, I made more money than I needed myself, so I annually gave away thousands of dollars to various worthy causes. Now that I can’t afford it any more, I don’t. My lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much.

I guess that attitude was one other lesson I learned from Pop: don’t get too full of yourself, live within reason, enjoy yourself if you can, but don’t shirk any serious responsibilities.

I’m sure you can spend a dime for a dozen shrinks who will tell you all about the lifetime traumas that are inflicted on Impressionable Youth when they lose a parent during their formative years. (I was 15 when Pop died.) And I suppose they’ve got plenty of examples they can cite, too. But I’m not one of them.

I’m not sure whether the kind of medical care we have now in 2006 could have helped my father back in 1960. I’m guessing it would probably only have netted him a few more years at best, and probably not very happy ones.

But I’m taking full advantage of 21st Century health care and expect it to keep me alive and kicking until my own 100th birthday. Alas, that’s probably not true for all of my friends, however, so I’ve decided I’m going to celebrate it early, on 2009 May 7 (which would normally be my 65th), so everyone else can attend while they’re still young and healthy enuf to enjoy it.

But that’s a few years off still, so for now, happy birthday, Pop. You’da been amazed!


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