The first blog I had was called “Dine at Joe’s,” in which I shared my conquests of eating out at restaurants for almost every meal. On that site, I was happy to include an oft-storied list entitled “Dad’s Rules of Life of Eating Out.” My father authored the list during my childhood, and shared the rules to us as guidance, especially when trying new, adventurous places to eat while we car-tripped all over the United States, and in one case, Canada. That article was always a popular highlight on that blog. The article was as funny as it was true.
I always hoped to do something similar with this blog. As I became an adult, Dad coached me in his best practices he learned while traveling internationally. Those tips weren’t humorous in nature, but they were valuable nuggets of wisdom. I’d always hoped to spend more time traveling with him so I could document more of his tricks.
All of that hoping came to an end on June 1st, 2023. Dad received a sudden diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. Upon hearing his diagnosis, I traveled back to Indiana as soon as I could get there and spent as much time as I could with him. As I wrote this post the day after his 70th birthday, I hoped to be able to share it with him before he was gone.
Mark Twain famously said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Neither did Dad. My father was the definition of a “polymath.” He was incredibly talented and intelligent, and he poured his talent into many fields. This made him a real expert on many things. I have never met a smarter man, and I don’t expect to.
Here’s a few notable examples:
- As early as high school, he was a photographer. This carried on into when he was in college. He took pictures of some very famous people. This kind of spoiled him for taking pictures when we were kids, so I don’t have many of them. And he’s almost never in the pictures I do have.
- My father was the ultimate woodworker. I think this interest also began for him in High School. I recall him doing many crazy woodworking projects over his life: Unusual lamps, sugar chests, gaming tables, shaker boxes, custom-sized copies of literally any furniture brand you could throw at him. The copies would be much better than the originals. He even built a violin. He told me that when he was in high school, he spot-finished the governor of Illinois’ chair.
- He loved and was passionate about music. I’ll never forget going with him to see the symphony and the Opera. And he was insistent about ONLY going to Italian operas. He learned to play violin from one of the San Antonio Symphony violinists. Much to his teacher’s frustration, Dad also had perfect pitch and would let his teacher know when his violin was out of tune. However, some of the moments I’ll remember the most about music with Dad took place in the car with him—putting the top down of his convertible and introducing me to what would become some of my favorite artists at full volume. One of my favorite memories was the first time Dad introduced me to The Doors – Morrison Hotel. I’ll never forget him putting on “Roadhouse Blues” and singing along with ol’ Jim. I was embarrassed at the time, but I admit I’ve always loved that song ever since.
- He was an expert in analog electronics, which is becoming a real lost art. After being hired by Motorola, Dad served as an LCD expert and traveled all over the world in this capacity. Also—Dad was heavily involved in developing and building the STU-III secure telephone for the US government in the early 90’s. His same Motorola STU-III phone was still in use in 2001, as it was featured prominently in the pictures taken during George W. Bush’s infamous elementary school visit on September 11th. Dad was also pretty closely involved with the team that developed Six Sigma at Motorola. And I’m sure there’s more I could mention here that I’ll never even know about.
- He was an amateur radio operator, and his callsign was W9BEV. He had several awards from his efforts in amateur radio, along with a bunch of very impressive QSL cards. He could send and receive morse code at 20 words per minute—which is also a dying art—not unlike analog electronics.
- He was an excellent cook and a great baker—especially of bread. He taught me that baking was a science and cooking an art. Dad told me that there were three ingredients that you could never over-do in cooking: Butter, olive oil, and garlic. To this day, I still very much agree with this assessment. (He liked his bread WAY too crusty, though.) I loved it when he made pizza.
I could go on. Dad had such a plethora of talents and passions and I’ll never do them justice here. He taught me a great many things about all of his passions, but what I learned from those passions pale in comparison to the core values that he taught me. These were the real life lessons that Dad taught—sometimes ad nauseam. These lessons were harder, but they serve as the foundation for who I am today.
- Dad taught me that Life isn’t fair. When I’d argue with my sister as a child, if either of us retorted with “but… it’s not fair!” We would always get the same response from him. “Life isn’t fair. If it were fair, I’d be six feet tall and I’d play second base for the Chicago Cubs.” I use this same expression with my children today. It drives my wife nuts. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It doesn’t make any sense to dwell on that which seems unjust to you that you can’t change—that’s all sunken effort, and there’s too few minutes in the day to spend any time on that business.
- Dad stressed to me The LAW of the FARM. Dad would repeat this phrase until he was blue in the face when I was a kid—especially when I lived in Indiana amongst countless corn fields. Dad was always a big proponent for time management—making a list of exactly what steps he was going to take every day and doing those steps. The LAW of the FARM was that “you get out what you put into something.” The more effort you invest, the better your yield—and if you wait until the last moment and procrastinate your effort, your output will be poor at best. If a farmer doesn’t invest time and effort to plant and nurture his crops, and work hard to see them harvested properly, there will never be a payoff. Instant gratification is ultimately a farce. If it’s not challenging to strive for, it probably isn’t worth doing. As a corollary, the things you work the hardest on mean the most to you.
- Dad always told me to go do something constructive. He taught me to never waste the day. “This is a day the Lord has made; let us all rejoice in it.” Even in retirement, Dad constructed a system that he called his “balance sheet” where he decided on paper what principles were most important to him in retirement and he tried to achieve a balance between those items, recording his progress every day.
- Also, Dad taught me the value of faith in God. My parents would take me to church every week when I was a kid. After not being impressed with the catechism facilities of the churches that we attended, my parents brought me home and provided me the cornerstones and foundation of being a traditional Catholic. Watching Dad suffer and struggle with the concept of “redemptive suffering” made it rather difficult to keep the faith, but Dad accepted that what was happening to him was God’s plan and that he had to trust in it. In his last days, when Dad could stare certain and imminent death in the face and keep his strong faith until the end, there’s an important life lesson there.
In addition to these lessons, there’s a few implicit lessons that Dad taught me that I don’t think he intended to:
- Dad taught me that I needed to record my memories. That’s why I write everything down in a trip journal—it’s always good to have a record and it is a lot more interesting to go look back at.
- Dad also taught me how precious life is. I never saw my father cry very often. However, while he was in the ICU, he told me stories about working at a pregnancy care center. He told me about once meeting a young mother there who was thinking about having an abortion. He was there when she had an ultrasound and saw the image of her baby. The image she saw was a “diamond ring” shape, which is unusual. Seeing this shape spoke to the mother and ultimately saved the baby’s life. He shared with me other stories like this one. The stories he told were nothing short of heroic. His entire face was drenched after telling me these stories. And when a baby was lost, it was so devastating for him. He loved children.
- My Dad taught me “Carpe Diem—Seize the day.” My only regret with my father is that we didn’t have more time to do the things I so desperately wanted to do. Don’t let it happen, make it happen. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us, and we should never take tomorrows for granted.
I wrote these thoughts down on a transatlantic flight the day after Dad’s 70th birthday. When I landed, I sent the first draft of this post to Mom, who read them all to Dad. Dad passed away a couple of days later. I was grateful that Mom was able to share them with Dad before he died. I wanted Dad to know how thankful I was for teaching me these lessons—both intentional and unintentional. I hope that reading this post has allowed you to better know who my Dad was and what was important to him.
Missing Dad has been pure hell. I thought for sure I’d be able to see him again after I got back from Europe, but God called him first. Still—in my mortal mind, I can’t help but feel this plan of God’s is just super unfair.
But, then again, I always remember what my Dad told me: “Life isn’t fair. If it were fair, I’d be six feet tall and I’d play second base for the Chicago Cubs.”
I know as my life grows older,
And mine eyes have clearer sight,
That under each rank of wrong, somewhere
There lies the root of right;
That each sorrow has its purpose,
By the sorrowing oft unguessed,
But as sure as the sun brings morning,
Whatever is – is best.
I know that each sinful action,
As sure as the night brings shade,
Is somewhere, sometime punished,
Though the hour be long delayed.
I know that the soul is sided
Sometimes by the heart’s unrest,
And to grow means often to suffer –
But whatever is – is best.
I know there are no errorsElla Wheeler Wilcox
In the great Eternal plan,
And all things work together
For the final good of man.
And I know as my soul speeds onward,
In its grand Eternal quest,
I shall say as I look back earthward,
Whatever is – is best.
In Memory of Richard Joseph Kiszka, 7/14/1953 – 7/18/2023