On The Greatest Man I Know
My first memory of him is from when I was two years old, living in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. He was just coming home from a deployment to Australia, and was happy to see his wife and children. I had not seen this man in months – which seemed like an eternity. He was dressed in battle fatigues and had with him a huge (huge in the mind of a two-year-old at least) stuffed animal kangaroo. My dad was home.
My father, who I affectionately refer to as the Colonel, served his country for thirty years before retiring in 2001. One need only look to his service to our country to see the kind of man he is. But he is so much more than that to me.
When we lived at West Point, the Colonel was the Chief of Military History, and I was still just a little girl. Many early mornings, before he would walk down to his office in Central Post, I would hear him polishing his combat boots. Hearing the sound, I would creep out of my room, tiptoe down the hall, and look down the stairwell to see him smiling up at me, as if he had known the noise would bring me out of bed and to him. Happily, I would bounce down the stairs to the third step and prepare to jump into his arms (a morning tradition). “No,” he would say. “Go up one more step. Don’t be afraid, you can do it. I’ll catch you.” And he always did.
My brother, who is five years my senior, was all boy growing up. He played sports, had a bit of an attitude, and was as protective of me as the day is long. When the Colonel would take my brother to the baseball fields to practice, he would always bring me along. Sure, I would mostly sit in the bleachers watching them, but at the end of practice, the Colonel would yell out, “Okay, Maura, let’s get you out here. You need to learn how to do this.” And when my brother would pick on me (I was a nagging little sister, after all), the Colonel would not intervene unless he needed to. Instead, he would tell me, “Stick up for yourself. You’re tougher than you think.”
A few years later, my father retired from active duty, my brother went off to college, and, through a variety of circumstances, I ended up living with just my father. Although my mother lived only a few miles away, the Colonel found himself in the not-so-envious position of trying to raise a teenaged girl largely on his own. But he managed to take care of me – and I took care of him, too. There may have been times when, in the moment, he probably regretted teaching me to be so assertive, but I think looking back, he realizes that I was merely coming into my own.
When it was time for me to apply to college, the Colonel encouraged me to look at schools that were not close to home. He believed that I needed to have the full college experience, without the opportunity to get too comfortable by coming home every weekend. He told me to apply to Ohio State. I scoffed and told him that there was no chance I would go there. A year later, I was at Ohio State. Sometimes dads are right.
Four years later, it was time for law school. I could stay at Ohio State, where I had friends I loved, or pick up and move to California. I asked the Colonel what he thought, and told him that I was worried that I did not know anyone in California. “Does that matter? I’ve never known you to have trouble meeting people. You just have to be brave and make the decision. You’ll figure out the rest.” I took the risk and moved to California. It was the right decision. But the Colonel already knew that.
A few years later, I met someone who is brilliant, handsome, and calming, and who loves me and allows me to be me. When I told the Colonel, he was happy that I was happy – he said he could hear it in my voice. After a few meetings with my boyfriend, the Colonel called me outside and asked me to sit with him on the porch of my grandma’s farmhouse. He said, “When you find someone you love, and who loves you the same way back, you need to just do it. I always knew you would find a man who would take my place in your life, and I’m happy it’s him.” While no one could ever take the Colonel’s place, I understood what he meant. Sometimes the lesson is in what is left unsaid.
I could go on about stories of how the Colonel taught me funny songs growing up, or how he was a proponent of my living alone for a few years, or how he took me to Normandy and introduced me to World War II veterans like Major Dick Winters, of Band of Brothers fame, all to foster my personal development into a woman of character and leadership, but some of those stories are just for me.
The point is this: he is the greatest man I’ve ever known. The Colonel – my dad – encouraged me to jump. He taught me to try new things. He told me to stick up for myself. He proved that, on occasion, you should be open to the advice of someone who knows better. He challenged me to be brave and take a risk. And he showed me that a father’s greatest accomplishment just might come when he realizes that his job is done.
But, just in case, he’ll still be there to catch me.