We buried our father yesterday. His name was J.J. Hurley. He was 89 years old. But, if you love your parent that does not begin to tell the story. Obituaries are like deck chairs on the Titanic. Adornment is never a satisfying explanation for the way your heart feels for someone who was larger than life. For the woman in his life, his five children and seven grandchildren he was always there. A presence of wit, strength, honor, charisma and selflessness. It is difficult to lose a parent. It is devastating to lose one you loved and respected on a daily basis.
From the world’s point of view, he was a success. He served his country heroically in Korea and World War II. He dropped bombs on the enemy at the risk of his own life to preserve the freedoms we enjoy in this country. He never took credit for his courage, “It was just something we all had to do,” he used to say with understated eloquence in referring to himself and his fellow veterans. He shrugged it off like it was similar to paying bills or changing the oil on his car. But, there were hundreds of lonely and fearful moments in his little nook on a B-29 loaded with weapons as it stole through the night over the omnious Pacific Theater.
Coming home he ensured his education at the University of Maryland. This was significant because he made damn sure all five of his children did the same, too. Four of us got Masters degrees as he did. The other one barely got his B.A. in Government. (I think I partied a little too much) My dad came to my graduation to guarantee first-hand that I finished my goal. He was like that. He always acted like most things were no big deal but underneath that Irish laughter was a steel trap of doing things right. He imbued us with excellence. My younger sister is the Department Chair of English at her high school. My younger brother is one of the finest mental health therapists in central California. My youngest brother teaches English and heads up the high school speech decathalon team which has won the Illinois state championship several times. My youngest sister is a family pastor in Santa Barbara. She was not only the preacher in the family, she was the one who influenced dad the most to seriously consider his eternal destiny.
Our dad grew up on a small farm. They may as well have been sowing dirt. My grandpa was so bad at growing anything they escaped to a small town or they would have starved to death. Out of high school my dad hopped in a car with two buddies and moved to California where he worked for the railroad. Unlike so many people who watch things happen or say, “What happened?” he made things happen! After he joined the Army Air Corps he rose from nothing to lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. He retired in 1967 and concentrated on enjoying his family, friends and his precious cabin near Yosemite National Park. The same excellence he applied to his work as a navigator and training in the military he continued for the next 41 years until his last breath.
Many of you have fond memories of growing up with a mom, dad or both. My parents were not nurturing to us older sibs but to the younger ones, my dad was always there for them as a single parent. He softened in his later years. Age and divorce can do that to a dad. Where once we sat in awe of him and feared his disapproval, we began to see the underbelly of his toughness. The same man who arose just after midnight, put on his flight suit and strode heavily to his waiting B-52 to fly to Russia, Spain or the Middle east was now tossing babies in the air and hoisting a beer with a lilt in his voice.
He loved Ireland, the Green Bay Packers, his beloved Jackie, his pals at the Legion Hall, his fellow Kiwanians and his family. His friends would have fit in with the Star Wars bar scene. There was Herman Weibel, the chicken man, Bob Kelly, the mute drinking partner, Cruz, his tomato supplier and Shorty and Gladys who ran a bar as elegant as sawdust and yet as friendly as a hayride. Dad was a common man when it came to image. He hated hypocrisy and hype. He called Bill Clinton a, “carnival barker” and was mystified that John McCain kept bragging about his POW experience, “Hell, getting captured by the enemy is not the greatest success in the world!” My dad always told it like his heart dictated it. Like most men who went through the Depression and a World War, he was not one to express his emotions verbally but in material ways. But, we knew he loved us. He was our Champion. He was always there.
And now, he is gone. That big heart of his finally gave out when we thought he was coming home from the hospital the next day.
We struggled to put the right phrase on his gravestone. How do you describe an Irishman who was larger than life, as charming as the Blarney stone and as powerful as the Irish Sea? What do you say in a sentence that would typify how he felt about all that he accomplished and all of those he loved?
It was simple. The five of us sat there and thought about what he would say on his own epitaph and it came to us…
J.J. Hurley…”He loved the hell out of Life!”
The government cemetery people told us we couldn’t put a curse word on a gravestone It made us laugh that he was not alive to react to their no cussing rule for his grave! It also reminded us that our dad was truly indefinable…
How do you capture a legacy for a man who was sweet and irreverent, generous, regimented and also the life of any party, resolute and yet tender, blunt, wise, free-spirited and protective? He was one of a kind. He was our dad.
And, you know what?
He did love the hell out of life. And, we loved the hell out of him.
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