Interviews conducted. Notes taken. Research under way. Thoughts gathered began to gel. This week’s posting was meant to explain the complicated relationship between higher education and state and federal government—the lack of understanding, appreciation and compromise on both sides. Then, my father died on April 21, and it became impossible to concentrate on writing the piece I intended. I needed to write something else.
Many people have stories of inspiration and influence, conflict and resolution with parents and mentors, and life experiences that compel decisions and pathways. I’ll try to describe my father, how he influenced me, and point to why I write this column. However, my story today will not be a saccharine-laced opine nor contain the predictable trappings of a Hallmark Channel movie. Maybe. I promise I’ll try.
Even without the reckoning of my father’s decline and ultimate passing, I’ve wondered why I or anyone would choose to work in higher education. Quite frankly, it feels like every aspect of the sector is in disarray, a shit show, as it were—declining enrollments, broken financial models, corruption, discrimination, poor pay and working conditions, unsustainable student debt, a student mental health crisis, and hostility from some in government and the public at large. Then there’s the enormity of dealing with COVID. Working in higher education is fraught, but I’ll try to explain why I’m here.
Meet my father, Bob Johnson. After high school, he joined the Navy and served on the U.S.S. Salem during the Korean War. At 19, he married his 17-year-old high school sweetheart, Mary. (They would have been married 69 years this year.) After serving in the Navy, he began working in the retail industry. A 1963 press release announced his role as district manager of a department store: “At 30, he has five children with one on the way.” Like academia and the military, we moved wherever his job took him—Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois and North Carolina.
Growing up in North Carolina, I observed my father working constantly and obsessively to provide for our family. He attended Durham Technical Institute (now Durham Technical Community College) to obtain his real estate license. Only recently did I learn he did this at night after working 60 to 80 hours a week and ultimately earned an associate degree in business administration in 1976. Without exaggeration, I can report and provide witnesses to attest to the fact that after he became a real estate agent, he wore his gold Century 21 sports jacket to mass at Holy Infant Catholic Church every Sunday with as much enthusiasm and seriousness as a Carolina fan wears light blue and a Duke fan wears navy blue.
Everything about him was over-the-top and way too much; he relished and demanded an audience for his stories, theories and antics like one of those professors who receives teaching awards and gets high marks on Rate My Professor. He was a character. He looked so much like the actor Peter Falk that my sister’s friends nicknamed him Columbo after Falk’s performance in the 1970s television crime drama series of the same name. In my youth, I often didn’t appreciate and understand these aspects of his personality; I found them (as many teenagers do of their parents) embarrassing and annoying. He also had a temper and could be unyieldingly strict, particularly with my older siblings. Defining him as complex would be an understatement.
He was driven by making life better and doing the right thing. He took pride in selling homes to everyone, even when others wanted to be discriminatory. He woke early on Sundays to pick up Krispy Kreme doughnuts to sell after Mass to help raise money for church and helped to rebuild the church when lightning struck and it burned down. I kid you not; our church was struck by lightning.
He saw the beauty in and value of everything. A garage and numerous outbuildings filled with stuff (some interesting objects and antiques, some perplexing oddities) prove it. I believe his curiosity for all things and his interest in history influence my work in museums. That being said, my siblings and I are not looking forward to cleaning out the garage and other spaces. Ten years ago, we tried to help “declutter,” but that experience is best left without discussion and further detail except one—there was the discovery of a photo of a teenager in a band uniform that my dad thought was me but wasn’t. It’s so not funny; it’s funny.
National Geographic magazine was one of his great pleasures; he loved learning about the world and kept every issue. I loved them, too. I can still see in my mind’s eye the March 1967 issue that featured the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I first contemplated being an artist after poring over its pages. My father took education seriously and determined his children go to college. Eventually, all of us but my oldest sister did so, and several of us have terminal degrees. He encouraged us even when he didn’t know what to make of our educational choices. I’ll never forget showing him my portfolio from a nude figure drawing class first year. I can still recall his response, “Oh, Jeez. Oh, Jeez,” as he clutched his chest like Fred Sanford, acting as if having a heart attack on the 1970s television program Sanford and Son. Drama for effect. That’s Bob Johnson.
He could (or would) talk to anyone. The morning of the opening of my graduate school thesis exhibition, he casually mentioned meeting some nice fellow at the hotel who plays music. He noted their interesting conversation. Then, it dawned on me who was playing a concert in Athens, Ohio, that week. I asked, “Um, what was his name?” He said, “Funny name. Elvis Costello.”
Many things about my father took time and life experience to understand, reconcile and appreciate. As he approached his final days, the facade of the huckster and shock-humor comedian faded. Our last conversations were reflections and advice on going through difficult times; I had experienced harassment, threats and discrimination in the workplace. I was contemplating leaving the higher education sector altogether. He relayed the lessons he had learned during his own life about working hard, making contributions to help others, resilience, determination and not giving up when doing the right thing. These are all the things I learned from him and that informed my life’s work.
The last time I saw him, I held his hand and we talked about our favorite movies, including the 1976 version of Midway. Like most men of his generation, he loved heroic films about World War II; we watched many together when I was a girl, including this one.
We both loved theme of victory against all odds. The conversation turned more philosophical about the nature of perception and time and space. In 58 years, I had never seen this side of him—one of great depth and intellect. I kissed his forehead and said goodbye. As I wept during my long drive from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, I reflected on our relationship, who my father really was, my life, who I wanted to be and how to contribute both in good times and bad.