Dad: an essay

The following is a eulogy for Bernard Wolff (1926-2016) read by Scott Wolff at the Celebration of Life gathering Sunday, April 10, 2016, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Lewis & Clark College.

WOLFF Essays cover 103 x 150pxAs an introduction, Dad discovered while living at the coast that he could offer a programing suggestion to a local radio station; his suggestion was a joke segment. So the producer asked him to tell a joke on the spot. He told about two sons who were contemplating their responsibility, sooner or later, for planning their mother’s funeral, including what to do with her remains. So when the time seemed right, they asked whether she would want to be buried or cremated. Smiling at her sons, the mother replied, “Surprise me.”

Dad surprised me and other family members about 7-8 years ago when he started sending short essays he was writing about his life’s experiences—sometimes one essay at a time, sometimes several—over the course of 3 or 4 years. I was able to compile many of these essays into a book (click here to read it), which I was able to present to him several years ago. Click on the book cover at right to read an online version of the entire book at your leisure and from which I’m quoting here.

It’s in one of his essays that he describes his Sacred Places, which was inspired by a sermon he had heard at the Portland Unitarian Church in 2009. He wrote that “sacred is not necessarily God-related. Sacred may refer to something one feels at a different time usually related to a person, place or thing. It may elicit positive memories or emotions, or maybe it’s just a feeling you have.”

Today I’d like to change around Sacred Places to become Dad’s Sacred Traits. Three traits out of the many I could choose are the ones most relevant to me: Family, Education and Service.

Family

Regarding family, Dad quoted from a Unitarian sermon that “you have to have people in your life who care about you and prepare you, as much as possible for today, tomorrow and the future.” Dad went on to write for himself “I believe one shows his or her love by the way that individual behaves, such as care giving to friends and loved ones.”

He was not only devoted to his own family, but also to family around us, often in a caretaking role. In college he dutifully came home from Oregon State to wax the floors for his mother. He would later look after his parents together and separately as their health faded.

He was both devoted to and a caretaker for my mother, who as a young mother fought and overcame polio. They would endure countless medical adventures during her bout with cancer, which would eventually take her life. In between those downtimes — and despite them — were many joys: camping and later owning property on the Wind River in Washington; two active sons; yoga and meditation retreats together; a beach house near Lincoln City.

At a point when both his personal and professional lives were in turmoil, Dad found new directions, first meeting and marrying Carol, then retiring from Lewis & Clark to devote his considerable professional talents back in the elementary classroom. He and Carol would have their own 30 years of experiences.

Dad’s family grew with the addition of Carol’s three grown daughters and Carol’s mother Becky. He was devoted to her comfort, including her on trips to the beach and moving her to live next door in an adjoining SE Portland duplex until her passing. Dad also helped care for Carol’s middle daughter Rebecca, whose life was altered by an automobile accident in Idaho. He and Carol spent weeks in Idaho during her convalescence and then watched over her during the years she lived independently in Portland-area assisted living situations until her passing two years ago.

Besides the devotion and caretaking, there were also many skills and lessons he taught me directly as a father, but there were many other traits and attitudes that I observed that perhaps have served me as well or better.

He instilled in me this creative sense to think outside the box—before there was even a box to consider. He built a playhouse—more like a shed—in our back yard and covered it with aluminum offset printing press sheets recycled by our neighbor. It could have been disguised as an Airstream trailer. And, rather than using cardboard from a box, he fashioned a real shield for me for a Knights of the Roundtable theme at Cub Scouts meeting using another aluminum sheet —including on it a family-crest stencil he created—nothing else at the event came close. Rather than just digging a hole in the forest, he built a pre-fab outhouse at home for the Wind River property, fashioning it after the forest service variety in shape and color.  I can’t go forward with a graphic design or remodeling project without considering the extreme options.

He helped me overcome awkward social situations. My wife Concetta and I debate whether Dad was an introvert or extrovert. What I do know is that he could walk into a room of strangers and introduce himself to everyone before the start of a meeting. As a result, while growing up, he would see someone he knew nearly every time we were at a restaurant. I don’t know if it came to him naturally or it was learned, but I remember thinking in high school at an event that I could do it too—wow, it really caught people off guard in a positive way—I was hooked. It’s still not natural for me, but I invoke him before networking events as part of my marketing profession.

He also taught me that it isn’t enough to work hard and enjoy one’s time off. The community needs our help and skills, and so he served others.

I have no doubt that he sincerely loved me – and I loved him.

Education

About education, Dad wrote that teaching is ‘increasing the probability that learning will take place.’

Dad mentioned to me that one of his many motivations for a career in education came from a Montavilla Methodist pastor who had observed Dad teaching Sunday school there while he was in high school, telling him how well he worked with the younger children.

Dad’s path to a career in education would not be a straight one. Graduating from OSU with a Zoology degree, he instead leveraged his years working at Sheridan Fruit to start a box business with a co-worker, only to be drafted six months later at the start of the Korean War. (Similarly, his father too had started a business by purchasing a pharmacy in Multnomah Village in the early 1920s, but was forced to sell a short time later to move to his family to Colorado to mitigate my grandmother’s tuberculosis.)

He was proud to know there are 3 more OSU Beavers in the family— granddaughters Erin and Leslie who are Chris’ daughters as well as my daughter Allegra.

Following Dad’s 2 years – and one day – in the army, he and Sara Lee, now his wife, moved to Portland in 1952 where he could pursue a short program at Portland State College—which had previously been Vanport College—to earn a teaching certificate. They moved to Newport for his first teaching position in Toledo, and to begin a family with the arrival of my brother Chris. Once again, the career path was interrupted by Sara Lee’s contraction of polio, forcing the three to Portland for her care.

Limited teaching jobs filled the void until he accepted a full time teaching position at Forest Hills Elementary in Lake Oswego, proudly one of the first male teachers leading a primary class and breaking a different kind of glass ceiling. He was hired in 1962 by Lewis & Clark for a 25-year adventure, not without its bumps along the way.

“I believe you have to take some risks in challenging authority without knowing what the costs may be,” he wrote. This is certainly true when he joined faculty members in their vote of no confidence of the president of this institution, who would later be dismissed by the Board.

He managed to teach and increasingly take care of not only his parents, but also Sara Lee as she developed cancer and later passed away in 1982, the year I graduated from Lewis & Clark. He would be proud to know that my daughter Ariana is interested in becoming the third generation Wolff at Lewis & Clark.

Service

About service, Dad wrote, “I believe that having a community to be with that has a spiritual focus and a community outreach is essential to support one on his or her spiritual journey.” I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t going off to a board meeting, to volunteer, or to remind church members to bring food items for FISH Emergency Service.

Service was spiritual, perhaps the most outward sign of his devotion to God through his gifts of his time and talents. It was certainly more telling than any commitment to an organized church, which he thought stifled spiritual growth; however at one time or another he was a member of or attended Montavilla Methodist Church in SE Portland; St. John’s Episcopal Church in Toledo, Oregon; First United Methodist here in Portland; Koinonia House at Portland State University; Tillamook United Methodist; and, First Unitarian Church here in Portland.

Chris and I joined him occasionally when he volunteered; I would spend a summer internship at FISH, sponsored by First United Methodist and inspired by his service there. I’ve tried to continue his example with my own daughters by serving the homeless downtown.

A few of the many organizations he served included: The Everett Street Drop-in Center in Old Town where he would spend an entire night socializing and serving coffee at the shelter, the aforementioned FISH Emergency Service where he was not only a board member, but periodically served on Saturday afternoons handing out emergency food rations. He served on committees with the Oregon Education Association and the National Education Association, gleefully breaking tradition to join a national education sorority; when required to introduce himself and describe a unique attribute at his first meeting, he told the audience he was a father. He served the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League. His volunteering at Arleta Elementary in Portland turned into a part-time classroom aid position where he would write grants to fund computer equipment and teacher development. He and my mother served on numerous First United Methodist Church committees; together and separately they taught many Sunday school classes throughout his life. My wife groans when she thinks of him leading my sixth grade sex-education class at the church. Later he volunteered overseas, traveling with Carol to a halfway house in Cork, Ireland, a Habitat for Humanity project in New Zealand, and to a school in Costa Rica.

I like to think that Dad’s many gifts of family, education and service were used wisely and for others, returning those gifts with increase.

I close with this: the following is a modified version of a tribute to Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, a martyred priest in El Salvador. Dad might be appalled that I invoked the Catholic Church at his memorial, but the words speak to me about the life we live and the one lived by Dad.

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Thank you for reading.

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