Thoughts about my father.
My dad died a year ago, on August 5, 2015. These are the words I spoke at his memorial service.
I realized at a fairly early age that my father was well liked and admired.
When I was young — about six or seven years old — I would often go with my dad to run errands, or to the YMCA to join him for a Saturday morning work out. Dad would often get stopped by various people wishing to say hello. Everyone was so friendly and happy to chat with him. I also recognized that other dads didn’t get this kind of attention. In my mind the reason was ovvious: my dad once played football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. To a young boy in Nebraska in the 1970's, this was the pinnacle of human achievement. I was so fiercely proud of my father’s accomplishment.
Every year when the Husker team program came out, I would immediately check the team history section for the 63/64 team. There were usually a few pictures where I could see the his jersey in a pile of other players, an arrow pointing to his jersey said “McGinn”. Confirming to me again: superheroes had nothing on my dad. I was in awe.
It made sense to me that this was the reason my Dad so well liked.
Later when I was 11 or 12, Dad had become a District Court Judge. Again, it seemed wherever we went someone was there to say hello. But now, the greeting was — “Good Morning Judge!” “Judge, how are you doing today?” I could tell he was well respected — and it made sense to me at the time that it was his public position was the reason why he was greeted warmly almost everywhere he went.
And later in my teens and 20’s, it was clear to me that there was more to all of this. By then I was able to recognize the genuine affection people had for my father that just couldn’t be explained by his former sports experience, or respect for his public position.
My dad never felt like his public position meant that he was an important person. Dad was approachable and down-to-earth. It didn’t matter if you were the janitor at the YMCA, or the Governor, or a bartender. Dad’s public position didn’t factor in when he was off the clock; and he truly followed the golden rule.
He often liked to lighten the mood, helping to break out out smiles and laughter from his friends and family.
I remember during a family vacation to New York, Dad played up the role of the Midwestern tourist or asking for directions to “green which village” to get some laughs his kids (and being teenagers, he got more eye rolls than laughs at the time). Or on camping trips, when he heard a crow call he was never shy about sharing his own unique call back. It sort of sounded like a crow. Peels of laughter were frequent whenever he was gathered with friends and family.
I’m sure all of you can remember many, many times when you laughed along with him.
My Dad followed his own path and convictions. It was easy to recognize. The occasional newspaper article keyed in on his love for motorcycles. I have to say that when my dad would give me a ride to high school on the back of his bike and he would drop me off at the front door I felt like THE COOLEST kid at high school.
Or later in his life, he re-kindled an interest in tattoos. When we all met at O’Rourkes bar for a beer for his 67th birthday , he casually announced that he wanted to show us something, and began unbuttoning his dress shirt. Right there in the middle of the bar. Dress shirt off, he rolled up the sleeve of his undershirt to show a fresh tattoo on his shoulder. A group of flowers with a scroll across reading “TMBB” : Terry, Mary, Bernie, Brendan.
I was speechless.
I think his empathy served him well as both a father as well as a Judge. I think he understood that sometimes people struggle to find their way. His own path had some interesting twists and turns. He had volunteered for the Navy after high school, but was rejected due to dislocated shoulder due to a high school football injury. And along the way he held his own share of odd jobs including a stint at McDonald’s and some construction work. He went to College for year before entering into the seminary for three years. (I’ve always been thankful he ultimately decided the priesthood wasn’t for him.) Then finally landing in Nebraska with a football scholarship.
I think his experiences contributed to his sense of fairness and understanding which earned him consistently high approval ratings as a Judge. We were so proud of him.
I remember more than once after one of those short friendly chats with someone I didn’t know, Dad would tell me later “Oh, well — I had to sentence him to 8 months in the penitentiary a while back…” Even people who he had sentenced to prison respected him, and they recognized he was fair, and in some cases they even really liked him.
As a father, he gave his kids fairly wide berth and allowed us to find our own path. There were guard rails of course, and we occasionally bumped or crashed into them. Dad encouraged me to get a job as soon as I turned 16. We would drive past a certain family restaurant on the way to church, and every week he would say: “Hey, Bernie! You should apply for a job there as a busboy or maybe dishwasher!” Eventually I did apply and got that dishwasher job, which was probably the worst job I ever had. Now, I know he knew it would an awful job, but this was one way he tried to encourage me to get a college education.
I wonder what must have been going through his mind when I announced I would not be going to college straight after high school, instead, I planned to move to California to work as a photographer at a skateboard magazine. Or later, when I would take a semester off from school to go on tour with my band — in a barely roadworthy van we bought for $500 — a vehicle that he liked to call ‘rolling probable cause’. If he didn’t give us enthusiastic support at all times, he gave us the freedom to find our own path, to occasionally make mistakes, and to learn, and to grow.
Dad’s genuine love for people
I think the thread that ties this all together is that he genuinely loved people, and he loved to interact with people from all walks of life.
I was always impressed how he could effortlessly transition into any group of people, whether presiding as judge at the courthouse on one day, or hanging out with the locals at Lyle’s Bar in Newcastle, NE (Population 310), or chatting with some of the young gym rats the YMCA, or blending into the crowd with the tie-dyed T-shirt at the Telluride bluegrass festival, or cooking up stack of hamburgers for a group of hungry skateboarders from out of state whom he had just met, or laughing with his college friends during an annual reunion of the ‘Uglies’ — his friends he loved like brothers.
He loved the parade of life, and he never stopped wanting to learn about other people and their stories. In fact, the night before he died he was up late talking the new hospice nurse and asking her questions about her family, her work, and her life.
I’m grateful for Karen. For all the love and happiness you brought him, and for care that you gave him especially in the last years of his life when his health was poor. Thank you.
I am grateful that dad was able to make a connection Father Rutton just days before he died. Father Rutton helped dad find spiritual peace, and he was so deeply happy about this.
I am grateful for my brother and my sisters, who all gently encouraged me to move up a planned trip back to Nebraska to visit Dad. We moved our trip up by two weeks and as a result, I had the chance to spend time with Dad over the course of his last week. I spent the day with him on the day before he died, and I had the opportunity to tell him the one thing I needed to tell him: that I was so proud to be his son. Though not as elegantly as I had hoped, choking back tears. Dad handled that with such grace and compassion telling me, “Oh, it’s okay. We can try again later.”
I will never stop being proud.
So aren’t we lucky? Aren’t we lucky to have had him as a friend, a teammate, a colleague, a husband, a brother, a grandpa, a father.
We were lucky, and we were blessed.