The Best Secret Sauce

My dad, John Starns, left us too soon — back in the summer of 2014. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him. This is the reflection I shared at his funeral.

My dad was magnetic. In so many ways. All my life I have seen people gravitate toward him. Whether it was a full basement of his friends playing ping pong, a welcome parade of Miller’s, Mitchell’s and Montgomery’s at my Grandma and Grandpa Starns’ house when Dad came to town, or the fact that if there were children in range, one — or two — would be on his lap.

What was it about him? Something special. I’d like to offer my view on his “secret sauce” Among so many other things, John Starns was playful and curious.

A lifelong learner and interested in so many things — fishing, NASCAR, golf, technology, business — dad could talk to anyone. And add value to every conversation. When I worked at Microsoft (for more than 13 years), dad would ask me about things — like our original smart watch (which I bought him in 2004), the newest Xbox, our cloud strategy, and based on what he’d read or seen on tv, would often be more informed than me. That would pique my curiosity to learn more.

And long before re-use was common and upcycling was its own cottage industry, dad was curious about the potential uses of the shipping pallets at Kubota. Tractors would be uncrated and this beautiful mahogany crating material from Japan would be tossed. Dad set his sights on figuring out just what he could do with that. I have an awesome stepstool from that particular experiment.

His curiosity about food and recipes led to several “quests”. One of which my dad and I explored together due to our love of pizza. What it was about the cheese at Duane’s House of Pizza in Fargo that made it so exceptional — we’ve talked about that for years. A more recent focus was perfecting the crust of homemade pizza. We would share insights and hypothesis on the dough, the ideal cooking temperature, the cooking surface, how long to keep it in the oven. His curiosity fueled mine and we shared recipes, techniques, tools, and best pizza stories over the years — and nearly every time we talked.

Like his dad before him, my dad set the example for all of us that the pursuit of knowledge and ideas and curiosity was key to an enriching life.

But he didn’t stop with being learned. My dad liked to play. To provoke a reaction. To tickle Shara or me or some other kiddo to tears one minute and tickle others with his wit the next.

A look. A comment. An inside joke. A sheee-it. My dad was playful in so many ways.

When Kate was little, we were in Atlanta for a visit and trekked down to the pool in Dad and Lynne’s neighborhood. Dad was playing with Kate in the water and she was giggling and having so much fun and Dad kept throwing her higher and higher in the air. I’m certain he launched her so high that she would have been out of a camera shot. We laughed until we cried. (and no one got hurt).

Just this Christmas — Shara and Ron, Paul and I, Anna, Will, Kate, Jack, and Lynne sat alongside dad around a table and played with those little wire puzzles. How to separate them. How to reconnect? Could we do it without the answer sheet — or in one case — a Google search. From Euchre, to a board game with the kids, to these little puzzles, dad liked to play — and to win.

Another time we were visiting Atlanta and dad took us down to one of his fishing spots on the Chattahoochee. It was a hot summer day and he convinced us to wade in — way in — while he stood on the bank laughing as the unexpectedly icy cold river took our breath away for a moment before we screamed and scrambled out.

Fueled by curiosity and playfulness, my dad was one of a kind. He made an impact in so many lives — beyond Shara and I and Lynne and the rest of our family. More so than I even realized. Hearing from so many people who loved him has been humbling and inspiring.

This passage from the early 1900s could have been written with my dad in mind. While sometimes attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, these are actually the words of Bessie Stanley, a Kansas woman who won an essay contest on the definition of success. Regardless of the source, the words ring true.

“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.”
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