(University of Texas, Austin)

Born in 1925 into a family of fifteen children, my father, who died a decade ago, would be a centenarian in a few months if he were still alive. Although he went no further than third grade in a one-room Donegal schoolhouse in Curran, I appreciate more and more with each passing year how much he taught me. By word—sometimes a single word!—and by example. My father was not one for speechmaking. Words were awkward tools; he used them sparingly.

How well I recall those evenings, sixty years ago and more, as he and my dear mother—“God rest her soul,” I must add, as my parents always did when the name of a deceased relative or friend came up—sat together at the little kitchen table and recalled life “back home.” And how well I remember my father reminding me at the age of eight, when I had already progressed in school as far as he ever got, to “get an education.”

“If I had an education,” he would say…and his voice would trail off.  An “education” was somehow transformative. He knew only one boy “back home” who had ever gotten an education—except of course for old friends who had entered the seminary and become priests, but they were special beings and didn’t count. “Packie” had gone off to Dublin, the big world. He had changed. He didn’t come up to Donegal anymore. He had no time for his old “mates.”

Still, America was America, the Land of Opportunity, where all you needed was an education. Then you could go even beyond the foreman. You could be one of the men in the air-conditioned building, who wore a white shirt and tie, and sat at a desk writing checks—and never sweated a drop. An education could get you there in this country, even if you came from a two-room thatched cottage crammed with fifteen children, with no running water or even outhouse. So I got an education. I went to college. He was proud. All the pub regulars knew it.

On graduation day, I told him that I was planning to go to graduate school. He was crestfallen. “What? You’ve already graduated.” The idea of more education made little sense when already—as a mere stripling of twenty-one—you could be joining the men in the air-conditioned office. Still, my father supported me, though every time I visited home he would ask me, “Ye done yet?”

It was hard to explain, after my PhD course work, that a dissertation might take a few years to write. It was not predictable. Nor was a job in an air-conditioned office guaranteed—not at least in the sense of securing a tenure-track position in a field such as English literature or history. None of this could be easily explained. I tried to sidestep such questions. Yet he sensed the insecure nature of it all. An education might not be so magical after all.

Uncertainty he did not like. He had been thrown off construction jobs too often, denied entry into the union, or quit because of corruption or favoritism. No, he did not like uncertainty when it came to making a living. Somehow the men in the air-conditioned office had gotten the “right kind” of education. They were all set to receive pensions. The right kind of education could get you that.

Lo and behold, it all worked out: I eventually secured the coveted job. I began teaching at the University of Virginia in the mid-1980s. Relieved and joyous, my father beamed with pride again.     


Decades later, now at the University of Texas, I received a visit from my dad. He was in his seventies. I took him to visit a building that was under construction on the campus. As we walked along, I suddenly noticed that we had wandered into an area that was restricted to official personnel. But Dad, now long retired, was in his element. Despite the heat, he was dressed in a tie and jacket. Visiting his eldest son was apparently a formal occasion. He pointed up to the scaffold, making observations about which men were loafing and about “those flimsy scaffolds” that had obviously been “store bought.” By contrast, he said, “In my day, we built all the scaffolds ourselves. Sturdy they were, not cheap and rickety.”

On graduation day, I told him that I was planning to go to graduate school. He was crestfallen.

With calm and professorial authority, he expatiated on each part of the site. As we walked along, I noticed that several men nodded respectfully; some of them even doffed their hard hats. A pair of men in suits stepped out of a small air-conditioned on-site building. They gave a short deferential salute to the elderly man in the tie and jacket, then returned inside. I laughed to myself as I realized they all thought my father was some kind of public official or visiting executive who was supervising the construction site and issuing orders to his younger colleague. Yours truly, that is. Dad remained wondrously, blessedly unaware of it all.

A final cherished memory. I visited him in his retirement community when he was in his early eighties. I had heard that a new tool museum was about to open in suburban Philadelphia, near Doylestown. I asked if he would like to go. He laughed dismissively. “A museum? Now why would I ever want to pop me head into a museum? I’ve never set foot in one of ’em in me entire life!” And of course, that was true. I tried to assure him that this was a different kind of museum. It showcased the history of tools in America and Europe. Evidently it had collections of these tools on exhibit. He finally relented and agreed to go with me. We ended up spending the entire afternoon there.

My father seemed to recognize each and every tool in the exhibit. He had used them all, or more modern versions of them. Visitors were allowed to hold the tools, and he would show me how the tool was used, as well as what it was used for. As yet, there was just a little explanatory literature in the museum about the history of the tool—and nothing at all about how to use it. As if he were taking careful golf strokes, my father would show me the proper technique for the tools or warn me sternly about the danger of maneuvering one carelessly. He discussed most of them in far greater detail than did either the museum recordings or the professional brochures. He quietly held forth on each one, commenting on where in Ireland—or England, Scotland, or Wales—he had learned to use it, whether on farms or construction sites or subway excavations. He knew the function of numerous tools from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, because the Ireland of his youth had no tractors, just old farm implements of various kinds—some of which had long been outdated on the Continent and in America.

I was a rapt listener and posed many questions. Returning to those exhibits which permitted a visitor to pick up a tool, my father would proceed to test me on whether I now grasped how to wield, clean, and preserve it. After an hour or so, a trail of people stood nearby. My father was oblivious to the small crowd that had gathered around him. A few men jockeyed for access and nudged up closer in order to hear his explanations or watch him demonstrate how to handle the tool. Suddenly, a pair of men who had been following us for several minutes turned to me and glared. Then one of them complained to me: “We would appreciate it, sir, if you would stop monopolizing the guide and let other museum patrons also ask him a few questions!” Stifling a chuckle, I stepped aside, letting both men and a few other visitors pose their questions. All the while, my father remained oblivious. He had no idea that he had been thrust into a position of professional expertise.   

Moments later, a man strolled out of the main office and joined us. He too began to ask my father questions. It soon became clear that he was one of the museum curators. He seemed to think that my father was an official from Harrisburg who had been sent to inspect the new museum. He, too, listened, half-apologizing that the staff was “a bit behind” on finishing the exhibition materials.

On the drive home my father conceded that the trip had been pleasurable. “If all museums were like that one,” he said firmly, “they would be interesting to visit.”

John Rodden has written for Commonweal since 1984 on topics ranging from George Orwell to Mother Teresa and St. Michael the Archangel.

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