A no-frills father can set best example

June 21, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

My father, Wiley A. Hall Jr., turned 67 yesterday, so I gave him a call: "Happy birthday, Dad," I said.

"Thank you," he answered cheerfully.

"So, how's everything going?"

"Fine," he said. "Everything's just fine."

"Good," I said.

(Pause.)

"Well," I said, "let me say hello to Mom. Happy birthday, again."

"Thanks. I'll get your mother."

That's how the menfolk in my family deal with each other: With a distant, gruff affection. No warm embraces or heart-to-heart talks for us; we don't even punch each other in the arm, the way some men do. This is why I find it so difficult to write how much I love and respect my father, though I have wanted to do so every Father's Day for the 10 years I have been writing this column.

It took the pathetic spectacle of O.J. Simpson's 60-mile flight from custody last weekend (Or should we say that he fled into custody?) to get me moving.

O.J. Simpson epitomizes one model of success: Handsome, rich and celebrated on television, Mr. Simpson was a Heisman Trophy, Hall of Fame football hero with a larger-than-life reputation until police charged him Friday with the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, a waiter who may or may not have been a close friend of Ms. Simpson. Suddenly we learn that our great hero habitually beat his wife. And acquaintances describe a man who was so lost and insecure that he refused to accept that the break-up with Ms. Simpson was final. He stalked her, friends say, pleading for a second chance. Friday, Mr. Simpson ran weeping from police and drove around all day threatening to kill himself before his surrender.

Needless to say, millions of hero worshipers find this a shocking turn-around. But why? Why are we so startled when good looks, wealth, and celebrity prove so hollow?

My father exemplifies another, more modest model for success; a model that our society claims to respect, though we don't celebrate it with the enthusiasm we reserve for wealth and fame: He went to work every day. He bought a home. He raised four boys. He earned the love and respect of an intelligent and beautiful woman, my mother, the former Miss Mildred Whitehead. The two of them have been married 43 years and they still garden together, take daily walks, sit up late at night talking about things.

My father is a tall man with a deep, richly textured voice and a ready laugh. He likes french fries. He reads the comics. He does hTC the Washington Post crossword puzzle every day. From time to time, when we kids were young and watching cartoons on television, my father would stop and watch with us for a while. In all of those ways, my father showed us that it is OK for a man to be human, to bend a little, to get down on the floor with the kids.

My father earned a degree in math from Virginia Union University and worked for four decades as a physicist/engineer at the National Bureau of Standards (now called the National Institute for Science and Technology).

Seven years ago, at his retirement party, my father spoke bitterly of some of his experiences working for the federal government. Indeed, he belongs to a generation of black men who had to cope daily with rejection of their talent, limitations on their opportunity; this in a society that defines manhood by career advancement. But my father never brought any of his frustrations and disappointments home with him. He seems now, and has always seemed, a gentle, even-tempered man. I have never even heard him use profanity.

In my youth, I would have wanted to be like O.J. -- he was so gifted at his craft that he raised running a football to an art form; he was rich and famous and idolized by young and old, black and white. Children would tug at his coat and squeak that they wanted to be like him.

O.J. Simpson defined success in our society.

But now that Mr. Simpson has plunged to earth, like Icarus, I am profoundly grateful that my father set a better example for his boys.

He showed us that we didn't need to go rushing through airports to find happiness. A successful life, a good life, begins and ends at home.

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