So, I guess most of you here know that my dad died back in January of complications of Parkinson's disease. There have been times that have been rough since then, but I'd think it's all part of the process, so to speak.
Today was Remembrance Sunday at my religious community, the Ethical Society of St. Louis, where I'm an active member. I gave a talk about my dad that was very well-received. I wrote it on Friday and then had my mom and one of my sisters take a look at it; they both thought it was very good. Mom did see some factual errors that I corrected (for the sake of accuracy, of course), and then my brother saw it yesterday; he thought it was a "masterpiece".
I was the third of four speakers today and I got through it all right until right before the end, when, well, I lost it. Kept telling myself not to do that, but I guess the emotion of the moment got to me. No shame at shedding a few tears though.
Anyway, I wanted to share with everyone what I said. I hope you enjoy it (WARNING: It's pretty long)...
Thank you and good morning.
The obituary gave the basics: George Richard Feeney, aged 79, died Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, in Collinsville, IL. He was born Thursday, Nov. 30, 1933, in Granite City, IL, and worked at Granite City Steel for some 40 years. He was married to Mary Margaret Williams on Saturday, May 30, 1959, in Madison, IL, and he had four children – two sons, Brent and Colin Feeney, of St. Louis; two daughters, Leigh Ann Pilcher of Edwardsville and Kara Smith of Collinsville; and two grandchildren, Mariah Wampler of Edwardsville and Andrew Smith of Collinsville.
What the obituary didn't say was what kind of man my father was. There were many sides of my father, some good, some not-so-good – kind of like people everywhere. No one is perfect; we all know that. But I'd like to think, standing here with some perspective nearly 53 years after I was born, that I have a much better understanding of the kind of person my father was – and overall, my father was a very good person.
My dad had a very tough way to go as a kid; his dad was a firefighter for the city of Madison and the father of 15 kids. My dad was the 10th child, and as I understand it, the home situation wasn't all that stable. How much it affected him, I'm not sure, but when he was growing up at the end of the Great Depression and then in the World War II era, men were taught never to show their emotions or express their feelings. And back then, the father's word was law, and woe be to those who disagreed. It couldn't have been that easy, especially with his dad having died of a heart attack when he was 12.
Now, I'm not sure how many of you here today understand or know what kind of town Granite City is. For those who aren't familar, Granite City was – and still is – a very blue-collar, working-class town dominated by one steel mill. Offically, today it's called United States Steel Company, Granite City Works. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, it was Granite City Steel Company – or, as we natives called it, simply, The Mill.
In many ways, my dad was very typical of the kind of person who populated Granite City in that era. People who worked at the mill and other steel mills around town – my grandfather worked at another mill, American Steel Foundries, across town – were very hard workers. And after their shift was over for the day, regardless if it was very early in the morning, late at night or in the evening, they would go to the nearest corner bar and blow off some steam.
I can understand that; the work at the mill was, in many ways, very dangerous. My dad was fortunate in that he didn't work in the most dangerous area of the mill, the open-hearth area – where molten steel, with temperatures of around 4,000 degrees – would be poured. But the Cold Strip, where he first worked, and the area where the finished rolls of steel would be coated, where he wound up being an inspector before he retired in 1996, wasn't a piece of cake either. Sometimes the temperatures in the coating area were around 400 degrees – certainly cooler than in the open-hearth area, but one wrong move could wind up really causing some major damage.
Not only that, the steel coils he worked on had some sharp edges on them. Sharp as in like a razor blade. My mom told me a story that, when she first met him, she noticed that his wrists were both stitched up and covered in bandages, and she was wondering exactly what kind of guy dad was. Turned out his wrists were being cut up by the sharp-edged metal he was working on, and while he wore heavy gloves and other safety devices, you could still get cut up pretty bad working in the Cold Strip.
Be that as it may, that was the culture of Granite City back then – work hard during your shfit, then drink harder afterwards. The work paid pretty well, thanks to some good union contracts, and he always made sure the bills were paid and we had a place to live, food on the table and clothes on our backs, but it didn't always make for the most peaceful of home lives sometimes. It didn't make sense to me. Why did he sometimes come home all angry and take it out on us, or later on, why did he call me so many horrible names when I was getting him home from whatever bar or club he'd be drinking at?
There were times it really, really hurt me, and the memories of those times still haunt me even today. I know, it's only names, but when someone says names hurt too – believe it.
Sure, there were some good times to be had as well – dad took us to some Cardinal games when then-new Busch Memorial Stadium opened in the mid-60s. I remember the first one was on a Bat Night in 1967 against the Houston Astros. I don't remember a lot of the details, other than the Cardinals won and we got these wooden bats made by the company that Stan Musial owned. Later on, there were a couple of football Cardinal games that he took us to and his invovlement with Cub Scouts when all of us neighborhood kids were into that.
I remember him playing a Cub Scout icon, Chief Akela, one night at Wilson Park for the pack we were involved with then. There was a bonfire going on and all of us kids were dressed up as what I guess you could say were stereotypical Native Americans for some sort of themed pack meeting, where I received a couple of arrow points for (I think) my Wolf-level badge. He told me how proud and happy he was that I had earned them, and I was kind of feeling sky-high after he told me that.
For as much grief as he could give us sometimes, though, if anyone else wanted to pick on us or cause us trouble, he'd be right there to stand up for us. Yeah, our neighborhood had a few folks who were always looking for trouble of one sort or another, and there were times one of us kids would be that particular target for the day. Needless to say, when dad decided someone had crossed the line, all bets were off.
There was a time later on when I felt some of his actions and his attitude really caused a rift between first me and him, and later on with Colin. There was a time when neither one of us were speaking to each other. Eventually, Colin and I decided to come back and forgive dad for all the things he had done, both real and perceived. Dad, for some time, though, didn't want to follow through. We always kept the door open, and one holiday season, when Colin was talking to him, he said, “dad, all is forgiven.” I followed suit with that, and he nodded his head and said the same thing.
By that time, the first signs of the Parkinson's that eventually claimed him were showing. Maybe he knew that he didn't have a lot of time left; maybe he felt it was just time. Regardless, all of us were happy we had forgiven each other and moved on.
I always wondered why he wound up getting Parkinson's and what caused it. I imagine there were quite a bit of factors that may have caused it; while this is only speculation on my part, I have to wonder if the heavy drinking he did might have played a role in it. At the same time, the environment around the mill – not to mention Granite City – wasn't always the most pristine; for a time in the 70s, Granite City was rated as having the dirtiest air in the state of Illinois, and instead of running away from it, the people of Granite City pointed to it with pride. It was how they made their living, after all.
I also have to wonder sometimes if breathing in all the heavy metals around the mill may have to contributed to his disease in some way.
The last time I saw dad, it was at Christmas last year. Seeing him on the holidays wasn't always easy, especially as he deteriorated. By this time, he had been placed in a nursing home after falling and breaking his hip. He had to have surgery on it to repair the damage, and as I understand it, the damage was pretty bad. Soon after the surgery, he suffered a heart attack.
He was at my mom and youngest sister's place in Collinsville when he arrived, and we spent a good part of the day trying to talk with him. He couldn't talk anymore and spent the day in a wheelchair; all he could do was make gesters to indicate what he wanted.
When it was time for dad to go back, both of us stood next to him while our sister and niece took pictures of the three of us together. I haven't seen them yet, but I can imagine they're pretty good. At least between the three of us, we didn't break any cameras.
Right before he left, we took the time to hug him and tell him that we both loved him. While he couldn't say anything, all I had to do was look into his eyes. I could tell that he loved us too, and everything would be all right.
Colin and I talked with mom after he left and Colin mentioned that, despite all the problems we've had and are having right now, dad would be proud of the way we turned out. Perhaps we weren't as successful as we had hoped, but he raised two sons that do things the right way.
Mom said yes, he would be proud – and he was proud – of how we turned out.
Sadly, that was the last time I saw dad alive. He died about 3 1/2 weeks afterwards, and the day after he died, we got to see him one last time at the funeral home in Collinsville that was handling the arrangements.
He looked at peace. He wasn't suffering anymore. Whatever demons that had been in him no longer were inside.
Was it an unremarkable life, typical of the thousands and thousands of lives of those who populated Granite City in those days of the 1960s and 70s, people who went to work every day, worked as hard as they could and kept things going in the city and in their lives?
On the surface, perhaps. But the life of one George Richard Feeney, as unremarkable to the world at large at it seemed to be, was a very special one.
After all, he was my father. He's at peace now. And I love him very much.